There Is No Crying in Show Choir

Except when there is, which is actually pretty often. There is also smeared makeup, frantic costume changes, heaps of drama, and a stew of teenage hopes and dreams ready to be realized (or crushed). Is it any wonder Fairfield loves its Choraliers?

Tears flow before the show even begins, but there is no time for tissues. The Grand Ole Opry curtain swings open as the emcee announces with prodigious flair, “Sit back, relax, and don’t forget to buckle up as you join the Fairfield Choraliers to go Around the World in 80 Days.”

It begins slowly. Fifteen boys stand on the risers, facing away from the crowd. Junior Eli Mathews, wearing a singular black suit to play protagonist Phileas Fogg, strolls across the stage, belting out a short solo. The other guys spring to life, dressed in gray overcoats, ascots, and vests emblazoned with the Union Jack. (This is England.) Suddenly, two dozen girls and another eight boys swarm onto the stage like ants evacuating a flooded hill, singing OneRepublic’s “Everybody Loves Me.” The kids practically ooze attitude as they execute each animated dance move. Eli tosses his top hat into the crowd to close the opening number.

With that, the girls flip behind the boys just long enough to tear off their dresses, revealing another outfit underneath…and suddenly we are in the Mediterranean. Eli seduces the girls as they dance around him in a circle, singing “Conquest” by The White Stripes. Frenzied partner-swapping ensues, setting off dramatic choreographed skirmishes across the stage.

All is peaceful for a moment, until T.J. Phillips, a senior member of the combo that accompanies the choir, walks on stage playing a mystical saxophone solo as smoke pours across the risers. Dressed as an Indian prince, Topher Lutz appears, leading a group of boys chanting “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” a nasally Bollywood tune, while others tie senior Michaela Bridge to a stake and prepare to burn her in a tissue paper fire. As boys jump across the stage in front of her, she offers a plea for help in the form of KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” While Topher and his henchmen are busy breaking it down, Eli makes off with Michaela.

The show reaches its romantic climax in Asia, where the stage clears for those two to sing a starry-eyed duet to the slow-dance-worthy “All This Time” by One-Republic. They play convincing lovers, holding hands and staring straight into each other’s souls.

By the time they visit America, then skip back across the Atlantic to complete the circuit for the final number—“Around the World” (of course) by the Christian rock band Reilly—the Choraliers have changed costumes three times and completely circumnavigated the globe. In less than 20 minutes. The finale culminates with a frenetic dance flourish, hands and legs flying at a dizzying pace, leaving everybody dripping with sweat.

The show ends with a drawn out bow, and many, many more tears.

Two days earlier, at 8 a.m. on a Thursday in late March, Fairfield’s three show choirs load onto four charter buses for their trip to Nashville. In addition to the Choraliers, Rhythm Express, the middle school group, and Pure Elegance, the all-girls choir, will be performing. The kids brought their luggage the night before, so it could be sniffed by dogs for drugs or bombs or any other odorous contraband, a policy that Jeff Clark, Fairfield’s 33-year-old choir director,  instituted “just to be safe.” The students arrive dressed to either go to bed or appear as extras in a Disney show, pajama pants and cargo shorts deployed in equal measure. Before they pull out of the parking lot, a group of class clowns on the first bus (led by tech captain Mitchell Jones, a bear of a kid who would fit on the offensive line and says he feels sorry that his mother had to deliver him) threatens to make the five-hour drive take much longer. “Do they deliver pizza to charter buses?” he asks.

Clark quickly takes control. “If you’re going to be loud, you’re on the other bus,” he cautions. “You’re on Clark’s bus now.” He takes attendance and makes the kids count off, so he can keep tabs on them later. (The students will spend the rest of the trip forgetting their numbers and switching buses, rendering this measure completely useless.)

Shortly after departure, a vote is taken to pick movies. Despite a spirited protest from Jon Kylander, a senior who plays bass guitar in the combo and threatens to quit if it is selected, the beauty pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous wins, along with Hairspray (the 2007 version with John Travolta in drag), more or less confirming every stereotype you might have about kids who participate in show choir. Sadly, the movie freezes when the bus hits bumps, causing everyone to miss “the best part”—when a beauty pageant participant is killed in a tractor explosion.

