The Rise of A Cappella

An Interview with CASA Founder and Sing-Off Producer Deke Sharon

Choral music—especially a cappella choral music—is more popular than ever it seems. Chorus America sat down with Deke Sharon, founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA) and a producer of NBC's The Sing-Off, to get the inside scoop behind the a cappella choral music movement and its current place in pop culture.

Often called the "father of contemporary a cappella," Deke Sharon has been singing a cappella since the age of five and spent his formative years with one foot in traditional choral idioms (church choir, San Francisco Boys Chorus, madrigal groups, barbershop quartets) and the other in rock bands.

The two came together during his tenure as music director of the Tufts' Beelzebubs, and he formed the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA) in hopes of creating a community of like-minded acappellaheads. In addition, Deke founded and performs with the vocal rock band The House Jacks. The group has produced seven full-length albums and completed multiple world tours.

As a producer, Deke arranges for and directs the ensembles on NBC's a cappella competition reality show, The Sing-Off.

Chorus America caught up with Deke to talk to him about the rise of a cappella, The Sing-Off, and how he thinks about choral music:

Glee on FOX, The Choir on BBC America, The Sing-Off on NBC, choral flash mobs and tons of choral music in commercials, the collegiate a cappella explosion, Straight No Chaser, articles like this from the Washington Post in the mainstream press—how do you explain the popularity of a cappella right now?

I think anyone who professes to have a clear answer is fooling themselves. Interest in a cappella has been cyclical throughout the past 100 years, be it barbershop, doo-wop, close harmony singing, or the wave that lasted from "Kiss Him Goodbye" in 1987 to "It's Alright" in 1994, and it seems to be time again. Of course the music never wanes—people are always singing, groups always performing—it's just that the public eye swings around to us again. It feels good to be at the beginning of another wave.

The Sing-Off features 10 a cappella groups from all different backgrounds performing in an American Idol-like format. What does your role as a producer of The Sing-Off entail?

Technically, I think "producer" is equivalent to "do whatever it takes to get the job done." That's what I did during the first season when I was brought on only as a vocal arranger: I made sure the monitor mixes were able to swell when the audience noise got out of hand, that the EQ in the house was favorable to the judges' ears, that the wardrobe changes during the live show would not leave the singers out of breath after a commercial break, that the singers were emotionally and vocally prepared, and so on.

Now, I do absolutely anything that will affect the performances, from finding and convincing great groups to come on the show to keeping them sane through the process of long, emotionally and physically draining rehearsals. And that's in addition to arranging songs and directing the performances for each episode, which is my core responsibility. I have lost weight both seasons from running around so much, but it's worth it. This music is my life's work, and it absolutely thrills me that we now have a prime-time outlet so that people everywhere can share in the joy and amazing artistry within contemporary a cappella.

How is this year's Sing-Off going to be different from last year's show? What are the expected viewership numbers? Who do you hope it reaches?

This year I was involved from the very beginning, at every casting interview. We searched high and low for the nation's best unsigned a cappella groups (we couldn't invite Take 6, obviously). I'm very happy with this year's batch of amazing talent, and only hope we get to do this for many more years as there were fantastic groups we couldn't include but that America very much needs to see.

You know how every reality competition seems to have the person who says, 'I didn't come here to make friends'? Well, we don't have that on The Sing-Off. Within 24 hours, groups are laughing together, jamming together, giving each other backrubs, and generally acting like they're all on the same team, which they are.

Expected viewership? Hahahahahahaha!!!!! If only that were possible, the networks would sleep more easily at night! We had around 8 million viewers last year, and I'm sure they're hoping for more—though we came in second every night, which is pretty good. Ideally we'd love American Idol or at least Glee numbers, but with NBC in last place among major networks, we have some uphill climbing to do. Luckily this year's show is much stronger—we rethought everything from the ground up, now that we had one season under our belts—and I think the result is astounding.

Even choral directors who do not listen to popular music will be impressed with the technical prowess of these amateur singers. And everyone needs to remember that popular vocal music is a gateway drug to the more hardcore stuff. Teenagers rarely wake up wanting to sing Monteverdi, but get 'em in a choir and within a year they'll understand and appreciate polyphony. I'm fighting this fight for all of us.

Can you share a telling story from behind the scenes?

One telling story is about the lack of drama on the show. You know how every reality competition seems to have the person who says, "I didn't come here to make friends"? Well, we don't have that. Within 24 hours, groups are laughing together, jamming together, giving each other backrubs, and generally acting like they're all on the same team, which they are.

