Making Choruses Cool(er)

A Conversation with Deke Sharon and Josh Habermann

At the opening session of Chorus America’s 2014 Conference, conductor Josh Habermann and a cappella pioneer Deke Sharon talked about new trends in vocal music and breaking down boundaries between the classical and pop worlds.

Deke Sharon:

I like this set-up. Basically, we’ve got an entire room of people here to listen to us talk just the way we’ve been doing since third grade.

Josh Habermann:

What a joy to share a friendship that’s gone back now coming on 40 years, and it’s great to be able to share just a little bit of what Deke has been doing. Deke, we know you as the pop guy with all the successful projects: Pitch Perfect, The Sing-Off, etc. Do you want to talk about your classical background and the fact that you’re not just from the enemy camp?

DS: Yeah, as a matter of fact I grew up singing in a church choir since I was five, as well as in the San Francisco Boys Chorus. I primarily focused on classical music all the way up through the New England Conservatory of Music. So I am one of you. And I steal from you constantly with all of your clever ways and good vocal techniques.

JH: Popular a cappella music is a phenomenon right now. It’s on TV; it’s on the radio; it’s making inroads in places that we’ve never seen it before. How did that come about and where do you see the trends going?

DS: A cappella and pop music is not a new marriage. If you go back to the earliest music, that was a cappella. Moving through history, there are many periods when vocal music both drew from and gave to the popular music of the time, from madrigals during the Renaissance to barbershop music at the turn of the century to doo-wop. The only thing that’s different now is the technique that we’re using.

The sound of contemporary a cappella is driven by the desire to create a whole sonic spectrum akin to what we’re hearing on the radio now in popular music. With so much rhythm in popular music, vocal percussion and beatboxing have become important elements to weave into the sound. When you have 12 or 14 guys in a college a cappella group, instead of singing four-part a cappella, now they’re singing 12- or 14-part, very complex a cappella arrangements to recreate the sounds of a dense, textured, fully produced radio track.

JH: When you were beginning to get involved in the scene, a cappella was a primarily a collegiate phenomenon, is that fair to say?

"Everybody can sing, and everybody used to sing. Music throughout all of human history was about people communicating and sharing together."

DS: There were a few professional groups, but they were definitely flying under the popular culture radar. But since the early ‘90s when the sound shifted, 200 college a cappella groups has become 2,000 a cappella groups and more. It’s a phenomenon reaching down into high schools, prep schools, and junior highs, and then moving all the way up to professional ensembles. And when you get to those professional ensembles, frankly, it’s not like anyone is focusing on “this group does popular music and this group does classical music, and this group does world music.” Really any vocal group could be doing any combination of different styles.

JH: So we’re not looking anymore at a situation where classical musicians sit on one side of the aisle and popular musicians sit on the other and they don’t talk. I think of a group like Rajaton out of Finland. Their name means “boundless” and that’s indeed how they approach the styles of music they perform. You’re seeing that as the real trend going forward now.

DS: Yeah, there’s no question. Now, in contemporary music, there’s much more sharing and exploration of all the different things that the human voice can do. This is super exciting to me personally because I love it all. My iPod is a giant jumbled mess of everything—which is the way music should be experienced, in my opinion.

JH: You don’t talk about being an “evangelist,” but that’s how I see your work in vocal music. That regardless of genre, the main idea is that we sing together. That your goal, writ large, is not specifically to further a cappella music, but rather the idea of communal singing and communication in that form.

DS: You know what makes me mad? When someone tells me they are tone deaf. “Oh, I love singing, but I can’t sing, I’m tone deaf.” If they say, “I can’t sing, I’m tone deaf” [speaking with rising and falling inflection], they’re not tone deaf. There are maybe three people on the planet who are actually tone deaf and they talk like monotone robots.

Everybody can sing, and everybody used to sing. Music throughout all of human history was about people communicating and sharing together. There was a frequently used spinet sitting in the parlor, and people singing nightly around a campfire…we’ve gotten so far away from that.

