In the Spotlight
Aberdeen Central High School Show Choir teams are having a winning season. Learn what it takes to put on a winning show, and plan to see them in action in March.
You’re sitting in a darkened theatre when, suddenly, a performance is announced. Kids in sparkly, snazzy outfits flood the stage as other kids cheer wildly in the first few rows of the audience. The drumsticks click to set the beat and harmonized music and dazzling motion suddenly fills the venue. Every aspect of the performance draws you in. The group strikes what seems like their final pose, but then explodes into a high-energy encore as the audience hits their feet for a standing ovation. The show choir members exit the stage in a flash of sequins and jewels, leaving you wanting more. This is show choir, but there is so much more preparation that builds up to that heart-stopping performance, involving dozens of students and volunteers during a season that lasts almost the entire school year.
Show choir is popular throughout the Midwest and Aberdeen, South Dakota has two high school show choir groups: Special Request, the all womens’ unisex group, and Eagle Express, the combined varsity group. Although the groups love winning and getting awards (who doesn’t!?), group members love the opportunity show choir gives them to perform. Show choir dad, Pat Moore, father to Rawley and Anna Moore, both in Eagle Express, said, at first, he was all about the win, but he immediately became caught up in the energy, group improvements during the season, and the relationships amongst the kids, other parents, and even the other groups throughout the Region. The thrill of performing and showcasing for friends, family members, and strangers is evident on all the individual members’ faces as they perform. “I like the feeling of being a part of something big,” says Rachael Swisher, first time show choir member in Special Request.
For the directors, preparing a show actually starts 6 months before school starts, when the foundation of the show is built. Auditions happen at the end of the prior school year and, even before that, the directors start to figure out the costumes and music for the coming year. There isn’t a predetermined formula for choosing the music and theme for a show. Sometimes a song or idea that a director already has in mind or just a general idea starts the show creation process. There are some websites for show choirs that have music already arranged for people to select and others where a group can ask for specific pieces to be arranged specially for their group. Directors can get really creative with their shows, but there doesn’t have to be a theme to every show choir performance. Every show is incredible in its own way, typically incorporating popular modern hits, songs from the show choir parents’ or grandparents’ youth, or even a combination or “mashup” of two or more such songs.
Head Director of both high school groups, Susan Appl, noted that the music drives the costumes she selects – either borrowing, buying or renting used costumes from other choirs or buying brand new from online companies, some of which sell entire themed packages. Sometimes the costumes are chosen to fit the theme of the show, such as a galaxy print dress or capes with a space age material for Eagle Express this year, or they can just be eye-catching, such as the flashy and fully sequined red dress for Special Request. It can take a long time to get so many costumes for a group, so measurements must be taken the year prior to a current year’s show choir season. After receiving the costumes, group members try them on, but high school students are always growing and changing and companies sizing varies widely, so adjustments might need to be made to costumes so they’ll fit properly.
Tailoring becomes a crucial need when individual items are not custom ordered. A group of volunteer moms gets together, calling themselves Aberdeen Central Moms Ensemble (ACME), and makes sure the costumes look great. Master tailor, Gita Webb, mother of Special Request member, Cassie Webb, handles the really tough alterations late into the night. This year, a particularly challenging jacket required inserting side panels on a large number of jackets, so Ms. Webb made a specific pattern and taught other moms techniques for sewing the panels. Show choir mom, Margie Moore (mother to Rawley and Anna Moore of Eagle Express), noted that any mom can help with simple tightening of straps or pinning suggested alterations. She noted, “I can’t run a sewing machine, but I can rip out seams for someone who can; anyone can help.”
Practices begin soon after the school year starts; however, show choir kids can’t just come to the first practice and learn everything at once – they build a show piece by piece, hour by hour. Ms. Appl notes that the kids commit to regular practices at least twice a week, commit to taking choir or another vocal class during the school day, invest additional time for multi-day specialty workshops, and then must add on the actual competition time commitment. This year, the group also added some extra time for conditioning exercises led by Central High School coach, Sam Herauf, to kick off their preparation.The directors commit to the same timeframes and more, but unanimously stated that their own motivation comes from the seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm of the students. Melledy Rostad, Assistant Director for Eagle Express/Co-Director of the band, also noted the directors ask a lot of the students, but the students always seem to deliver and that inspires everyone to dig deep.
The band and show choir meet separately for a long time, learning their individual parts and finding out what works and what doesn’t. The choir spends the first month or so of their practices dividing the group into vocal sections and learning parts and matching harmonies. Time flies fast and they have to move on to the next building block: choreography.
For some students, choreography is a brand new adventure, but, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, two middle schools, Simmons and Holgate, have become the “feeder” schools for the high school show choir groups. Show choir mom and parent to two frequent show choir choreographers, Katie and Emily Magera, Barb Magera, described her long term dedication to show choir as stemming from her daughters’ involvement, but then becoming permanently hooked as her daughters shifted to other roles. Ms. Magera still monitors Aberdeen show choir success today and, of course, closely follows the groups her daughters help choreograph.
