Deke Sharon is an actor and TV producer.
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• Keith Baker (Keith Baker is a game designer and fantasy novel author.)
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Hi, my name is Deke Sharon, and I'm an aca-holic.
I started singing before I was able to speak, actually - I would sing myself to sleep in bed, and then I sang in church choir and the San Francisco boy's chorus, and barbershop quarter, and anything and everything, and decided to make a career out of it.
And PITCH PERFECT was originally a nonfiction book about the college a cappella world, and there was a chapter in there about myself and how I started the college a cappella competition that the film is based off of. And currently, I'm excited to share that the Sing-Off Tour is on the road and playing to sold-out audiences, getting multiple standing ovations each night. You can learn more about the tour here: http://singofftour.com/
And my official site: http://www.dekesharon.com/
And you can follow me on
Victoria's helping me get started. AMA guys!
Hi, Deke! I am currently the business manager of Not Too Sharp, an a cappella group at UNH.
We are always trying to improve both musically and when it comes to being involved/recognized in the a cappella community.
So, my questions are: what is the best musical advice you can give to a collegiate a cappella group, and what is the best non-musical advice you can give to a collegiate a cappella group?
I'll start with the non-musical advice: Gig. Gig weekly. Those gigs will give you invaluable experience in how to reach an audience, and your music director will be able to use each new gig as a goal to get more songs in the repertoire. Plus, the more you gig, even if for free, the more paid gigs you'll get, making you a hero.
As for the musical advice, it's really hard to know without having heard you. Are your rehearsals like a classical orchestra with no talking or a giant free for all of opinions and ideas? The perfect balance is somewhere in the middle, right? All musical aspects of a group are like that: no right or wrong, but rather a point on each line that best suits your group.
But if I had to guess, from the tone of your question, I'd say: ease up on the complexity of your arrangements. No one cares if you're singing in 14 part harmony, or have an add9 in every chord. What they do care about is how they feel, and you want to make sure you're not setting the bar too high such that your singers are lost in their heads during a performance, as opposed to relaxed and focused
on the emotional content of each song. Find a couple easy arrangements you like and sing the ____ out of them. Those will likely become your most popular songs, and then you can follow that path.
Hello Mr. Sharon, my name’s Kris and I’m currently a bass in The New Dominions, a co-ed a cappella group at the University of Virginia (Hopefully you recognize the name, we were lucky enough to be featured on BOCA 2015!) Our group is a huge fan of your compilation CD’s, as well as your work on the Pitch Perfect movies.
I had two questions if you don’t mind taking the time to answer!
What is your opinion on the appropriate level of production on collegiate a cappella tracks? It’s hard to balance matching your live sound with creating a marketable product, so at what point do you start sacrificing authenticity? And do you consider ARORA’s “Bioluminescence” to be a cappella or electronic music?
Where do you want a cappella to be in terms of public opinion? Pentatonix winning a Grammy and the success of the first (and hopefully second!) Pitch Perfect movie both have done a lot to increase the appeal of a cappella music, but ideally would you like to see a cappella music on Top 40 radio – and can a cappella music have success with original music and not just covers?
Thanks so much for doing this AMA! You rock and are doing great things for my favorite pastime.
Thanks, Kris! I definitely remember you guys. UVA cleaned up in this year's BOCA (Best of College A Cappella album, for those who aren't familiar), at least tied if not in fact might had more tracks from a single school than any other in the past 21 years of the compilation, so congrats!
1) There are no rules to music. Some lovely albums have been made with no effects, and others with unlimited digital manipulation. Technology doesn't ruin art, it changes it, and contemporary a cappella has grown and morphed to embrace protools, melodyne and the like.
Before you get too idealistic regarding collegiate a cappella, remember that most singers in college groups are not only amateurs, they're not even music majors. The word "amateur" comes from French - "for the love of" - and that love needs to come through regardless if people sound unadorned or like little digital robots. If it does, success. If not, it's just makeup slathered on a heartless robot.
As for ARORA, they're absolutely a cappella artists. They understand a cappella, came from a cappella groups, and care deeply about the form. Their choices of effects are made and meant to enhance, not obscure, their vocals. Plus they're great people.
2) A cappella has and will continue to be all things. It was the first music, before any instruments, and through music history it has been central to many musical styles and eras. Our current 5 line music staff was created for a cappella - Gregorian chant - by Guido D'Arezzo in the year 1,000. And since then: madrigals, sea shanties, work songs, barbershop, vocal jazz, doo wop... so very many music styles have come from a cappella.
Plus around the world a cappella traditions abound in almost every culture. For instance, South Africa's M'bube (think Ladysmith Black Mambazo) was born out of a single song almost 90 years ago, which we know in the West as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
As for radio hits, there have been and will be originals. "Don't Worry Be Happy" went to #1, and Shai's "If I Ever Fall in Love", Boyz II Men's "Thank You" and many others have had radio play. We all have high hopes that Pentatonix will remind the general public of this by getting another original a cappella song on the radio again, hopefully opening the floodgates for another big wave of a cappella radio hits - original and covers - like we had from 1987 (The Nylon's "Kiss Him Goodbye") to 1996 (Az Yet's "Hard To Say I'm Sorry")
Will barbershop quartets ever make a comeback?
I don't think there's any reason that barbershop, or more specifically close harmony quartet singing, can't become popular again. Fact is, contemporary a cappella is exactly what barbershop was 100 years ago: people singing popular songs without instruments. The Barbershop genre has grown and changed over time, and most recently has been embracing new sounds and repertoire, which you can hear in fantastic new, young groups like GQ, who have a viral video and lots of current media attention. That can, and should, keep happening.
