Two basic characteristics of the human family are the need for community and personal expression through the human voice. Choirs draw together both by performing music written to showcase how the first and finest musical instrument, the human voice, can produce the most moving and meaningful artistic, cultural and religious expressions in a community of human voices.
This article takes a look at twenty of the very finest collegiate choir programs in the United States. Because of the outstanding quality of so many college and university choirs and choir programs, this list is no way intended to be exhaustive or exclusive of other excellent choirs and programs. Rather, its goal is to open up a discussion of discovery and appreciation for the outstanding vocal ensembles and directors currently sharing their gifts to young people across the nation. The choirs in this article are given in alphabetical order to make clear the list is not intended as a ranking.
Table of Contents
- The 20 Outstanding U.S. University and College Choir Programs
- Ball State University
- Bard College
- Brigham Young University
- Cornell University
- East Central University
- Georgia Southern University
- Haverford College and Bryn Mawr
- Mansfield University
- Mt. San Antonio College
- Northwestern University
- New York University
- Oakwood University
- Pacific Lutheran University
- St. Mary’s College of California
- St. Olaf College
- University of Alabama-Birmingham
- University of Houston
- University of Louisville
- University of Southern California
- Yale University
The 20 Outstanding U.S. University and College Choir Programs
Ball State University
The sound of the human voice in song thrives in Ball State University choirs. Several choirs of varying skill level perform throughout the year. Under the direction of Andrew Crow and Kerry Glann, these include the Ball State University Chamber Choir, which is the university’s most selective and prestigious concert choir as well as the Concert Choir and the Statesmen and Women’s Chorus. The University Chamber Choir comprises 32, mostly upper-division music majors and graduate students seeking a professional career. It performs throughout the country and internationally with a focus on Western choral repertoire and new music.
The Concert Choir is selective but has open auditions for students from all disciplines. This choir often performs with orchestras and other instrumental ensembles. Its musical repertoire seeks to represent a wider range of musical history and culture. The Statesmen and Women’s Chorus are choirs open to male and female voices, respectively. These require no audition for participation and membership and seek to present a wide range of cultural and regional choral music as well as build community and camaraderie.
Bard College offers an excellent and highly regarded undergraduate program in classical vocal performance. Bard provides its choral students with many opportunities to perform with professional musicians, directors, and conductors in order to help its students reach their vocal potential. For connoisseurs of choral music, Bard College hosts the impressive Bard College Chamber Singers. This selective choir was formed in 2002 by Bard music director, James Bagwell, who still leads the choir. By audition only, this college chamber choir is open to students and alumni/ae from across the college, giving the Chambers Singers a truly “collegial” feel to go along with its vocal precision and professionalism.
The Bard College Chamber Singers over the past few seasons have performed an impressive array of new and old choral and operatic pieces, and have performed on some of the highest stages in music. The Singers have recently performed Mozart’s Requiem, Arvo Pärt’s, Magnificat as well as original operas by David Little and Missy Mazzoli. In 2012, the Chamber Singers performed Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Brigham Young University
Brigham Young University choirs are world famous for their excellent range of vocal styles and musical periods as well as their precise interpretations and sensitivity to different forms of vocal music. The university boasts four outstanding choral groups: the BYU Singers, the BYU Concert Choir, Men’s Chorus and Women’s Chorus. The BYU Singers under the direction of Dr. Andrew Crane has performed in almost every musical genre. The Singers has performed with the British Tallis Scholars and in 2018 engaged in singing tours in Vietnam and Indonesia. The BYU Singers has performed in Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Sydney Opera House, and many other prestigious venues.
This choir comprises 40 student vocalists from all departments of the college. The Concert Choir is made up of 100 advanced singers dedicated to choral music from a broad range of styles, periods and regions. The Concert Choir doesn’t tour, but, still maintains a demanding performance schedule. BYU also boasts the largest collegiate male choir in the USA. Since its founding in 1958, the Men’s Chorus comprises 180 voices with over 500 new auditions each year. Performing hymns, folk, classics, and “some knee-slapping hoopla,” the Men’s Chorus has gained international attention through its popular YouTube videos, and the recent album Set Apart went all the way up to #7 on the national Billboard chart.
The BYU Women’s Chorus rounds out the outstanding choir opportunities at the university. Known for its varied repertoire and pristine and carefully textured sound, this audition-based choir promises “sensitive musicianship and constant improvement” to its student performers.
