Show stopped: Format issues lead SD to abandon state show choir competition
It was three years and done for the South Dakota High School Activities Association state show choir competition.
South Dakota started a state championship event for the singing style that blends dance, band, choir and storytelling and puts them into one format. But it's also a style of fine arts that requires a lot of time and resources, a long set of rehearsals and some extreme dedication from students, directors, parents and supporters.
But there won't be a state show choir competition this year. The event — scheduled for April 6 at Sioux Falls O'Gorman—was canceled, and the days of crowning a show choir state champion are over.
In the end, the SDHSAA's championship event was marked by a lack of participating schools, disagreement over what should be the state's rules, and the dominance on stage by a few schools. In 2018, when the eventual final state competition was held in Mitchell, nine schools competed in two classes for the title of state champion. There were six AA schools and three in Class A.
Brooks Bowman, who took the SDHSAA assistant executive director for fine arts position in 2015, said the state show choir format was probably too big of an ask for South Dakota.
"My first year stepping in, we were on a steep learning curve," said Bowman, a former band director in Kimball. "Putting together a state competition was a huge task and we did learn a lot. One of the things I learned after it is maybe the competition wasn't the best format for our state."
While almost every state has schools participating in show choir, it's not an event that is commonly contested for a state championship. A Daily Republic analysis showed that four states have a state-sanctioned meet like South Dakota did — either by the state's activities association or by their music educators' association — where a state champion is crowned. Two more states have state-sanctioned festivals where choirs receive ratings for their performances.
There's seven states with an all-state format, which is what South Dakota intends to move to in 2020. The format, if approved, will have more than 50 students from across the state selected from auditions to participate in a three-day festival held in conjunction with state jazz band, capped with a performance of a choreographed series of songs. It will be open to all high school students in South Dakota, whether they have a show choir or not.
It's a bittersweet change for Mitchell High School Vocal Director Jen Randall, who directs the MHS show choir, "Friend de Coup," which won all three Class AA state titles. But she said it's a better move for the entire state and show choir supporters.
"We know that there are students who are adept at singing and dancing and for whatever reason, their school doesn't offer show choir," Randall said. "With this, we can give them a chance to be a part of it."
Disagreement over rules
Randall said that Mitchell benefitted in two big ways from the previous setup: on stage and in showing off the community. Mitchell hosted the state show choir event in 2018, and was slated to do so again in 2021 and 2022.
"I certainly was not neutral about it," Randall said. "Not only were we winning, but we were also hosting and we were likely to host many times again. It was a money-making thing for us. Not by a lot, but it was."
Randall said she was part of a show choir advisory subcommittee with the SDHSAA that was discussing the best route forward.
"We were hopeful that it would spur on more competitive groups and it did not," Randall said. "We had the same basic number of groups that we've always had."
When it came down to lobbying about whether the state competition should stay or go, Randall said she wasn't going to hold up what was in the best interest of the state's show choir landscape.
"I said I would go whichever direction most of the directors were going, and there was a clear majority toward going away from the state competition," she said.
The state competition had eight schools in 2016, and 10 schools in 2017, but never included three classes as initially intended. In 2018, three schools in Class A (Elk Point-Jefferson, Groton Area and Vermillion) and six in Class AA (Aberdeen Central, Harrisburg, Mitchell, Sioux Falls O'Gorman, Sioux Falls Roosevelt and Sioux Falls Washington) competed, with no Class B schools involved.
Some of the tension over the state show choir format started in 2017, Bowman said. At that time, the SDHSAA Board of Directors approved rule changes to limit the show choir season for participating schools. Those rule changes called for a five-day period to conduct tryouts, from the end of the state competition to the end of the school year in the spring. No competitive practices would be allowed after the state competition, and no practices could be held in the summer months of June, July and August, except for one five-day camp in August.
Starting on the first day of school in the fall, show choirs would be limited to two hours of rehearsal time per week until mid-October. From there until the state competition in early April, schools would be limited to eight hours of rehearsal time per week.
"We did that in order to make the playing field a bit more level for schools competing, because we have schools that rehearse almost year-round," Bowman said.
A number of schools were upset with the SDHSAA rules regarding restricting the season schedule, and some schools said they wouldn't be able to continue competing.
Bowman said leaving the rule in place wouldn't have left enough Class AA schools for their own class, shrinking the number of classes to two.
"We would have had AA schools in Class A, and the Class A schools didn't want that," Bowman said. "Obviously, those schools aren't in the same classification as far as size or resources. We were really left with the only option of discontinuing the state show choir competition."