Who are your favorite a cappella groups, and why are they Street Corner Symphony, the Exchange and Voiceplay?
Ha! Fact is, I do love those guys, but most certainly not exclusively.
A short list of my favorite a cappella groups would take all day. I love classical groups like Chanticleer & Les Voix Mystery, and crossover groups like The King's Singers and The Swingles. Classic groups that got me started like The Bobs, The Nylons, The Persuasions, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Take 6... this could go on all day, and those are just groups that were around 25 years ago... there are 20 times as many groups today!
What was it like working with Joel La Scala and JD Ahmanson on the Sing Off? Did they co-mingle their arrangements well together?
Fact is, everyone mingles their arrangements on the show. I like to start with a group's own work, but then my team (various combinations of Ed Boyer, Ben Bram, Rob Dietz, Nick Girard, Christopher Diaz) and I work with them to craft, polish and perfect each performance, including the arrangements, with no ego from anyone. No one cares who has the idea, if it's good, we use it, and in the end it's a shared creative expression.
Hey, Mr. Sharon. My name is Hannah, and I'm a commercial voice major at Belmont University and I'm hopefully adding an emphasis in composing/arranging. A cappella music is my passion. I've been arranging for years now, and I would like to make a career out of it.
Do you have any advice as to where to start? I've had a few of my arrangements performed by my high school a cappella group at ICHSA, but how can I really get my arrangements out there?
Also, do you have any advice on making arrangements original as opposed to a carbon copy of the original recording of a song?
Thanks so much for doing this AMA, and thank you for making acapella music what it is today in popular culture.
Yes, Hannah: get your arrangements sung as much as possible! Only then will you learn the difference between what you intended and what people assumed. When you direct your own group you have the luxury of expressing what's not on paper, but when you don't, when you leave it up to another director, you immediately see and hear what you implied but didn't explicitly state. This will help you become a better commissioned arranger more than anything else.
How do to that more often? Simple: offer arrangements for free, for a discount. Make relationships with other groups and offer a little coaching as part of your arrangement. There are many young arrangers out there now, so it's hard to rise above, but there are even more groups in need of great arrangements. Your reputation will spread.
As for creative arrangements, I'd just say don't force it. Unless you're on a deadline, listen to a song a couple times, maybe sit down and play it on the piano, and then let it ferment. Sing it in the shower, as you drive, as you walk. Try it out with different feels, different counter melodies, different elements in your head. Again, don't force it or try too hard: a song has an emotional core and your musical choices should come from that and respect that, rather than cramming the melody into 5/4 or wrapping it around #11 chords.
When I arrange, I like to try to insert at least one new thing. Maybe it's a vowel sound/syllable, or a texture. You can try it, and if it doesn't work, have a backup plan (like a more standard syllable you know will work). This way you can wander off the path but always have a way back if need be. Good luck!
Is there a reason the vocal perc in the Pitch Perfect films sounds very rudimentary? Is it because the actors themselves were doing it and they themselves were novices?
It's because the movie was about a traditional group that was just learning how to incorporate elements of contemporary a cappella into their sound. You'll soon see (and hear) that PP2 starts where the last movie ended and takes off like a rocket with some superlative beatboxing from, among others, Fitz80 and Reggie Watts.
When does rivalry between a cappella groups become unhealthy? How can we bridge groups at our schools who have become rivals because of competitions like ICCA and SoJam.
I think a little competition can be fun, but more than that is terrible. Marty Monson, head of the Barbershop Harmony Society told me he has a sign on his wall: "Competitions are mostly for losers" !!!
I realize I produce the Sing Off, but I tell all of the singers when they first arrive that they're not competitors, and that they've all already won: http://www.casa.org/content/we-already-won
And yes, I started the NCCAs (now ICCAs), but I did that to get public attention and create a March Madness of a cappella, not to get groups to think the point of singing is winning.
You can't compare art. Who is better: Mozart or Beethoven? The whole thing is incredibly stupid.
Alas, some people like to think in black and white, win and lose terms, I wish I knew how to stop that.
Deke, news just broke that Zayn Malik is leaving one direction. Can you comment?
Most of the great vocal groups throughout history have had a membership change and have continued, sometimes even stronger. I recall when Boyz II Men became a trio, and they're still out there killing it every night (Hi, Shawn!)
Hi Deke. I recently followed along a HUGE Facebook thread that included you and a lot of other a cappella people about women in a cappella. First, thank you for contributing to that continuously and recognizing the lack of female voices on prominent a cappella endeavors like The Sing-Off tour.
I have two disparate questions for you:
What do you think needs to be done to further women's voices in the a cappella sphere?
Sometimes I'm convinced I know more talented people in a cappella than there are on the radio currently. How can we reshape the music industry to be more thoughtful about vocal talent as opposed to "commercial success" and social media following?
Thanks. It's close to my heart, and I'm not giving up anytime soon. Many of my favorite people in the world are female a cappella singers (including my wife!)
1) I think we can and should create opportunities, which is already happening. That's good. In fact, I can guarantee that a cappella festivals, The Sing Off... we're ALWAYS looking for more women's groups, which are far fewer in number. New pro women's groups have a much higher chance of an invitation than their male counterparts. As it should be, until we've inspired many more.
