Competitive show choirs rehearse and perform productions that feature songs with a common thread, outstanding soloists, costumes, choreography, and an overall “wow” factor. Whether you have a show choir, are interested in starting one, or simply want to learn more, we’re prepared to be a resource for you! Our choral editor, Jennifer Moorhatch, spoke with an expert in the field, Anita Cracauer, about all the ins and outs of directing a show choir.
Anita began her show choir career as an accompanist for her high school show choir. She studied music education in college, then founded ShowChoirStock—an online catalog of arrangements designed for competitive show choirs—in 2008 and has been expanding her catalogue ever since. In addition to writing original songs for show choirs, Anita leads songwriting workshops and clinics, consults with various show choirs, and serves as an adjudicator for show choir competitions.
J.W. Pepper now carries complete shows from ShowChoirStock, and our conversation with Anita contains a purchasing tutorial as well as an overview of all the components that are included in your purchase of a complete show.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
J.W. Pepper: Welcome, Anita! We’re so excited to learn from your expertise today.
Anita Cracauer: I’m excited to be here!
JWP: Let’s start by talking about show choir shows and the competitive world of show choir.
AC: A show choir show consists of a group of songs performed in order. A show has coherence: the songs go together in some way in order to take the audience on a journey. There are competitions and festivals held for show choir all across the United States and Canada, and that’s where show choirs perform and compete.
Shows can be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes long, but most fall around 15 to 18 minutes. A competitive choir chooses one show to learn and compete with each year, and that’s called their competition show. Some may also do another fall show to train incoming students or perform at a community event, but the competition show is typically the one production that groups will work on all year and present to the world.
JWP: What is the goal of a show?
AC: I would say that, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the three goals of a show form a pyramid. Show choirs must satisfy the first goal at the bottom of the pyramid before working upwards.
The first, most basic goal is to engage the audience—to grab and keep their attention. After that, the second-level goal would be to entertain the audience. Trust me: you can have your attention grabbed by a show without it being a positive experience!
Finally, the highest-level goal is emotional connection. At some point, you really should be trying to emotionally connect with your audience. As a performer, you want to be able to portray a certain emotion and have the audience feel that same emotion.
JWP: Are there different types of shows?
AC: Yes, there are there are a few different types of shows.
The two less common types would be a statement show, which protests an injustice or makes a political statement, and a salute or tribute show. The types we tend to see most often are playlist shows and story shows.
A playlist show is a more traditional choice. In a playlist show, the group of songs comprising the show share a common theme. This shared theme could be a word, title, artist, time period, or genre of music.
Story shows have become much more popular over the last 10 years in competitive show choir. Story shows have an intricate or loose plot, which the group conveys through lyrics, costuming, set props, and acting. There may be dialogue or soloists playing lead characters, and story shows can be comedic, dramatic, or both.
JWP: Why would a director choose to program a complete show?
AC: I would say that kids—performer kids, anyway—just love to put on a show!
One of the most recent episodes of Oprah Winfrey’s podcast, Oprah’s Super Soul, featured an author named Daniel Pink whose most recent book is called A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. He talked about how the world is shifting towards right brain abilities.
Left-brain abilities—logical, analytical thinking—used to dominate fields like business, law, and medicine, but creative abilities like artistry, empathy, design, and story are becoming more and more important in today’s world. You can probably see it in all the media that you watch: businesses are using the power of storytelling to set products apart and capture the interest of potential customers. Over the last 10 years, I feel the art of show choir has gone in the same direction. Telling a story makes it so much easier to achieve that highest goal of connecting with your audience.
Motivating your students is another factor. When it comes to motivating students to perform, having the goal of connecting with an audience is healthier than focusing just on winning a competition.
Whether it’s a story show or a playlist show, only a complete show can offer the educational experience of taking the audience on a journey. Building that emotional connection helps kids grow and mature in a way that performing just one song can’t.
JWP: How would you define show design?
AC: I like to quote Mike Weaver, one of the top choreographers in show choir and a legend in the field. As he puts it: if a show is a journey, show design is the roadmap. It’s a carefully planned checklist of the visual and musical elements that you plan to incorporate.
When you perform a show, you’re making a promise to your audience: we will hook you in, take you on a seamless journey, reach a final destination, and make an emotional connection with you along the way.
JWP: What is the most important principle of show design?
AC: I would say the most important principle to keep in mind as you’re designing a show is to incorporate variety!
Whether it’s a piece of music, a novel, or a show choir show, all art is based on a cycle of building and then releasing tension. That cycle drives your show, and you achieve it by contrasting different artistic elements.
