We are excited to welcome former Virginia Glee Club conductor Bruce Tammen (1997-2001) back to Charlottesville for our Four Free concert April 1st, featuring the Virginia Women’s Chorus, the Roanoke College Oriana Singers, and Bruce’s current choir, Chicago Men’s A Cappella.

Here, Bruce relays the story of his hiring by the VGC and the inspiration the Glee Club provided to the founders of Chicago Men’s A Cappella:

“When I arrived at UVA in 1996, I had never experienced student self-governance, and I was appalled by the very idea of it.  As I was by the whole idea of a single-sex group.  My interview with the search committee, in December of that year, was hardly reassuring– they made certain demands about their control of membership, of repertoire, of procedures, which I found to be somewhat unbelievable.  I remember this guy named John Stanzione, telling me, in all smiling seriousness, that the conductor works at the pleasure of the Club.  I politely but firmly told them I could not work under such circumstances;  that I would do my best, but that I would run auditions and choose the singers, I would choose repertoire (with their preferences and tastes in mind), and that I would reserve the right to drop members from the group.  Then I conducted for my audition, and they filled out their individual evaluations — and the current president, George Shirley, gave me the stack of evaluations, which were pretty much God-awful. 

I did not want this job; and the membership clearly was in no mood to hire me.  I believe George talked with the committee — told them the pool of applicants was pretty shallow, that I was the most qualified and likely candidate, and that they would have to give me a try.  I in the meantime was living in C-ville and basically unemployed (some private lessons and a class at UVA).  I independently came to the conclusion that, if the job were offered, I should at least give it a try– it being better than no conducting at all.  So I dug up some music, and met with them when they returned to campus after New Years.   If I remember correctly, fourteen members dropped out immediately.  Those that remained were mostly pretty hostile.  They had tasted blood in the firing of their previous conductor, and liked the taste of it.   That first semester, Spring 1997, was pretty difficult.  Really, the difficulties persisted, though shrinking, until the last of the Old Guard finally graduated.  But in the course of that first semester, I learned that people like George Shirley really could run an organization, that they really could learn and grow and make wise decisions, that they were not “kids” in the way I had always regarded my choristers up to that point. 

As I came to know individuals, I realized that many of them were really fine, responsible, intelligent, sensitive people.  I began to accept the premise that this was their group — and that my role was different than it had been in the past.  I was helping them to grow up, to become men, rather than simply using them as instruments in my orchestra.  My priorities gradually shifted.  I came to see the values of a single sex organization, the value of men working and learning and growing together, sharing common concerns and issues without losing themselves in the more general community of an SATB organization.  They on their part began, grudgingly, to trust me, and gave me a freer hand in conducting and directing/advising them.  As we discovered common ground, things improved, and I came to enjoy the group and its members.

When I returned to U of C and to this community of Hyde Park, I was once again unemployed.  I picked up some voice students through the Music Department, and also started my own, community-based, choir, Chicago Chorale.  A few years in (12 years ago, now) a small group of first year men decided amongst themselves that they did not much like the choral offerings available to them through the Music Department — that they wanted a single-sex “glee club.”  They did a web search, and discovered ME.  VGC had not updated their website, so there I still was, photos, programs, info on the Tour de France, everything.  One of the guys was my voice student, and recognized me.  He asked me about the VGC, then asked if I would be willing to help him and his friends establish such a group here.

Well — I knew the culture at U of C:  …lack of the cooperation gene, lack of desire to devote time to something so un-academic, as well as so laughably traditional, etc;  no money, no library, no rehearsal space — and I had no great hopes such an organization would get off the ground.  But, I had time on my hands, and thought, why not.  I dug out my VGC scores and photocopied them.  I asked a neighborhood church if we could rehearse in their basement.  I met with the original small group and asked them to dig up some more singers (I also asked the rest of my male voice students to join).  And we got started the following October with a total of twelve guys.

Because I had no standing with the University, I was in no position to plan gigs, to raise any money, none of those things — so I really had to rely on the guys themselves to do things– as I had learned to rely on them at UVA.  And they rose to the challenge.  Somewhat awkwardly at first, but with more confidence and energy as time went by.  They proved as capable as the UVA students, when given the opportunity, of making their own rules, of planning concerts, of bringing their friends aboard.  It was good for them.  They blossomed in the process of creating the club, and continue to blossom each year.  We are a much smaller undergrad institution than UVA (5,000 opposed to 15,000) and membership in CMAC is not yet entrenched as a traditional activity, so we never have the numbers you have; but in our own way, we prosper, we grow, and we graduate young men trained in leadership, in cooperation, in mutual trust and interdependence.  And even in singing!

I learned to do all of this during my stay at UVA.  I would never have tried it on my own.  CMAC is so closely based on the VGC model that we even use your bylaws.  And sing your gig songs.  Those gig songs alter and mutate over the years, as does CMAC — we veer away from VGC to become our own thing; we write our own gig songs; we add our own flourishes to the old gig songs.  I’m not sure your current membership would recognize that we are their younger brothers.  But we are.  I know it.

Bruce Tammen
Conductor, Virginia Glee Club 1997-2001
Conductor, Chicago Men’s A Cappella 2005-2017