The Cornell University Chorus is widely perceived as one of the top treble choirs in the USA. Founded in 1920, this entirely student-led choir, boasts 57 student members, taken from every university college and academic discipline. With a focus upon the feminine voice and, since 2003, advancing the works of women composers, the Cornell University Chorus has greatly advanced the repertoire of treble choirs. Beyond this, the Chorus performs a broad range of choral music spanning eight centuries and a range of languages and styles.
The Chorus remains in the national spotlight through collaboration with professional orchestras and performances in venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and other prestigious musical stages. In 2017, the Chorus hosted their inaugural treble choir conference, which drew over 200 singers from six colleges.
The Chorus maintains a consistent touring schedule throughout North America and internationally. Over the past couple of decades, the Chorus has performed in Taiwan, Italy, Mexico, and Guatemala. In addition to performing on-campus and touring, the Chorus has an active travel schedule, participating in festivals and other choir competitions.
East Central University
East Central University offers an impressive array of vocal ensembles, degrees, and scholarship and audition opportunities for both fledgling and advanced choristers. With its three vocal ensembles, East Central University offers vocal students an impressive variety of choral performance opportunities.
Recently, the ECU Chorale, conducted by Steven Walker, achieved international notoriety by placing 25th in the Mixed Chorus Division in the Interkultur world ranking, organizer of the largest amateur choir competition in the world. Interkultur also ranked ECU Chorale 150th in the world among all choirs. “Only four other choirs from the U.S. were ranked higher….” ECU Chorale requires auditions and consists of music majors. ECU Chorale in 2016 has also won the top prize at the Golden State Choral Trophy Competition and qualified for the World Choir Games.
In addition to the ECU Chorale, student vocalists can participate in the ECU Singers and the Opera Workshop. The ECU Singers comprises around 100 singers and does not require an audition. The Opera Workshop has recently performed Hansel and Gretel, Impresario, The Marriage of Figaro, South Pacific, School House Rock.
Georgia Southern University
Georgia Southern University’s many chorale groups will likely fit the aspirations of any collegiate chorister. Beginning with its premiere vocal ensemble, the Southern Chorale, Georgia Southern University is firmly established as a top national and international choir. The Southern Chorale, under the direction of Shannon Jeffreys, is currently ranked 200 in the world among all choirs. Southern Chorale has appeared at conferences of the National Collegiate Choral Organization, American Choral Directors Association, and National Association for Music Education.
The choir won significant prizes in the Anton Bruckner International Choral Competition, the Sing ‘N’ Joy International Competition and Festival, and in 2016, Chorale won the Grand Prize in the mixed category and the spirituals category at the Laurea Mundi Budapest. This summer they will compete in the International Chamber Choir competition in Marktoberdorf, Germany and the Ave Verum competition in Baden, Austria. Chorale often collaborates with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
In addition to Southern Chorale, Dr. Jeffreys and the assistant director of activities, David Langley, organizes three other choirs at the Statesboro campus, including: the University Singers, the Southern Gentlemen barbershop ensemble and Southern Sirens female a cappella choir. The University Singers is open to all students without audition. Membership in award-winning Southern Gentlemen and Southern Sirens is by audition.
Haverford College and Bryn Mawr
Haverford and Bryn Mawr form a bi-college choral community that has produced excellent vocal ensembles and a very strong tradition of choral music. Headlined by the Chamber Singers and The Chorale, under the direction of Nathan Zullinger, these choirs perform a wide range of choral music from classics of the Western canon to modern selections from across a wide array of styles, cultures, time periods and regions. Both groups require auditions.
The Chamber Singers is a small mixed choir of 30 voices that performs a repertoire from the Renaissance to the present. The Chorale comprises 120-150 singers, often performing a major work once per semester with full orchestra. Haverford-Bryn Mawr choristers often work with music students from Curtis and Temple. In addition to the Chamber Singers and Chorale, a number of student and community-member-directed vocal ensembles perform throughout the year.
The choral program at Mansfield University has produced a vocal ensemble tradition that has become perennially lauded as absolutely outstanding. The most notable representative of Mansfield choral music on the national and international levels is the Mansfield University Concert Choir. Under the direction of Peggy Dettwiler since 1990, the group has achieved an impressive reputation of excellence, having been chosen for more than twenty years to perform at conventions or festivals around the world including those of the American Choral Directors Association, the National Collegiate Choral Organization, and the National Association for Music Educators.
