The Dawning of the Show Choir

SBO Staff • ChoralMarch 2012UpClose • April 5, 2012

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by Matt Parish

Now an Established Force in the Choral World, Brea Olinda High School’s Dave Willert Looks Back on the Early Days of Show Choir.

It’s early in the morning in a darkened conference hall at the Anaheim Convention Center when a team of whirling students from Brea Olinda High School takes the stage. The audience is a mix of music educators and administrators in town for the annual National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) conference, and the atmosphere has been calm and reserved so far.

The choir will have none of that. Masquerade, Brea Olinda’s marquee show choir, plows through a 15-minute set that careens through high-wire arrangements of music from the Who, Elton John, the Doors, and musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Moulin Rouge. They transported the audience from a post-breakfast haze into a surreal world where Alice in Wonderland referenced KC and the Sunshine Band and wide-eyed kids bounded across the stage and up ladders with infectious energy.

And they sounded great, to boot.

Brea Olinda’s choir program, headlined by Masquerade but stocked with several talented groups, has grown into one of the best programs in the state under the leadership of its choral director, David Willert. They’d been invited to NAMM to perform for the organization’s “Music Education Days” series of seminars, designed to focus on the best methods and success stories for music education, and Willert’s story is integral in the development of show choirs in California.

As Willert tells it, he’s spent his 35 years as choir director watching as show choirs evolved from the days of watching one ambitious director run away with shows using Broadway tactics no one had considered before. By the ‘80s, everyone was using choreography and fast pacing to gain attention, and things have developed to the point now that Willert even finds himself stepping back from high-tech production values to preserve attention for the kids themselves.

It hasn’t stopped the accolades from pouring in for his choirs, with performances consistently ranking among the top of national competitions. He runs two high-class show choirs (Masquerade and Spellbound), along with an intermediate mixed group and intermediate men’s and women’s groups.

An author and composer, this California native (he grew up in Glendora and studied at Citrus College and the University of Redlands) comes from an energetic, do-it-yourself background and makes sure to instill those values in his students, who he is sure to incorporate in every backstage element of the performances as well as the stage time. “There are no divas in our program!” he says.

Sure enough, as the show wraps in Anaheim, students scatter backstage to lead themselves in different units tasked with organizing props and costumes. Within half an hour, the entire show is packed away into cases that the group is calmly loading out down hotel escalators. Willert himself hangs back in the venue as the troupe works with the efficiency of a seasoned crew, and it’s only through talking to one of his students who is working seriously as a production organizer and, in this case, media representative, that Choral Director was able to meet up with Willert for a morning discussion about all things show choir.

Choral Director: How have things changed since you started 35 years ago?

Dave Willert: Well, when I went to school, there was no show choir, not in California. It wasn’t until I was student teaching in the late ‘70s that it had just started. The Aztech Sing was the big one in the Azusa Glendora area. There were about four really good ones. I got a teaching job in Norco and they already had a show choir. We weren’t very good and I didn’t know what I was doing. It probably took me a good three years before I finally figured out how to do it – how you had to get the sound first and the show second and balance it like that.

Things were easier at the time. Things were very simple. It was straight singing and a little bit of choreography. The thing is, as the years went on, we started getting into Broadway styles. Out in San Diego in Bonita Vista, Ron Bolles starting coming with a program that was almost like a circus. My groups bumped heads with his for a number of years and I think the competition was really good for the show choir circuit and especially for motivating our groups.  Ron has a book out now about those years. All this dancing just started to take hold, so by the time you hit the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was lots of dance. Now it’s like a Broadway show where people have sets and backdrops and screens. It’s all gone high tech, like what you seen in a music video. It’s all like that.

CD: Were you in touch with people throughout each year, with a good idea where things were headed?

DW: In my experience most choir directors tend to keep to themselves and maybe have a small band of friends they can hang with. They’re very competitive, at least in the time that I’ve been doing it. You can be as friendly as anything, but when it gets to competition, they don’t want to talk about their show. They don’t even want to tell you what their numbers are – they’re afraid you’re going to steal something or get an edge on them.

