Dear A Cappella Groups,
Ditch the semi-circle. Please. I beg you.
While it is certainly the most popular setup for an a cappella group, the semi-circle is visually underwhelming. It allows everyone in the group to hear each other to some extent, but it doesn’t always allow for the right people to hear who they need the most.
Consider something different, maybe instrument groupings. What do I mean by that? I mean if there are 2-3 voice parts acting as horn parts throughout a song, put them in a small clump. The two middle parts doing lots of rhythmic syllables? Yeah, put them together, too. Bass and vocal percussion? You bet. The soloist should be in front and a few steps closer to the audience than everyone else, especially if you are not singing on microphones (for balance purposes). Basically, you’re looking for homophonic textures and placing them together for maximum rhythmic energy, precision, and articulation.
Here’s a recent video of what we did with “Perfect World” by Allen Stone (arranged Robert Dietz). I’m sure we’ll add a bit more to this, but what we did took 3 minutes the day of the actual performance (ideally, it would have been the day before, step 4 in my process). You’ll see the top voices in the clump on stage right, the bass and VP in the center back, and the low alto, tenor, and baritones on stage left. When soloists alternate (which I would only do in rare circumstances when the music is enhanced by it), they switch spots.
By clumping them into instrument groups, you not only help musically, you also point the audience to the various parts visually. It’s a simple change from the semi-circle, but a powerful one. Try it and tell me what you think!
EDIT: The semicircle can be GREAT, especially for choral music and for beginning contemporary a cappella groups.