On the international stage, the choir has won top prizes in international competitions including nine gold medals and four gold certificates. Currently, the Concert Choir is ranked 53 in the world by Interkultur. In 2014, they gave their debut performance in Carnegie Hall as a part of the Performing Arts Educators 8th-Annual Invitational and returned to this renowned stage in 2017 & 2019 for PAE performances. In addition, the women of the Concert Choir provided the nuns’ choruses for the “Sound of Music” Gala Concert in Carnegie Hall and the Concert Choir, along with alumni singers, performed the choruses in Carnegie Hall’s Gala Concert of Bernstein’s Candide garnering a “superb” review in the New York Times.
The Concert Choir has performed in eighteen countries during their eight European Tours, and the group has produced twenty-one CD recordings on the Mark Custom Recording Label.
Some of the University Concert Choir’s performances are available on its YouTube page.
Other choral ensembles at Mansfield University include the college/community Festival Chorus, the Mansfieldians (a vocal jazz ensemble), the Chamber Singers, and women’s & men’s ensembles.
Mt. San Antonio College
Choral Music reaches great heights of expression, interpretation, and precision in the Choral Music Program at Mt. San Antonio College. Boasting five vocal ensembles, Mt. San Antonio College has the right fit for any vocal skill level. The audition-only Chamber Singers, directed by Bruce Rodgers, has toured nationally and internationally and earned prizes in several prestigious venues. Some of these accolades include the Pavarotti Trophy and title of Choir of the World, with first place in both Chamber Choir and Large Mixed categories.
The Concert Choir, also by audition and under the direction of Bill McIntosh, performs three concerts per year. Singcopation, under the direction of Bruce Rodgers, comprises fourteen auditioned singers, specializing in vocal jazz music. This ensemble has produced several recordings and has performed in prestigious venues and won a number of national and international awards. The mixed-voice ensemble, Frontline, has expanded the vocal jazz tradition at Mt. San Antonio, performing in many jazz festivals since its founding in 1999.
Finally, Fermata Nowhere is an a cappella group formed in 2001. Fermata Nowhere has recorded two CDs and competed successfully in several vocal ensemble competitions. Notably, three of Mt. San Antonio’s choirs have been ranked in the top 100 choirs of the world by Interkultur.
Northwestern University’s storied tradition of excellence in vocal music continues through its five vocal ensembles. The Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble is a 24 voice choir that specializes in “virtuosic repertoire.” This group, led by Donald Nally, brings together modern 21st-century compositions with their polyphonic roots in the Renaissance. The University Chorale is a larger mixed-voice choir featuring graduate and undergraduate students.
The University Chorale, also led by Nally, works closely in concert with the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra in traditional and modern works. The University Singers, led by Albert Pinsonneault, features freshman and sophomore men and women in a mixed-voice ensemble that performs choral music from all historical eras. The University Women’s Choir is a treble vocal ensemble open to students from all academic disciplines. This group, conducted each year by a graduate student in choral conducting, explores music from every time period that is especially suited for women’s voices.
The Alice Millar Chapel Choir, conducted by Stephen Alltop features a select group of students from the different schools of the university who performs sacred oratorios and choral-orchestral pieces from a wide range of eras. The Chapel Choir also maintains a repertoire of a capella and other musical settings for religious services.
New York University
Established in 1925, NYU Steinhardt’s Music Department boasts a highly integrated choral music education and world-renown faculty. NYU currently has seven choirs: A Capella Choir, Jazz Choir, NYU Chorale, University Singers, Women’s Choir, Children’s Chorus, and Adult Choir. The NYU Chorale is one of the oldest university choirs in the country, performing for and serving in the in NYU family for 130 years.
The Jazz Choir, Men’s Glee Club, Modern Madrigals, Women’s Choir, and University Singers include both small and large groups, mixed and non-mixed vocals that perform a wide repertoire. Every vocal ensemble just mentioned requires an audition in order to join.
NYU also has two outreach choirs. The Children’s Chorus includes members of the local community from grades one through six. The NYU Adult Choir is made up of parents, caregivers, and relatives of the young people in the Children’s Chorus. The choir program at NYU promises excellent preparation and performance opportunities for aspirant professional singers.