The buses arrive in Nashville around 1 p.m., and the procession stops at the newly reopened Opry Mills Mall for lunch before checking in at the Gaylord Opryland hotel. The name “Gaylord” inspires a conversation among some of the boys about how they’re perceived at school. Putdowns include both “Queeraliers” and “Choraqueers,” as well as the more run-of-the-mill epithet “show choir gaywads.”

Sophomore David Hurt offers up some wisdom on this subject. “People call me gay, but I don’t care what they think,” he says. “I’m not, but even if I were, I wouldn’t care. I just love music so much.”

He’s not the only one. And that’s clear in the Choraliers’ results. Show choir isn’t quite like sports, where there’s a season and bracketed tournaments and an eventual state champion. The Choraliers compete in invitational events and give exhibition performances across the Midwest. So far in 2012, they have brought home grand champion trophies from three competitions in the run-up to Nashville. In the cutthroat world of high school show choir, the Choraliers have a long tradition of excellence. That track record is what earned them an invitation to Nationals.

Munching on a salad in the mall food court and dressed in his standard uniform of khaki shorts and a baggy polo shirt, Clark provides a blunt assessment of life in show choir. “We’re not the popular ones,” he admits, “but we win.”

It wasn’t always that way. Paul Thoms founded the Fairfield Choraliers 45 years ago, in the fall of 1966. He had been teaching music in the district since 1960 and ran a popular concert choir program with hundreds of kids, but he wanted a group that would be small and entertaining enough to perform at civic functions around town. Inspired by a workshop that he attended with Fred Waring, the 1940s bandleader known as “the man who taught America how to sing,” Thoms decided to have the Choraliers dance. For their first performance, they sang the city’s anthem, “Fair Fairfield,” for City Council. They were an instant hit.

“In fact, they sang for the dedication of eight local public facilities, including a jail and a sewer system,” says Thoms, 76, who became the district’s director of curriculum before retiring. “The kids had great suggestions for the repertoire for both of those events.” The Choraliers also toured. One year, they did 110 performances. They sang on The Lawrence Welk Show. They sang at Disney. They sang with Bob Hope. They sang everywhere.

But they didn’t compete. “I’ve never been comfortable with competition in the arts,” Thoms says. “We can measure how fast someone can run or how high they can jump, but evaluating the arts is very subjective.”

It was Dan Prior who planted the competitive seed. He came to Fairfield in the 1970s as a first-year music teacher at the middle school and founded Rhythm Express a few years later. He started taking the group to a couple of competitions a year. Prior moved up to the high school in 1989, and the first time he took the Choraliers to a competition, they won. But after that early taste of victory, they settled into a bittersweet routine of consistently coming in second or third.

That led Prior to rethink his philosophy. Instead of variety shows that demonstrated the range of his choir’s ability, he decided to come up with a theme. The first one was a USO show, with army outfits and music from World War II. “Every competition we went to we swept,” he says. “We won everything.” So each year Prior and his students came up with another wacky theme. They did a jailhouse show, a construction show, even a coffee show. “When I go out to judge,” says Prior, who has retired from teaching but remains active in the show choir world, “people still ask me about the coffee show.”

Prior was also responsible for founding the Fairfield Crystal Classic, an event that has become one of the top regional show choir competitions in the country and one of the highlights of Fairfield’s social calendar. This year, there were nearly 6,000 attendees. It takes 350 parent volunteers to transform the gym into a theater (since the auditorium is too small), coordinate all of the performances, and man the cafeteria. The first volunteers arrive at 5 a.m. on Friday, and the last one isn’t out the door until 4 a.m. on Sunday. In between, show choirs from as far afield as Mississippi and Maryland dazzle the crowds with sequined renditions of Adele and Lady Gaga, leading up to an exhibition performance by the Choraliers for the Saturday night finale.