Also, I think we need to really find out why more women don't try to go pro, and see if we can remove those barriers. Looking at rock and roll, almost every rock band is 100% guys. Maybe 1% of all pro rockers are women. Am I low? Is it 3%? Either way, the % in a cappella is higher, but still not high enough. Being a pro musician is risky, inconvenient, uncomfortable, unreasonable... all hassles that guys seem to be more willing to bear.
2) I can't disagree with you. However, the popular music industry is risk averse and still moneyed up with payola, etc. Until a contemporary group busts through (go get 'em, PTX!) it's gonna be a very hard glass ceiling. Once that happens, we may well see a bidding war, or at least offers, going out to several pro a cappella groups as labels hope to replicate the success.
All that said, you should know that the entire music industry is looking at Pentatonix, and Straight No Chaser, and other groups with a mix of amazement and jealousy. We are not failing, we are succeeding, by our own rules, in our own way. We are rewriting popular music history, and now other artists are trying to do what we're doing.
My one hope is that we have plenty of young pro groups to jump into the fray when/as PTX generates more interest... so please go start a new pro group... ideally a female one!
Hey Deke, the high school a cappella group I was a part of last year, G-E-T Vocal Point, is performing at the DCINY Carnegie hall concert next week. Will you be arranging anything like this again in the future? I think it's really a great way to show off some of the awesome things high schools are doing in the a cappella world.
That's right - this Sunday. Very excited to work with them! Yes, we've already announced a second TotalVocal at Carnegie Hall concert on March 20, 2016. Like this year, the first 1/2 will feature high school singers and the second 1/2 college and adult. Feel free to contact DCINY to audition either alone or with your group. We're not yet full (but can only have 400 singers total, due to fire codes, stage size, etc) - it'll fill up fast, as this first one did.
I wanted to let you know that I didn't have a reddit account until I saw your AMA, because I had to jump at this chance to talk to you. First off, THANK YOU for everything you provide for the a cappella community, and THANK YOU for doing all that you can to open everyone's eyes to exactly how amazing this style of music is. I've been a huge a cappella "nerd" (not crazy about that terminology, but it's fitting) since before it was cool, and it's nice to watch the world change their opinion and acceptance of a cappella. You're amazing. A thousand times, thank you.
I actually do have a question though: I'm in the early stages of music directing a small a cappella group, No Big Deal, based out of Chicago. We're pretty new, but we did manage to place third at the Chicago Harmony Sweepstakes! We ultimately want to become a working group, competing and being hired out for events, gigs, etc. However, our repertoire is minimal, and it takes a while for me to arrange music for us. How might you recommend we quickly AND efficiently increase our library of songs? I know we can "borrow" music from other groups, but I'd love it if we had more original arrangements than anything else...
I suppose this leads me to another question: Any advice on learning how to more effortlessly arrange music? Classes to take? Books to read? Videos to watch? I was never a music student, so I mostly do it by ear, which takes about 2x as long and limits me to songs with "simpler" chords (not much jazz).
Thanks, Andres! ... and many thank yous to all of the other AMA questioners who have said nice things! All of this is truly a labor of love and a dream come true, and I hope y'all join me in trying to get more people singing and spreading harmony through harmony around the world.
To your question, regarding repertoire, I started Contemporary A Cappella Publishing for just that reason: to help both new and working groups easily expand their repertoire. So many groups were arranging the same songs, expending so much energy, that I thought it best to publish arrangements of the classics so that groups could learn them quickly, expand their repertoire, and spend their time and money developing more unique material.
For a list of what I've got published so far, check out http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/search?q=deke+sharon
and we have learning recordings for some of it, on iTunes and
this is all intentionally very inexpensive (less than $2 a song).
Regarding learning to arrange, besides my book (gratuitous plug!), your best bet is to learn by doing. You can bring a song idea into rehearsal and just start creating an arrangement by ear, if you'd like, or write down just a chorus, work on it as a group, then go back and noodle some more until you have a whole song. There are no rules. And just because you do it by ear doesn't mean you can't be complex: Take 6 arranges by ear, so does Pentatonix. And complexity doesn't equal good. Find your own voice. Best of luck!
How do you decide/pick the songs you arrange for the film?
Once songs are picked, do you arrange for the actors voicing?
And do all the actors actually sing, or are there some behind the scenes voices?
There are several of us who sit around a table and choose songs: Elizabeth Banks, her husband and co-producer Max Handleman, my frequent aca-partner in crime and Pentatonix mixer Ed Boyer, and others. We discuss the scenes, the characters, the moments, the story, and the overall mix of songs in the movie (since we want a great blend of styles and eras).
Next, we (myself, Ed, Alana, Ben Bram, Tom Kitt) create vocal arrangements and then "demo" them, which means we record all of the parts so others who don't read music can get a sense of what we're thinking. Once those get a thumbs up, I teach the arrangements to the actors/actresses on set (in Baton Rouge) during a month we call "A Cappella Boot Camp". I make every single one of them sing their part for me alone, by memory, before I send them into the recording booth, where Ed and Joseph Magee track their parts. We emphasize personality and energy (it's easy to get focused on perfection in front of a mic, and lose the scene's character).
All of the actors/actresses sing their own lead vocals, but we do have a couple of "ringers" (Ed and myself included) that record some background parts to create a kind of sonic glue that smooths out the overall sound. Characters have lots of personality, but that diminishes blend, which is important when they aren't the focus.
Then, once that's done and mixed up, the actors/actresses will lip-sync to their own voices on camera. We can't record them live - too many variables - so this is the next best thing.
