An A Capella Talk with Deke Sharon

May 5, 2015

Carnegie-Hall-Jam

For this edition of “The Practical Conductor,” I wanted to present on the topic of contemporary a cappella, the hottest trend in choral music today. I thought there would be no better reading on the topic than this interview done by J.D. Frizzell, president of the A Cappella Education Association (acappellaeducators.com).

His subject is Deke Sharon, musical director of Pitch Perfect 1 and 2, producer of The Sing-Off, founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, arranger of over 2,000 a cappella songs, clinician and educator for groups around the world, and Brody McDonald, partner/co-creator of Camp A Cappella.

Hi Deke! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to speak with me and the readers of Choral Director magazine.  Tell me a little bit about the exciting projects you have on your plate at the moment.

Thanks, J.D. It’s a busy month: I just returned from my first Carnegie Hall performance, am writing my new theatrical show Vocalosity this week as well as editing my new book A Cappella, tag down with the two month long Sing-Off tour, then off to the new international a cappella festival VoiceJam in Arkansas, followed by a few days working with high school groups in Connecticut, then hosting the National A Cappella Convention in Memphis (see you there!), then right to Johannesburg to launch Sing-Off South Africa, back to NYC to work on a workshop for In Transit, then the Pitch Perfect 2 premiere in LA, then I start work on a new Lifetime television show where I’ll be working with high school a cappella groups in front of the camera for the first time.

Wow.  Truly amazing stuff.  How do you decide which gigs you take and which ones you pass on?  I’m guessing you have to say “no” to a lot.

I’ve spent the past two decades saying “yes” to everything, building contemporary a cappella from nothing to punch line to now flavor of the month. Unfortunately I do have to say “no” from time to time (such as custom arranging, I just don’t have time right now), but that’s a very good problem to have.

Deke Sharon

Deke Sharon

Many people may not know your formal musical training.  You have a fairly extensive traditional music education, correct?

I’ve been singing in choirs since before kindergarten, including the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and have two college degrees, including a BM from the New England Conservatory of Music in Theoretical Studies and Composition (with jazz voice as my “instrument”). That said, I learned even more from reading, observing and doing. A conservatory degree is a powerful tool, but it’s only a start.

Many choral directors are turning to a cappella as a way to recruit students and engage singers with music they recognize.  Why do you think contemporary a cappella groups are growing so fast in school choral programs?  What benefits do you see them having for young musicians?

My life’s work is to get more people to sing, to spread harmony through harmony. Everyone reading this knows the transformative power of vocal music, so no need to explain that.
What I do find I need to explain to choral directors is the value and power of popular music. No one hands a first grader a Shakespeare play and says “Here, start reading” so it’s not necessarily the best move to start every kid singing Bach. Every generation has its own popular music, and that is the single best way to reach singers, especially young singers. Music is communication, and they should start communicating something they understand and love. Then comes Monteverdi.

In other words, popular a cappella is the gateway drug to the hard stuff. “First one’s free!”

For those directors who scoff at this notion, I’d like to remind you that all of the great classics were modern once. And what will people sing from our era in 300 years? Popular music: The Beatles, Michael Jackson. “Blackbird” is essentially a folk song, and “Man in the Mirror” a future hymn, and so on. Why let our ancestors have all the fun?

What advice would you have for a choral director starting a new a cappella group?  Where can they go for advice, strategies, arrangements, and resources?

The number one question I’m asked is “I have a degree in choral conducting, I know the repertoire… but how can I possibly teach and direct popular music? I haven’t had even an hour studying it?”

The answer is that you know popular music. It’s all around you, in every elevator, grocery store, automobile. As the old commercial says: you’re soaking in it! Take the strong pedological fundamentals you know and apply them to this new repertoire. Pitch is pitch, rhythm is rhythm.

Then the one additional suggestion I’d give you is: if your group is able to perform without you standing in front of them waving your arms, let them! They should look right at the audience and sing, and unless the tempo fluctuates, they should be fine on their own. You’ve taught them well, now let them communicate directly with the audience, instead of staring straight at you.

You are the co-director of Camp A Cappella. Can you tell us more about what that is and who it is for?

For decades I’d wanted to start a contemporary a cappella summer camp, and finally the time was right. My philosophy is that everyone can sing and should sing, so everyone is welcome age 13-130, and we put people in groups according to their age and level. People fly in from around the world to make new friends and sing in large ensembles, small ensembles, and study a variety of “aca-majors”: from vocal percussion to arranging. We also have a track for complete groups, who are able to come and choose their own focus.
Plus, we have a separate track for music educators, giving you a chance to both sing with your peers and direct a select teen group, while earning education credits so you can go home with new repertoire, new contacts, new ideas and a bump in salary.

Sounds pretty awesome.  I think I’m bringing my group this summer!