When Prior retired in 2004, a mutual friend, Chris Beiser, recommended Jeff Clark for the job. A Fairfield grad, Beiser had worked as a choreographer for Prior as well as Kettering Fairmont High School, Clark’s alma mater. It was as a member of the Fairmont Illusion that Clark first fell in love with show choir. After earning degrees in music education from Bowling Green and Miami, he got a job teaching at Crete-Monee High School outside of Chicago, where he led two show choirs: the Cavaliers and all-girl Faces.

Since coming to Fairfield, Clark has pushed the program even further. The use of outside composers and choreographers has helped the Choraliers compete on the national level. “I’m just so fortunate that we found a guy like Jeff,” Prior says. “You talk about an overachiever, workaholic. He loves show choir.”

In 2009, the Choraliers won the championship in the FAME competition in Branson, Missouri, which is every bit as prestigious as Show Choir Nationals. Suffice it to say that Clark has not rested on that laurel.

Just look at the work that went into this year’s show. Tryouts were held a year earlier, in April 2011. Junior Alex Hotchkiss, a lanky, bespectacled junior who will be the drum major in the marching band next fall, showed up as a favor to a friend who needed a partner. “Some people have prepared to be in Choraliers since middle school,” he says. “I didn’t really even know what show choir was.”

For the dance audition, the current choreographers for the Choraliers—Randy Sage from Los Angeles and Stephen Todd from Minneapolis, both of whom freelance for show choirs across the country—taught the kids a few steps, sent them off to practice, and then brought them back in to perform with music. For the vocal part, each kid sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” a cappella.

“That was nerve-racking, considering I had never really sung for anyone before,” Alex says. He knew they needed basses, so he decided to sing the national anthem as low as he could. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. Then I saw my name on the list, and I was like, Yeah!

Clark, the choreographers, and composer Josh Greene, who arranges the music for the Choraliers, spent the summer putting the show together, riffing on Clark’s theme. He chose Around the World in 80 Days because the Choraliers will be competing in the World Choir Games in July, another first for the group. Clark wanted it to be their biggest and best show ever, a goal he sets for himself annually. “It puts a lot of stress on you as a director because you know that everyone wants you to take it the next step up,” he says. “So you’re consistently reinventing the wheel [and] trying to one-up yourself.”

Last August, Clark held a week-long vocal camp, where the kids spent a couple of hours each night learning the songs. Then a few weeks later, the choreographers flew in to host a second camp. Over four grueling nine-hour days in the high school choir room, they taught each tiny movement, timed precisely to the notes in the songs. Because the camps were held on the cusp of the school year, Corey Bagford, that rare Choralier who also plays sports, had to miss soccer practice. “I love sports,” he says. “But if I had to choose, I would probably pick Choraliers.”

Once school started, the students rehearsed during their fifth-period Choraliers class. Slowly, the dance started to feel natural, as each eight-count became muscle memory. Eventually, their voices began to blend in harmony.

Clark obsessed over every detail. He brought in Srinivas Krishnan from Miami University to teach the students how to pronounce the words in the Bollywood song. When ordering costumes, he checked to make sure the colors wouldn’t be culturally offensive. He even used a stopwatch to drill the students on changing quickly. “That was 30 seconds,” he would tell them. “That’s not nearly fast enough.” Because he’s in marching band, Alex had to split class time between the two. “One day I missed a rehearsal,” he says, “and Mr. Clark made me stay there by myself for two hours putting on and taking off my costumes as fast as I could.”

An army of parent volunteers supports Clark in his quest for perfection. Kraig and Vicki Cavender have two daughters. When the girls were little, it was a family tradition to attend the evening performance at the Crystal Classic. “I’d have a little bag of candy for them, and they’d sit and watch the show choirs,” Vicki says. Both girls became Choraliers, and the Cavenders have spent nearly a decade dedicating every spare moment to the cause. “The parents are really the backbone of what we do,” Clark says.

