November 30, 7:30 p.m.
For much of the year, Hall Auditorium sits empty. Save for the philosophy department that’s relegated to the attic, the building has no other regular inhabitants. The green felt seats collect dust, the hinges on the glass doors rust.
Tonight, though, Hall Auditorium has a line that stretches down the sidewalk outside. People brave the early-winter cold to get their tickets.
They’re here to see the Miami Men’s Glee Club.
The tuxedo-clad army files onto the stage from both sides, ascending the risers and moving toward the center until they reach their spot. They’re packed onto the ancient risers like well-dressed sardines.
A few songs into the concert, the choir begins “Quatre petites prières de saint François d’Assise,” or “Four small prayers of Saint Francis of Assisi,” by Francis Poulenc.
Ancient religious works aren’t new to the club. One of the group’s traditional songs is Franz Biebl’s arrangement of “Ave Maria,” and they usually perform material from at least one religious text per concert.
The Poulenc is different, though. The club only sings two out of the four movements, and they only last about four minutes total. As the title suggests, the prayers are indeed “small.”
The text and music that overlays the music showcases the club’s reserved and pensive side. The bass notes are present and provide foundation for the rest of the sound, but the notes aren’t heavy.
The sound floats. It builds to climactic and full moments, and effortlessly softens thereafter.
The applause for the piece is silent; the audience is in such awe that all they can muster is the clapping.
That sentiment of awe carries a question: How do they do it?
The Miami University Men’s Glee Club was founded in 1907. It’s among the oldest organizations on Miami’s campus.
The group consists of 100 singers divided into four sections: Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Baritone and Bass. Most of them are undergraduate students, but the group is open to anyone affiliated with the university.
Many of the singers aren’t music students, either. Only about 10% of the group studies music, and the rest come from just about everywhere else in the university. In that way, it resembles a standard student organization rather than a university music group.
“We all have different backgrounds and different experiences that allow us to hear and feel the music differently,” said Colin Evans, a junior in the Tenor 2 section. “We all care about the songs, even those that aren’t our favorite, and we want to do the best that we can.”
The group members refer to one another as “Brothers in Song,” a moniker that comes from one of the club’s traditional songs, “Brothers, Sing On!”. The brotherhood runs deep enough that on club-related email correspondence, everyone signs off with “YBIS”—Your Brother in Song.
“Our ability to familiarize with each brother is astounding,” said Jordan Bicknell, a senior Tenor 2, “and it’s because we feel for every member of this group and because we have each other’s back that this group is able to produce such powerful music.”
Jeremy DeWayne Jones, the group’s director, has the chief responsibility of bringing so many guys from so many different walks of life together to create musical excellence.
The group has had a tradition of excellence for decades, but Jones has taken the group to a different level.
Since Jones came to Miami in 2011, the group has traveled abroad to Western Europe, performed at a slew of regional and national conferences, gone on a weeklong winter tour every year and recorded two CDs under a professional record label. The group is preparing for an upcoming tour through Italy in summer 2019.
It’s that tradition that infects every member of the group.
“So much of it is about being there to see Club in action,” said Casey Newton, a first-year baritone. “It’s hard to actually explain, but seeing how the group is in rehearsal and being a part of that rehearsal gives me a sense of duty, almost. I want to be good because I know that’s what’s expected of me.”
October 23, 2:48 p.m.
The Glee Club’s Tuesday afternoon rehearsals sit in a “sweet spot” of sorts, for singing during the day.
Early-morning rehearsals come with a low, husky “morning voice” and tiredness. Rehearsal too late in the evening runs the risk of people falling asleep.
Rehearsal starts in two minutes. Room 222 in Presser Hall buzzes with energy from nearly 100 guys chatting.
The room itself isn’t special. Two doors in the back left and right corners lead into a room painted a bland yellow. Light pours in from large windows along the long side walls. One hundred black chairs with 100 desk attachments sit in two circles, one inner and one outer, 50 chairs each.
Two pianos, a grand and a baby grand, sit at the center of the circle. Jones finishes a conversation with a student, takes a seat at the baby grand and plays a B-major chord. He cocks his head, almost expressionless.
It’s time to get to work.
The guys start to find their way to their corners of the circle. Basses in the back left, baritones back right, tenor 1s front left and tenor 2s front right.
“Lip trills,” Jones says, looking around the room. “Buzz.”
“BrrrrRRRRrrrrRRRRrrrr.” One hundred pairs of lips buzz up and down the lower half of the B-major scale for two seconds.
Jones moves with haste up one half-step to C major.
“BrrrrRRRRrrrrRRRRrrrr.” Another two seconds.
Now up another half-step to C-sharp.
“BrrrrRRRRrrrrRRRRrrrr.” Two more.
Jones continues up in half-step increments, never spending more than those two seconds going up and down each scale before two quick hits on the piano change the key.
The choir goes all the way up to B major again, one octave higher than when they’d started.
Before the choir finishes the last descent of the lip trill, Jones stands up, points his finger and moves it outward and downward in front of him.
“OOOOOOOoooooooooo,” he sings, starting very high and bending the pitch endlessly downward.
The choir follows. The pitch descends so low it might as well go through the tile floor.
Jones crouches, still pointing his finger. This time, he scoops it upward, and the choir follows his motion, starting the pitch low and bending it up into the stratosphere of its falsetto.
“B major, Jon,” Jones says, gesturing to Jon Sanford, the club’s piano accompanist. Sanford outlines the notes of the B-major chord: B, F-sharp, E-flat and B again, up one octave.
