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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This summer, while athletes are preparing for the Olympic Games, music lovers are getting ready for the Olympics of choral music. Three hundred sixty choirs from around the world are on their way to the U.S. to compete in the World Choir Games, which begin on July 4th. Cheri Lawson of member station WNKU reports from Cincinnati, the first American city to host the event.

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CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: At St. John's Unitarian Church, the women's choir muse rehearses for the 2012 World Choir Games. Several dozen singers are here. Some are dressed casually. Others are decked out. But everyone is all business. Conductor Catherine Roma's philosophy is more about musical excellence than competition. After witnessing the 2010 games in China, she saw something that surprised her.

CATHERINE ROMA: Kids were completely excited just to be part of it. And so if they got a bronze, they were yelling, and they were so excited. Bronze, silver, gold, it didn't matter.

LAWSON: This competition started 12 years ago. Choirs have competed in Austria, Korea, Germany and China. Organizers say Cincinnati was chosen from among 20 other North American cities because of its venues, the city's historic May Festival and the reputation of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra.

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LAWSON: The May Festival Chorus, heard here with the Cincinnati Symphony, will take center stage at opening ceremonies. While renowned groups get ready for the 11-day event, lesser known choirs have spent months preparing too.

JEFF CLARK: On two. One, two and...

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LAWSON: In a music room crammed with large blue, gold and red trophies, director Jeff Clark warms up the Fairfield High School Choraliers. Forty-eight students in the southwestern Ohio community are competing in show choir, one of two new categories for the World Choir Games.

CLARK: In many ways, show choir and pop music does go against the grain as far as your traditional, classic choral styles. It's not your Mozart. It's not your Beethoven. It's not the Brahms - four and one...

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FAIRFIELD HIGH SCHOOL CHORALIERS: (Singing) To my friends in New York, I say hello. My friends in L.A., they don't know where I've been for the past few years or so. Paris to China to Colorado.

LAWSON: Clark says the hit television show "Glee" has helped raise awareness of choral music and music education despite the program's unrealistic portrayals of life in the practice room and the high school stage.

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CHORALIERS: (Singing) This has got to be a good life. This has got to be a good life. This has got to be a good life.

LAWSON: When the site of the 2012 World Choir Games was announced three years ago, Cincinnati's Southern Gateway Chorus decided it would sign up in the other new category: barbershop style. Vocal coach Jim Henry travels from Missouri to help the 80-member group of men and boys.

JIM HENRY: Ready and go.

SOUTHERN GATEWAY CHORUS: I like to be in...

HENRY: No, no. I like to, I like to, I like to be, I like to be. Ready and go.

CHORUS: I like to be in America.

HENRY: That's a chorus sound right there. You're not singing anything, but that's a chorus sound. I can relate to that.

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CHORUS: (Singing) I like to be in America.

HENRY: Singing is fun anyway, but singing well is really fun. But, you know, people sing in cars. They sing in the shower. That's a self-expression that is maybe the most just visceral form of self-expression.

LAWSON: This sample of American culture is a small part of the international competition featuring 360 choirs from 48 countries. Along with European, Asian and African choral styles, other performances include Iranians singing folklore and Indonesians singing American spirituals. The motto of the World Choir Games is singing together brings nations together. For the youngest member of Southern Gateway Chorus, 11-year-old Bernie Reen, it's simpler than that.

BERNIE REEN: I think everybody should sing, definitely, because it makes you happy.

LAWSON: There are two dozen categories for choirs to compete in. There are also noncompetitive evaluation sessions. Like the Olympics, the festival includes a parade of nations and an opening ceremony. For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Cincinnati.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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