Over the summer, Kraig, a burly 51-year-old with a firm handshake, and the other stage dads met with Clark to discuss their vision for the set. It took them months to build the towering world map, broken in half vertically near the prime meridian, which lights up as the choir traverses the globe. For the Around the World theme, the kids have more costumes than ever—most of them change three times during the show—and to transport all those outfits, the dads built wooden closets on wheels, made to look like shipping crates. They even stenciled “Port of Origin” and the names of countries on the sides. In addition to the costume closets, they built one for the moms to hold thread, spare earrings, lipstick, cotton swabs, glue, lint brushes, shaving cream, a sewing machine, and everything else they need for fashion emergencies. If the coming apocalypse involves show choir, this box will be the world’s greatest survival kit.

Managing so many garments is a challenge for Vicki, the head costume mom. Clark is adamant about custom ordering clothes that can withstand the wear and tear of a competition season, so the Choraliers never wear anything off the rack. But Vicki still has to make alterations and repairs. “It’s an ongoing process because every time they wear them there’s a zipper that goes out or buttons or something,” she says. (Clark instructs the kids on what to do in case of a wardrobe malfunction: If the student isn’t exposed, he or she muddles through.) “You want them to look great out there,” Vicki adds.

The extra costumes also make participation more expensive: Each Choralier had to pay more than $1,000 to perform in this year’s show. Going around the world, even metaphorically, ain’t cheap. But they hold fund-raisers to defray the cost, the biggest of which is a food booth that some of the kids man at a Renaissance fair in Harveysburg each fall. “Telling people that you’re out of turkey legs is a scary thing,” Alex says.

After lunch at the Opry Mills Mall, Pure Elegance and Rhythm Express prepare at the hotel for their Thursday night performances. They get dressed and do their hair and makeup. Vicki buys and distributes the cosmetics to ensure uniformity. The poof of each girl’s hair is required to be at least two inches tall, which is why they go through 15 cans of hair spray at each competition.

Pure Elegance will perform at 8 p.m., and the ladies make their way backstage about a half-hour early to warm up. They spend a few minutes stretching, then Clark gathers them around the piano where they run through various scales and arpeggios, pushing their voices lower, higher, and louder. He instructs them using hand signals and choir jargon, telling them to “find the ping” and “keep the air spinning” and “unify the vowel.” He makes them hold a single note for 20 seconds, an impossibly long time, and cautions against “sound gaps.” One of the groups that performed earlier “had a lot of dropped phrases,” so Clark drives home the need to enunciate and sing forcefully through the end of the show by quoting from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “Augustus, sveetheart, save some room for latah.”

Choreographer Randy Sage has flown in for the weekend. Tall and rail-thin, he is an exquisitely hip dresser, boasting an extensive collection of sweaters, jeans, and ties, all of them skinny. Together, Clark and Sage form an odd couple. Given Clark’s rounder physique, they look a little like Bert and Ernie.

Sage plays bad cop, punctuating Clark’s coaching with breathless exhortations and admonishments, mixing in just enough humor so as not to seem authoritarian. He has the girls run through a few sections of their dance, telling them at one point to “pop it like it’s hot.”

Then the students form a circle, join hands, and say a prayer. “I love everybody,” one girl calls out. Clark gives simple instructions: “Bring it tonight.” Finally they huddle up, go through a ceremonial chant, and walk out to the stage.

Pure Elegance’s show is called “The Big Dollhouse.” They start out wearing ornate dresses with large bows in the back, pearls, and white stockings. At first, their movements are rigid, like dolls, but they slowly loosen up. The highlight of the show is a solo by senior Caitlyn Beatty, who is among a handful of girls pulling double duty this weekend in both Pure Elegance and Choraliers. She is carried out onto the stage in a huge pink box by two boys dressed in brown UPS uniforms, then emerges to sing Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” a moment that always draws a big reaction from the audience.

“At our Crystal Classic show, the box didn’t open. I kicked it, and it didn’t open,” she says. “It was kind of scary.” At Nationals she encounters no such problem.

After the solo, the rest of the girls join her wearing yellow, red, or black-and-white striped dresses to close with Saving Jane’s “One Girl Revolution.” As they come off the stage, having nailed what they all agree is their best show of the year, a handful of seniors are crying (it’s the final performance of their high school careers) and a couple more collapse in exhaustion.

