by Juliana Baron, Vocal Blog Asia, August 2015
The third blog post featuring the Vocal Asia Festival 2015 is another exclusive highlight. It was hard to even track the interviewee down – as busy as he is with coaching, producing, writing, arranging and networking. Deke Sharon, founder of CASA (The Contemporary A Cappella Association), co-founder of The House Jacks, producer of The Sing-off, Pitch Perfect, Straight No Chaser and The Sing-off China is called “The A Cappella Godfather” for a reason.
That’s why I was happy and excited to talk him while meeting him at the Vocal Asia Festival in Shanghai, China.
Juliana: You’ve been here in Asia already several times, last time about 2 years ago. Can you feel the progress Asia is having with a cappella? How did you experience the Asian A Cappella groups during the Vocal Asia Festival this year?
Deke: I coached many different a cappella groups this time. First of all, I can’t believe the talent, I can’t believe the quality. Things have gotten so much better than where we were just the first Vocal Asia Festival (5 years ago). Young groups, older groups, different styles, different personalities – amazing. I would say, if I had one piece of criticism, one piece of suggestion: the groups that I saw, some of them are so interested in doing difficult arrangements, complex harmonies. They love the balance, they love all of these color notes. But they need to remember that people love music not because it’s difficult.
We love a cappella because it’s difficult, but the general public loves a cappella because of how it makes them feel. We need to make sure that every song has a feeling in it. And when we think about Pentatonix, their harmonies aren’t complex. They don’t have lots of notes stacked up. It’s more about them singing the songs well with a lot of passion. And that’s what I want from all of the groups here. I want them to have the same success as Pentatonix. Singing songs in a variety of different languages, from a variety of different perspectives, all with a lot of passion and power. And hopefully with a lot of media attention.
Juliana: In China, a lot of a cappella groups are at their beginning stage and many are lacking an experienced teacher. What can you recommend, how can they improve?
Deke: The first I’d recommend for a cappella groups in Asia is to contact Vocal Asia. The organization has resources, it has ambassadors in every country. It has materials that have been created and best practices. And even if these don’t exist in your language, they can create them in other languages. They can help you get this information. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to figure it out on your own. Learn from people who’ve done it before and then just take their practices and use them in your own region.
Juliana: When I talk to people about my hobby, my passion for a cappella, after showing some first interest, at least 80% tell me: „Oh, I can’t sing. You don’t want to hear me sing. I am totally tone-deaf!“ - What do you do to motivate people to sing a cappella?
Deke: Well, I’ve made a couple of videos about this very issue (watch Deke Sharon’s Youtube channel), because I find it very frustrating that our culture has changed to the point where people think they can’t sing. One or two generations ago everybody sang. There was no recorded music and if you wanted music, you had to make it yourself. This has changed so much in our culture and it’s a shame because we, I think, are like whales, we are like birds, we are like crickets, we communicate through music with each other. It’s soothing, it’s powerful, it’s how we fall in love. So everybody should have the opportunity to sing, but unfortunately many people ever since they were young in school have been told: „You have a good voice, you should sing – Ah, you are not such a good singer…“ I am hoping to change the culture and create more opportunities for people to sing. But more importantly change the feeling that everybody has to be Pavarotti, everybody has to be Katy Perry and nobody else should sing. That’s a mistake.
Juliana: On your way here to Shanghai, you commented on Facebook: „Even China Air considers it a classic“ referring to the Pitch Perfect movie being in the category of „classic“ - Do you think a cappella and vocal play gets it’s appropriate attention and respect compared to instrument accompanied music?
Deke: Well, a cappella disappeared through most cultures over the past few decades. It was very popular with doo wop music in America in the 50ies… and there is an a cappella tradition in every culture. But current popular music is so much about instruments that I think that has been lost. And we are helping people refind it. And when you see the excitement people have when they hear an a cappella group, it’s so exciting, it’s so charging, it recharges my batteries.
Last night’s performance in the mall many groups were performing (Vocal Asia Festival held a 3 hour a cappella concert with the participant groups in a shopping mall, people gathering and watching from 3 different floors) and there was a giant crowd forming to hear this group singing. And some woman just walked up to me and asked me to videotape the group, because it was too big of a crowd and she couldn’t see over them. So I held her phone above of my head and videotaped the group performing. (look at the first picture I took with Deke, obviously he could hold the phone above the crowd – and no, it was not me asking him for the favor). That’s amazing! She didn’t even know me. She just handed me her phone. So people want it, people love it, they just don’t know about it. That’s really what we’re doing.
Juliana: You’ve been behind various Sing Off Shows all over the world, accompanied so many media productions and of course not to forget the Pitch Perfect movie. When it comes to bringing a cappella into mainstream media and catch a broad audience it is not only about a cappella. What is needed to make it a success?
Deke: Well, it depends on the particular media form. So, in the case of a major movie, there needs to be a strong story, in the case of Pitch Perfect it was a great story and it’s fun. So both of the movies made people laugh, people went to the movie because they wanted to see these characters, they wanted to laugh, and then they fell in love with a cappella.
Almost everybody who saw Pitch Perfect didn’t know anything about a cappella. Obviously our community knew about it and enjoyed it, but it was the general public who experienced a cappella through it for the first time. When you do new shows like the Sing Off, the stakes, the competition is important to keep the audience involved. But behind the scenes I tell singers: the competition doesn’t matter. This is just an opportunity for you to get viewers to the television.