Ms. Appl described how show choirs get that extra edge by hiring professional choreographers early. Good choreographers are intensely sought after and typically work full time for dozens of schools throughout the region. Kevin Chase, based out of Iowa, is the choreographer for both the Aberdeen high school groups. Mr. Chase usually comes for a week in October to start the choreography process and later for additional polish work and works with one group at a time during several extra full day workshops. Each group learns their choreography and blocking (where they stand during each moment of each song during the show) utilizing a counting method tied to every single dance movement before adding music into the mix. The choreography work can get “really intense, but if you just focus and work hard, you’ll get through it,” says Sophia Powell, second-time high school show choir member, first-time Eagle Express member. The entire choreography process is long and stressful, but after it’s over, it’s so much fun to see it start to slowly come together.
After the choreography week is through, groups have to use their practice time perfecting or “cleaning” their choreography, while also making sure they can simultaneously sustain strong vocals throughout the show. Students don’t always remember every single detail of their show initially, and the group needs to eventually ensure their moves match each other for the show to look clean, sharp, and professional to an audience and, more importantly, to show judges. Assistant Director of Special Request/Co-director of the band, Jenna Hansen, is instrumental to blocking and choreography clean up, utilizing technology to help in this effort in order to make sure transitions, lines, and formations look sharp while still making sure the groups’ energy and motivation appears seamless.
Ms. Hansen also joins the work of the band on the piano when the group shifts to combining all the components. The addition of the band allows the group to make some decisions along the lines of complimentary style and dynamic. The show cohesiveness slowly builds as each new element is added, including the band. The band works extremely hard; it takes a few weeks to learn the music and then they practice for about 6-7 hours every single week, not including competitions. Ms. Rostad is also stationed back with the band along with Christopher Jacobsen, a vocal instructor at the school who also joins the band on the synthesizer. Ms. Rostad said that the strangest part about being in the band is that you never get to see the show except on video. Sounds boring, right? Wrong! Band members Donovan Guhin (trumpet), Travis Sharp (trombone), and Josh Hellwig (percussion for Eagle Express) say their favorite part about the performance is the delicious rush of adrenaline and just hearing the sound of the band coming together, and of course, the chance that they’ll be awarded best band at one of the competitions.
Once the show is all put together and polished and the groups start to practice in full costume with costume changes mid-performance and then it’s time for the teams to compete. Groups often have to leave extremely early in the morning for out of town competitions. Kids sleep on the bus if they had a very early equipment load time to rest up for the long day. Otherwise, there’s a lot of life and excitement, filling the buses with voices and laughter. Depending on where the competition is located, this year with two of the competitions in Iowa and Nebraska, bus rides can feel excruciatingly long.
At a competition, it can be very chaotic for a group upon arrival. There’s a lot of equipment that needs to be hauled in from the buses: costumes, instruments, and personal items. Once inside the host school, the groups must find their homeroom, which is a designated place for the groups to meet and finish preparing hair, makeup, costumes and voice warmups. There’s usually one room for each group, and there’s sometimes, but rarely, an extra room for the guys. The groups build each other up and mentally prepare themselves and each other to perform. Despite all the preparation work, before you know it, you’re headed to the theatre to compete.
In addition, there is a dedicated group of dads for every competition near and far who help set up the extra risers or stage lighting, better known as Aberdeen Central Dad Crew, or ACDC for short. One dad in particular, Justin Kallenberger, over the last 2 years has unfailingly driven the trailer with the risers for every single trip. Mr. Moore is also an active member of ACDC and describes, when he first started, how other members showed him the ropes for a quick and safe set up. He noted that his fellow members of ACDC have become good friends as they meet again and again during the season.
Once ACDC gets the stage set, the performance begins within minutes. Behind the beaming smiles on stage, you would never know that each dancer is filled with a whole range of emotions. “At any point in time during the show there will be someone with their eyes on you,” says Rawley Moore, the male dance captain for Eagle Express. Members’ minds go blank as they stand in front of judges ready to perform. They might ask themselves – “Am I going to mess up?” – but there’s no time to think and no time to worry. The music begins and you just have to give it your all. When the last number begins, it can be hard to believe that it’s already almost over because it feels like it’s just begun.
During performances, groups are being watched by judges who are often in the back of the theatres. The judges score different aspects of the show and later compare them to the other show choir groups at the competition. At many competitions, six groups with the highest overall scores are chosen to compete again in finals. Ms. Rostad noted that vocals always carries the most significant weight in the judges’ scores, after all, it’s not just a show; it’s a show choir. Choreography is typically the next highest weighted scoring consideration. Some other things that judges look at for scoring include costumes, facials (despite trying to sing in perfect harmony and coordinating that music with complicated dance moves, you must also smile or clearly demonstrate other emotions on your face the entire performance time – much harder than it sounds!), band, and show design. Ms. Appl works hard to build those final layers of the performance by playing a game called “Last Man Standing” where you are eliminated if you are caught without your energy showing in your face or dance moves until only one remains. Ms. Appl said, “If your facial expression doesn’t feel ridiculous, you’re not doing it right!”