For a scheduling example, Mitchell's show choir—which has 54 singer-dancers and 13 band members this year—begins practice in early October, and generally practices three times a week during the season until the end of March, when Mitchell generally concludes its competition season with its dinner theater shows. The state show choir competition was held on a Saturday, generally in early April.
Randall said she doesn't fault the SDHSAA because there needed to be ground rules if the state was going to award a state title. But she said the more that possible rule changes were discussed, the more that show choir leaders debated just scrapping the entire state title format.
"The concerns that all of us had were really that the state association didn't understand the way we run things from a show choir standpoint. That's not really their fault," Randall said. "We all compete nationally. The Sioux Falls schools and Mitchell are competing out of state, and if you tie our hands with how often you can rehearse, that makes it difficult."
In addition to having 10 schools or fewer competing, the final team results at the state competition was similar from year to year.
In Class A, Groton was the inaugural state champion in 2016, followed by Vermillion in 2017 and 2018. Vermillion was the Class A top show band each of the three years of sanctioned competition.
In the case of Class AA, Mitchell and Sioux Falls Roosevelt were the state champions and runner-up, respectively, in each of the three years, with Sioux Falls Washington taking third place in 2017 and 2018.
Randall, in her third year at Mitchell, said she never dealt with any animosity from other Class AA schools regarding Friend de Coup's annual success at the state event.
"From our standpoint, it was very competitive," Randall said. "With the Sioux Falls schools, we never thought, 'Oh, we have this wrapped up.' For the schools I don't think it had much of an impact."
Bowman said there was "a slight lack of desire" for the Sioux Falls schools to be competing against each other.
"They really support each other in show choir. They weren't all that fond of competing against each other at a state competition," Bowman said.
Randall said Friend de Coup is better suited to compete in national level events, which are also known as corporate events, in part because it competes on a regional basis throughout the Midwest. For example, Friend de Coup caps its traveling schedule on March 9 in Kansas City at the Heart of America competition, which will include show choirs from nine states. In 2010, Friend de Coup won the grand champion honors at the Fame event in Orlando, Florida, which is right up there with a national title in show choir, Randall said.
"We really prefer to do things like that," she said. "Those national events are really big in show choir."
The change also costs Mitchell some chance to host SDHSAA events, as well, at the Mitchell School District Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2017. Mitchell is on deck to host all-state band on March 26-28, 2020, and will host state jazz band in 2021, which could also potentially include the revamped all-state show choir format.
While not a big-ticket event for the SDHSAA, state show choir fared well. During the 2017 event, it brought $11,670 in revenue, while expenditures totaled $7,611.58. In 2018, state show choir brought in $12,689 in revenue, with $5,361 in expenses.
Mitchell hosted the 2018 event, and was in line to host again in future years. Mitchell Activities Director Cory Aadland said he will do what he can to have Mitchell host the all-state show choir and jazz band event as often as possible.
An improved outlook
Bowman, who joined the SDHSAA when the state show choir championship format was in the works, said it's his personal opinion that the all-state format to recognize show choir is a better method for the state of South Dakota. It still will need final approval from the SDHSAA Board of Directors this spring to be implemented for 2020.
The proposal put forward by the SDHSAA show choir subcommittee calls for the event to be held in conjunction with all-state jazz band, in a facility with four rehearsal rooms, two large dressing rooms, and a fine arts-focused performance hall that seats at least 1,000 people. The event would be open to any student grades 9-12 who is a regular member of a school's show choir or vocal program. An estimated 52 singers would be accepted, with 13 singers per voice. Students would submit video recordings of pre-determined choreography and vocal selections and auditions would be due on March 1 each year.
At the state event, a choreographer, vocal clinician and an accompanist would work the event with students, while an adult band would be used to accompany the choir. Under the advisement of the clinician and the choreographer, participating students would be responsible for their own costumes and preparing their own hair and makeup.
Randall said some of the benefits of the all-state format include allowing students to show off their individual talents to qualify for the state show choir, and it looks good on a resume, whether students intend to pursue music in college or not.
"From an education and a vocal instruction standpoint, the first concern is for having the best possible experience," she said. "Getting to audition and putting yourself out there, that's something our kids should be really excited about. ... It's really an individual achievement, which is different because show choir is such a group achievement."
Bowman said he believes South Dakota is getting closer to having a better fit to show off the state's show choir talent.
"It's quite unfortunate that we had to cancel the competition, but in hindsight, I think the all-state format will be a better option for us in the long term," Bowman said.
The competition season so far for Friend de Coup
Jan. 19—Millard West (Neb.)—fourth place
Jan. 26—Omaha Westside (Neb.)—fifth place. Won Best Closer award.
Feb. 9—Urbandale, Iowa—fifth place.