Center Grove choirs continue their legacies
By Rebecca Berfanger
Although it’s not exactly like “Glee” or “Pitch Perfect,” the students and the directors of the show choirs at Center Grove High School carry their shows through adversity and expect to come out stronger than ever this school year.
Show choirs at Center Grove have been a staple both in the schools and the community for several decades. CG Sound System, the coed varsity group, was founded in 1973 as Swing Mates. The DebTones, a varsity unisex show choir, has been around since 1963. Known for breathtaking visuals and award-winning vocal performances, the program’s competition choirs — which include non-auditioned Accents, the junior varsity co-ed choir Surround Sound, the concert chamber and madrigal-performing CG Singers — have roughly 200 participating students. They will, over the course of a year, present heavily produced shows and compete against other choirs in competitions, including February’s Best of the Midwest.
The current number is typical, says Center Grove High School choral director Jennifer Dice, who oversees the program and leads Sound System, CG Singers, The Accents and The Choralaires.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, the students continue their work at socially distanced, masked rehearsals and in September pulled off their first concert of the 2020-21 year.
“It’s a challenge, but I would say our students really, in all of this, they have risen to overcome adversity at levels that I think we as adults sometimes struggle to do,” Dice says. “They don’t care if they have to wear a mask. They want to perform, and they want to do their activities, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. So yes, was it harder to manage and logistically figure out than a normal concert? Of course. But it’s something we want them to be able to do. We want to provide an opportunity for them to be as normal as possible.”
Beyond the stage
A foundational goal of the Center Grove choirs program is to teach music, music performance and musical expression, Dice says.
“We don’t want them to be robots,” she says. “We want them to understand what they’re singing and why they’re singing it and how to make it beautiful without us giving them every single detail. We want them to be competent musicians on their own.”
In part, that means finding the right songs. The directors consider various pieces throughout the year when deciding on the next year’s competition theme and songs. Ultimately, Dice, along with directors Jared Norman and Greg Sanders, collaborate based on what will work best for not only keeping audiences engaged, but also what would be a good fit for that year’s performers.
Dice won’t give away the theme for the spring competition season. Past years have included themes based on arrangements of Mozart known from the musical and movie adaptations of “Amadeus,” as well as “Greatest Shows,” featuring songs from “The Greatest Showman” and “Moulin Rouge,” and other Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners.
Norman, who directs Debtones, Surround Sound, the Counterpoints Choir and Descants & Gents, is himself an alumnus of Center Grove show choirs, having graduated from the high school in 2008. He went on to study music education at DePauw University.
“It’s interesting to see the progression of show choir,” Norman says. He has a specific vantage point: His father and uncle were in Swing Mates, the precursor to CG Sound System.
From the time Norman’s father was a member, the choirs have progressed from minimal dancing and costume changes to the giant productions Center Grove is now known for. The directors have put an emphasis on showmanship, especially in the home shows such as the Fall Fest, the Christmas Show and the Spring Spectacular.
“When I was in high school, they were big shows, but they were not as much of a production,” he says. “Now we try to give the kids a good experience the entire year and make sure that every show feels like they’ve accomplished, and they are excited to perform on stage.”
Outside of learning how to perform, students develop the skills that aren’t measured in performances.
“We want our students to learn some responsibility in time management and being able to be on time and accountable to the group and be present in the rehearsal,” Dice says. “I think a lot of the things they learn are just going to apply to their life no matter what they go into as a career.”
These lessons have hit home, says CGHS senior and CG Singers company manager, Helena Hashimoto.
“Dealing with people is one of the most amazing skills choir has brought to me,” says Hashimoto, who hopes to pursue musical theater after graduation. “And the bonds you make. We have so much diversity, and it’s so amazing to learn how to learn to deal with different types of people and how to get the best out of them as a leader,”
Greg Sanders agrees. “It’s like a team sport where they’re all on the same side and working things out and also have different personalities,” he says. “The goal of the performance is to see uniformity but also individual expression.”
Like Norman, other show choir alumni have gone on to study or perform music in college or professionally.
“All of us desire for our kids to leave with music as a permanent fixture in their lives,” Sanders says. “Whether that means they’re performing or appreciating from the audience or being supporters of the arts financially as they get older. We all really believe in its importance as a vital community structure, and we want to see them become young people who care to make it part of their lives.”
Former program member Wilson Smith, who graduated in 2018, now studies commercial music, composition and arranging at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Smith has continued to work with his high school teachers and mentors and has a few other side hustles arranging music for high school and college music groups.
“I definitely don’t think I’d be majoring in music right now if not for the guidance of the directors and seeing my peers go on to music school,” Smith says. His leadership experiences — he was section leader for tenors and started an a cappella group — are among his fondest memories of show choir.
Current Center Grove choirs singer Ryan St. Pierre, a sophomore, is also considering studying music after he graduates. For now, he is enjoying his time in choir after seeing his close friends go through the program when they were in high school.
“It teaches us to be ourselves without anyone judging you because everyone is just so open to everything,” St. Pierre says. “We always encourage each other, and it’s always positive and happy. It teaches us to be awesome.”
For more information, including a calendar of upcoming performances, visit centergrovechoirs.org. The choirs have public performances scheduled for the spring semester, including a preview of their competition show and Spring Spectacular.