The Amherst College Glee Club, which has been open only to tenor and bass vocal parts since its founding in 1865, expanded to all voice parts this semester. Glee Club has been united with Chorus — previously a separate soprano and alto ensemble created when the college became coed in the 1970s — into a single Glee Club which began group rehearsals the first week of this semester.
Despite an long and illustrious history as the fourth oldest college glee club in the country — including numerous world tours and a performance at the White House in 1920 — Glee Club has been struggling to attract members in recent years, its numbers lowering significantly after a year of online programming during the pandemic. The merging with Chorus, which saw a resurgence in membership last semester, was presented as a way to save the historic Glee Club and ensure that its tradition would carry forward, said Glee Club’s newly-elected co-president Ryan Kyle ’23.
Inclusivity was also a driving factor for the merger, said Director of the Choral Music Program Dr. Arianne Abela, who noted that her predecessor had plans to merge the ensembles for many years, with the recent decline in numbers providing an opportunity to finally make the change. “[S]tudents, particularly students who are trans or non-binary, struggle to find a choral home when there is a distinct division,” she wrote in a statement to The Student. “Also, the legacy of the Glee Club did not belong to ALL the students, which I felt should be shared among the ensemble. The Glee Club has such a rich history, and it should be something that every choral student can take part in.”
With the support of the former presidents of Glee Club, Chorus, and Concert Choir — all of which fall under the umbrella of the Music Department’s Choral Society — Abela made the decision to restructure the Choral Society this semester. In addition to the former Chorus and Glee Club now practicing and performing as one Glee Club, all members of the Concert Choir (a more selective soprano, alto, tenor, bass [SATB] group) are now required to also participate in Glee Club. Weekly practice times have been reduced for Glee Club as well, in an effort to increase membership in the group. The Madrigal Singers, the only other ensemble within Choral Society, will continue to function independently of the Concert Choir and the new Glee Club.
The response from members of the original Glee Club and Chorus to the new change has been generally positive, with Haoran Tong ’23, the current president of Concert Choir and a member of Glee Club, reporting that “there was overwhelming support of this decision.”
Tong spoke about the challenges that decreasing interest from tenor and bass singers had created: “Male singers are pretty rare on campus, and we were basically scrambling finding resources among the acapella groups.”
Patrick Spoor ’23, president of Glee Club before its merger with Chorus, has seen the club shrink over the years from the healthy size it was in 2018, their first year in the club. They noted that they had transitioned from singing bass to singing tenor and bass parts, “not because my voice got any higher, but because we needed them.”
Spoor added that becoming coed is not out of the ordinary for historically all-male college singing groups like Glee Club. “Yale’s already made their Glee Club coed, for instance. And we talked about that, too … Maybe it’s our turn. It’s not really a fantastical idea.”
“[L]ooking at colleges across the country that started out as all-male institutions,” Abela echoed, “[t]hese places decided to create mixed gender ensembles a long time ago.”
Part of the motivation to merge the Glee Club and Chorus was also to promote a more equitable distribution of alumni donations. Despite being one of the smallest groups, Glee Club receives more alumni donations than any of the other vocal ensembles within the Choral Society. This resulted in a “situation where the Glee Club, with the smallest number of members, received the most funding,” said Tong. By expanding Glee Club, alumni donations earmarked for Glee Club can be spent on more members of the Choral Society. Tong believes this change will extend “the influence of every cent of [alumni donations].”
Bridging the divides that had previously existed between ensembles was another goal of the clubs’ merger. Julissa Tello ’23, Glee Club’s other newly elected co-president, said that “making [Glee] more accessible for all genders and singing levels” has improved Choral Society from a “community standpoint,” which students said lacked a common culture before the restructuring.
With little interaction between Chorus and Glee Club before the merger, Spoor said that Chorus “felt like a separate entity.” While Chorus and Glee Club previously performed songs together, they did not spend significant time practicing together.
“One of [the problems] was that we don’t sing together. We think there was very little time allocated, before restructuring for the entire group, [for] the whole 80-ish of us to actually sing a song,” said Tong. Now, Tong hopes that “as a community, we can sing together and bring our voices to the forefront.”
Tello noted that “Choral Society has always been a strong part of [Amherst’s] history and culture.” By combining Glee Club and Chorus, a more “inclusive” and “cohesive ensemble” has been created, she said.
The co-presidents of the new Glee Club, who for the first time in the club’s history are both women, also think that the larger club will in itself help with recruitment. When people enter a larger group, “it’s a bit less intimidating to join,” said Tello. “There’s strength in numbers, essentially.”
Kyle hopes the larger group will help the choral experience feel less overwhelming for newer singers and help keep new members active. “Part of the problem with retention is [that with] the people who do end up not doing it, it is sometimes because they’re frustrated that they come in and … [they’re] thrust into learning all this music, and it can be kind of overwhelming. But if you’re surrounded by other people who know what they’re doing, it’s a lot less overwhelming,” Kyle said.
Before the change, “students who were new to singing had to join a tenor/bass or soprano/alto ensembles with fewer voices,” Abela elaborated, “which meant inexperienced singers were thrown into situations with few people on a part. It did not really make sense and that lack of security for singers contributed to the attrition in the ensembles.”
Nevertheless, Kyle acknowledged that some members of the original Glee Club expressed sadness after the restructuring was announced. Some “will miss the experience of being in the tenor-bass group,” she said. But as co-presidents of the Glee Club, she and Tello are working to build community within the large group. The presidents have created family groups within the club to help people find friends in the larger community, and optional practices will be held weekly for each vocal section.
Most hesitation about the restructuring has been expressed by members of Concert Choir who were not originally Glee Club members. All members of the Concert Choir are now required to be members of the Glee Club, with the intention to create more unity within the larger Choral Society. Brett Donshik ’25 said that those who were in Concert Choir “tend to have the most issues with this [change] because a lot of us don’t really have the time for the second club choral group.”
Woohyun Kwen ’25, a member of Concert Choir, says that she thinks the incorporation of all voices into the Glee Club is “really, really great,” but that she has chosen to give up Concert Choir and sing only for the Glee Club. Singing only for the Concert Choir was no longer an option, and the time commitment is too much for her to participate in both.
Abela noted that the change follows the structure at several other colleges, including schools where she has taught before. “I know some students feel that the rehearsals are longer for Concert Choir, but this is actually how most schools, including Smith College and Mount Holyoke [College], structure their choral ensembles,” she said.
Even with some mixed feelings over the change, after a year of Zoom programming, members are excited for a semester that won’t be restricted by stringent Covid protocols. This spring, Choral Society will sing at Commencement and go on tour for the first time in four years. In May, when the Choral Society travels to perform at the New Orleans Music Festival, it will “probably be the first time we actually use the name Glee as a coed designator,” said Tong, “which is really exciting.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 25 to include a response from Dr. Arianne Abela that was received after publication, which contained important information on the context and reasons for the merger that was not available to the students interviewed for the original article.