What's your favorite song to sing a capella?
First of all, and please don't think I'm picking on you, a cappella folks like to say "two P's, two L's, two words" - so I'll say it first ("a capella" is absolutely an accepted alternate spelling).
Fact is, I don't have a single favorite song. The thing I like most is that you can sing ANY song a cappella. My favorite part of performing with my group The House Jacks is taking requests from the audience: Any song, any style, any artist. People yell out songs and we improvise arrangements on the spot. It's really challenging and yet really rewarding. Try it with your friends sometime
Hi Deke! Thanks so much for doing this AMA.
I'm the music director of The Hibernotes, a co-ed collegiate group at Missouri State University.
This past year, I have gotten more into arranging. After arranging for so many groups over so many years, in your opinion, what is/are the most important element(s) to a successful arrangement?
That's a very complicated question to answer, Nick, as a great a cappella arrangement is very much dependent on the group that sings it. I don't mean to say that you need a great group to make a great arrangement, but almost the opposite: a great arrangement makes a group sound great, whoever they are. Just as no piece of clothing fits all people perfectly, no arrangement fits every group perfectly, so learning to arrange, as you are, is the best way to learn how to take any arrangement - yours or others, from scratch or published - and tweak it so it fits like a glove.
I guess I'd be remiss if I didn't mention I wrote a book on this very topic with Dylan Bell, called "A Cappella Arranging" - you can find it on Amazon etc. So much to discuss, the book does much of that for me, and then you can email me anytime with follow up questions
Deke, how can we get people to stop spelling 'a cappella' wrong?
Ha! I knew this was coming.
Fact is, it's been spelled differently for decades, so there's likely no guaranteed standardization now. More important is that it's showing up so much more often now in print and other forms of media! (and when it does, the proper spelling is almost always being used, crowding out the alternate spellings)
What's the one thing a cappella can do to spread even further? Competitions, festivals, movies, viral videos, CAL, the burgeoning originals movement.... these have all made a cappella better at all levels. Grade school groups are, pardon the pun, schooling the semi-pro groups of yesteryear, and cost effective audio production has meant a big boom in saleable output. Artists like Peter Hollens and Pentatonix have mastered social media and turned them into reliable streams of income. So what's the next thing that we should be doing?
My feeling is the next big move is to return a cappella to its roots: to make it fully participatory. We will always have superstar groups, but frankly a cappella is the people's music. Our ancestors all gathered around the campfire at the end of the day and sang and told stories. True community. Now people sing in their shower, sing in their cars, live vicariously through American Idol, and maybe get drunk twice a year and sing Karaoke. This isn't acceptable.
You remember what it felt like singing in a circle at your first collegiate rehearsal. You remember the camaraderie you shared with your fellow singers in high school. This should not end. We as a community should help create opportunities for more people to sing post-graduation, and inspire and invite them to.
And to anyone who is quick to judge, let me remind you that music is not a competition, not about judging. On Saturday when you pass the 40 year olds shooting hoops on the playground, you don't expect them to be Michael Jordan. When you see someone taking a photo, you don't expect him to be Ansel Adams. When you see a group of ladies painting in the park, you don't expect them to be Georgia O'Keefe. So don't expect people who are casually singing to be Pentatonix. Because let's be honest: you should be singing as well, and you're not Pentatonix either.
What's your best advice for a beginner singer who wants to work on developing a good voice?
I recommend a 1-2 punch:
1) find a local choir to sing with. Being in a choir (not a a small a cappella ensemble) will help you exercise your vocal muscle, much like a group yoga or exercise class, and you'll improve your pitch, phrasing, breathing, etc. Plus it's incredibly fun.
2) find a local voice teacher who can help you work on your solo voice. This will be more expensive, and you'll want to practice on your own to make the most of your time, but the one-on-one attention is very valuable as well.
Good luck, and don't give up! Just as a new basketball player isn't hitting free throws like a pro, it'll take time before your voice catches up with your ear... but you'll get there!
Why do you believe that the Sing-Off hasn't had the same amount of popularity as The Voice when it comes to ratings?
My opinion is that The Voice is not about the singers but rather about the judges, and as celebrities you have a much better chance of getting lots of viewers. However, no singer from the voice has had anywhere near the success of Pentatonix, or even Home Free. If you'll allow me a bit of hyperbole, the Voice might have the ratings, but The Sing Off is changing the world. :)
What is your opinion on the balance between rehearsals and performance for an amateur a cappella group? Weekly rehearsals with a few meaningful performances a year, or more frequent open-mic-style performances?
MORE GIGS! I think most choirs, and probably most a cappella groups for that matter, rehearse too much and perform too little. Even a casual community group should get out and gig twice a month. That's where you make new fans, learn what works in your arrangements, and get that amazing feeling you have when you're connecting with an audience!
Don't think that a big concert is a more "meaningful" one. Some of the best musical moments I've had have been intimate. Small crowds, unexpected jam sessions... these touch people's lives much more than most formal concerts do. Get out there and make music for other people, and try to reach just one other person each show. You'll find that's actually easier in a small room...
Why aren't there any women on the Sing Off live tour?
<heavy sigh> Lots of reasons, and I'll do my best to explain them all below, but first know that I very much want to get more women performing professionally!
The Sing Off Tour is drawn from groups that have been on the Sing Off itself, so the offerings are automatically limited.
Whereas it'd be great to have PTX on the tour (with Kirstie), they're a little too busy right now!
