Hit TV show breathes new life into south county show choir dynasty
For years, the jazz hands, flips and snazzy costumes of show choir were a dying breed in California, an out-of-place vestige from some Midwestern high school.
“They kind of imploded after a few years, and groups were disbanding,” said Bear River High School Choir Director Alissa Aune.
But then “Glee,” a Fox TV program based on a show choir, hit the airwaves last year, proving even music from artists such as Journey and Usher can sound good in four-part harmony.
For schools in southern Nevada County, where show choir has long been a tradition and a pedigree of singers is cultivated starting in middle school, the Fox show is validating.
“This year, it’s definitely gotten bigger,” Aune said. “The show choirs that have been here will never go away, but it’s just that now people are noticing it. They’re discovering it because ‘Glee’ has allowed that to happen.”
Bear River High School is staging “Fantasy of Stars” this weekend, a showcase featuring the school’s show choir and vocal jazz group, plus the Magnolia Middle School show choir and guest choirs from Redding and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The show continues a 19-year run, but the fundraiser is even more vital this year, as the school system’s belt-tightening affects funding for costumes, choreographers and buses for field trips.
“It’s our main way of supporting ourselves,” Aune said.
Bear River’s show choir is a tight-knit, excitable bunch; many students have performed together for all four years of high school and in middle school before that.
The Starmakers show choir started at Magnolia in the mid-1980s under the direction of Cherry Hayes, and the Starlite Express show choir flourished when she moved to Bear River.
“It’s just one of those traditions,” said Magnolia Choir Director Anne Vaaler. Auditions average 120 hopefuls vying for 32 spots, and the middle schoolers perform alongside the high schoolers a few times each year.
“When they go to high school, they feel like they’re already part of it,” Vaaler said. “It makes the transition so much better.”
The high school group’s rehearsals are upbeat, to say the least.
When the music kicks on, singers jump into place in staggered chorus lines, kicking in sync and trying to keep on pitch when they’re out of breath and holding microphones.
Show choir is not as glamorous as on TV, senior Maddie Lewis said, where singers burst out in “spontaneous, beautiful singing.”
But with the advent of “Glee,” “people are appreciating it more,” said senior Alina Belohlavek.
Starlite Express works with a wide range of music. This weekend’s performance features the work of Queen; last year’s group adapted Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.”
The repertoire of the 14-member jazz choir is similarly large, including jazz standards and a cappella pop songs. This weekend’s sampling includes music from Michael Jackson and pop singer Jason Mraz.
New technology has opened the floodgates of possibility for choirs. Music notation software empowers the average choir teacher to write up arrangements, and audio editing programs allow intricate mixes and “mash-ups.”
No longer are groups confined to the sheet music of publishing companies.
“The ability to manipulate the music just adds another layer of creativity,” Aune said.
Students in Starlite Express must audition for the group, and the 6:30 a.m. daily practices are neither for the faint nor lazy.
Still, the excitement lives on, much thanks to the enthusiasm of Aune, who has fond memories of performing in show choir herself as a high schooler.
“She’s someone you’d hang out with on the weekend,” said senior Mac Au.
“She knows what she’s doing,” added senior Aaron Richardson.
Even if the show choir is a rare and cost-intensive breed, especially in northern California, “Glee” is inspiring a resurgence in the art.
And 28 Starlite Express members are ready to keep the tradition alive by planting the seed in younger students through this weekend’s program.
For many now performing at Bear River, the “big kids” are what started it all.
“Starlite came and visited,” Au said when asked why he joined. “And it was all I wanted to do with my life.”
To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4247.
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