HomeBlogsjimbobwaay's blogTo showchoir... or not to showchoir. Well, a cappella ain't showchoir... K?

In live performance of a cappella, it’s just as important for a group to keep the audience interested visually as it is for them to keep the audience interested aurally.  Visuals go a long way in identifying groups that are strong performers in front of audiences.  So why is there a disturbing trend – at least in my mind – that visuals are going too far in an attempt to grab the attention of audience members?

Blame “Glee.”  Don’t get me wrong – I love the show.  It’s doing quite a lot for a cappella, bringing our art of group singing to the forefront of the mainstream media.  With the first season of NBC’s “The Sing Off” and promotion of a cappella through artists such as Ben Folds, a cappella has definitely taken off in the past few years.  “Glee” has been pivotal in making group singing the “it” thing to do; of course, with added slick dance moves and jazz hands peppered throughout the musical presentation.  However, “Glee” is all about show choir.  And getting right to my point – a cappella should not be show choir.

I do have to note, there’s nothing wrong with show choir.  In fact, I think it’s actually thoroughly entertaining.  (Anybody see that Oprah segment where a show choir performed a mash-up of Madonna’s “Vogue” and “Four Minutes” in 18th Century French garb?  Hot.)  Anyway, a cappella is a different animal.  We have an added responsibility in making the music as tight as possible, since we have no instruments backing us up except for our voices.  And much more often, we’re smaller in number.

In a cappella, choreography and movement brought itself to the forefront over the last several years in collegiate a cappella’s annual competition, the ICCAs.  Part of the judging of this competition includes the “visual performance” aspect.  It does not actually address choreography specifically, yet it seems that groups have a tendency to infuse detailed choreography into their sets, mostly for the sake of competition.  Oftentimes, the choreography can end up becoming a real distraction, and many groups end up losing points in the process.

Outside of competition, though, it’s not as common to see this “type” of choreography.  I do want to say that the guidelines that Varsity Vocals has put together for “visual performance” are really very effective even when not in competition, as well, so it serves as a great reference tool for groups to incorporate choreography into their performances.  (See it here: http://varsityvocals.com/public/pdf/ICCA%20Judge%20Form.pdf)  Each of the categories within “visual performance” contribute to promoting a well-heeled performance that audiences can enjoy visually without losing out on listening to good singing.

We’ll start out with visual cohesiveness.  Obviously, cohesion is important.  Every choreographed dance group needs to be crisp and precise with their movements, complete with proper synchronization (if applicable).  It should be the same with a cappella groups, if choreography is utilized – don’t do choreography if it’s can’t be precise.  Even further than that, there is much to say about the moment groups get on stage – cohesion isn’t just with the dance movements, but the way groups appear to the audience.  This plays into making the group look like a “group,” and not just a whole bunch of randoms getting together to sing a song.  It’s about the clothes – outfit should matter!  And also, how comfortable are you?  Can you wear those shoes without looking pained for the entire time you’re up there on stage?

Next up – effectiveness of presentation.  You’re performing – you want to be able to make the audience enjoy your presentation.  Make them feel something – there are lots of emotions that you can convey to them that they can work off of.  On the other end of things, there’s a part of this category that goes further than emotion.  You want to be able to not make members of the audience roll their eyes in frustration or sarcasm… or (let’s hope not!) displeasure.  Avoid the distractions audience members can see or hear on stage – if you plan on doing a lot of choreographed movement, avoid wearing clunky shoes… some songs aren’t meant to have that extra percussion line.  Don’t do precise literal translations of lyrics, especially numerous times in one song.  It borders on cheese, unless that’s what you’re going for.  And lastly – the a cappella bop.  Oh, the dreaded bop.  The audience has no way of getting the structure of your songs if you bop throughout your entire set.  Vary it up a little.  Even a simple single gesture can be enough to provide appropriate meaning to a part of a song.  Overall, just be believable.  With this category, I probably can’t stress that enough.

Energy and stage presence are entirely self-explanatory.  Your choreography should effectively reinforce the music, and not sap the energy away.  It’s not even only in your bodily movements – your face is just as important.  Tying this in to the cohesiveness category, effective stage presence stems from EVERYBODY in your group having the same “face” on.  You are all presenting the same song, right? If members of your group have problems showing effective facial expressions, it won’t hurt to do crazy theatre exercises to loosen up prior to a set!  Trust me, it works.