With viral videos you want that there is something different, special and interesting about your video that makes people watch it, not just that it’s a cappella. And that’s been so successful for so many groups. There’s a lot of interest in the current media but it’s still growing. I look forward to seeing a cappella go on broadway and in more television programs and groups formed all around the world.
Juliana: Will there be a second Sing Off in China?
Deke: We’re hoping that Sing Off in China will come back. We did the Sing Off China in 2012, it was a success and hopefully it will come back again. I hear people talking about it, they definitely want it to come back. But it was an issue of television shows evolving and the government not wanting too much of it. But, we’ll get there.
Juliana: The a cappella lovers in Mainland China are also very sad, that Pitch Perfect 2 didn’t come to the cinemas here.
Deke: Well, hopefully we’ll get here eventually.
Juliana: That would be great. We are just waiting for it! – Do you think A cappella competitions are the right thing to improve quality of groups?
Deke: For me, an a cappella competition is not about improving quality. It is about getting an audience. So, when I created the college a cappella competition, it was the freedom march madness of a cappella (march madness are the play offs in college basketball). There is something about the public wants to see a competition…
In fact, in Pitch Perfect both story lines were around competition. So, if that’s what we need to do to get people to sit and watch, then that’s fine. But, hopefully, groups are motivated to make their music on their own and to come to the competition to make friends, to get a bigger audience and that winning isn’t the only thing, that’s not the most important.
Juliana: Recently, a Chinese friend asked me „Do you think it can be done for real, these battles like in Pitch Perfect, on that level?“ - I would like to hand over this question to you, the vocal producer of Pitch Perfect.
Deke: No, it’s not. You can’t do the riff off. It’s too hard. The human mind can’t work that quickly singing with other people. They are a few groups, like my own group the House Jacks, who will be able to improvise a song in front of the audience. But we are not improvising a song right on top of another song based on a single word connection. But that’s Hollywood, that’s drama, that’s fine.
Juliana: I am very curious about two recent or upcoming projects of yours. The Lifetime show and the a cappella touring show Vocalosity. Can you tell us more about that?
Deke: Yes, there is a new television show that I just finished taping on Lifetime. It’ll come out – I think – it will be in January. And it’s about a high school a cappella group which should be really exciting.
And I am working with a great group called „Stay tuned“ from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Big a cappella group, 21 high school singers. And they are not even a class at the school. They are just like an after school activity. So they are a little like the Barden Bellas (laugh). They are diverse, and a little rough round the edges, but we have a lot of fun together, we make some amazing music.
My show Vocalosity, it fantastic. And I’ve got some of the greatest young professional a cappella singers out there. And the cast is not being announced yet. But when you hear them, you say „wow, these are stars from the Sing Off, these are stars from other a cappella groups and shows“. They are twelve in total. And that group will be touring in the US throughout 2016 and hopefully will start touring internationally soon after.
Juliana: You also announced your new book coming out this year. What is it about?
Deke: My new book called „A Cappella“ which I co-wrote with Brody McDonald and Ben Spalding. This is a book with lots of chapters with different guest writers as well. The idea is, we’re trying to create a single definitive book about all aspects of a cappella. So my book „A Cappella Arranging“ still will be the work about a cappella arranging.
But this book is about the history of a cappella, the traditions, with lots of different lists in there, like celebrities who sang a cappella in college and finding college a cappella group names…
But also how do you arrange by ear, how do you mix live sound, how do you integrate live looping pedals into your live performance. And so on and so forth. Hopefully, it’s a resource that’ll be of interest to people who just generate live a cappella, fans and also people who do it professionally, will also find things valuable in it.
Juliana: When will it be available?
Deke: Well, it was supposed to be available now. So, I am just waiting for the final draft to be going through and edit. And hopefully it will be out by the end of the year. I am guessing another month or two.
Juliana: It’s just unbelievable what you do, you produce movies, TV shows, you arrange songs, you write books, you coach groups, hold workshops, all around the world… Looking at your schedule, your achievements for a cappella and your full devotion and enthusiasm for everything related to a cappella. I wonder how a Deke Sharon day looks like.
Deke (laugh): Every day is different and there is no single example. When I am working on the Sing Off, I am 100% Sing Off, when I’m working on Pitch Perfect I am 100% Pitch Perfect, … those kind of projects are so captivating that they just fill your brain from the moment you wake up to the moment you get asleep.
And then it’s in-between that I get to have so much fun, and fly to different festivals, and work with groups and publish music and do custom arrangements and do all these type of things. So, if people wonder what the average day in my life looks like, there is no average day. But, the beautiful thing is that it all interweaves. Every time, I arrange a song, maybe that song gonna get used again, or maybe, I’ll publish it, or maybe I’ll perform it when I get to Carnegie Hall… etc, etc.
There is something great about a cappella, there is so many different aspects and all relate to each other: arranging, coaching, teaching, songwriting, performing and inspiring people… What I love about a cappella is all of it. And I wouldn’t give any of it up.
Juliana: At last night’s Vocal Asia Festival party, there were all these plastic cups, and of course, there would be a table starting off with the cup song. Last question, I am very curious, you as the vocal producer of Pitch Perfect, do you know how to do the percussion of the cup song which became viral, even here in non-Youtube country China?
Deke (smile): I know it very well, but I don’t do it myself. I leave that to others.
Juliana: Thank you so much, Deke, for this interesting and inspiring interview.
Deke: You are most welcome.