“We always have a casualty or two,” Clark says.

Every member seems to have a story of a painful injury or costume mishap. Kraig Cavender remembers being backstage when his younger daughter, Shelby, who is now a senior, came off stage bawling in the middle of a show. She had a broken zipper, but her dad didn’t understand the hysteria. He asked what was wrong. She pointed at her foot, where a collision with another dancer had cost her a toenail. She changed and went back out to finish the show. Then she sucked it up and performed again in finals. “I would be lost without show choir,” she says.

When all the choirs are finished, it’s time for awards. The middle school division was stacked with exceptional performances, and Rhythm Express finishes a disappointing last. But Pure Elegance nearly sweeps the women’s division. They win for vocals, choreography, overall effect, combo, and are named grand champions.

It’s a proud moment for Clark, who founded the group in 2007 because he had more gifted girls at tryouts than he could accommodate in Choraliers. “My goal was to get Pure Elegance right up there with the top mixed group,” he says. Mission accomplished. But he doesn’t take much time to celebrate. He is already planning tomorrow’s Choraliers show. They have a practice scheduled for midnight, and it’s important. As the group was boarding the buses, they found out that one of the Choraliers had been suspended from school and wasn’t allowed to come on the Nashville trip. That means they have to entirely rework their formations the day before they compete for a national championship.

When the students have gathered, Clark explains the stakes. “I’ll be honest with you, this is going to make or break your show tomorrow,” he says. His tone is matter-of-fact. Clark isn’t angry, but he seems compelled to constantly remind the students of the importance of every aspect of the trip. It’s as if he lives in a state of perpetual paranoia that, deep down, the kids don’t care, despite every indication to the contrary.

Sage opens the blocking book, a binder full of diagrams that lay out where everybody is supposed to be on stage. He goes through each song, shifting dancers to restore symmetry. “This is not your fault,” he tells them, “but it is your problem.”

After they’ve finished, Clark gives the students a chance to speak. They mostly offer trite motivational slogans, but deliver them with a level of emotional sincerity that approaches beauty. “This is it,” they say with the sort of dire urgency usually reserved for the last five minutes of sports movies. “It all comes down to this.”

The looks on their faces convey some mix of determination, desperation, and sleep deprivation. Clark piles on with a pep talk of his own: “You’re that winning group from Fairfield. It’s become an expectation in our community. You’ve got a big day. I want this to be great. Now is the time on a national stage. It goes down in the record books.”

Sage closes the meeting by commanding the students to go straight to bed. “You have to make good decisions tonight, kids,” he says, his voice thick with exasperation. “If I find out that you are out of your rooms, I will reblock the show, and you will not be in it.”

The parents help enforce compliance. They apply tape to the doors of the kids’ rooms so they can’t leave without breaking the seal. That might seem extreme, but they’ve actually become more lax. Years ago, they would patrol the hallways all night in two-hour shifts. Linda Fishback, whose daughter Jennifer is a senior, remembers a competition eve when she was assigned to monitor from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. A little delirious, she knocked on the door of a noisy room and told the startled occupants to keep it down.

“It wasn’t one of our rooms,” she says. “It was a wedding party.”

On Friday morning, the parents set up a breakfast buffet in the hallway with pastries, granola bars, and cartons of milk. The dads wear polo shirts with nicknames embroidered on them. Kraig Cavender’s says “Cupcake,” though nobody seems to have any idea why. They roll the closet crates out of the trucks and onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel. The Choraliers file out one by one to retrieve their costumes and pile them into small clothes baskets, which function as changing stations during the show. The students get ready surprisingly fast.

The Choraliers perform at noon. If they finish in the top six in the preliminary round, they will perform again on Saturday in the finals. The Fairfield Choraliers always make finals. It is assumed, listed weeks in advance in their printed itineraries as a future fact.

Eli Mathews, who favors the sagging pants, flat-billed ball caps, and graphic T-shirts of the skate punk set, has been nursing a sore throat for the past few days. He attributes it to riding in his friend’s convertible with the top down. Or it could be from all the screaming he does in his spare time as a member of I Shall Arise, the best (and surely only) Christian metal-core band ever to come out of Fairfield. “All this week, I was really worried about it,” he says, “but then I just drank lots of tea and rested.”