This exercise doesn’t have an official name. Everyone just refers to it as “One one one one one.”
The basses start on the low B. “One one one one….”
The tenor 2s join on the F-sharp. “One one one one….”
The baritones join on the E-flat. “One one one one….”
The tenor 1s complete the chord with the high B. “One one one one….”
“Oooooooooooooone.” The room rings with a perfect B major.
Jones cuts them off and cues them in.
Cut off. Cue.
Grins bounce around the circle of faces. They’re raring to go. Even on the simplest of chords, everyone sees the prowess, the potential in this group. Every one of them wants to seize it.
Jones finally cuts them off.
“Welcome, gents, happy Tuesday. Go ahead and pull out the fourth movement of the Poulenc,” Jones says.
They’re singing the Poulenc mostly because it looks and sounds “proper.” Jones picked it for the national conference performance in March. Apparently that crowd of mostly choral directors is going to “eat this up.”
The group had performed movement three of the composition at its fall concert the week before. As everyone turns to the fourth movement, some eyes shoot to the new notes, some to the new French lyrics they’ll have to learn.
“What key is it in?” Jones asks the group. Only about 10% of the guys in the group are music majors, and only about 10% of the group answers, “G minor.”
“Let’s do a little sightreading,” Jones says with a smile. This is the first step in learning a new piece, a blind read-through to get a feel for how a piece sounds. “Loo loo loo.”
The group always starts learning a song on some syllable like “loo” or “doo” or “dee” in place of the lyrics.
“You’re not worthy of the text yet,” Jones has told the group before.
So for the next few rehearsals, it’ll be “loo loo loo.” Music only.
November 1, 3:38 p.m.
The chairs in Presser 222 are arranged in two rectangles today. Basses in the back left, baritones back right, tenor 1s front left and tenor 2s front right.
Jones is out of his usual perch at the front center of the ensemble. He sits off to the side by the baby grand piano, looking at his score for the Poulenc.
Front and center stands Jonah Hirsch, a junior from the baritone section. He speaks French, so Jones asked him to lead the group through the next stage of preparation: learning the lyrics.
Jonah started class by handing everyone a brown sheet of paper with a bunch of crudely-written syllables on it (“GWARH,” “SOO,” “PEE,” etc.). He’d prepared a diet version of the International Phonetic Alphabet to aid the learning process.
Jones has Jonah take the group to the final four bars first.
“All right,” Jonah begins, “so the first syllable there on the ‘A-I-N’ is ‘eh.’”
He gestures to the group to repeat after him, and they follow with every silly variation of “eh” possible.
“OK, so it’s ‘eh,’ Jonah says. “The next syllable is just ‘see.’”
The group follows with goofy impressions of 1920s wise guys going “Ehhhh see.”
Jonah tries valiantly not to burst into laughter. He manages to hold it in and muster out an “Ooooookay.”
He finishes out the four-bar phrase, the final product sounding like “Eh see swah teel,” two times over. Jones has the group put their progress to music, which carries rehearsal to about 3:50 p.m.
“Here’s what we can do now,” Jones said. “We could put this away because we’ve done a fair bit of it and work on something else. Or we could just knock it out with the 20 minutes we have left and have the words under our belt.”
He puts it to a vote. The guys look around at each other as they decide how to vote. Everyone, deep down, wants to stop and call it a day. But they also see Jones before them.
This is for nationals, they think. We have to do it at some point, and we have to do it well. So well that people are brought to tears and open mouths at our music. And it’s not like we can’t do it. We’ve done just as good before, and we’ll do it even better this time.
“Who wants to keep going?”
A hundred hands shoot into the air.
November 15, 2:58 p.m.
Two weeks until the concert.
For the fall concert, the club was “on book,” meaning members held sheet music as they performed. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal. But for nearly everyone in the group, using music at a performance is seen as a crutch reserved for lesser choirs.
The University of Michigan’s glee club doesn’t use music. Neither does the University of Kentucky. Or Baylor University. Even the church choir down the street doesn’t use music.
“We’re better than that” gets uttered at least twice a rehearsal as of late. It’s crunch time.
After the usual “one one one one one” warmup, Jones walks over to his MacBook Air that’s hooked up to the room’s sound system and plays a long, low note. He gestures to the choir to match the pitch on “do” (do, re, mi, etc.).
The exercise is designed to get the group used to the key of the fourth movement of the Poulenc: G minor.
Everyone, save for a few tenor 1s who can’t sing that low, hangs out on the low G. A few looks pass across the room as the group tries to match pitch and create one voice from a hundred.
“Tenors,” Jones says. “Move to sol.”
“Sooooooool,” the tenors follow. The sound shakes a bit, though. They’re not quite matching.
“Back to do,” Jones says.
“Match better, and go back to sol.”
“Soooooooool.” There it is.
Jones looks out over the choir. “Basses and baritones, keep holding. Take a breath when you need to. Tenors, descend.”
“Fa, mi, re, doooooooooo,” the tenors sing.
“Go to mi, tenors,” Jones says.
“Now to the minor me.”
The tenors move back up.
This is what rehearsal will consist of for the next two weeks. Music. Words. Tuning. Music. Words. Tuning.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
There’s nothing any of those 100 guys would rather be doing. They look around at each other, and through the Patagonia sweaters, duck boots, Cleveland Browns jerseys and blue jeans, they see brothers.
They see excellence.
“Welcome, gents. Happy Thursday.”