Senior Keith Bellows sings through "Loch Lomond" with the UW Men’s Glee Club.
Senior Keith Bellows sings through "Loch Lomond" with the UW Men’s Glee Club.Photo by Sang Cho
Ask any member of the UW Men’s Glee Club to describe his experience in the choir and “fun” will be the first word out of his mouth. And with approximately 40 men who know how to make their voices heard, everybody in the Music Building can hear when the club is having fun.
“The sound of 40-50 guys singing full out is a pretty powerful thing, and it’s one of the things that attracted me to male choral music,” said Dr. Steven Demorest, director of the UW Men’s Glee Club.
Tuesday and Thursday nights, the halls of the Music Building reverberate with the men’s voices. Deep basses harmonize with baritones and tenors to form an a cappella sound that can physically shake the room. But it wasn’t always this way.
Until just six years ago, the club was on hiatus. Demorest is unsure exactly what happened in 1953 that caused the choir to leave the UW, but in 2007, he gathered a group of 17 men to reform the Men’s Glee Club.
The choir is a nonaudition, traditional glee club, singing school fight songs and classical music in addition to modern pop. But they are not alone — the Department of Choral Music has three auditioned ensembles and four unauditioned, including an all women’s choir. There are also a number of unaffiliated a cappella groups on campus.
“It’s a singing group, it’s a musical group, but like the marching band it’s also part of the campus community,” Demorest said.
Freshman singer Mason Cole said the fact that it’s an all-male choir leads to a different atmosphere during practices and performances. Cole has been performing in choirs for years, but before coming to college, these were always co-ed.
“It’s really nice to be a part of something that you’ve never been a part of,” Cole said. “I’ve never been a part of a group of all guys. I’ve never been a part of a group that’s had a male director.”
Cole, who performed in school musicals in high school, said he’s aware of the negative stereotype surrounding men in choirs.
“It’s funny because the TA’s will be like, ‘Sing like manly men,’ and then you think about it, and the general stereotype is [that] singing is more like a feminine thing, but it’s really not,” Cole said.
Cole is pursuing a degree in Music Education, a division of the Music Department that Demorest heads. Demorest said a common conversation in his field revolves around stigmas about male choirs in the current U.S. society. While male glee clubs have historical significance in the country, he said today’s society doesn’t often associate male singers with masculinity, as stereotypically defined. Demorest said that in other parts of the world, specifically Eastern Europe, this stigma doesn’t exist.
“It’s an attitude toward men and masculinity in our culture that I think has been really damaging for men,” Demorest said. “It hasn’t allowed them to be different kinds of men. It’s really interesting right now. With men it’s still like if you stray outside of the traditional male roles it’s a problem.”
The stigma is more common in junior high and high school choirs, where boys are still trying to get a grasp on their masculinity. Demorest believes college choirs tend to become more appealing as men become more secure with their identity.
“I think one of the reasons that I get guys in the group that have never really sung before is they kind of get the calling like, ‘I want to do this; I don’t care,’” he said. “They’re starting to develop enough of a sense of, ‘I’m not worried about whether or not I’m a man, I’ve got that figured out. I want to sing.’”
Men’s glee clubs have been popular at U.S. colleges since 1858, when Harvard University established its first choir. Now all-male choirs are popular fixtures on most college campuses.
However, it’s unusual to see all-male choirs in junior high or high schools. Ryan Ellis, a UW graduate student and an associate conductor of the UW Men’s Glee Club, recently began studying how boys’ transitions into puberty can damage their choral career. Specifically, he’s interested in how this change, which he said is “as much psychological as it physiological,” affects young boys in choirs.
Ellis said it was discouraging for many of the boys in these choirs to be reassigned after their voices changed from a male soprano to a lower tenor, baritone, or bass.
“That’s something that all educators, especially choral educators, are trying to become better at: retaining the boys to men’s voices at that age group,” he said.
Ellis said that one of the things the UW Men’s Glee Club accomplishes is creating an environment for men to explore their voices, even if they hadn’t in high school.
“We’re a very accepting group,” Demorest said. “I think we’re accepting of people being different and we come together because we love singing and we love to make music.”
Embracing the “masculine” side of choir is something the choral director encourages.
“My definition of masculinity is ‘things men do,’ and men sing,” he said. “They have forever and they will continue to.”
Senior Keith Bellows has been in the choir since his freshman year at the UW. Bellows said he has been singing his whole life, and while he’s aware of the stigma, it’s never been one he’s thought about.
“I’ve always done it, so it wasn’t a stigma for me,” Bellows said. “I can understand how that evolves in high school more than in college. Especially at the UW, there are a lot of people, so everybody is a lot more open about it. I don’t think it’s really a problem here.”
Bellows said he occasionally misses the varied perspectives and voices women can bring to a choir, but he also enjoys the environment of the all-male choir.
“We understand each other, and you can just hang out and have fun with the guys,” he said. “Yeah, it’s just fun.”
Reach Development Editor Jillian Stampher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JillianStampher
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