This tour, almost twice as long as the previous tour, is punishing. 56 concerts in 63 days, with groups sleeping on a sleeper bus between cities.
Groups would need to be able to hit the road and stay on the road (we can't create great opening and closing numbers with groups rotating out), so if someone has a medical issue, or works part time, or has young children at home, the group can't make it.
Knowing how very packed the tour schedule is, we needed to go with groups that could handle the density of the schedule. In other words, groups that were active "road-warriors."
I don't know why (we've had long a cappella discussions about this) but guys groups, like rock and roll bands, tend to be the ones who go on long road trips and make a full time career of a cappella. The groups with women that have been on the show are either splintered (like the SoCals and the Backbeats) with their members spread out in other pursuits, like Broadway and movies, or have part or full time jobs.
I was thrilled that 2 of the 6 groups in our Season 5 holiday special were all-female, but neither of them could handle this schedule.
Last year VoicePlay brought Emoni (from Ten) with them, but this year they wanted to perform just as a quintet (not with an additional female lead singer) which is how they tour and perform regularly.
* Lastly, a big group like Ten would have been amazing to have on the road, but the fact is there is a calculus to a tour, and we only have about 16 slots in the busses for singers. Bringing Ten means the tour is only 2 groups, not 3.
In short, it's no one thing, but the confluence of many. The bigger issue, which bothers me perpetually, is "why aren't there more women trying to make a career of a cappella?" I wish there were.
And please don't think "because the Sing Off Tour didn't book them" because the fact is this tour is not a place for a group to cut their teeth. It's too big a risk to the tour, and to the other groups on the road with them.
However, all that said, the tour show is AWESOME, and we have local opening acts each night, most of whom have women in the groups.
And moreover, the tour is not the only thing out there. Pitch Perfect features an all-women's group. The Sing Off itself is now on its fourth continent (we're launching Sing Off South Africa this month), and all of the shows feature men and women. The ICCAs have had many all female and mixed winners, etc. We'll keep fighting to get more women on screen and on stages worldwide.
Deke! Are the House Jacks rolling through DC anytime soon? Elliott and I chat every so often, but I haven't heard anything recently.
I hope so! Been too long, too much going on, but we'll get back there.
Thank you for all you have done for this community and this artform that I love! Your relentless enthusiasm is infectious and I love how you encourage others to participate in a cappella. Congratulations on becoming the professional tiddly-winks player you set out to be ;-) and thank you for inspiring me and many others to pursue their own dreams!
Who are your inspirations, musically or otherwise?
I'm especially excited for the next step: a new television show on Lifetime that will show me behind the scenes working with a high school a cappella group (casting still happening, we don't have a name for the show yet either!). Pitch Perfect, The Sing Off... thing just appear, so this will give people an opportunity to see what it's like to deal with both the technical and emotional elements that go into a great a cappella performance.
Inspirations? That's tough. I love musical pioneers, like Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, who followed their own path and found a new music as they went.
I love people who inspire and take the high road, like Nelson Mandela - having recently traveled to Johannesburg for Sing Off South Africa casting, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I spent hours in the national Apartheid museum.
So very many others... but I will say that there is a problem in our culture: the belief that a hero is perfect. All great men, and musicians, are imperfect. We seem to fail to really tell our children how Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves. Great men with a great flaw. So I like to take the great without rose colored lenses.
Two more questions.
Who are your favorite non-a cappella musical influences?
Also, I know the CASA FB group has had a lot of posts lately about streaming music services. What's your take on services like Spotify and Rdio? Do they fairly compensate artists like yourself? How would you improve them?
Streaming services? Well, it's a shame, if a convenient one. Fact is most people won't pay for something if they don't have to, and ever since Napster people younger than myself have seen music primarily as a right, as something free, rather than something you purchase. I spent more money on music and books in high school and college than anything other than food... but that has changed. The result is that there is less and less money going into music each year. Luckily, a cappella is inexpensive to make, in some cases completely free, so perhaps this trend will not impact our community as much as it has orchestral music or major record labels.
What happened to
"Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh
Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh..."
That song used to bug me, when there were only about 20 a cappella songs anyone sang, back in the mid-80s. Now that a cappella is wide and deep, you rarely hear it any more, so it is able to again comfortably regain its status as the greatest a cappella song ever written. (bold statement, but true - it spawned an entire style of a cappella, and has been covered in many forms, styles and languages for the past 90 years all around the world).
What's your favorite burger?
Ooh... well, as a West Coaster, if I have to go with fast food it's gonna be In n Out. As for gourmet, the sky's the limit... especially if I'm not paying.
Hey Deke! Big fan of your work, aspiring arranger, etc...
Do you think there'll be an A Cappella Arranging, part II?
If I want to get into (more traditional) choral arranging, what literature do you recommend?
1) My second book, called simply "A Cappella" - written with Ben Spaulding and Brody McDonald - will cover all aspects of a cappella (a lofty goal, but we're aiming high) including arranging by ear. As for an AA part 2, no plans yet, but it has been selling well, so maybe we will create an advanced version
2) Ooh, much out there. Been a long time.. Hawley Ades has a good book, I know there are others. I recall a fantastic book by Bill Russo about composition (called Jazz Composition?) that I highly recommend, because the fact is, if you're an arranger, you're also a composer
What color socks are you wearing?
Orange - my favorite color!
