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Popularity of show choirs is growing in local high schools

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
January 31, 2011
— It's 7:10 a.m. on a Thursday, and the sun is barely up. Inside Milton High School's small dance studio a piano rings out.

The jazzy blare of a brass and guitar backing band chimes in. Then 48 glee club voices unite, greeting the day with a one-note wakeup call: "Zaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"


Milton's varsity show choir and its new coach, Milton High School vocal music teacher Mike Swengel, are getting warmed up for early morning practice. It's a process.


Swengel cuts through the mass of show choir kids clad in T-shirts, jeans and stocking feet, and climbs to the top of the risers in the dance studio.


On the wall above him, the school's varsity show choir moniker, "Choralation," pops out in huge, red-painted letters. Swengel tips his travel mug of coffee and takes a long pull.


"Did you feel like you were yelling the whole time? Because you were," Swengel says. "Just because it's loud in here doesn't mean you have to yell. Don't be so loud."


You can feel the show choir tighten up as it moves into a mashup of a 1960s pop song by the Beach Boys and a contemporary pop-rock tune by Katie Perry, part of a vocal and dance routine Choralation will perform in nearly a dozen competitions the group has slated this winter against other high school show choirs.


Just as the group hits its stride, it's out of time. School starts in 10 minutes, and they're out the door, sweating and panting.


The practice was the last chance for Choralation to sync up vocals and choreography with its backing band before heading off for a weekend competition at Sauk Prairie High School.


The pressure and the excitement evokes a sense of drama. It's reminiscent of a scene in the popular Fox TV show "Glee."


"Glee" weaves musical performances with over-the-top drama that chases the stories of a mismatched group of teen divas, jocks and cheerleaders who make up a mismatched high school glee club trying to find its groove in the world of high school show choir.


And while it's anybody's guess whether the "Glee" sensation has created a boom in high school show choir, Swengel and other local show choir coaches say interest is growing.


According to Janesville Craig High School choir director Bob Schrank, the number of students trying out for Craig's show choir has jumped 10 percent in the last two years. And at Milton, Swengel says the bulk of his junior varsity show choir is freshmen.


The coaches said their show choir ranks also have become more diversified, with more males and more athletes getting involved than ever.


Jon Casillas, a junior wide receiver on the Milton High School football team, says he initially tried out for show choir a few years ago to impress a girl.


But the deep-voiced junior discovered that he was actually a good dancer. And he learned that show choir takes as much focus and work as football.


"It's the exact same feeling. You've got a job to do, and you know your role and your responsibilities. And when you hit it, it's pure adrenaline," says Casillas.


Swengel, who's 26 years old and in his first year at the helm of Milton's show choir, laughs at comparisons of TV's "Glee" to his real-life glee club.


"I've honestly never even seen the show. But I'm told that it's different, pretty unrealistic," he says.


Unlike the club in "Glee," Milton High School's show choir is not a ragtag crew struggling to find its voice.


At Milton High, show choir is part of the school curriculum, and students transfer in specifically for a shot at joining Choralation. Milton's show choir has a pedigree that spans 33 years as a regional glee club powerhouse.


Its former coach, Bill Schrank, who retired last year, is considered a legend in regional glee club circles.


As such, the school's show choir is steeped in tradition. It has its longstanding rules of engagement. One Choralation law: Only seniors can audition for a solo in the group's performances.


Actually, that rule went out the window this year.


"It was always a seniority thing, but Mr. Swengel changed that," says Milton High School senior and Choralation member Emily Krause.


Now anyone in varsity show choir—even a freshman—can try out for a solo.


"It's not about age," Swengel says. "It's about hard work and motivation."


Well, actually, it is a little about age. The young push the older to stay sharp; it's the way of the world.


And in February, tryouts will open for next year's show choir. Everyone on varsity show choir now has to try out again. Swengel said he expects at least 100 students to audition.


"Nothing's guaranteed," Swengel says. "Nobody gets a free ride."


Late in the week, as students in "Choralation" are packing gear and costumes for their weekend competition, the school's junior varsity show choir team, known as the "Rising Stars" finishes practice on one of its own competition songs, a Motown number by Carole King.


"They're really, really excited today," Swengel says, beaming.


It's true. You can almost feel the earth move under their feet. You can almost feel the glee growing.



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