In warm ups, Clark scolds his Choraliers repeatedly for not enunciating; in the middle of practicing one particular dance number, Sage tells them they look like “pregnant hunchbacks.” Nerves have set in. Kids take slow, deep breaths to slow their speeding hearts.

But the anxiety vanishes once they’re on stage. Eli’s voice holds up well, and if the reactions of the performers and their parents are any indication, everything else goes well, too. After a quick trip back to the hotel to change, they return to the theater to size up their competition. Aside from the Choraliers, the top two contenders seem to be CenterStage! from Albertville High School in Alabama and Happiness Inc. from Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Albertville has an apocalypse-themed show with absurdly high production values. The set is two giant stacks of televisions. They make prominent use of a smoke machine, and at one point, a guitar player comes out on stage to play a rock solo. The choir starts out wearing fire-colored robes with masks that cover their faces, giving the students an eerie anonymity. Later in the show, girls wearing rubber aprons and gas masks pour toxic green liquid from beakers, causing everyone else to suddenly drop dead. The performance doesn’t quite match the jazz-hands tone of traditional show choir, but there are Broadway musicals that would envy the props.

Kennedy doesn’t have an obvious theme, but what they lack in narrative, they make up for with killer voices. The choir sings with a resonance that instantly captivates even a musically clueless observer. Plus, they have a hilarious number that pokes fun at some of show choir’s more absurd aspects, like the politics involved in who gets the solo. They also sing LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” which the crowd loves.

The preliminary results bring good news and bad news. Yes, the Choraliers make finals. In fact, they are in first place. But when the emcee reaches into a hat to draw performance times for the next day, the Choraliers are called first. They’ll have to sing at 9 a.m.

Performing first thing in the morning is a well-known kiss of death in the show choir world. Many a director has a story about being on top after prelims only to lose after leading off in finals. Being the first choir of the day is problematic for two reasons. In the final round, rather than filling out complicated scorecards, the judges simply rank the groups from best to worst. Performing first means the Choraliers won’t be fresh in the judges’ minds when they make their decisions. More important, voices and bodies simply don’t work well at 9 a.m.

But Clark has an idea. Usually, he would hold a full rehearsal tonight in preparation for tomorrow morning’s show. Instead, he’s going to do two rehearsals. Tonight at 8:30, they’ll work on choreography but won’t sing. That will prevent vocal fatigue. Then they will go straight to bed and get up at 6 a.m. for a vocal rehearsal. That will give them time to get their voices working. If bodies don’t function at 9 o’clock, Clark will trick them into thinking it’s later by getting them up earlier.

It’s smart, and for the most part, it works. After a dinner of fried chicken and French fries at a restaurant called Cock of the Walk, a name that even the adults have fun with, the Choraliers get down to business at the hotel. Clark gives the combo feedback, so they can correct mistakes (apparently there were “lots of trumpet errors”). He goes over the judges’ comments from the prelims; considering they are currently in first place, the list of criticisms is long. Vocally, they had issues with diction, intonation, and blend. Despite Clark’s warnings, they had dropped the ends of their phrases. One judge told Sage the choreography was “just wrong.”

Clark issues a direct warning: “You will lose tomorrow if you don’t sing better.” Then they dance for an hour, focusing on their “foot technique,” and finally head to bed.

The next morning the Choraliers rise before 6 o’clock to sing in their pajamas. As they run through vocal exercises, Gerald Hopper, a member who aspires to be a hair stylist, moves through the crowd with a curling iron. They sound a little off, but 90 minutes later, dressed and at the theater, they put on an epic warm up.

As they stretch, Clark and Sage bring the hype. “You are the first group and only group that needs to go today,” Sage says, pausing for a beat on key words to emphasize their importance. “Because after you are done, the show is over. You are going to have the best freaking show of your life right now.” The kids listen to the propaganda in silence as they touch their toes. The nerves are worse than yesterday, and a couple of them are visibly shaking. But in the silence there is also a sense of purpose. The kids are locked in, focused.