I'm not kidding. One of my least favorite things in the world is separating and putting away laundry, which piles high when you have 2 kids, so one day I went to Uniqlo and bought a dozen pair of rusty orange socks to wear at home, and now laundry is much easier to put away, and they make me smile :)
Hi Deke! I have been part of my college's a cappella group for my entire collegiate career and am highly considering pursuing it in a more professional manner upon graduation. I was wondering:
Do you know of any programs or workshops I should attend to gain more experience on top of my collegiate experience?
Are there any cities or states that seem to be cultivating the a cappella culture more than others?
What are your favorite non-collegiate a cappella festivals?
Thanks for taking the time out to share your experience.
1) My #1 suggestion would be to attend summer camp. Camp A Cappella, A Cappella Academy... lots of great options. I recently posted a video about this on youtube. You'll make great friends, deep connections, and have an amazing time!
2) It's always changing and growing. No one city or school has a lock on a cappella, largely because people graduate and move so often. The thing I like most is the cross-pollination between cities and regions, the new sounds and styles that come to life.
3) The big US ones are great: SoJam, Boss... and there's a great new one coming up next month: VoiceJam in Arkansas. There are also some smaller US ones, like AcaWest, here in San Francisco, that are lots of fun...
but my very favorite ones are the international festivals. Vocal Asia (this year in Shanghai). The London A Cappella Festival. The Aarhus Vocal Festival in Demark. Tasmania's Festival of Voices, Vokal Total in Munich. So many great ones, here's a good list: http://vocalblog.acappellazone.com/2012/01/international-a-cappella-festival-list-vol-1/
What was the first song you ever arranged for a cappella? How did you get started arranging for groups?
Long ago, in high school, I was in the Music Man my freshman year, as lead of the barbershop quartet. We kept the quartet going all 4 years, with member and name changes naturally, and I wanted to sing more popular music but so very little was published, so I had to start arranging myself.
My first arrangement was "When I'm 64" TTBB, and looking back on it now, it's actually pretty damn good. Only very minor tweaks and I published it some 25 years later. As for my most impressive high school arrangement, that would be "Bohemian Rhapsody", also TTBB, which back in 1986 was a bold choice (bold enough to win a Bay Area arts award).
Hey Deke two quick questions:
Will The House Jacks ever again record a concept album in the vein of Unbroken?
What was the biggest controversy in the a cappella community you thougt was trivial or legit?
1) I like to think most of our studio albums are concept albums, although not in the most overt sense:
Naked Noise was our manifesto that you could perform any style of popular music a cappella
Funkwich was our stab at the pop charts, with original music
Fitchy & Grikko was a singer-songwriter, acoustic style album
Level was a big, blown out production
Pollen is an album about the world, by the world.
...but Unbroken does remain my favorite.
2) That's a tough question. I'd say they're all pretty trivial because what the a cappella community thinks/worries is important is usually not the most important thing. Of course I have one foot in the community at all times, but I generally face outwards, not inwards, looking for ways we can continue to grow and gain legitimacy in the public eye. A concert that wasn't properly mic'd, or a group that loses a competition they should have won... it's not unimportant to those groups, of course, but I'm trying to make a cappella important to everyone, not just us.
Hey Deke! Huge fan. Would you say On the Rocks was your favorite sing off group? They just seemed so well-behaved and sober all the time.
That's the magic of television, my green and yellow friend. If parents knew what those ducky guys were actually like, they'd call the police.
Thanks so much for taking time to answer me so completely. I think you're right on with discussing why women are more "reluctant" to go pro. I say reluctant only because you and I agree that it's not a lack of talent so much as a willingness. Go a cappella!
Yeah, that's the conclusion I'm coming to. If I saw lots of young women try and give up after a year because they weren't getting the same opportunities as guys groups, I'd have a different opinion, but I just don't see the numbers. Guys groups are formed at a ratio of something like 20 to 1, quite possibly more, and the guys groups are much more likely to dive in head first and hit the road.
There have been a couple very successful all women's groups: Sweet Honey in the Rock and Zap Mama come to mind, but neither are straight ahead pop groups. The Boxettes had a shot, but just disbanded (sadly). Medlz, from East Germany, are going strong. Hopefully more will form, now that a cappella is on the rise again, and some of the most visible a cappella (Pitch Perfect being the prime example) is all female.
Hi Deke! Huge fan. Hope I caught you in time. Couple of questions. Can you tell us about this new male quintet you and Ben Bram are putting together? I didn't audition because I'd like to finish college before trying to go professional, but it sounds really interesting.
Also, my school (Brigham Young University) has a massive a cappella following with several talented groups. What would it take to get you over here to give a master class? Thanks for doing this AMA!
Regarding the male group, the idea was born of the fact that most boybands and pop groups are assembled at a pretty young age (18 or so) whereas most professional a cappella groups don't get started until people are in their 20s, after college (as you clearly know). As a result, we're assembling some great young singers in hopes they'll be yet another piece of the overall a cappella pie - one that wouldn't otherwise exist.
I'd love to come to BYU and work with you. McKay keeps inviting me to Remix Vocal Academy, which I will eventually make, but my schedule has been challenging (to say the least), with this summer's Lifetime show, last summer's Pitch Perfect 2 filming, etc. But I will make it there eventually! (and I'm happy to come during the school year)
Hi Deke. Who would you put in your fantasy barbershop quartet?
If it's comprised of barbershoppers, I've already seen my fantasy barbershop quartet, and they're called The Gas House Gang.