Creativity and appropriateness of movement. Now here’s where it gets a little tricky.  Choreography and movement is admittedly quite subjective.  But what isn’t subjective (in my mind) is the effectiveness of the sound of your group while doing choreography.  In fact, many songs don’t really require much in the way of movement, especially if it’s solo driven, and then sometimes, the soloist is a strong performer and the backgrounds can comport themselves in a manner suggesting their emotional involvement in a song.  Movements, at best, should enhance the meaning of the music, and at worst, should not distract from the music. Groups should do only as much choreography and movement as they can handle, and really, no more. A focus must be placed on musical excellence, and then, from there, movements can be modified to a level that will not sacrifice the sound.

Next up, transitions and blocking.  While this seems to be a very competition-oriented category, it also is important to think about in any general performance situation.  Your group is up there in front of an audience, and you don’t want awkward silences to pierce the air between your songs.  These performances are opportunities for you to build a rapport with your audience, so that they can appreciate your performance, and perhaps even spread word to others how they can appreciate your performance, too!  

And finally, professionalism.  This category is key in separating the truly awesome groups from the rest.  Groups can interpret this category as being able to OWN the stage, not losing the audience at all, and being as confident as possible from the first pitch to the last bow.  It’s cyclical in that it refers back to the visual cohesiveness category – overall, just looking comfortable on that stage is the first step in achieving goals set within the professionalism guideline.

All in all, a cappella groups need to realize that they are singing groups that perhaps can dance or move well, but at the same time, are able to perform a song while engaging the audience and keeping up the energy.  Music is key to a cappella, and groups should recognize that the most important thing that you do on stage for a performance is make noise coming out of your mouth – and the rest of your body follows suit, of course, as applicable!  A cappella is not show choir, or a dance crew that can sing… a cappella is a cappella – and everything else is there to enhance!



I forgot to add some acknowledgements for which I wouldn't have been able to write this article.  Most of what I have covered in this article were reflected in a workshop I presented on Choreography and Movement for A Cappella at the SingStrong A Cappella Festival (http://www.singstrong.org) in Reston, DC, this year.  I gathered some opinions from several people, and they were pivotal in helping me shape my presentation, so I'd like to publically thank Amanda Newman, Peter Hollens, Amy Malkoff, Deke Sharon, Julia Hoffman, Warren Bloom, Joshua Duchan, Wes Carroll, Jonathan Minkoff, Dave Brown, and Candice Leigh Helfand for their assistance!

-Jim Diego

Jim Diego
New York City Metro Area CASA Ambassador
http://www.facebook.com/acanewyork // http://www.facebook.com/groups/acanewyork
The Red States 2007-present // http://www.redacappella.com

Great article!  My only

Great article!  My only comment is to clarify that the ICCA judging sheets doesn't require "choreography" -- and every category listed under "Visual Performance" is just as valid for when you're standing in a U and have nothing but the occasional head movement.  Even if all you have is the occasional planned movement (or not even that!), the guidelines of cohesion, transitions, etc will keep you and your audience constantly involved.  =)

Joel Levitz, SoCal CASA Ambassador SoCal CASA Embassy

I totally agree

I wish your views here were echoed by more people in the a cappella community. You basically said what I have been thinking for a long time now. Good stuff!

Agree but...

Unfortunately, I think a lot of what has happened over the last couple of years has a lot to do with awards and what they're called. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say MOST aca-folk did theater or dance or showchoir or some type of performance based activity while growing up, SO when one of the coveted awards given out at competitions like ICCA is called "Best/Outstanding Choreography"...that's what you're going to get...choreography. If we were all vying for a "Best Visual Performance" award, I'm pretty sure a completely different result would come about. Also when we're all trying to beat the back flips and jazz hands of the winners from the last couple of years, there's the constant feeling of needing to out-do them.  Not saying the name of the award should be changed...but in a GLEE-filled world, I think step-touches and ridonculously overdone choreo is probably what's going to come about especially, when the word choreography is being used instead of something like movement or visual performance.

BUT... Dear Jim, THANK YOU for posting this!

Lo Barreiro a.k.a. LoLo BaRoRo or BaLaLaLa or LoLo McRidic or JelloKitty or Lil Rhombus or Brown Sugah The Vocal Company CASA Ambassador- Greater Boston Area Musae [url=http://

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