After building from ground up, VS leader leaves top step

John Wenning stepped down as head of Huntington North’s Varsity Singers program at the end of the school year.
John Wenning stepped down as head of Huntington North’s Varsity Singers program at the end of the school year. Photo by Andre B. Laird.

Originally published June 3, 2013.

For almost three decades, John Wenning has stood at the helm of the Huntington North High School choral program, including Varsity Singers.

At the end of the school year, Wenning will step down as director to pursue other opportunities, including heading up the choral program at Crestview Middle School.

He says he will take many fond memories with him.

"I arrived at Huntington North in 1985," Wenning states. "I had previously taught for three years at Muncie North Side High School."

He adds that the Muncie North Side had an established show choir program and upon arriving at Huntington North, he was asked to reignite its program which had been defunct at the time.

"Rick Goss, who was the show director for 13 years, had a very competitive program in the late 1970s to early 1980s," Wenning notes. "But after he left, they turned the ensemble into a jazz choir."

He adds that enough time had passed, at least four years, that students did not know what a show choir was when he looked to restart the program.

"The principal told me that he wanted me to get the swing program started again," Wenning says. "That's what they called it."

Wenning says it was a huge task to undertake. He changed the name of the program to Varsity Singers and set about recruiting talent.

"I had no list of returnees who were involved in the former program," he states. "I had to call some of the seniors and asked around. The first year of the program, I had eight to 10 kids."

He adds that he called a meeting of the students and their parents and explained what a show choir was and that it would include, among other things, choreography and costumes for the performers.

"That generated a lot of energy and excitement and in two to three weeks, the number of students increased to 18," Wenning says. "The parents were very excited about it too."

In a year of "firsts" for the program, he adds that the Varsity Singers premiered Pomp and Plenty and the group performed at its first competition at Kings Island.

"We won grand champion at our first competition and that created even more excitement," Wenning says. "The next year I decided to hold auditions because of so much interest in the program. We had 28 kids that second year."

Wenning adds that he has always strived to make the program better and, in 1987, he did just that.

"I wanted us to compete in a national competition, held at the Bismark Hotel, in Chicago," Wenning says. "I wanted the kids to see and experience what competition was like at the highest level. It was tough to get in because entrance is by invitation only."

He adds that the group auditioned and competed, finishing with great results for its first attempt, including snagging the most outstanding soloist award.

"We fell short of making the final six choirs by one point," Wenning says. "That was tough, but exciting as well as it showed us that we could compete on that level. We ended up competing in Show Stoppers National Competition for eight consecutive years."

As the program grew, Wenning says participation became expensive. With more singers, a band and a backup band, the group swelled to 50-60 students.

"Fund-raising for so many people was tough," he states. "And our goal when we raise funds is to make sure that every student has the opportunity to go without having to pay anything out of pocket."

With that competition no longer an option, Wenning says he explored other opportunities for the group, including performing at Disney World and Boston, MA, and taking the group to see "The Phantom of the Opera" in New York City.

In the 28 years that he has led the program, the Varsity Singers have gone to New York City three times, Disney six times and the Show Stoppers competition seven times.
"We've also gone to the FAME National Show Choir Competition twice; once at Orlando Universal Studios and again in Chicago. We came within three-tenths of a point from winning the competition in Orlando."

The list of accolades the Varsity Singers has earned is impressive.

In the 28 years, the group has performed at approximately 162 shows, Wenning notes. Of those shows, the group has won best vocal award at least 100 times and grand champion 85 times.

"In 28 years, there were only two times when we weren't named among the finalists in a competition," he adds.

In reflecting on the program's success, Wenning says there are many contributing factors.

"It takes a strong, close-knit team, with strong leadership to have any kind of success," he notes. "With different kids every year, the dynamics are different. I have had to learn the art of leadership and study on being a better leader."

He also credits his choreographer Jason Johnson, who first started with the group in 1993, and his backup band director of 13 years, Matt Walter, a former student and trumpet player.

"We each contribute to different parts of the vision for the program," Wenning states. "I know what a grand champion group should sound like. Jason knows what it should look like and Matt knows how the band's contribution enhances everything."

He adds that the group's success depends heavily on the support of the outstanding parents that sacrifice time and resources.

"Over the years, these parents have stepped up time and time again to support a program that they believe in and want to see succeed," Wenning notes. "Their contribution has been invaluable."

He adds that he hasn't always had the most gifted students, but makes it a point to find diamonds in the rough.

"There are some students who are just naturally talented and I love them," Wenning states. "But there are also those who have had the potential to be great, but because of some circumstance in their lives, haven't achieved it yet."

He adds that as one of 13 children in a family environment that was less than what most people would define normal, he tries to encourage students in the same situations to rise above their circumstances.

"I've tried to help see what success looks and feels like, if even on a limited scale, so they can understand that it is achievable," Wenning notes. "Like myself, I want them to overcome their circumstances, not fall victim to them."

In transitioning to Crestview, Wenning says the decision was difficult but it was time.

"The hardest part for me is making sure that my kids are taken care of," he states. "I want to make sure that they get the same opportunities and respect they got from me. I also wanted to make sure that when I leave, the program would be at a high level and it is."

This season, the Varsity Singers won three best vocalists awards, two outstanding bands, and one each, grand champion, outstanding choreography and outstanding stage crew, among others.

"I feel confident that the next person coming in, will be inheriting great talent, an awesome support system and a program primed to go to the next level," Wenning says.

He adds that after talking with family, it was time to lighten his schedule and spend more time at home as well as pursue other ventures including a consulting business.

"I'm looking forward to working at Crestview and helping to prepare the students for the challenges and demands of the high school choral program," Wenning states. "I think the music teachers at the middle school level have done a great job of preparing the students."

As he closes one chapter to start another, Wenning says he has no regrets.

"I always wanted to make sure that when I left, I still loved it," he notes. "I do and while this is new territory, I'm excited to see what it holds."

Complete caption: John Wenning stepped down as head of Huntington North’s Varsity Singers program at the end of the school year. In the 28 years with Wenning at the helm, the highly successful Varsity Singers program has won almost 200 awards.