Sweet! We’ll custom tailor the experience for them based on your goals. Do they want to learn new repertoire? Become comfortable with hand-held wireless mics? Work on blocking, choreography, stage presence, group arranging, improvisation, extended vocal techniques, solo performance? You name it, we pair you with a collection of experts who will make it the most productive week of the year. And they’ll have a chance to both watch performances (this year we have The Filharmonic and GQ, among others), as well as perform themselves.

A lot of us are not very familiar with vocal percussion.  I would say it is the number one concern I hear from other choral directors.  Do you have any suggestions of how we can educate ourselves on terminology and teaching strategies for this?

First of all, know that I started weaving vocal percussion and other instrumental sounds into my arrangements because it was integral to capturing the sound of current popular music. It’s just impossible to “shooby doo wop” your way through a Peter Gabriel or Ed Sheeran tune.

That said, vocal percussion is a very specific skill set that lives alongside printed sheet music. You should find one or two people in your group who are interested in it and then set them free to work on it on their own. I started a new web site – www.acappella.how – which has information about all aspects of a cappella including a lengthy section on vocal percussion/beatboxing. Send them there to start. And remind them that keeping a steady beat is more important than perfectly mimicking sounds or creating intricate polyrhythms. Be a drummer, which is sometimes very repetitive, but also very important.

As they develop a set of sounds and styles you can marry the one that feels best to each song. Vocal percussion isn’t notated (how many drummers can read drum notation?), and if you’re unsure what they groove should be, have your vocal percussionist jam along with the original recording to find a feel that works.

How big should the ideal a cappella group be? I’ve seen groups as small as three and as big as thirty-three.

It really depends on the circumstance and situation. If you only have three singers, make the most of them. South Africa’s biggest a cappella group right now, The Soil, is a trio, but they’re all great singers, so I can’t recommend one on a part for a new group. However, for a young group SSA is a good way to start (and I just published several recent pop songs in SSA format).
As for maximum size, there’s no limit. I had 400 singers in Carnegie Hall… make that 3,200 once the audience started singing along. Which reminds me: you should get your audiences clapping, snapping, stomping and singing with you. Full contact a cappella. People love to sing, they just need the right invitation to the party.

You worked with groups of varying size and voicing on The Sing-Off. Did you find that there were any innate advantages or disadvantages to the mixed groups versus the all male and all female ones? Anything a choral director may want to consider when forming a new group?

Not really. There are so many different personalities and styles of singing in this world. The challenge, and fun, is finding the right songs and custom tailoring them to each group so they sound their best and grab people’s hearts. There’s no better or worse, just different.

I tire of the notion that women’s a cappella groups aren’t as full or rich as men’s groups. They’re just different. No one looks at a black and white Ansel Adams photograph and says “That would look a lot better in color”. All art is about creating within certain boundaries, and for a women’s group the boundaries are their vocal ranges, which create some unique challenges, but certainly no insurmountable hurdles. No instrument can make people laugh or cry in just a few seconds like the human voice, so it’s actually not a fair fight. The string quartets in the world are the ones that should need a handicap to compete against us.

That makes sense. So where do you see contemporary a cappella going in the next five years?  What are the major trends?  What are your personal goals for the movement?
I don’t think we’re slowing down anytime soon, be it movies (Pitch Perfect 2 is going to be a huge hit, paving the way), television (The Sing Off is on it’s fourth continent, and my new Lifetime show will give people insight behind the scenes), and so on. We still have some new frontiers left (like Broadway), but they will be ours soon.
The trends will continue to morph, as young professional groups and college groups continue to follow the sound of current pop radio, keeping us from calcifying into a single sound and style (like doo-wop).

As for personal goals, I want to get more people singing, whatever it takes. Right now the focus is on motivation, showing people through the mass media how great and fun vocal harmony can be. All of our ancestors sang, be it around the campfire after the hunt, or around the living room after dinner… but then recorded music and television came along and now most people collapse into their couches at the end of the day and watch others sing. They’d be happier, healthier, and more connected to their communities if they got off their butts and into a group, and the best way to make that happen is to create the motivation and the opportunity. I’m working on both sides.

I’m thrilled to be a part of it and to see where it goes. Thank you again for sharing your time and insight with us!

My pleasure. There is no one more essential to creating harmony through harmony in this world than choral directors. You guys are on the front lines, every day, changing lives, inspiring your students, and giving them a reason to excel in life, stay in school, work through their emotions in music, and connect with others in a meaningful way. If ever any directors have ideas or insights for me as to how I can better motivate more singers and/or make your lives and careers easier, please let me know. We’re all in this together!
For more information on Deke, go to dekesharon.com

J.D. Frizzell is the president of The A Cappella Education Association, a nonprofit committed to the creation and development of a cappella groups, programs, and curricula across America. His high school a cappella group, OneVoice, is a SONY recording artist hailed as “one of the best a cappella groups…period”.  He is the director of Fine Arts and Vocal Music at Briarcrest Christian School in Eads, TN.

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