If I can pick 3 people to sing with, I might go with Freddie Mercury on First Tenor, Ray Charles on Bari and Vinnie Chea (Take 6) on bass... and then swap myself out for Bobby McFerrin, because hey, he's Bobby McFerrin. Then add Stevie Wonder, Shirley Horn, Ella Fitzgerald... Why stick with a quartet? IT'S MY FANTASY DAMMIT!
Deke and Dylan Bell's book on arranging for a cappella is really detailed and practical. (And interesting.) Worth the price!
Thanks, Ruth. And for what it's worth, I asked them to drop the price from their suggested retail, which they did, about $10 worth. The book isn't about making money, it's about getting more people arranging.
Hi Deke!!! How is Sing Off Africa different from US Sing Off?
What acappella groups (scholastic and pro) are you most excited about? Why did NBC remove the Sing Off videos from its YouTube channel?
Regarding South Africa, if you're not familiar with Mbube or iscathamiya, you need to dive in and do some research. SA's a cappella history is rich and deep, which will make for an amazing show: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mbube_(genre)
Which groups from that show? Casting isn't done yet, I can't say. I do know that SABC1 (the biggest channel in the nation!) is planning on posting all performances, so I'll be posting and tweeting links to videos as I get them (you can follow me above). Classy move on their part.
As for NBC, I have no idea. Maybe they don't want to pay rights, maybe they were pressured, maybe they're tired of getting letters to bring back a full season. I don't know. Luckily others have uploaded the performances, which remain up, and hopefully will remain up for decades to come. I'm deeply proud of the work we all did on that show, and hope it continues to inspire singers in perpetuity.
Awesome thanks! The Sing-Off is just pure magic, thanks for all your hard work.
PS if you aren't already, please tell every professional group you see to make more live YouTube covers. Especially the barbershoppers! I've started a (very small) Internet viral consulting business and the Internet is desperate for more and different groups doing what PTX did. There's still a decent-sized gap in the YouTube market and it's such a wonderful thing when it goes viral. Re: Resound and Apollo Link etc.
I most certainly will do!
Deke - any thoughts on what's next for a cappella and where you'd like to see the genre go, particularly any musical genres you feel like are dying for some a cappella love?
FYI - this is Rachael from Acaville Radio! Thanks again for your time in San Fran.
Hi Rachel! Great radio station, thanks for bringing a cappella to so many people 24/7!
So, a cappella really doesn't have any boundaries, any limitations. As such, I would love to see more distinct styles of a cappella throughout music communities around the world. A Jamaican reggae a cappella group would be cool, as would a Hawaiian group. And so on.
Plus, beyond that, there are an almost infinite number of potential hybrids, limited only by people's imaginations. Take 6 is a beautiful interweaving of gospel repertoire, jazz chords and r&b stylings, the likes of which had never been heard before. I'd love to hear more groups paving their own road, finding their own sound that draws on traditions in a unique way.
is fat amy as funny as she seems to be?
Um... Fat Amy isn't a real person. Rebel Wilson, on the other hand, is indeed hilarious
What was it like working with actors who likely had little to no experience singing on Pitch Perfect?
Well, honestly, it was the most difficult working month of my life. I was expecting more vocal harmony experience, but the casting was brilliant and in the end it all came together. Those first days, though... oof. Lots of lost sleep. A cappella is my passion and my life's work, and I was pretty sure the movie was going to tank specifically because the music wasn't going to be any good. Luckily it all came together, and the soundtrack went Platinum, so it wasn't as bad as I'd feared!
What's it like being a producer on the 6th most popular vocal competition show in America with hundreds of viewers each week?
Haters gonna hate!
Fact is, I don't really worry about comparing any a cappella shows to the rest of television. The Sing Off season 1 was the highest new unscripted show on television, and season 2 was the third highest rated series on NBC. Then they moved it to the fall and we had fewer viewers, but still more than five million.
Now, for people who worry about TV ratings, five million might not be enough, but the way I see it five million people watched a non-exploitive, respectful two hour prime time network informercial for a cappella (which is how we see it backstage - the competition isn't important, all the groups become friends, etc).
In other words, HUGE win. When I decided to make a career of a cappella 20 years ago, people laughed at me. My high school choral director even likened what I'm doing to tiddlywinks... and now it's everywhere, including TV. Not the best ratings? That's ok! It's ON TV!!
Hi Deke! Bryan here. What's your opinion on the need for old-school vocal producers, much like yourself, who have the stated goal of simply producing amazing things? I'm not super interested in starting a group, or any of those things, but I am very interested in providing/creating opportunities for groups to be their very best, both in the studio and in live performance.
So, the fact is that a classic music producer as you describe is only tenable if there's enough money in the system to pay for that person. There is much more money in a cappella now than there has been in a long time, but the music industry as a whole are in a nosedive because most people don't pay for music the way people did in previous generations. The result is that albums don't make as much money, which means fewer and fewer people are classic "producers." Ed Boyer, Ben Bram, Bill Hare... these guys are the best of the best, and they spend more of their time engineering than what you'd consider "producing," so if you really want to get involved in making great a cappella albums, I think you should up your tracking and editing and mixing skills and offer them all as a complete package.
Are you still singing with the Housejacks? It's been many moons since I've gone to see a pro group like the Housejacks. Seems like the focus is on college groups these days.
Yup! Still gigging around the world. Next concert will be VoiceJam in Arkansas - a new international a cappella festival where we'll share the stage with Taiwan's Voco Novo (who appear on our latest album Pollen).