CD: What do you do differently now than when you started organizing the group?

DW: We take close looks at what’s going on professionally. We go to see Broadway shows. We go to Vegas. We go to New York. We keep abreast of everything going on. If things are starting to go toward doing lights differently, or if ballet is starting to come in more, we incorporate all that. So we try to keep aligned with what they’re doing on Broadway and what they’re doing at Disneyland. A lot of our kids work at Disneyland after they graduate. They get involved in shows and parades and characters – it’s a natural fit. We try to see where everything is and move it on from there. We don’t want to be one of those groups that just loves ‘60s music and so every year you have a ‘60s show. We want to move with the times and at the same time be able to reach back and use some of those things. That’s why the shows have three segments. We try to use different things.

CD: You’ve mentioned how you stay on top of as many trends in live shows as possible – are there trends you see and try to avoid?

DW: I’m not really a big fan of the whole electronic thing with the big screens and everything because I think it takes away from the kids. I want the focus to be on the kids. I want to be paying attention to their singing and dancing and when you have too many special effects, it draws away. That’s a decision we’ve made. We do have them – you saw the smoke and everything – but we don’t want that to become “it.” You want people saying, “Boy, that group was really good.” Not, “I really loved your special effects.” We try to make sure it stays group-focused and kid-focused.

CD: How important is making your students so autonomous throughout the shows – tearing down sets, running the scene backstage, and so on?

DW: Very important. If you noticed, I just sat out in the house and that’s what I always do for the shows. We have officers and the kids like to be responsible. If you give them the opportunities, they’re not afraid of it and they learn. We have kids doing the props, we had a student directing the a cappella portions. The band is professional, but the kids are involved with every other step possible so that when they go out and try to get a job, they’ll understand not just the stage part, but the backstage part and the tech part and the lighting and sound and all that stuff. That makes them more prepared for the industry.

CD: And probably cuts down on divas in the group, I’d imagine.

DW: Oh yeah! It does – the whole diva thing, we’re not like that. When someone comes in, they learn that real quick. “Now, would you sweep the floor over there, please?” We’re all in this big pot together. We all do everything – we don’t want to do it all for the kids because that would actually be doing them a big disservice.

CD: Did you begin arranging in the beginning, or did that develop over time?

DW: I was inspired to arrange by a director named Dick Kinsler, who was at Edgewood High School in West Covina when I was at Nogales, which was my second school in my third year. He arranged his whole show and I was so impressed because everyone else was doing stock arrangements. They’re going to the shop and you’d have seven choirs doing the same thing. He was arranging his own stuff, which I thought was cool. I spent a whole summer going through it because I’d never done it before, and that was our best show yet. I discovered that you can really affect the choreography a lot with the music, so I started working with the choreographer a lot – we sat together and planned it out. We’ll do a dance break here, a build-up here, a cappella here – just like you’re building a house.

CD: When arranging, do you work from sheet music or do you work things out by ear?

DW: Both. If there’s sheet music available, I’ll use that just so I have the tune. Piano parts, I do pretty much all myself. Standard piano parts tend to be not very good – they’re usually just chords – so I do those myself. Sometimes, if you know the song – well sometimes I write my own and have no music, so you just work it out from scratch. I’m a guitar player, too, and so I think through the guitar. I use the piano, but I “think” guitar, in terms of chord structures and things like that, so a lot of my piano parts almost sound like strumming a guitar. [laughs] I’m no classical piano player. I was in a rock band when I was younger.

CD: You’re dealing with a lot of guitar-based music to begin with, at least. Was that your biggest influence growing up?