I tell them on the first day that "the other people in this room are not your enemies, or even your competition. They are your best allies. Your enemy is the remote control. You do not want a single group here to fall on their face. In fact, you want them all to be spectacular and breathtaking. You want the judges to pull their hair out, and when each of you goes home, because nine of the ten of you will, it's no repudiation of your talent or music. Judging art is impossible and foolish. However, it's the only thing that will get us on prime-time television, so consider yourselves all winners right here and now, and let's have a great time for the next month showing America what we can do."

What do you hope the Sing-Off accomplishes from your standpoint as the founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA)?

I think people need to sing. Everyone. Our ancestors did, around a fire. It's communication, and an essential part of who we are. But most people compare themselves against Beverly Sills and Bono, and thus relegate their voices to the car and shower. This needs to change. I've created the Contemporary A Cappella League to help adults create and find casual singing groups in their areas, but more than anything we need to let people know that this music exists, then convince people that they can sing. Step by step.

Tell us more about the Contemporary A Cappella League. It's to help post-collegiate singers and adults form their own groups so that a cappella isn't relegated to just a collegiate or fully professional experience, right?

Right. Marry the communal joy of singing together with the repertoire people already know, and you have the general idea. The groups are usually about collegiate a cappella group in size—12 to 20—which makes for a nice family, but not so small as to make it impossible to miss a gig because your kid is sick or you have to work late on a big proposal.

Repertoire is important. It's what distinguishes a cappella from other choral experiences that you may already have, like a church, community, or barbershop choir. Where do you go if you want to sing the music of your life? The music you listen to on your way to work, that you had at your wedding, that contains countless personal memories? That, I think, is the difference. James Taylor, Beatles, John Mayer, Madonna, Lady Gaga. This is our music, and by creating an outlet where people can sing it casually, among friends, we have the best chance of getting the maximum number of people singing.

You perform with your own group, The House Jacks, and you're a highly respected arranger. What makes a song easy or hard to arrange for voices alone?

The key to any great arrangement in my opinion is two-fold. First involves knowing your group, its strengths and its limitations. What can they do well, what will they do well, and what do you want to shy away from? This is easiest when you're custom arranging for a specific group, and hardest when you're arranging something for publication that will be sung by a wide variety of singers. To this end, I always encourage people to change my work however they'd like. Make it better. If I were there, I'd do the same.

The other piece involves understanding a song. What are its strengths and shortcomings? And what do you want to have your singers say through this interpretation? Music is communication, and an arrangement is simply a road map to help a group express a song, so you want to maximize the message and otherwise get out of the way. I like a clever, complex, crystalline arrangement as much as the next music nerd, but in the end what will make the audience cry? What will make them clap along, leap to their feet in joy? That's what you're looking for. Find it in the original, and put it on the page in such a way as to make it easy for your singers to find it and share it.

What's your take on the two divergent trends in a cappella recordings at the moment—one highly produced with Auto-Tune (e.g. Glee), and the other returning to DIY, self-produced recordings?

I like them both. To me music, as communication, can be expressed in myriad ways. I love the sound of a second grader reciting the tale of the first Thanksgiving, and the rush of insight when a great professor leads you through quantum mechanics. With music, the point is to feel something, and that can be done with a pile of effects or with none, the same way you can catch your breath at the sight of a beautiful face fully done up with makeup, or completely bare.

The question I think we need to ask ourselves as artists is: are we focusing too much on the technique? Do choral directors get lost in the minor seconds and forget that the point of a choral work is the feeling it gives the listener, not the number of overtones that linger in the rafters? It's not that tuning doesn't matter...it's just that we can forget that a perfectly pronounced speech with no passion or insight is a failure.

With all that you're doing, how important is being a performer to you at this point in your career?

Regarding singing, it keeps me honest as a director, inspired as an arranger, aware as a producer, and bottom line: I love it. Plus, I can't very well suggest that everyone needs singing in their lives whilst sitting at home twiddling my thumbs.

You come from both worlds (classical and contemporary a cappella) and your son is currently attending the Pacific Boychoir Academy. Talk to us about the relationship between the two worlds—where's the intersection?

It's all music. If you're a fan of visual art, I guess it's possible to enjoy visiting the Met but not MOMA or vice versa, but I don't see the point. Do choral directors really not ever listen to the Rolling Stones? Can we pretend that a rocker who sits through a great performance of the B Minor Mass won't be blown away? I don't see any reason for lines or distinctions. Different aisles in the same grocery store, and we all need to eat.

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