When I arrived at Michigan nearly three years ago, I, like many other students, knew absolutely nobody. As a terrified freshman with no friend base in a state I’d visited only twice before, I knew my meet-and-greets with my hall neighbors weren’t going to be enough to keep me socially involved during my first semester of college.
But like my mom always says (and kids, always listen to your mother), the best way to meet new friends is to join a group of people doing something — anything — you truly love. And as horribly cliché as it sounds, I love to sing.
I was only four months out of high school, and I could still vividly remember the underclassmen members of our Honors Concert Choir singing the “Old Irish Blessing” as a farewell to me and my fellow seniors as I bawled into my friend’s shoulder. The memories I made as a member of HCC, which was the top-auditioned mixed choir at my high school, were irreplaceable — and I was eager to make more at Michigan.
But as I stumbled through Festifall’s maze of flyers and sign-up sheets, I soon realized with dismay that the group I was searching for, the group I had looked forward to joining ever since I had accepted my spot in the class of 2013, didn’t seem to exist.
True, there is the University-sponsored Arts Chorale. But that is a class that participants must register to be in. There are more a cappella groups than I can shake a stick at. But there is no student-run, auditioned SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) choir that focuses on competition-level music aimed at non-music majors.
This is both extraordinary and disappointing for a school this size. Many current University students have had experience singing in high school choirs that participated in regional and state performances — not only do competitions and festivals give teams a goal to work toward, but they also open up opportunities to perform in other states and countries.
Groups like this also expose students to the very best that the world of choral music and arrangements has to offer. Songs that split a choir’s bases, tenors, altos and sopranos into subgroups of two, three or more do require discipline and careful teamwork, but anyone who’s heard the booming echoes of Hogan or delicate dissonance of Whitaker knows the end justifies the means.
Above all, singing in competition-level groups was a great way to leave the chaos and stress of school behind while still pushing hard toward an ultimately rewarding goal. I loved how Honors Concert Choir had a magical way of allowing me to forget about the torments of AP classes and college applications when all nine vocal parts of a song would suddenly align in perfect, goosebump-inducing harmony after hours of meticulous and frustrating work.
So what’s the deal? We have a school chock-full of passionate and competitive students who are waiting for a way to channel their energy into something they love just as much as their non-musical interests. Engineers who are soaring sopranos. History majors who are bellowing bases. Honey-sweet anthropology altos and tenors wrapped in the trials of organic chemistry.
The University of Michigan is living proof that high-quality student-led performance teams can flourish. Basement Arts is a completely student-run theater group with a long history of creative excellence — “A Very Potter Musical” was born on their stage. A cappella groups such as the Dicks & Janes and the Compulsive Lyres also rely on student talent to keep up their polished performances.
But if ever there existed a perfect template for what a large-scale choir with the freedom of a student group could look like at Michigan, one would have to look no further than the Michigan Pops Orchestra.
This student-led group was founded in 1995 by Warren Hsu, a then-student and eventual physician who wanted a way to practice music outside of the traditional University framework while still providing an exciting learning experience for its members.
Having grown from a simple idea shared among a few like-minded musicians to a beloved University staple run by a 13-member student executive board, the Pops are a perfect example of how a large student extracurricular group with complete control over their inner workings can successfully flourish while exposing themselves and their audiences to everything from the challenges of Tchaikovsky to the magic of Disney.
The Pops are an invaluable potential blueprint for what an auditioned, student-led choir for non-music majors could look like. The interest is certainly there, and though a capella isn’t for everyone, many students put their collegiate vocal plans on hold when they can’t find a student group that fits the bill.
Or is it? Does anyone else out there who hasn’t yet found what they’re looking for want to put down their pencils, shut their computers and warm up their voices again?