Traditions run deep in UNI men's glee club

The University of Northern Iowa Varsity Men's Glee Club, founded in 1960, is one of the oldest functioning student organizations on campus.

"We're fortunate to have such a rich history and supportive community," said John Wiles, director of the glee club.

Men's glee club
Scenes from last year's Varsity Men's Glee Club Christmas Variety Show.

The tradition and history are evident to members of the glee club from the moment they walk into their first rehearsal. Glee club member Jacob Ferguson recalled his first rehearsal, where he was surprised to see alumni.

"The alumni involvement really does speak to the tradition and the commitment that the members of the club have," he said.

It makes sense that former glee club members would still be heavily involved -- the Varsity Men's Glee Club lists tradition as one of it's core values, along with excellence and camaraderie. These are values that the club's 100-plus members don't take lightly.

"Every day in rehearsal, we see these values," said Ferguson. "I think that's what makes the glee club such a unique thing -- it is excellent -- and that's what it really comes down to. The tradition happens, the camaraderie happens and we provide an excellent, excellent show."

Fellow glee club member Henry Nguyen echoed Ferguson's sentiment. "It's a great show, not just a good show," he said. "We are great, we are excellent."

While the members of glee club do spend a lot of time rehearsing to ensure every show is excellent, what is arguably their most popular act is the club's annual Christmas variety show. Since 1988, every variety show has been sold out.

While the Christmas show and other on-campus shows are an exciting experience, another aspect of glee club that excites members is the opportunity to travel abroad with the group. The Varsity Men's Glee Club goes on tour every year, and every two years they tour Europe.

Both Ferguson and Nguyen experienced their first trip abroad with the group when the glee club toured Germany and Austria last year, where they performed at various landmarks across the countries.

Ferguson recalled visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp, and then performing Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria" in a church built in memory of victims of the Holocaust.

"Singing that song in a church was probably the most profoundly, musically spiritual moment I've ever had," he said.

Men's glee club
Members of UNI's Varsity Men's Glee Club.

But he also learned a lot. "We started learning about World War II when I was in fourth or fifth grade and that was words on a page to me," he said. "Traveling with the glee club, singing in these places and seeing these sites made it real. It took the history that I had shoved to the back of my mind and given no thought to and showed me, 'This is where this happened, and this is why it matters.'"

Like Ferguson, the experience for Nguyen was more than an emotional experience. "It was a life-changing trip," he said. "I didn't believe I would have the opportunity to do something like that, and that was the moment of truth. It became more than just being on this trip with the glee club, it became more of, 'if you want to do it, you can do it.'"

It's not just the trips abroad that affect members so much, the entire glee club experience proves to be beneficial in more ways than one.

"It's definitely helped me grow up a little bit," said Ferguson. "I've learned a lot about being a good person, I've developed professionalism. If I had not joined the glee club, I would be in an entirely different place."

While this personal growth is a powerful thing to experience, the most powerful thing about the glee club seems to be the connection between all the members.

"When we sing, I can feel the group. The choir and the conductor, we become in sync," said Nguyen. "That sort of thing makes me tremble with excitement."

"I'm convinced that what people enjoy most about watching the glee club is not the high level of music making, but the sense that the group truly enjoys each other," said Wiles.

"Everyone in general has a sense of wanting to belong to something, and to say that I belong to the UNI Varsity Men's Glee Club, to me, is a pretty strong statement," said Nguyen. "It means to be a part of something bigger than what I am. It's a very powerful thing to be a part of."