If you close your eyes while listening to the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, you might feel like you’re lost in 18th century London or strolling down Diagon Alley in the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
How, though, can an organization with an old-fashioned, almost nostalgic sensibility be one of the most recognized and revered groups on such a progressive campus? The answer lies in three pillars that define the oldest student organization at the University: tradition, camaraderie and musical excellence.
Although these words may apply to many student groups, they, through their intertwined relationship, accurately represent the club as it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club will hold their 150th annual fall concert on Nov. 21 at Hill Auditorium.
Founded in 1859 by — according to the website — “six or eight men,” Glee Club membership has grown to around 100, and this number has been held in place by annual fall and winter auditions.
Some notable accomplishments of the club include world-wide recognition with four first-place finishes at the International Music Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales (1959, 1963, 1971, 1978) and national admiration when the club sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Tiger Stadium during the 1984 World Series.
Winning awards and performing to thousands of people are just two of many contributors to the Glee Club’s long-standing tradition.
The word tradition is not easily defined.
Business junior and current Club member Lee Quakenbush described the first pillar as “upholding the values and practices of the last 150 years. These values, such as representing the University to the best of our ability, engaging with campus and reaching out to the community, typically are the catalyst for making traditions.”
For Dr. Jerry Blackstone, former Club director and current Director of Choral Activities in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the key is the past’s natural connection to the present.
“ ‘Tradition’ usually means ‘what we did last year,’ ” he said.
“In the case of the MGC, the alumni are vast and engaged, and bring a rich sense of history. Our tradition was to sing beautifully and to foster strong opportunities for student leaders from within the ensemble.”
Another former director, Bradley Bloom, a lecturer in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, took a more straight-forward approach, eloquently describing tradition as “A long-established custom and in many cases, that which is nostalgic.”
To attach some concrete examples to these abstract ideas, the Glee Club’s most familiar traditions include wearing a white tie with tux and tails, performing Michigan songs (including opening every show with “Laudes atque Carmina” and closing with “The Victors” and “The Yellow and Blue”), extensive touring in the United States and abroad, concerts at the acoustically perfect Hill Auditorium and finger snapping instead of clapping.
On the Road
Traveling, a tradition the club has upheld since the 1800s, has provided past and present members with fond memories and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
“In my day in Club, we would do pick-up sings at a moment’s notice — just a bunch of guys walking around a city,” former member Steve Ramsey recalled.
“On our 1967 world tour, a group of us found ourselves inside the tomb of the Taj Mahal where the legendary king had buried his legendary princess,” he said.
“And almost on cue, we struck up a chorus of ‘Busch Bavarian Beer,’ a bit raucous for the moment — maybe inappropriate — but the harmony! Oh, the harmony in that wonderful echo chamber.”
Business senior and current member Anthony Ambroselli explained a little less spontaneous but equally unforgettable moment.
“A favorite recent concert memory was during our trip to Spain last spring,” he explained.
“In Córdoba, the Glee Club was featured as the final attraction of the town’s music festival. We sang in a small church for a (house full) of people far over the building’s capacity. The energy in that venue was indescribable — the audience was thrilled to have us and that, in turn, fed the energy of that particular performance.
“During the third encore, we sang ‘La Tarara,’ a traditional Spanish folksong. Upon conclusion, the entire audience immediately began applauding us in a uniform rhythm of triplets,” Abroselli said. “One man in the front row exclaimed ‘Viva la Universidad de Michigan!’ It was a very unique cultural experience, really showing us how easily music can transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries.”
At times, the club has exceeded its role as promoter of the University, and acted as representative of the United States. In 2003, during a tour in the British Isles, former director and current associate professor of voice in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance Stephen Lusmann described the experience of performing on behalf of the entire country.
“My fondest memory was our overseas tour of Ireland and the United Kingdom,” he said.
“This tour was during one of the lowest points of the Iraq War: the scandal at Abu Ghraib. The Men’s Glee Club always thinks of itself as (an ambassador) for the University of Michigan, but this was a time when we were truly ambassadors of the United States.
“There were times during the tour when some of us had awkward moments on the street or in pubs with locals voicing their dislike of the war in Iraq and that the United States ‘dragged the United Kingdom into the conflict,’ ” Lusmann said.
“However, after a concert at St. James Church in London many audience members expressed very emotionally their love for our concert and how we were the best ambassadors of goodwill the United States could have sent to Europe at that time.”
Some other defining instances for a past and present director range from hilarious to heart-wrenching.
Bloom described the rush of celebrity approval of the club.
“The movie star Gene Kelly (“Singin’ in the Rain”) received an honorary degree from the University at a Winter Commencement in 1987,” he explained.
“The club sang for the commencement exercises. When the ceremony ended, President (Harold) Shapiro and Kelly led the recessional from the speaker’s platform. Gene Kelly broke rank, came over to the place where the Glee Club sang, shook my hand and said ‘That was terrific. Thank you.’ I still have not washed my hand,” Bloom said.
Current Director Dr. Paul Rardin said, “The best example I’ve witnessed of what Glee Club has meant to its members came from a first-year student during his end-of-tour speech to fellow members. He described the way in which our performing a piece about death (set to Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Invocation,’ which welcomes death as a relief from suffering) helped him come to grips with the sudden death of a close friend of his,” Rardin said.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion at watching this brave student — still new to the Glee Club and surrounded by students who had been members for two, three and four years — stand and speak about something so powerful and so personal. The only way he could have arrived at that emotional stage was by feeling so comfortable with both the music and the members of the Glee Club. From what I could tell the Glee Club had become his social and spiritual home.”
National and international tours mark the amount of time group members spend together, but lifelong friendships are sparked right here in Ann Arbor. The second pillar is formed after an exhausting rehearsal on Thursday night, club members will venture over to Cottage Inn and unwind, never ceasing their singing.
Although it’s difficult to put into words, the club’s focus on camaraderie is always apparent and lasts well beyond the college years.
“You know, it’s a special fraternity, a special band of brothers,” Ramsey explained. “Like guys in the military, maybe, who go through unique and exciting experiences together, there’s an incredibly connective bond that’s built, one that never breaks.”
Tradition and camaraderie aside, Lusmann may have said it best:
“(Glee Club) is an organization that draws together men from every school in the University for one reason: their love of singing.”
Dr. Rardin explained how he upholds the third pillar of the Glee Club.
“The steps I take to ensure musical excellence are nurturing a sense of energy and joy whenever we sing,” he said, “which includes showing my own enthusiasm for the music; nurturing a basic understanding of the words in a piece of music, not just its music (we will sing our best when we understand the text and context of a piece); insisting on excellent rehearsal protocol from every member; applying for performances at regional and national music conferences — audiences at these conferences are all professional musicians, so this ups the musical ante,” he explained.
The Next 150 Years
Although this year celebrates the past 150 years of the club, Quakenbush likes to think of it as a time to look forward to the next 150 years. Reaching out to the community factors heavily into this equation.
“We have begun to regularly make music for patients in the University’s hospital system, reach out to local urban high schools through our choral mentorship program and pursue relationships with local assisted living facilities,” he said.
With a century and a half of tradition under its belt, hundreds of thousands of relationships formed and a level of perfection in singing measured only by its own high standards, the Glee Club should have no problem maintaining its high ranking among campus organizations and its standing as an elite collegiate choir.
As Rardin said, “It is exciting to be part of a story that is still being written.”