You can achieve musical variety by using many different musical styles and genres in your show. Visual variety comes with not putting everyone in the same costume and using a wide variety of pictures and color. In your choreography, incorporate lots of different styles and types of movement. Varied textures can include different facial expressions, voicings, and scoring. And, of course, emotional variety means that your audience should experience a wide range of emotions over the course of the show.
JWP: After deciding on your show, what is the next step?
AC: If you choose a playlist show, it’ll definitely be easier to choose your music, but it might be harder to create that emotional connection to your audience. So, make sure that your roadmap has several emotional punches along the way.
Think of the last concert you went to: how did the artist connect with you while performing a “playlist” of their hits? Artists may not tell a story during their concerts, but they definitely form an emotional connection with their audiences. Try to incorporate some of those elements into your playlist show.
Again, variety is so important, and it can be easily overlooked in a playlist show. For example, if you’re doing a 1980s show, some of the music can be similar.
JWP: Same tempo, same groove…
AC: Yes! So, you could overlook that crucial element of variety with an eighties show—but you don’t have to! There’s definitely a wide variety of pop music out there, especially when it comes to the 1980s, so just make sure to be mindful.
If you choose a story show, you’ll need to spend more time finding songs or arrangements that will help tell your story in the way that you want. Many directors will commission customized arrangements or even original music to fit their storyline perfectly.
If you don’t go that route, you’ll want to pay a lot of attention to your lyrics. Lyrics are the most important artistic element in a story show. They don’t have to be completely on the nose: it’s okay to tell your story in a broader way. Telling a new story with a familiar song is a great way to breathe life into your show! Audiences love to hear familiar songs in a new context. It makes them think about the songs in a whole new way.
The mood of each song needs to fit your story, too. The vibe and lyrics work together to speak to each emotion you’re working to portray. For example, Heartache Tonight by the Eagles is a fun, flirty, upbeat shuffle. I was once asked to arrange that song in a minor key with a slower, more intense rock feel and all of a sudden, the vibe completely changed. The song became moody, ominous, dark.
JWP: Sometimes, when one artist covers a song by another artist, it chafes—but at other times, the cover adds something new and exciting. It seems like show choir shows and custom arrangements give you the opportunity to change things up in a way that creates a new point of view.
AC: And those arrangements—those that give a familiar song a completely new interpretation—can be some of the most exciting and interesting!
JWP: As you’re choosing the songs for your show, how do you decide on their order?
AC: As you’re planning your show, you need to pay careful attention to pacing. That’s the dramatic arc that’s created by your song order: the rising action and the falling action. Again, think of way novel and movie plots are constructed. I would say the most common starter-level show choir show has five songs, each with a unique function.
The first song, the opener, hooks your audience. Your goal, theme, or story should be clearly established right away. This where you make a promise to the audience: here’s where we are; this is the journey that’s about to happen. The opener should engage your audience immediately by introducing your world in an interesting way. The opener doesn’t have to be super-loud or fast, as long as it’s intense and attention-grabbing.
We like to call the second song the change of pace because it contrasts with the opener. This is where you’ll release some of that tension that the opener built up and create a valley in the dramatic arc. Still, you can’t lose your engagement with your audience! Make sure the change of pace keeps their interest. If you’re doing a story show, this song should advance the plot.
The third song, the midpoint of the show, is typically where directors will program a ballad. This is a good place to slow down and show off your vocals and the best opportunity for emotional connection with your audience. Make sure to have tension and release within the ballad: while it’s the lowest point of the show action-wise, you still need the intensity of a rise and fall. Think of a dramatic show tune that’s musically interesting and intense. A pop ballad is generally not a good choice for a show choir ballad. Look for an interesting, poetic song that will form emotional connection through the lyrics in a deeper way, with plenty of descriptive imagery.
The fourth song can be a transition number, a production number, or a costume change sequence. If you’re simply going to move from your ballad to the closer, the goal here is just to pick the tempo back up, get the action going again, and restart the dramatic arc. If you want to show off your dancers with a big choreography number, this is usually the best place to put it. The fourth song is a good place for a costume change, since that visual change can help to heighten interest. With the fourth song, the most important thing is to rebuild momentum and set up your closer.
The last song, the closer, will usually have the fastest tempo of the whole show. What you want is a drive to the finish, a heightened sense of intensity. The closer is the show’s climax and, if it’s a story show, where the story is finished. Don’t disappoint your audience with a confusing story! Make sure that what’s happening is obvious and hit that peak moment with the right length and intensity.
JWP: We’re so happy that we now have your music available for purchase on our website! Let’s talk a little bit more about your specific products, including the complete shows.
AC: Our products are musical arrangements specifically designed for competitive show choir.