Oakwood University choirs have consistently performed well over the past decade. The premiere vocal ensemble at Oakwood is the Aeolians of Oakwood University. Established in 1946, and strongly rooted in its Seventh-Day Adventist tradition, the Aeolians, under the direction of Jason Max Ferdinand, are currently ranked 3rd in the world by Interkultur. To go along with this international recognition, the Aeolians won two gold medals in the 2012 World Choir Games along with many other honors. Most recently, the Aeolians were winners at the 2018 World Choir Games in South Africa.
The Aeolians’ repertoire spans the Baroque era to the twentieth century. The is choir is also appreciated as an “authoritative exponent of Negro spirituals and work songs….” The groups Dynamic Praise and Voices of Triumph also hail from Oakwood University and boast alumni/ae now performing professionally in groups such as Take 6, Virtue, members of the recent winners of NBC’s Sing-Off and other notables.
Pacific Lutheran University
Pacific Lutheran University is home to the Choir of the West, the Pacific Lutheran University Chamber Singers and the University Singers and Knights Chorus currently ranked by Interkultur as 33rd and 323nd ranked choirs in the world. Presently under the direction of Richard Nance, the Choir of the West has made extensive tours throughout Europe and Asia to the acclaim and delight of their audiences.
In 2011 the Choir earned gold and silver medals at the Harmonie Festival in Lindenholzhausen, Germany, and in 2015 won the Anton Brucker Prize as the most outstanding choir at the Anton Bruckner Choir Competition in Linz, Austria. The Choir in 2015 was filmed for broadcast on PBS. Comprised of undergraduates from across the disciplines, the Choir of the West has a rigorous and competitive audition process.
In addition to the Choir of the West and the outstanding University Chamber Singers, Pacific Lutheran University also is home to several other excellent vocal ensembles. These include University Chorale, a mixed choir, with primarily freshmen and sophomores performing; and the Choral Union, one of the finest community choirs in America with many alumni, faculty, staff, and students participating.
The outstanding choral opportunities, excellent choral music curriculum, the top-notch faculty makes Pacific Lutheran University a cut above for future vocal ensemble performers and educators.
St. Mary’s College of California
The choirs of St. Mary’s College of California are known for their power of expression and deeply moving performances. The vocal ensembles at St. Mary’s seek to hold to and express the deep mind-body connection through vocal music and is recognized for its outstanding musicality. This integrated approach to the presentation of the instrument of the human voice has recently borne fruit in international recognition and accolades. Under the direction of Julie Ford, the Chamber Singers have been named in 2018 a top 600 choir in the world by Interkultur.
Members of this elite choir perform a large selection of classical choral literature that crosses the centuries. Not only this, the same choir that comprises the Chamber Singers also makes up the St. Mary’s Glee Club, with a repertoire, largely a capella, that features at times a professional rhythm section, amplification, beat-boxers, and choreography. Among many honors and awards the choir has received, in 2015 the choir performed at Carnegie Hall and in 2014 won a gold medal at the World Choir Games.
St. Olaf College
St. Olaf College has made its mark in the vocal ensemble world with its 75 member, mixed voice choir aptly named, the St. Olaf Choir. With good reason, the college claims that its choir is “the premiere a cappella choir in the United States.” Undergraduates at the college make up the choir. Founded over 100 years ago, the choir continues to impress audiences under the direction of Anton Armstrong. The ensemble tours annually, and has taken 14 international tours, performing for capacity crowds across Asia and Europe.
The St. Olaf Choir has boasted an impressive collection of 27 critically acclaimed recordings that integrate a wide range of cultural traditions with its Christian heritage. The choir’s CD, Great Hymns of Faith, sold over 270,000 copies. In 2005 the choir performed in front of President George W. Bush and the First Lady at the White House. Other important venues where the St. Olaf Choir has performed include, among many others, Carnegie Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, The choir has aired numerous times on national and international radio and television. The choir has also been noted for its strong celebration and presentation of Norway’s independence from Sweden and its widely lauded annual Christmas festival.
University of Alabama-Birmingham
The Concert Choir is the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s outstanding vocal ensemble. Ranked in 2018 by Interkultur among the top 700 choirs in the world, the Concert Choir has successfully performed in Europe and the United States. The Concert Choir in 2014 won a gold medal and two silver medals at the World Choir Games in Riga, Latvia. The choir has also recorded a successful CD project, “Unceasing Love,” that is available at Amazon and iTunes. A recent performance of note is the choir’s premier of Glenn McClure’s Voices of Freedom, commemorating the Civil Rights Movement and the Emancipation Proclamation.
