This month, the Purdue Varsity Glee Club Choir makes the long trip from West Lafayette, Indiana to Sydney, New South Wales. For Australians, it will be a rare opportunity to experience a truly American tradition.

A notable feature of American campus life, glee clubs are choral ensembles – historically made up of male voices, but increasingly featuring female and non-binary voices – specialising in the singing of a diverse array of music from ecclesiastical to barbershop, the patriotic to the popular.

Purdue University Glee Club Choir. Photo supplied

Purdue’s Varsity Glee Club dates back more than 125 years, back to the early years of a university founded after the American Civil War as a college of science, technology and agriculture. William “Bill” Griffel is the Glee Club’s Director and has held the post since 2008. He also serves as a guest conductor and collaborator with Purdue University Bands and the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra, among others.

“These students rehearse every day and they perform between 20 and 30 times a year,” Griffel tells Limelight. “They tour all across the state and a couple times a year, during their fall or spring breaks, they travel some significant distances in the United States and overseas. It’s worth mentioning that this is something the students volunteer for. They don’t receive academic credit for being in the ensemble or any form of payment.”

Purdue University Glee Club Choir. Photo supplied

Most of the Glee Club’s singers sang in High School, where the glee tradition remains strong. Entry to Purdue’s Glee Club is by audition and invitation, Griffel says.

“We audition every spring and they’re either incoming freshmen, or students who are currently on campus. We also have graduate students wanting to get involved. For example, one of our members is doing his PhD in chemical engineering.”

Though Purdue’s current Glee Club lineup is an all-male affair, Griffel says auditions are open to all genders. “It’s a completely open audition process. Students are auditioned based on their voice. I will take anyone that fits the needs of the ensemble any particular year.”

Purdue Glee Club’s upcoming trip to New Zealand and Australia is the first it has undertaken to the region since the early 1990s. Bringing a large party of young men a great distance is always a challenge, Griffel chuckles.

“Basically, I’m the one who wrangles them all but they’re all pretty experienced, and by now they kinda know what is and what isn’t acceptable. They’re ambassadors for Purdue and they all understand that responsibility very clearly.”

Purdue University Glee Club Choir. Photo supplied

The New Zealand and Australian performances will be conducted according to Purdue tradition with the singers in white tie and tails. Before and after each show, they mingle with the incoming audience, shaking hands and introducing themselves by name.

“That’s one of the big things we’re known for and something that is really important to us,” Griffel says. “It’s really something that helps these young men prepare for their futures. One thing we hear over and over from our alumni is how important it was for them to learn those skills – to stand up and perform; to introduce themselves and speak with people they don’t know, one to one. And most of our audiences seem to really love it, too.”

After every performance, adds Griffel, the singers descend from the stage and present a white carnation – worn in their jacket buttonholes throughout the show – to members of the audience.

The Purdue Glee Club’s New South Wales performances – the first in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Verbrugghen Hall; the second at the Kinross Wolaroi School in Orange – will be a showcase of everything the choir does best, ranging from classical choral to contemporary rock.

“We do jazz, we do rock, we do barbershop as well,” say Griffel. “We pride ourselves on having a program that can be appealing to all audiences. A little bit of everything for everybody. But whatever it is, they sing it at a very, very high level.”

The Purdue University Glee Club Choir performs at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 18 May and Kinross Wolaroi School, Orange on 20 May.

Attendance at the performance is by donation at door, with all proceeds going to Australian community-based projects. Please register here.

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