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Physical Expression in the Barbershop World

Physical Expression in the Barbershop World

Judges continually attempt to improve their systems, and through that, improve the understanding of our performers. In that light, Performance Category Specialist Mark Kettner reached out to Mike Lietke with an assignment.

Mark had noticed certain recurring themes in postcontest evaluations: Some chorus members and other Barbershoppers believe the Performance category no longer values choreography—they believe judges think it is dated, clichéd, or not genuine. Some chorus members believe the immense choreographic routines of some choruses get in the way of the music. Some chorus performances occur where singers are not emotionally motivated by the music, due to unclear planning or not understanding what is to be communicated.

We mustered a coast-to-coast, international, all-star cast of Performance judges: Judy Pozsgay, Marty Lovick, Sean Devine, and Mike Kelly. Their goal: framing today’s relationship between effective choreographic styles and the music we all love. Judy and Mike co-authored this fine article on behalf of the committee—we hope it can be a helpful resource to performers and judges alike!

– Mike Lietke, Performance judge

Paint with all the Colors

Four years ago, when the Presentation category became the Performance category, we imagined a barbershop world with artistry as the norm and at the center. It’s working! Our Society is developing performance principles from many different genres to influence our barbershop art form.

The Ambassadors of Harmony perform at the 2019 International Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah

Our judging community is growing as well, learning more about a multitude of performance styles so we can better adjudicate what we are seeing. When it comes to the elements of planned or unplanned physical expression, both the audience and judges want you to paint your performance with all the colors available to you.

In the past, many barbershop performers expected to be told what to do and how to do it. This guidance led to a paintby-numbers mentality where many performances looked and felt very similar.

Now, our sincere hope is that we, as educators, learn to hand over the brush and allow you, the artist, to discover yourself. We encourage you to create your own art, whatever that may be. There is no definition to what a barbershop performance must look like. You are the artist.

This expanding of the color palette is already happening and we are seeing more variety and choices than ever before. The 2019 International Chorus Contest showcased an amazing variety of artistic performance styles. Westminster Chorus brought us musical theater staging blended with an acrobatic dance routine. The Ambassadors of Harmony mixed stunning theater with beautiful visual and metaphorical art. Zero8 presented a stunning, somber piece featuring still moments of reverence that reflected the chorus’s choral music culture.

How are they doing it? Read on!


Let’s dispel the myth that Performance judges no longer wish to see choreography or a lot of movement, and that the new trend is to stand and sing. This is simply not true. Just as most everyday communication is visual, physical expression is a critical part of expressing the music during performances. Successfully planned and executed movement or choreography can enhance a performance and create a positive impact on the audience.

However, the types and styles of physical expression are not prescribed by the judging community—nor by your audiences. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. What worked for another ensemble will not necessarily work for yours. You choose what you will paint.

So, how do you determine what type of physical expression to include? The impact of any movement depends on its entertainment value. However, nothing is universally enjoyed, and what is considered entertainment is a moving target. For these reasons, the guiding principles usually come back to three questions:

• Does the movement serve the music?

• Does the movement serve the ensemble?

• Will it have a positive impact on audience enjoyment?

In short, both the plan design and the execution of the plan determine the entertainment value.


Any physical movement, planned or unplanned, will ideally be contemplated in advance. Consider the following:

• Does it support the music (e.g. era, style, comedy) and arrangement?

• Does it enhance the musical interpretation (rhythms, dynamics, characterizations)?

• Does it complement the lyric/story?

• Does it strengthen the musical journey?

• Is it appropriate to your abilities?

• Will it show off the group’s assets?

• Does it demonstrate your creativity?

• Might the plan potentially compromise ensemble unity or become a distraction?

• How is the director incorporated into the plan?

When designing your performance plan, also consider the many styles of physical expression found in the performance world. (The following text is based on the information provided in the chart on page 20.) The chart lists just some of your colors and not an exhaustive list of styles to draw from. But please do have a conscious plan that considers hallmarks, common use, rewards, and risks.

Mix styles. You don’t need to select only one—use any number of approaches within a song. Just be sure you understand the risks and rewards of working within the various styles.

Go where the music and lyrics guide you. A gentle hymn would be oddly served with a dance routine.

Consider the audience. Who is normally the audience for this song? What is the venue? What is the current social climate? The answers may change your approach.

What is suitable for your ensemble? Don’t ask how you can do what the champs did—you do you. Westminster Chorus threw a guy 15 feet in the air because (a) it was appropriate to the music and (b) the chorus has two super-strong Crossfit members and a gymnast. Work within your own ensemble’s strengths.

Determine your skills and work with them. Many new groups joining the Society have a huge history of show tune performance. Let’s see it. Maybe you are a young group with tons of energy. Bring it! Maybe you want to share a message only you can share. Share it!


Regardless of how thoughtful and intentional a plan may be designed, its effectiveness is determined by your on-stage delivery.

Heavy Medal Chorus from the German Alliance BinG! performed on several shows during the 2016 International Convention in Nashville.

Because your goal is to communicate the song to the audience, consider the following when assessing the plan’s execution:

• Does the plan get “off paper”? Do the performers embrace the physical expression in a natural, authentic manner that contributes to the audience’s musical experience? Does execution of the plan result in an integrated visual product?

• Are the moves founded in character and purpose, and personalized by the performer?

• Does the execution of the plan interfere with the musical product? Is singing stamina compromised by your physical expression?

• Does your approach to physicality and energy result in visual distractions that might compromise the ensemble?

• The planning and execution of physical expression must have the intent to captivate the audience. The success of physical expression is ultimately determined by how audiences receive your plan.

• During a chorus contest, imagine that you are a Performance judge tasked with providing feedback and coaching regarding physical expression. Much of what you share will include what type of movement worked and why.


Get the most out of your practice. If you have decided to build a theatrical routine, make sure you understand the tenets of theatrical performance, have theater warmups, and get your members into an acting headspace. Same with any other genre: pick the rehearsal methods that will develop your style-specific skills.

Pick the right coach. Great coaches are rarely great in all areas. For example, only a handful of barbershop coaches know how to draw out the precision needed to make a complex chorus marching number great.

Surprise us. Audiences want to see something we haven’t seen before. Create something new or refreshed—something that pushes you to examine what you are doing.


Physical expression is a powerful tool to captivate your audiences. It is exciting to think of the endless possibilities and creative opportunities we have as a community to express ourselves physically and aurally. As stated by influential ballet choreographer George Balanchine, “Dance is music made visible."

Let us integrate these aspects early in the process of learning and rehearsing to encourage greater degree of freedom and authentic movement. By doing so, we can be further down the path of more effortlessly engaging our audiences, regardless of the amount or style of physical expression we choose to use.

You are the artist. Go paint!