DW: Yeah since it’s a lot of pop music, for sure. I studied guitar in high school, but I was never going to be a professional. I just kind of did it. When I got into show choir, I realized I could incorporate all this neat stuff. The guitar, the bass, the drums – it was just great for me. And I always loved the Beatles and was so inspired by what they did. It wasn’t only writing great songs, but they used great orchestrations, which was so cool. No one else did it. They did “ooohs” and “ahhhs” and everything. To me, they were the first show choir! They had the big walls of sound everywhere – I try to use all the same ideas. They’re probably my biggest musical influence.

CD: At what point did it seem like show choir was a real thing that had taken hold?

DW: When I was student teaching. I used to work with Tom Kessler at West Covina and his group was number one. He hired a professional choreographer from Broadway to come down and work with their kids. They had an incredible show and no one could touch them. They would always win Show and never win Music, but whatever. There was an incredible jealousy that built up in the area. Not me – I’m still friends with him. But no one could beat him. When he retired, that’s when Ron Bowles and Burroughs and few other choirs starting getting into it. We all thought it was a great idea.

CD: Let’s end on how this all translates to getting kids excited about the program – is it any more difficult nowadays with so many strong outside examples, like Glee, of how show choir works?

DW: It takes a special kid and I think we’ve made our market smaller for the kids who do come into choir, but the ones that come in are more dedicated and they’re willing to work as hard as we do. We demand that they try their hardest and that they work together. That’s really it, and then they come in and if they don’t fit, they’ll eventually quit. They’ll drop out because they don’t like it. We’re just too intense. But the kids that like it? They’re in heaven.

CD: You have about 10 percent of the high school enrolled in the program – is it ever tough to get students at Brea interested in joining the choir?

DW: It’s not bad. A lot of the kids at Brea – they like the shows, but a lot of them are afraid. They think they could never do it. Just because you see it after months and months of work. Really, you can do it. We just take it one step at a time.

At A Glance

Brea Olinda High School Choirs
Location: 789 Wildcat Way, Brea, Calif.

On the Web:
Students in the CGHS Choirs: 130
Students Enrolled at CGHS: 1,600

Ensembles: Masquerade, Spellbound, Chamber Singers, Tiffany’s, Thundercats

Dave Willert – Director, Doug Kuhl – Choreographer, Hannah Hemwall – Band Leader, Kurt Nielsen – Acting Coach, Alex Willert – Music Coach, Drew Hemwall – Drummer

On the Road with Dave Willert

CD: As your career has progressed, how has your approach to traveling with the choirs changed?

DW: In the beginning, we went to San Diego or San Francisco for overnight trips because they were cost effective and fun. However, as my groups became more competitive and the show choir circuit more national, we began traveling to competitions in New York City, Orlando, Branson, and Chicago. The financial aspect of these trips is challenging, but if the kids and parents want to do it, I find a way to make it happen (with everyone’s help, of course.) There is nothing like competing against groups from other states, which we never see normally. This helps us all grow in the show choir world, and leads to a great way to end the year.

CD: What are some steps you’ve taken to make trips with the choir work more smoothly?

DW: I have handled a lot of our trips’ accommodations myself and saved everyone a lot of money when I have been to the city before. Lately, however, we are going new places and we rely on tour companies to help us. I would tell other directors who are new to traveling, buyer beware. Some of these companies jack up the prices a lot, while others are more reasonable. It pays to price out everything yourself first (group air, group lodging, group activities, and group meals) and then look at the bids from the travel companies. I tend to select nice hotels for the kids to stay in and our price when I handle the trip is still significantly cheaper than the travel agency that wants to book us in a cheaper property. Group sales prices are usually a lot cheaper than the regular advertised prices.

CD: We all know that schools everywhere are facing tighter and tighter budgets – have you found any time-tested tactics for saving money here and there?

DW: Our goal each year is to have the best show choirs out there. This involves custom costumes, sets, music, band, and props. One way we “save” money is through using the same dress for some of the younger groups for two years so everyone doesn’t need to buy a new one. Another way is by using some of the same arrangements between groups on different years. We use some of the same parts of the sets every year, and when we can make it work we reuse some of the other parts but in a “fresh” way. Creativity is the name of the game.

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