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'Always a Statesman': Alumnus looks back as esteemed men's chorus turns 50

| Max Athorn

The Singing Statesmen was formed by Morris D. Hayes upon his arrival at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1966. At the time, women greatly outnumbered the men in the UW-Eau Claire concert choir, and so Mr. Hayes’s first task at the university was to recruit more men to sing.

“The first thing that I did was I developed a Men’s Glee Club,” Hayes later recalled.  “I went to all the fraternities and into the dorms. And I said to the fraternities, ‘If you send me your men up here to try out, I’ll come out and help you with your fraternity songs … and it worked. It was amazing. After one year, I had built two men’s glee clubs.” ("Morris Hayes," NAMM.org, National Association of Music Merchants Inc., 6 May 2004. Web, 1 March 2016.)

I can only imagine what it must have looked like for then 48-year-old Morris Hayes to move from house to house, asking the leaders of various fraternities what songs they had to sing, and then individually charming the participants into joining his choir. It is a humble beginning, but a great image for the genesis of The Singing Statesmen.

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What began as a sales pitch to fraternities to strengthen the balance of the university’s concert choir has evolved into a 50-year institution. The Singing Statesmen has offered memorable musical experiences to hundreds of men, and it has built a transcendent community of singers that spans generations. 

The Singing Statesmen have enjoyed a great continuity of leadership, as there have been only three conductors in the choir’s history: Mr. Hayes held the position from the group’s inception until 1987. Bruce McInnes followed from 1988-90, and Dr. Gary Schwartzhoff has been the conductor since 1991.  During the 50-year history, the group has visited 14 countries and performed for dignitaries including President George H.W. Bush.

The choir has appeared at national conventions of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in Nashville and New York City, as well as numerous divisional ADCDA conventions, most recently in 2014, and Wisconsin Music Educators Association conventions, most recently in 2015.  In 1986 the ensemble performed at the Intercollegiate Men’s Chorus seminar, and it has returned to that prestigious stage every decade since, hosting the event in Eau Claire in 1996 and 2006, and then performing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in early 2016.

The Singing Statesmen have commissioned works by many contemporary choral composers such as Ola Gjeilo, James Mulholland, Moses Hogan and Z. Randall Stroope. It has also enjoyed dedications from many others and performed numerous world premieres.

Alumni of the ensemble have gone on to enjoy successful careers in music performance, composition, arranging and education. The history of The Singing Statesmen now includes dozens of music educators sending young musicians to UW-Eau Claire, establishing a legacy of choral music that will continue for years to come.

Without a doubt, The Singing Statesmen have had five decades of impact on the university and surrounding community, but the unseen and uncelebrated impact on its generations of alumni goes beyond lingering memories of vocal warm-ups, classic repertoire and performance experiences.  When my friends and I recall our college years at UW-Eau Claire, memories of what it was like to be Statesmen are emblematic of our entire university experience, and the learning we did in that classroom has shaped our whole lives, not just our futures in music.

One of the oft-recited Dr. Schwartzhoff sayings from my time at UW-Eau Claire is that there is “beauty in the art of contrast.”  That’s certainly true in my memory of the music that we made together, but it goes further as I reflect on the uniqueness of The Singing Statesmen. Members of The Singing Statesmen are serious musicians with great reverence for the music we make, intermixed with moments irreverence and silliness.  In fact, the image of Morris Hayes conducting fraternity songs juxtaposed against the recordings of early Statesmen performances of Brahms and Bruckner encapsulates a choral tradition that 50 years of singers can understand:  Stoic, but playful. Understated, but bombastic. Sensitive, but prideful.

One of the most recent times I had the opportunity to see the Singing Statesmen live in concert was in February 2011, when the group performed at a festival at Bethel University. It was in my reflection of that concert that I fully realized how impactful my choral experience was to my life as a musician and as a man.

As I wrote to the Statesmen in 2011:

“You were singing the ‘Ave Dulcissima Maria’ by Morten Lauridsen. The Statesmen sang it my senior year. I loved the piece, although I wouldn't say it was one of the three or four pieces. I probably hadn't thought about it since I handed in my folder. Still, when you started singing it, I felt myself floating into the middle of the fourth row of tenors. I was breathing with you. But I wasn't singing along. For me, I was back in my senior year. I could sense Sean Fogarty next to me and see Jeff Parks's combed concert-hair in front of me. And when you got to the ‘Oh, Maria!’ in the middle of the piece, it hit me all at once. On one hand, I was in my head holding that very difficult ‘E’-vowel trying not to wuss out on the high notes and keep the line spinning through the end of the phrase. But, emotionally, it was a flood of smells, tastes and images of friends and loved ones from my own time in college. … It doesn't go away.

“And so I realized last night, ‘Always a Statesman’ isn't just about the community that is always waiting to welcome you back on stage to sing ‘Hail University.’  It's potentially a gift that is infinitely more personal. It may have only been in my head, but for seven minutes during the Lauridsen last night, I was absolutely a Statesman.”

I believe it now, as much as ever: “Always a Statesman” is not a reference to the way that we are welcomed on stage or in HFA 143 when we return to campus.  “Always a Statesman” is the feeling in our stomachs when we reach for the radio to crank it up when the Biebl “Ave Maria” comes on NPR.  “Always a Statesman” represents a willingness to reject tired stereotypes of masculinity and express love and appreciation freely to one another. “Always a Statesman” is all of the ways that, as we grow into ourselves as adults, we embrace lineage and history and find strength in community and tradition.

The Singing Statesmen made me a better man, as I believe it has for 50 years of others. I am proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the choir, I am poised to support the group as a passionate alumnus and advocate, and I am excited to watch and listen to what is ahead for the next 50 years.