The university is also home to the UAB Chamber Singers and the UAB Gospel Choir. These non-auditioned choirs that are open to all students of the university. Finally, the outstanding UAB Jazz Choir is by audition only. The Jazz Choir has won state awards and has made three successful European tours. This fall the Jazz Choir will perform at the SeviJazz Festival in Columbia.
University of Houston
Currently ranked 8th in the world by Interkultur, the University of Houston’s Moores School Concert Choir, directed by Betsy Cook Weber, headlines a superb choir program. Participation in this vocal ensemble is by audition. Moores School Concert Choir is a large choral ensemble that has performed in several national conventions and before august musicological societies to rave reviews. At the prestigious Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales the choir won or placed in every category, earning first place in the Chamber Choir category.
With its setting in Houston, a thriving center of music and the arts, the choir has had members sing in productions of Corigliano’s, The Ghost of Versailles, Offenbach’s, Orpheus in the Under World, Verdi’s Requiem, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Members of the choir often sing with the Mercury Baroque, Cantare, the Houston Symphony Chorus, and the Houston Chamber Choir. The University of Houston also is home to the Concert Women’s Chorus, ManCorps, University Men’s Chorus, and the University Women’s Chorus, making the university a top school for those looking to sing in a variety of choral groups and settings.
University of Louisville
Louisville’s outstanding choral tradition is led by Kent Hatteberg and the Louisville Cardinal Singers, currently ranked as the 7th best choir in the world by Interkultur. The Cardinal Singers have performed throughout the world, winning the grand prize at the Yeosu International Choir Competition in 2005. In 2013, the Singers earned Hội An Choir Prize at the 3rd Vietnam International Choir Competition. As recently as 2011 the choir’s performances at the Harmonie Festival earned it the German Chancellor’s Prize and second place at the 12th International Chamber Choir Competition.
In addition to being home of the world renown Cardinal Singers, under the direction of Hatteberg, the choir program plays host to other choirs in the Margaret Comstock Concert Series and has recorded CDs with the Cardinal Singers. Louisville is also home to the Collegiate Chorale and the University Chorus both directed by Kent Hatteberg. For a sampling of Louisville’s recent vocal ensemble sound check out their YouTube video featuring the choirs.
University of Southern California
The University of Southern California has long been a top destination for vocal ensemble artists. Ensembles from USC have received international recognition through their collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as well as tours in Europe and Asia and appearances at national conferences and festivals. The USC Thornton Chamber Singers, under the direction of Jo-Michael Scheibe, performs an impressive array of Classical to Contemporary vocal pieces.
The Chamber Singers have performed at the International Festival of Choral Music and were one of only twenty choirs chosen to perform at the X World Symposium on Choral Music in Seoul, Korea. When not performing Classical and Sacred works, the Chamber Singers has collaborated with popular artists such as Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and Barry Manilow. The Chamber Singers has also recorded a successful Christmas Album entitled, “Brightest and Best.” USC Thornton School of Music is also home to the USC Thornton Concert Choir under the direction of Cristian Grases. This 50-60 voice mixed choir performs a wide repertoire of music from across the globe from many cultures and eras. The Concert Choir often works with the Chamber Singers.
Yale University is home to several highly regarded vocal ensembles. From professional choirs to student-led vocal groups, Yale offers a plethora of singing opportunities and venues. The Yale Choral Artists is professional vocal ensemble recently founded by the School of Music in conjunction with the Yale Glee Club. Led by Jeffrey Douma, the Yale Choral Artists includes singers from ensembles such as the Trinity Wall Street Choir, Chanticleer, the Handel and Haydn Society, Chorus, and other well-known choruses.
Other impressive vocal ensembles at Yale include the Yale Camerata, the Yale Schola Cantorum, the Battell Chapel Choir, the Berkeley Choir, the Marquand Chapel Choir, the Marquand Gospel & Inspirational Choir, and the Repertory Chorus and Recital Chorus.
A full range of vocal works is performed across the Yale choirs. With its range of repertoire and its different choirs, choral music flourishes at Yale, and aspiring vocalists and choristers will find vocal ensembles of varying skill and style that will likely match their own interests and abilities.