A show choir (originally known as a "swing choir") is a performance group combining choral singing with choreographed movement or dance, sometimes adding a thematic element to the show. It is most prevalent in the Midwestern United States, and was popularized by the American television show Glee. Unlike sports, not every state has sanctioning bodies to regulate the performances or standings.
Show choir is primarily performed as a school activity in the USA. It is usually done as a co-curricular (as part of a class, as well as outside of the school day) or an extracurricular (completely outside of the school day) activity. In addition, some show choirs are formed in organizations outside of school. Though usually a high school activity, the art form has grown and expanded to all levels of school from elementary through the college/university level.
While there is no standard requirement for the number of performers, show choirs typically consist of 30 to 60 singer/dancers. Factors like the size of the school or even director preferences can impact the number. Larger schools with more advanced programs may have more than one show choir. Show choirs composed entirely of students of one gender usually compete in separate divisions from mixed-gender show choirs, with the exception of "open" divisions, where groups of different types compete against each other.
Show choirs traditionally wear a costume, though the definition of what is considered a costume in show choir is very broad and ranges from jeans and a T-shirt to extravagant period costumes or flashy dancewear. Costumes can be conservative (such as tuxedos and ball gowns) or edgy (such as modern or revealing clothing). Additionally, many larger show choirs include two or more costumes in their show. Participants typically wear stage makeup and shoes conducive to dancing (often "character shoes"). Uniformity in look among performers is also common; there is generally consistency in costuming and makeup from person to person. In some regions this consistency even extends to things like hair, where female participants will all style their hair in an identical way.
The choir usually has a backup band ("jazz" or "combo" if it includes a horn section) providing instrumental music to complement the voices. Instrumentation varies from song to song and choir to choir, but a common show choir band consists of guitar, bass, drums, trumpets, trombone, alto sax, tenor sax, piano, and synthesizer. Some bands include violins or even cellos. Many larger show choirs typically have a larger combo to accompany them. The band is usually not visually featured, however occasionally a show will bring out members of the band onstage at certain points.
A "tech crew" or "stage crew" is standard with most show choirs, as they assist with and handle the lighting, sound, and stage setup. Show choir crew may also help in the management of costumes. During a show, the crew may have a great number of responsibilities including helping performers change costumes, manage props, hand out microphones, run special effects, and other duties set out in the design of the show.
One problem that arises with many show choirs is a lack of male interest. Due to a stigma that the performing arts is a more feminine activity, many teenage boys are not attracted to participating in show choir. However, in order to achieve a full choral sound with rich melodies and tonal variety, show choirs need males of all ranges including tenor and bass. One study done by the Choral Journal  claimed that many choir directors are simply resigned to having fewer males in their choir, but should make an effort to change. . By reaching out to males and creating a more supportive community for high school boys, the hope is that more males will participate in show choir.
Some participants believe that show choir is a sport due to the dancing aspect; in West Virginia and Illinois it is currently pending as a physical education credit. Some physical education teacher groups have come out against the move, saying that P. E. should be about more than one type of physical activity. Some participants of show choir also have come out against the move. However, it has failed to gain sport designation in any state to become state-sanctioned and by definition is a performing art, not a sport.
Many show choirs participate in competitions, sometimes called "invitationals" (though most are not invitation-only events) or "festivals". These competitions are often held at the high school where the "host group" attends and sometimes performs as an exhibition, though some events are held at auditoriums or other facilities that can accommodate larger crowds and provide better acoustic performance. The first mainstream show choir competition held was located at Bishop Luers High School in January of 1976.
Competitions can be as small as a showcase of a few groups from the immediate geographic area or they can feature many groups from multiple states. Because of the vast difference in sizes of the competitions, they can last a single afternoon or span an entire weekend. Competitions may separate competing choirs into different divisions. These divisions are often determined by age, skill level, size of the school or choir, and/or gender of the participants. The different divisions may take place at a different time, day, or at a different location or venue, though usually within the same school or close geographic area.
Show choir shows or "sets" can be presented in a multitude of ways, from a more traditional approach to modern theatrical performances that tell full-length stories. These performances are often created by the choir's director, but can stem from the imagination of a group's choreographer or even outside performing arts professionals as well. As show choir grown, there has been an increasing number of schools that have invested a great deal of effort in creating quality sets that can be compared to professional stage shows.
Many competitions include a preliminary round and a finals found. The finals round commences after awards from the preliminary round are complete, where the top scoring groups perform again in order to compete for the title of Grand Champion of the contest. The number of groups in the finals round is up to the hosting school, but typically 5-6 choirs participate. Those groups are sometimes given the opportunity to take suggestions, either from scoring judges or separate experts called in to give suggestions made during the preliminary round, and make adjustments to their finals performance in order to earn a better score. Hosting schools do not compete in the competition for ethical purposes.
The adjudicators (or judges) at most competitions are often experts in the show choir field. They may be directors from other choirs, choreographers, arrangers, or performers from Broadway-style musicals. The judging is largely subjective and is based on the scoring style selected by the hosts. Some competitions place more emphasis on choral aspects, while others incorporate a greater emphasis on the entire show (including choreography, the band, and/or show design). Depending on the competition, each judge may only judge in their area of expertise (a choir director judging vocals, while a choreographer judging dance), or they may judge everything. Additionally, a separate judge may be added to the panel to judge the bands, and/or to select outstanding performers for separate awards.
At many competitions, there are also individual, or solo, competitions which take place. They take place during the main competition in a different area than the show choir performances. Winners are announced, and they may perform at the start of the finals performance.
Characteristics of a performance
Most show choir shows consist of a variety of songs, often including several choreographed, fast-paced pieces and one slower piece performed with limited or no choreography. This slower number—usually a ballad—exists primarily to showcase the ensemble's singing ability. In California, it is a requirement that at least one minute of any one set be sung a cappella (it is usually one full song in the set), though this is not a standard in the rest of the country. More often than not, the a cappella selection is also the ballad, as it is much easier to sing unaccompanied while holding relatively still. In the Midwest, it is becoming popular to set one song aside as a "novelty" piece, designed to make the audience laugh. "Concept" or "story" shows that unify all of the songs together in a common theme are becoming popular across the country.
Within a song, vocal lines typically alternate between unison or octave singing, and two-or-more-part polyphonic harmony. Songs are chosen, adapted, and arranged from a variety of sources including popular music, jazz standards, and Broadway musicals, but rarely make use of classical music. Original music has also been performed by a small number of groups. Additionally, there is often at least one solo in each performance by a standout singer in the group.
Competitive performance sets range in length, but are usually timed to total between fifteen and twenty-five minutes. Shows generally consist of, but are not limited to, approximately five songs.
Show choirs have seen a rise in popularity since the American television series, "Glee" was released. The television show is based around the workings of a fictional show choir. The television show does not accurately represent the environment of a real show choir. Professional baseball player Kyle Schwarber participated in show choir when he was at Middletown (Ohio) High School.
For many high school students, show choir is a large commitment that takes over a large part of a school year. For some, show choir is part of the school curriculum and is a class taught during the day. For others, it is an extracurricular activity that requires practice to take place before or after school. Practices may begin as early as the summer for some, while other choirs don’t start until much later. The competitive season takes place from January until March or April, with competitions held across the country every weekend during that time.
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