All of our songs were arranged to fulfill any one of the show functions that we just went over accurately and appropriately, with those goals in mind. Also, they’re written with intensity, which heightens emotion in order to foster connection. We know that it takes intensity in order to achieve emotional connection; you can’t achieve that with the standard chart that’s written for a one-time concert performance.
You can buy the arrangements in a complete bundle that gives you all of the scores for every voicing available. You’ll get every piano/vocal voicing, you’ll get all of the scores for the instrumentalists. Full score, too, as well as all of the tracks with the songs. So, that’s a full vocal track, instrumental-only track, and then all part-dominant tracks for the dominant voicing.
Also, if you don’t have a backup band or you want to perform these songs in concert, you can buy the piano/vocal octavo only as a less expensive option. And now, we have the instrumental backing tracks and part-dominant practice tracks available for separate purchase as well.
JWP: What types of choirs would buy the complete show kits? What would they be looking for?
AC: The complete predesigned shows that we now offer through J.W. Pepper would be great for a brand-new director or a director that’s brand-new to show choir. It’s a wonderful option to purchase a predesigned show and know you’re going to get something great.
Once you start to get your feet wet in the competitive world and you’ve gone to a few competitions, you may be ready to start designing your own shows. Let’s face it, it’s so fun and creatively fulfilling to design your own show. I love doing it!
JWP: How much does it cost to create your own show?
AC: It can get very expensive, let me tell you! If you have a song custom-arranged for your show, you can expect to pay anywhere from $500 on the low end to upwards of $3,000 or more on the high end—just for one song. That rate depends on your arranger’s experience, level of talent, and level of demand.
The pricing of each predesigned ShowChoirStock complete show reflects a 10% discount off the retail price of each individual song. Buying a predesigned complete show gives you an immediate cost savings: you can get a predesigned chart for half the price of the cheapest custom-arranged chart. Predesigned charts are very attractive to brand-new show choirs and show choirs with limited budgets.
JWP: Absolutely! We hope that our customers will find these pre-designed shows to be useful and economical options.
Because these shows are available as digital downloads on our site, customers can buy them and be rehearsing within minutes, which is so exciting. Could we do a digital unboxing of buying a kit on the J.W. Pepper website and talk about what customers can expect once they purchase one?
AC: Let’s do it!
JWP: When you’re looking for these on the J.W. Pepper website, you’ll first go to the school choral page. Then, select “show choir” within the left-hand menu. Under the show choir tab, you’ll find a new heading called “complete shows.” You can search by title or scroll through to see your options. Then, you can click to purchase! You’ll receive a ZIP file.
AC: As you open your ZIP file, you’ll first see all the piano/vocal scores of every song in the show in every available voicing.
JWP: And directors can copy as many as they need for their singers?
AC: Exactly. Also, you can switch back and forth between piano/vocal scores in in the different available voicings according to the needs of your show.
JWP: They’re all compatible, too?
AC: Yes! You also get a full score for every song, including individual scores for your instrumentalists.
The next thing you’ll see is all of the MP3 tracks for each song. That includes a full vocal track and a full instrumental-only track for every song along with all part-predominant tracks for the dominant voicing.
We’re also happy to create part-predominant tracks for you. Just contact us and we’ll deliver them at no extra charge.
JWP: That’s a nice added benefit. Once you’ve downloaded and printed all the files, are you ready to rehearse?
AC: Yes, it’s as easy as that!
Also, I wanted to mention that we offer both the playlist-type and story-type shows that we’ve carefully curated from our catalog of show choir music.
There are four story shows that were conceived and written from scratch with the competitive show choir stage in mind, and they’re 100% original music. Those are really special shows.
One of the shows is called The American Dream, and it was written by Ben Wexler. Ben is a very talented New York composer who writes for musical theater and show choir. This is such a touching show! It’s the story of an immigrant who comes to America from Ireland in the 1920s, and we see the story played out from the perspective of the immigrant’s granddaughter.
Go to the video timestamp at 35:40 to watch clips of Auburn Varsity Singers’ performance of The American Dream and hear Anita’s commentary.
AC: I’m so happy that J.W. Pepper has decided to get more involved in the competitive show choir arena! I’m honored to be a representative of the competitive show choir world for J.W. Pepper.
JWP: Thank you so much for joining us today, Anita! This has been so informative. Hopefully, many of our customers will find some inspiration and ideas for their upcoming shows. We’re so excited to be able to partner with you in this venture.
AC: Thank you for having me!
We’d like to thank Anita Cracauer once again for taking the time to speak with us. We hope this interview helped you learn about the world of competitive show choir and everything that goes into putting on a show!
All the music we discussed today is available at jwpepper.com. Use the links below to find complete shows, individual titles from ShowChoirStock, and more.
If you found this interview helpful or you have an idea for future content, please let us know by leaving a comment below!