So what I’m trying to do with my life’s work is to spread harmony through harmony. And if there’s anyone is this room who thinks “well, popular music, it’s not as good,” here’s what I have to say: First of all, the Beatles. And second of all, who cares? If we’re getting kids to sing in high school, we’re saving their lives. The graduation rates spike as soon as they are in a choir. They stay with their studies. They feel a connection. That’s what gets me fired up. I’m out there making movies and TV shows because I’m trying to get those people who are sitting on the sofa flipping through 250 channels to get their butts out of their seats and go join a choir, whatever the style. And then eventually, it’s all a gateway drug. They start to think “Oh that Monteverdi, that’s pretty interesting stuff.” And then they’re hooked.

JH: So you’re with the Chorus America family here and there’s as broad a representation of musical styles as anywhere. But it’s probably fair to say that it’s not a primarily pop-focused group. How does this world intersect with popular music and with a cappella music being so popular right now?

"The gift that we have here in vocal music I think is more powerful than any other artistic form, because when you’re in the same room with people on stage who are working together to create something beautiful that is coming entirely from them, it’s unbelievably compelling."

DS: Well, let’s start with a thought experiment. In 100 years, what music will people listen to and study from right now? In my opinion, on that list will be Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. I think the bottom line is that music touches people, and the music that you find at the heart of an era, each period’s cultural touchstones, that’s the music that ends up permeating culture and changing it permanently. Today’s popular music is tomorrow’s classical music. And while there’s some absolute garbage on the radio right now, at the same time there are some songs that are absolute gems. When you mention songwriters like Lennon and McCartney, you’re talking about truly timeless music. In 500 years, people will sing “Yesterday” and they will sing “Blackbird” the way that we sing great old folk songs from the past. So you can wait 100 years, or sing it now. It’s up to you.

JH: You’re the grandfather of the a cappella movement, they say—you don’t look that old, but that’s how it goes. Do you have any life lessons for us from the trenches as you’ve put groups together over the years and seen this culture grow?

DS: Every time that I’m approaching any group at any level, I always tell them, “Your number one job is to reach people, is to talk to people. You need to say something real, and make sure that you share it with other people.” The gift that we have here in vocal music I think is more powerful than any other artistic form, because when you’re in the same room with people on stage who are working together to create something beautiful that is coming entirely from them, it’s unbelievably compelling. People singing from their voices, from their hearts—that’s the most pure and basic form of communication that we have.

So what I would suggest to everyone, regardless of the kind of group you have, regardless of the level that you’re working at, is to always make communication the highest priority. Whatever it is that you want to do with your chorus, speak truth to people in a way that is both meaningful to your singers and accessible to the people you are singing to.

JH: Say I’m sold. I think that this is an amazing idea; I want to find a way to make popular music a part of what my ensemble does. What do you see as barriers to entry, and what can help us overcome those barriers?

DS: I would say the most frequent comment that I get from a choral director is “I did my studies. I have my masters, perhaps a Ph.D. I know how to teach the classical idiom. I understand proper placement and tall vowels and all these things, but I don’t understand how to teach popular music.” What I always say in reply is “You already know.” Everywhere you go, in the elevator and in the lobby and when you turn on your television—everything you’re hearing is popular music. You already understand the cadence of it, you understand the form, the sound, the style, the vocalization.

When we’re young, from our early teens through our twenties, music is imprinted upon us in a particularly strong way. I like to call that “the music of our lives.” It’s the music that you have on your iPod, the music that was at school dances when you were younger, the music that you listen to all the time. You know this music in such an intuitive way that if you follow your instincts, you will teach the greatness in that music. And you will be inspiring to whoever your singers are, because you “get it.”Whatever your connection is to that music, speak about that honestly and share it with people so that they can begin to understand why that music works, what it is that is successful and powerful about it. You’ve already got this, is what I’m saying. It’s in you.

JH: There’s a Mary Oliver quote that comes to mind. She wrote “You only need to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Which is to say you only need to share the passion that is truly yours in order to make the communication real.

DS: Right. I think Snoop Dogg might have once said “You’ve got this shizz,” or something like that. So those two things, right? [Audience laughter.] But in essence that’s what music is. There are lots of different ways through time that people have spoken the same universal truths in their own way.

And please know that just as with the people in this room, there are no more friendly people than those in the a cappella world. They are happy to help you come up with new sounds and new ways to work with popular music. We are among you; we are with you; we are all on the same team.

For important takeaways from Josh and Deke's conversation by Chorus America members, click here.

This article is adapted from the opening plenary session of Chorus America’s 2014 Conference in Washington DC and appeared in The Voice, Fall 2014.