About the Southwestern Michigan Vocal Festival


The Southwestern Michigan Vocal Festival was created in 1935 under the direction of Harper C. Maybee, the first chief administrator of the music program at what is now known as Western Michigan University. The festival was presented in gymnasium facilities until the opening of Miller Auditorium in 1968. Festival participation peaked in the late 1950s under the leadership of Elwyn Carter, Maybee’s successor, when performances were given on two successive nights involving 1500 to 2000 voices from some 20 different schools each night. The festival is administered by Kevin West, director of concerts at the WMU School of Music. The festival celebrated its 75th annual performance in 2013.


The founding philosophy has remained basically unchanged: to offer an experience in mass singing of quality repertoire under the direction of an inspiring and distinguished conductor.

Distinguished conductors

Many nationally recognized conductors have directed the Festival Chorus: Noble Cain (1939), Olaf Christiansen (1941), Harry Robert Wilson (1948), Maynard Klein (1949), Haydn Morgan (1953), Weston Noble (1963 and 1995), Margaret Hillis (1964) and Paul Christiansen (1969). This tradition of outstanding conductors has been continued more recently by Lloyd Pfautsch, Douglas McEwen, Clayton Krehbiel, Charlene Archibeque, Donald Neuen, Charles Nelson, Rodney Eichenberger, Eph Ehly, Joseph Huszti, Karle Erickson, Sandra Willetts, Rolland Shaw, Jerry Jordan, Anton Armstrong, Ann Howard Jones, Richard Bjella, Richard Mathey, André Thomas, Doreen Rao, Axel Theimer, Robert Bode, Jing Ling-Tam, Dirk Garner, Simon Carrington, Rollo Dilworth, and Francisco J. Núñez.

Thorough preparation

Thorough music preparation is required of all participating schools. Nearly all festival chorus music must be memorized, and rehearsal unity is enhanced through the fall workshop requirement.

Fall workshop

A unique festival feature is the fact that all choral directors must attend a fall workshop in order to qualify their schools for the next spring’s festival. The workshop is traditionally held on the last Friday in September, when music preparation instructions are presented by the guest conductor. Conductors are encouraged to bring their most logical honors choir candidates to the fall workshop.

Honors choir

An optional honors choir experience is available for festival participants. Whereas the festival philosophy calls for an inspiring large chorus experience, the honors choir program offers serious voice students a special opportunity for enrichment. The honors choir program is described more fully on a separate information sheet.

Creative administration

The Southwestern Michigan Vocal Festival Association is administered by a six-member committee comprised of three elected high school choral directors and three WMU faculty or staff members appointed by the director of WMU’s School of Music. This steering committee is responsible for making recommendations to the association membership regarding festival dates, literature, conductors, policies and logistics.

Cooperative financing

The WMU School of Music supports the festival by assuming the cost of using Miller Auditorium. All other festival expenses are assumed by the participating schools. These funds are presently realized from four main sources: an annual association membership fee (currently $40 per school payable at the fall workshop), a per capita fee (currently $5 per singer or $8 per Honors Choir singer payable at registration time in the spring), a recording surcharge making possible the professional recording of each performance (currently $20 per school) and the sale of CD recordings of the festival program at a reasonable fee (currently $5). If schools happen to experience budget problems in any given year, some collect a “field trip fee” from their students to underwrite transportation, the per capita fee, and—in some instances—the cost of music.

Unique relationship

Whereas the Southwestern Michigan Vocal Festival is an independent association hosted by Western Michigan University, the School of Music offers not only financial assistance, but administrative services as well. Further cooperation is evidenced by the regular participation of School of Music ensembles. The joy of singing excellent and well-prepared literature is often enhanced by thrilling accompaniments from the University Symphony Orchestra, University Symphonic Band, University organist, full brass choir, jazz combos and other prestigious WMU ensembles. Festival participants also enjoy guest appearances by School of Music choral ensembles, most notably the University Chorale.

Festival details

More information can be accessed via the menu at the left or by following these links to the current calendar, a music list for the next festival, the fall workshop information page, or the honors choir information page.

Festival participation

A school may qualify for festival participation by attending the fall workshop and paying the annual association membership fee. Workshop instructions are sent to festival schools in early September.

For more information

To be placed on the Southwestern Michigan Vocal Festival mailing list or for more information on the festival, contact Kevin West in the WMU School of Music at kevin.west@wmich.edu or (269) 387–4681.