'Glee' puts high school choirs at center stage

Show is seen raising awareness as more students participate in musical programs

  • Joseph Russell, 17, and Sara Knox, 17, practice a number during rehearsal at Chesapeake High School.
Joseph Russell, 17, and Sara Knox, 17, practice a number during… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
November 14, 2010|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Marriotts Ridge High School senior Zoe Hamberger gathers with friends in her basement every Tuesday night for what she says is the highlight of her week: watching "Glee," the music-comedy- drama television series featuring a teen show choir similar to the school programs that Hamberger performs in.

"They pick a wide variety of music and show how fun music can be," said Hamberger, who, along with her classmates in Howard County, is wowed by its captivating songs and dance moves and can relate to its campy but real-life-based storylines.

The popularity of "Glee" — now in its second season — has put show choirs at center stage in mainstream culture. The critically acclaimed series also has rekindled student interest in choir. Local high schools have seen a small uptick in the numbers of students taking part in their musical programs. Moreover, the show has given performers a higher profile around school.

"Anything that brings [high school music programs] to the forefront and piques interest and gets kids to investigate what it's all about can't hurt," said Karen Simmons, director of the Chesapeake High School Vocal Ensemble in Anne Arundel County. "It's a different kind of music and I think kids relate to it."

Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts senior Kristianna Prato, who is a member of the Baltimore County school's Great Expectations choir, said that she enjoys how the characters in "Glee," mainly a group of outcasts in a clique-heavy high school, bond as a unit.

"They're OK when they're with each other," she said. Then she pondered whether she and her fellow choir members were similar and said, "I don't feel that we're outcasts, but together we complete each other."

And students are also quick to point out that their high schools don't condone a practice synonymous with "Glee": the hurling of slushies, the colorful flavored icy drinks that leave a big stain on clothing.

For the uninitiated, "Glee" is set in the fictional William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, and centers on a choir director whose ragtag group of students — including an overachieving prima donna, an overweight African-American girl, a stuttering Asian student who favors dark nail polish and a skinny bespectacled boy in a wheelchair — gets a boost when members of the football team and cheerleading squad join the program.

Episodes blend mature themes like homosexuality and abstinence with highly polished musical numbers, and often focus on the music of one artist, such as Madonna.

The Fox show was the highest-rated new scripted series last year, and it has spawned two certified gold albums and 10 million song downloads, according to the "Glee" website.

"I think it has … opened the eyes of what show choir or what's called glee club really is, and it has opened up new doors for what we have in terms of music and things that we can do," said Emily Krich, Patapsco High music teacher and director of Great Expectations.

Krich said that the show has even inspired her to look into whether other local schools have similar show choirs.

"There are regional competitions that I never knew about and opportunities to see other show choirs I didn't know existed," she said. "Because of the show, I ran out and I searched for some of the opportunities and now we're going to do some of the competitions that we had never known were even out there."

"Since 'Glee' has come out," Krich added, "there have been popular songs that people have wanted to perform for a really long time that were never available that are now popping up on music websites with four-part arrangements ready for show choirs to perform."

The show's popularity comes on the heels of another popular youth-oriented, music-themed show, Disney's "High School Musical."

But students who've watched both "Glee" and "High School Musical" say that there are many differences between the two shows.

" 'High School Musical' was almost unrealistic," said Chesapeake High senior and ensemble member Kate Hanold. "It was almost perfect. 'Glee' is more like real life and more believable."

Yet Brandon Schatt, her classmate and fellow vocal ensemble member, said that even some of what he sees in "Glee" isn't believable.

"I don't know if it's necessarily realistic," Schatt said. "Since they have an entire nation [of performers] to pull people from that are professionals, this is definitely different from that. We have our school and we have to work with what we have, even if our voices are not completely developed."

And that is what raises eyebrows among many in music departments.

"The part that really kills me is the use of Auto-Tune," said Marriotts Ridge High fine arts director Terry Eberhardt, referring to an audio processing device that enhances vocal and music pitch.

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