Dear A Cappella Competition Organizers,
There was a time when I heard a lot of groups roll their eyes when they heard the word choreography. The complaints went something like this: we’re singers, not dancers. We’re not wasting our time learning a dance routine to every song.
Times have changed. As the audience for live a cappella has grown, there’s more and more demand for groups to not just vocalize, but perform their material, and that’s particularly true in competition settings.
To over-simplify, let’s look at this hypothetical case: Group A and Group B give ostensibly equal aural performances—their pitch, rhythm, technique, and level of difficulty is all about the same. The difference is that while Group A stands in an arc with a soloist at center stage for every song and barely bobs, let alone dances, Group B stages a full on production, complete with grapevines, back flips, hand motions to align with the lyrics, and, of course, a big wall of sound moment on the finish. Again, assuming the aural properties are on the same level, Group B probably comes out ahead in this pairing for being more entertaining, not to mention executing at an extra level of difficulty for maintaining their sound amidst all of the challenging physicality of the performance.
Over the past few years, the times have changed all over again. We went from groups rejecting or begrudgingly embracing choreography to the opposite extreme of everyone choreographing every second of every competition set (not to mention plenty of non-competition songs). It got to the point that a set like the one that won Pitch Slapped the 2015 ICCA Championship was refreshing for sheer naturalism of showmanship—that the performers on stage came across as genuinely breezy because we weren’t watching musical theater, but rather professional-caliber musicians simply emoting, and looking comfortable in their own skin.
The funny thing is, in the past couple years, there doesn’t seem to be much of a divide about over-choreographing being undesirable in contemporary a cappella. We all agree less is more and we don’t want a non-essential box-step or Charleston. So why do groups keep doing it?
We chalk up some of the over-choreographing to a fad. True excesses will weed themselves out over time, just like the No Fear t-shirts my friends wore in junior high or folks playing Pokemon Go while driving last summer. Some of what comes across as excessive choreography is a matter evolution—what we think of as too much now may well be the new norm in ten years. But there’s also a more simple, accessible root issue at play here.
Time and again, I’ve heard competition organizers and adjudicators themselves belabor the point that we need to all chill on the choreography. And yet, in addition to the more ambiguous “visual presentation” being a part of so many competitions, why do so many competitions also still give out awards for Best Choreography?
Why do we do this?
The simple answer is that we do want to reward great staging, and a group that does a truly magnificent job with staging may not place in competition, but still ought to earn some recognition. Just like we give awards for top soloists and top vocal percussionists. Fair enough. But we do not have an epidemic of groups sacrificing sound, or over-saturating our senses via great solo or VP work.
We do have that choreo problem.
I’m not suggesting that we stop recognizing compelling visuals altogether. Organizations like Varsity Vocals rightly include on their score sheets visuals like professionalism, cohesiveness, and stage presence—in other words visual elements that actually enhance a performance. Moreover, if you want to have a special award for visuals, careful readers might notice the subtle tweak that I started including in my live event reviews years back—I don’t recognize best or outstanding choreography, but rather give a nod to best visual presentation.
Reframing the conversation from choreo to a stricter focus on how staging furthers the music places the emphasis where we all want it—on purposefully planning an engaging show. No, “Most Appropriate Movement” is not as sexy as a “Best Choreography” prize, but let’s all be the change we wish to see in the world and start the conversation by no longer rewarding that which we don’t really want to see.