They run through the usual vocal exercises, go over specific problem areas in a couple of songs, and then practice pieces of choreography. They focus on the “ballad,” a standard component of show choir performances in which students stop dancing to really show off their vocal cords. Clark reminds them to breathe. Sage calls out “Faces!” over and over, demanding dramatic expressions. “Wake up your faces,” he says. “That’s going to be the deal-breaker.”

Then they circle up. “I am utterly grateful for this year,” says a tearful David Eschenbrenner, a Miami University student who has been helping Clark, his voice cracking. “It’s been probably one of the best years I’ve ever had. I want to thank every single one of you.”

This makes everyone cry. Jon, the bass guitar player, gives a speech and then leads the call-and-response chant that they do before every show.

“Are you the best?” he asks.

“Yes!” his classmates yell back.

Wearing an ill-fitting suit that he pulls out only for special occasions, Clark gives them his final piece of advice. “You are not Fairfield High School anymore,” he says. “You are professionals who are here to do a job. To entertain. To bring the magic of music, singing, dancing, instrumental performance to the audience. You are performers. Perform Around the World in 80 Days. Take them on that journey…. I love you all.”

They pray, chant some more, and then walk out to the stage, as the tears continue to flow. The last thing they hear is Sage calling after them: “There is no crying in show choir!”

When they finish, the parents are effusive in their praise. As always, it was The Best Performance Of The Year. The ballad sounded great. Everything was perfect. But Sage doesn’t seem to agree. He stands back from the group with a concerned, slightly angry look on his face. When the kids ask how they did, he fakes a smile, but doesn’t say much. The singers and combo blame each other for mistakes.

Their fears are realized at the final awards. It starts well. Fairfield’s Shayla Gragston is named best female performer and Michaela Bridge wins best soloist. “I’ve had a solo for four years,” she says later while eating an ice cream cone at the hotel, “but I’ve never gotten a best soloist before.”

The atmosphere in the theater is tense. The Choraliers sit up in the balcony in matching black track suits. Kennedy (the school with the meta take on show choir) wins for vocals, but Fairfield wins for choreography. When Kennedy wins for overall effect, the Fairfield kids start to worry. They look at each other in disbelief, shaking their heads. The emcee announces that Albertville is second runner-up, leaving Kennedy and Fairfield in the top two. A few Choraliers lock arms. Fingers cross. Then the announcement is made: The Choraliers are first runner-up.

“I was on stage while they said we got second,” Michaela says later. “I was just like, Oh, that sucks.

The Choraliers give a half-hearted standing ovation for themselves, then a quarter-hearted one for Kennedy, whose students go bananas, exploding from their seats in celebration. The Fairfield kids shake their heads or whisper curse words or stare at the floor, looking for answers.

It turns out the Choraliers were second on every score sheet. The judges said that Kennedy “just out-sang” them. Clark and Sage break down what went wrong. “You need a new ballad,” Sage tells him.

Clark is more disappointed than mad. “You win some, you lose some,” he says. That seems like a surprisingly down-to-earth response, unless you consider the context. For many choir directors, coming in second in a national competition would be a defining achievement. For Clark and his students, it’s a disappointment. “First place loser,” Topher Lutz says. That’s the problem with championship expectations; they make a near win feel like a complete loss.

But the kids stop moping quickly. That’s the beauty of being young: endless tomorrows. As they line up for pictures, a realization spreads through the group. “Now,” Corey Bagford calls out, “we’re officially on spring break!”

Clark will spend his week off thinking about show choir. The Choraliers still have a couple of concerts to do, and then there are the World Choir Games to prepare for. Orchestrating a performance in the middle of summer break will present its own set of logistical issues, especially because Clark will be planning next year’s show at the same time. He’s already brainstorming themes. And he has high hopes for the talented group of kids who will be seniors in the fall. “I have a lot of junior class members who are real go-getters,” he says. “Next year…”

Illustration by Dan Zettwoch.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue.

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