Groups aren’t just done with everything once they leave the performance stage. Following their performance, the groups go to a room where a judge gives them a critique and tells the group what they did well and what they could change or improve to make a show even better. A show choir can practice and practice nonstop, but there will always be something they can do better as individuals and as a group.
The rest of the day can be spent in numerous ways. Kids are encouraged to watch and cheer on other teams. It’s always amazing to see what other show choirs created for their performances with unique costumes, music, and theme ideas. Students can also hang out with and have fun with other members, many whom you only know because of show choir. Competitions often have concessions for those attending the shows to have meals, so you get the chance to try some great snacks and buy fun show choir-themed items for sale. Parents eventually start to recognize each other at traveling competitions and become friends. Those parents who help more often become parents away from home, helping group members with everything from medical needs to just being an away from home mom or dad encouraging the student performers. Some parents describe their unbridled willingness to support and encourage all the kids involved, regardless of school affiliation.
Eventually, after all the competing groups are finished performing and complete their critique, the judges announce different awards, such as best band and best crew. They also announce the six teams that made finals. The groups selected for finals perform again and try to nail the recommended corrections for the judges. Oftentimes, the final awards are not announced until 9:00-10:00 PM at night. The places are announced from 5th runner up to grand champion and the trophies are sometimes taller than some of our members! After all the excitement, it is then time to load up all the equipment and head home. It is not uncommon to arrive home in Aberdeen at 3:00-4:00 AM.
Show choir performance preparation is a crazy process, but it has become, as the directors and parents described it, a “well-oiled machine.” Directors and students can’t handle everything there is to do despite the hundreds of hours they put in outside of formal practice after a long regular school day’s work. One of the biggest reasons show choir is possible is the parents and students who volunteer to help out with everything. Although we’ve described the costume assistance ACME provides and the stage set up assistance ACDC helps with, there are many other volunteers for show choir. There are parents and other volunteers who provide food for workshops so the kids can work all day, help with numerous parts of our local hosted show choir competition, Center Stage, or for our Bistro Valentine’s Day fundraiser in February, checking competition bags for full costumes and accessories, and traveling trip chaperones, to name just a few ways people assist the show choir. The Comstock family, a notable pair of brothers, Eric and Mark, and their wives, Kelly and Angie, are involved with ACDC, ACME, chaperoning, assisting with Center Stage coordination, and tailoring costumes as their children have participated in show choirs over the years. The directors described two primary student helpers, Erica Schultz and Bayley Kallenberger, as so instrumental to the groups that they literally “organize our lives”! Not all people helping are show choir moms or dads; helpers could be grandparents, uncles, or aunts. Volunteers make up a HUGE part of putting everything together. Without them, the groups would fall apart.
Show choir may not be an extracurricular activity you are familiar with, but like many other key student activities, both parents and group members alike cannot say enough about the benefits of show choir. Some students described show choir as helping them develop their teamwork, professionalism, leadership, resilience, socialization, and mental preparation skills. Another big takeaway for students is patience and perseverance outside of their usual comfort zones. Practices can feel never-ending, but students learn to continue to work hard even when it’s challenging. Students can also master time management, because many students are in many other activities outside of show choir such as sports and theater. The show choir directors and other extracurricular directors are very flexible with these things, including, for the recent competition in Gretna, Nebraska, picking up show choir kids competing in Oral Interpretation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the day of departure en route.
You don’t have to already have show choir experience to join; you can join at any time, with one of the co-author/sisters participating since middle school (Madison) and the other (Cloe) as a first-timer this year. It’s such an amazing experience, so if time allows, be bold and give it a try. Students describe it as a supportive family or a “strong, positive community.” We encourage everyone in the community, whether you have a friend or relative participating or not to come out for show choir events for a very affordable day of wonderful Broadway-style entertainment from some talented and dedicated local performers; we are convinced you will catch show choir fever, too! // –Madison and Cloe Daugherty
Awards in 2020
At the two away competitions so far, the groups have brought home some great hardware.
Gretna, Nebraska – Primetime
Unisex – Special Request – 2nd Place
Open – Eagle Express,
2nd Place during daytime performances, 1st Runner Up during finals
Best Dad Crew
Sioux Falls Washington – Best of Show
Unisex – Special Request – 2nd Place during daytime performances, 3rd Runner Up during finals
Open – Eagle Express – 1st Place during daytime performances, Grand Champions during finals
Best Female Soloist – Tatum Waldrop