This summer, while athletes prepare for the Olympic Games in London, music lovers are getting ready for the "Olympics of Choral Music." Officially called the World Choir Games, this Herculean singing competition features hundreds of choirs from around the world. This year is the first time it will be held in the U.S. — in Cincinnati, starting Wednesday.
Catherine Roma, conductor of women's choir MUSE, says her philosophy is more about musical excellence than competition. After witnessing the 2010 Choral Olympics in China, she saw something that surprised her.
"Kids were completely excited just to be part of it," Roma says. "If they got a bronze, they were yelling and they were so excited. Bronze, silver, gold — it didn't matter."
The games started 12 years ago, and since then, choirs have also competed in Austria, Korea and Germany. Organizers say Cincinnati was chosen from among 20 other North American cities because of its venues, the city's historic May Festival and the reputation of the Cincinnati Symphony & Pops orchestras.
The May Festival Chorus will take center stage at opening ceremonies. While renowned groups get ready for the 11-day event, lesser-known choirs have spent months preparing, too.
In a music room crammed with large blue, gold and red trophies, Director Jeff Clark warms up the Fairfield High School Choraliers. Forty-eight students in the Southwestern Ohio community are competing in "show choir," one of two new categories for the World Choir Games.
"In many ways, show choir and pop music does go against the grain as far as your traditional, classic choral styles," Clark says. "It's not your Mozart. It's not your Beethoven. It's not the Brahms."
Clark says the hit television show Glee has helped raise awareness of choral music and music education — despite the program's unrealistic portrayals of life in the practice room and the high school stage.
When the site of the 2012 World Choir Games was announced three years ago, Cincinnati's Southern Gateway Chorus decided it would sign up in the other new category: "barbershop style." Vocal coach Jim Henry travels from Missouri to help the 80-member group of men and boys develop a sound true to the style's deep American roots.
"Singing is fun anyway but singing well is really fun," Henry says. "But, you know, people will sing in cars. They sing in the shower. That's a self-expression that is, maybe, the most visceral form of self-expression."
This sample of American culture is a small part of the international competition featuring 360 choirs from 48 countries. Along with European, Asian and African choral styles, other performances include Iranians singing folklore and Indonesians singing American spirituals.
The motto of the World Choir Games is "Singing together brings nations together."
But for the youngest member of Southern Gateway Chorus, 11-year-old Bernie Reen, it's even simpler than that. "I think everybody should sing, definitely, because it makes you happy," Reen says.