An Interview with Ben Zhang '22: Harvard Glee Club Honors Tradition While Creating Social Impact

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Courtesy photo/Camille Mojica/BU News Service


WHRB News producer Charles Hua spoke to Ben Zhang '22 about his experiences as a member of Harvard Glee Club and some of the things he’s learned along the way. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

So, Ben, would you mind talking to me a little bit about the history of Glee Club as an organization?

Yeah, sure, so, as you have mentioned, Glee Club is one of the oldest choral ensembles around in the country. Obviously, as Harvard started off being all-male, Glee Club was traditionally an all-male choir. In our early stages, we sang a lot of glee, which is Renaissance-era music that was happy and upbeat. But as we, sort of, matured as a choir together with our new conductor Andy, he’s really brought in a lot more diverse, different kinds of music that we’ve been singing, ranging from modern all the way back to classic and also going back to some of our Renaissance tradition.

But, just speaking about the tenor-bass choir, Glee Club is not actually a male choir even though, currently, all of our members identify as male. We’re actually a tenor-bass choir, which means we’re open to all genders, anyone that can sing tenor-bass really.

Why did you decide to join Glee Club, and what have you learned throughout your past six months or so as a member of Glee Club?

I joined Glee Club coming into high school. I’ve had some experience in high school singing in the high school choir, which I really enjoyed. And coming into Harvard, I knew that singing was something I wanted to keep doing because I also play piano here. But it’s not really an ensemble kind of thing, so I was really looking for a community with Glee Club.

At Harvard, you can either audition for Collegium, which is the mixed choir, or Glee Club, and you can rank your preferences. I actually ranked Collegium first over Glee Club, but then got into Glee Club, which—at first, I was like “I don’t know if I want to be in an all-guys choir”—but, actually, it turned out to be a really cool thing because Glee Club has a really good sense of community just because of how old it is and because of the tradition. And, also, we sing a lot of the traditional songs of Harvard. For example, we always put on a Harvard-Yale football concert the Friday night before Harvard-Yale, and that’s been a tradition that’s been going on for 120, 130 years, and it’s loved by members of the community from both Harvard and Yale. During the concert, we would get alumni to come up on stage and sing the alma mater of Harvard. It just really helps to build school pride in an era where school pride seems to be fading in many ways.

When you’re singing, for example, Yo Ho—which is one of Harvard’s most recognizable fight songs—it’s just really awesome. It’s really good to be a part of this community, and it really makes you think about the school, because sometimes you could be going through school and you’re not really thinking about where you are—you’re really just thinking about the classes you’re taking. So I think it’s a good opportunity to both make music but also reconnect with the tradition of the school and its rich history.

Absolutely. And we see with college campuses nationwide, there has been a significant proliferation of a capella groups on campus. What is the relationship between those a capella groups and Glee Club at Harvard?

A capella groups and glee clubs and choirs as a whole have always worked together, hand-in-hand, because they really do different things. Choral singing is really about music blending. It’s about the blending of 50, 60 different voices into a coherent whole, whereas, in a capella, we’ll have a lot of solos and a lot of individual personalities standing out, and then fading back into the background. So I think, in that regard, a lot of a capella groups like to do really modern stuff, like pop songs—which Glee Club also does, but not to the extent that a capella groups would do.

In terms of the relationship, Glee Club actually has an a capella subset called Glee Club Lite, which is made up of about 10 members of Harvard Glee Club. And I think it really is just singing different styles of music. And, for everyone, there’s a greater sense of community in a capella groups just because they tend to be smaller. But there’s definitely something to be said about choirs as a whole, since it’s something that’s more about singing together rather than showing off individual voices and individual personalities.

There were two notable performances from Glee Club this year, one being what you mentioned earlier regarding the Harvard-Yale concert, as well as the more recent concert celebrating the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. Can you talk a little bit about some of the songs that were sung during either of those two performances and how that relates to Glee Club’s broader mission?

Coming back to what I said before about the Harvard-Yale football concert, that really is much-loved Glee Club tradition where we’ve had hundreds of years of singing right before the concert to really hype up the community, and hype up the feeling of Harvard and the feeling of school pride. A lot of the songs that we sang were football songs that were really cheering the team on. And, in fact, the Harvard Glee Club, during the actual Harvard-Yale football game itself, will go and sit behind the band and sing those fight songs during the game. So it really is about maintaining this tradition of school pride and also showing off a little bit about the Glee Club’s repertoire for the year. So it really is a little mixture of everything.

And, in terms of the W.E.B Du Bois concert, what we really tried to do there is, we really had a question of: “Can music make a social impact?” And, in that case, it was about questioning, really, the nation’s identity and its relationship with the civil rights movement and slavery, as well as the work and life of W.E.B Du Bois, who was an alum of Harvard. In fact, the story goes that W.E.B. Du Bois actually wanted to be a part of the Glee Club but was rejected on the basis of his race. So it’s really a part of America’s history of civil rights, of discrimination, and this is something we really wanted to address in this concert. So we sang a lot of songs from the African-American gospel tradition to highlight the different kinds of music that exist in our country. And we also wanted to showcase a sense of nationhood and to question “What is America?” So, one of the songs that we sang was called America Will Be and, in that, we asked: “Where did this idea of the American dream and the American identity come from? Is it crafted from something organic or is it exploitative of its immigrant, African-American, and European, Irish, and Italian immigrant counterparts?” And, also, we had readings. We featured a lot of prominent readings from, for example, Abraham Lincoln and also real-life recordings from W.E.B. Du Bois, which is all weaved into the concert itself. And then we also had a really renowned choralist called Tesfa [Wondemagegnehu], who came and was our soloist, and he was really involved in using music—especially choral music—to make social impact [at St. Olaf College]. So that’s definitely a really cool, awesome concert that does something a little bit different, because, I think, in this case, Glee Club really wanted to show the Harvard community—and also the greater, wider community of anyone coming—that this is a part of our history that’s really valuable and that we should really have an open discussion about. But it’s also done through the medium of music and art.

You mention an interesting point about music having a social impact to some extent. How do you see that manifesting itself in society, more broadly, today?

I think music having social impact is really ubiquitous. It’s not just in this one Glee Club concert. For example, we have rappers and rap musicians talking about the African-American struggle in urban centers and living in less socioeconomically privileged backgrounds. And I think that really adds to the conversation about poverty and about other struggles common here in America that are, really, sometimes skirted and avoided by mainstream media. So, in that sense, I think, it’s just contributing to this larger conversation about music. To raise social issues.

Thank you very much.