You should get to a pro concert - especially the Sing Off Tour that's no the road right now. The 3 groups are all world-class: The Exchange, VoicePlay, and Street Corner Symphony. Any one of them is worth the ticket price alone, and all together they're one of the best live a cappella concerts you'll see in your life, guaranteed. By the second night of tour they were getting 5 standing ovations throughout the night. Do it!
Hi Mr. Sharon! My name's Kristen and I'm in UofT's a cappella group, TBA. I'm currently studying music here at UofT and am an aspiring arranger. As someone who is looking at careers in a cappella music, do you have any advice?
Thank you for taking the time to do this AMA! :)
So, I think the best advice is the advice I got when I was a high school tenor singing in the Tanglewood Young Artists Vocal Program one summer:
The director said "If you could see yourself doing anything other than music as a career, do that. You will always have music in your life, and can make it on your own terms. Moreover, there will always be someone who will wake up earlier, stay up later, work for less.
However, if you absolutely can't see yourself doing anything else... welcome to the club."
Hi Deke! I'm a huge fan of yours (I've actually met you once or twice) and I'm so happy to see that you're doing an AMA. I'm in an a cappella at Willamette University and have very little experience arranging songs. I would absolutely love to start, but don't know how. Do you have any advice? Also, it seems like you have the coolest job in the world. How did you get to where you are?
Keep doing what you're doing!
1) I do think you would benefit from my book "A Cappella Arranging" (which you can find online), and if you'd like to get started right away, I recommend you use this 10 step method, which starts by answering the big questions, and narrowing down so it's not so daunting when you're staring at measure one on a blank page of paper: https://www.casa.org/content/contemporary-cappella-arranging-10-steps
2) It IS a cool job... and I had to create it myself. Nothing like this existed when I graduated college, but I loved a cappella and I really wanted to share my experience with other people, so besides starting the House Jacks I started CASA, and the BOCA albums, and the first contemporary a cappella conferences (The West and East Coast A Capella Summit), and the NCCA which became the ICCA when it went international, and Contemporary A Cappella Publishing, and so on. I was stapling and mailing newsletters in my first apartment, cajoling my friends to be on the board of directors of a new org I'd just started. No guarantees, no salary, just a dream and a relentless desire.
From there, things started happening. I met people, the style grew, Disney called, NBC called, etc. It's possible these kind of things can happen for you too, but let me make this clear: It's not a game, and you don't get guaranteed success for ticking boxes. The world after graduation is a messy place and you just dive in and start swimming. Not everyone is an entrepreneur, not everyone is self motivated, can work from home, is willing to make next to nothing with no guarantee of success on the back end. I don't say this to scare you off, but rather to give you a sense of what it would be like to try for yourself. More opportunities exist now, but more people are eager to jump in and take them as well. You can clear your own path... but bring a machete. And good shoes ;)
What is Anna Kendrick's Reddit username?
probably something snarky and hilarious... maybe figuring it out is a secret quest she has put together to find her one true love. Better get started.
The Sing-off was one of my all-time favorites!
What do you think is going to be the future of a capella?
Fact is, a cappella can and will continue to grow and morph and change as popular music changes. So many collegiate and high school a cappella groups are eagerly arranging and singing current hits, so I don't think the style will calcify and become a thing of the past.
Trends come and go, so doubtless a cappella will become less of a media darling at some point - maybe next year, maybe in ten years - but if those of us who are working hard behind the scenes have done our jobs correctly, we'll find the new normal is a much greater amount of participation in all kinds of singing groups. Example: when I started CASA back in 1991, there were about 200 college a cappella singing groups, and now there are over 3,000. I'm hoping - and working - to make sure that number remains high through the coming decades.
As for additional trends, Broadway is going to happen soon, no doubt. Increased radio play is likely. And my next big push here in the US is to get more adults to continue singing. Everyone sings in elementary school, and many more are now singing into and through college, but then many people stop. DON'T STOP PEOPLE! Gonna keep helping to create groups through the Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL), and inspire people to continue to sing, through shows like my upcoming touring group Vocalosity. Many angles with the same goal: getting more people singing, spreading harmony through harmony.
Hi Mr. Sharon!
1. How far along are you in the process of choosing people for your vocal harmony group?
2. I noticed that you and Austin Willacy have both been in the house jacks for its entirety while the other 3 spots switch out - could you explain your and Austin's history in the group?
I started The House Jacks right out of college - the first a cappella group with a designated vocal percussionist - and back then coming from the college world, I couldn't imagine fewer than 7 people, so that's what we were: a septet. Then we became a sextet as we began to understand how to better use our voices as instruments, and then a quintet in 1997.
Austin wasn't actually a founding member, but joined about a year and a half after we got started, just before we went full time.
As for how I/we choose people, I've always subscribed to a philosophy that goes against common vocal harmony group knowledge: I like very different voices. Most groups go with a great natural blend then try to pull out individual lead singers, I prefer to get great lead singers and otherwise talented people and then create the blend, which can change based on the song. For instance, I have a lighter, folkier sound, with boychoir experience, so when we're singing a gentle ballad, I'll usually sing the highest part, in floating falsetto. But then if we're singing a rock song, we'll put a screaming high tenor up on top in chest voice, and I'll drop down to sing in low fifths with the bass, forming power chords... and so on. More colors to paint with: that's my philosophy.
Where can I find the best, in your opinion, poutine?
You misspelled "pitch pipe" :)
I like the pocketones, myself.
(And my fries without gravy)
Why are you so fukin retarded? Thanks. Love your work.