warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

An Interview with AcaExpert Deke Sharon

Shaina Eng |
December 11, 2012 | 11:32 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Deke Sharon performing at the finale episode of The Sing-Off China. (dekesharon.com)
Deke Sharon performing at the finale episode of The Sing-Off China. (dekesharon.com)
Between working on “The Sing-Off” and “Pitch Perfect,” touring with his vocal rock band, The House Jacks, and adding pieces to his catalogue of over two thousand a cappella arrangements, Deke Sharon seems to always be on the go. Often referred to as the father of contemporary a cappella by some authors, Deke has been at the forefront of this new vocal sound since he directed the Tufts University Beelzebubs in the early 1990s.

The go-to figure on all things a cappella has co-authored and released a book, aptly titled “A Cappella Arranging,” in which he and co-author Dylan Bell impart their wisdom and share tips and tricks to what makes a good a cappella arrangement click. Deke took a few minutes to speak with me about the book, his own arranging process and his a cappella background.

So I know that there are a lot of books and online guides to arranging a cappella, so why did you decide to write the “definitive” guide?

Well, a lot of people have said a few things here and there, but I don’t feel as though there’s a book that’s been written that really fully explains the process, the thinking, the style of contemporary a cappella. And there was no way to do this in a small way. I have written blogs in the past twenty years on casa.org [the website for the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America], so I’ve put lots and lots of information out there, but that’s different from it being in one place. I have for many years taught basic arranging, intermediate and advanced arranging to different people. But working with a classroom of people at SoJam [an a cappella festival] or at a particular event is different from giving them something that people anywhere around the world – because it’s going to be available for digital download – would be able to use. So, for ten years, this has been a dream of mine. Ten actual years of compiling some blog entries and putting things in order, and the chapters increased.

I think around the beginning of the year when Dylan Bell posted somewhere on casa.org, “Oh, I’m going to be writing an arranging book and I’m just getting started,” I dropped him an email immediately, and I was like, “Dude, I’m well into this book, but I’m so busy with “Pitch Perfect” and “The Sing-Off” or whatever, and I can’t get this done! Would you want to partner?” And he said, “I don’t know. Let me see what you’ve written.” So I sent him 200 pages, and he was like, “Whoa! Okay! I see that you’ve got a lot written here.” But of course, he’s very experienced and very talented and has a lot to add as well. So he said, “Let me go through your stuff, slowly and methodically, and expand upon it and see if we can get one big master work going.”So it was this back and forth process. The two of us were never in a room at the same time. The two of us were probably never in the same state at the same time, possibly never in the same country at the same time. That’s modern publishing for you.

What was the process like on getting this book published?

Well, it wasn’t very hard, actually, to find people who were interested particularly because the publishing industry knows nothing like this has been a major publication, and at the same time, a cappella is exploding. I mean, with the movie and “Pitch Perfect” the book, and TV shows, etc., it’s clear that there’s a desire for this, and so many groups have started. So I think music publishers in particular, but publishers just in general knew there was real interest and desire, but they didn’t really know where to turn, and so with my name behind it and Dylan, there were multiple publishers who were interested.

In the end, it seems the smart move was to go to Hal Leonard Publishing, not because necessarily they’re as big as Penguin Press or anything, but rather because they’re already targeting musicians. I was already published; Contemporary A Cappella Publishing was distributed by Hal Leonard. It would be in the same aisle in the supermarket, if that makes sense. Be on the same shelf. So I knew in Sheet Music Plus or Amazon.com or any of the places – JW Pepper – that it would be right there alongside, like, “Oh, I love singing that type of stuff. Oh! I can arrange myself,” that kind of thing.

Plus, as a publishing company (a music publishing company as well as a literary publishing company), Hal Leonard would make it easier for us to get the rights to songs, and I just didn’t want this to be a songbook where everything was public domain or songs that people didn’t know. I wanted to be able to use the best-known pop songs of all time, very specifically the Beatles. For me, that was a dealbreaker, a yes/no. I need to have the Beatles in this book. Because for people, the Beatles are the greatest rock band of all time, in many ways the first of the modern pop rock groups. And they’re the perfect musicians, the perfect style of music for contemporary a cappella arranging, partly because their music is in so many different styles, so you get that fun, funky classic oompa oompa with “When I’m 64,” but then when you talk about “Come Together,” you’re talking about cool, grindy-groovy, late 60s/early 70s rock and roll. I mean, I’m just blabbering. You get it.  

What are some of your favorite a cappella groups that have inspired you or your arrangements?

Wow, I love all my children; I can’t say! Geez, any group that I didn’t mention would be hurt ten times as much as I did mention! I mean, I love a cappella in general. And I love so many things that so many different groups do, and I don’t really rate them in my mind. People ask, “What’s your favorite band?” or “What’s your favorite kind of food?” I don’t know; I want Thai food tonight, but tomorrow I’m going to want Italian and it’s not like I think Thai is better than Italian, I just want that tonight. You know what I mean? I don’t really rate music that way. And I think that the great thing about a cappella music is that it’s not really a style. It’s an instrumentation, it’s a choice of what instruments you’re using (or more specifically, what you’re not using), right? 


So you’re getting another style. If I’m feeling like I want some cool, sexy, fun, hot, Latin, groovy music, I’ll put on a vocal sampling on Nota’s CD. If I want beautiful, shimmering, Nordic voices, I’ll listen to the Real Group, etc. I mean, there are so many different groups that do so many different things. 

Could you describe how you first became involved in the a cappella scene? Your involvement with a cappella in general?

It’s sort of hard to talk about getting involved in the a cappella scene because there really wasn’t an a cappella scene when I got started. Part of what I wanted to do in creating an a cappella community was to create an a cappella scene. I know that it doesn’t make that much sense now, but you have to look back at 1991 when I graduated college. There’s no internet, there’s no…There’s Tower Records, but there’s no a cappella section of it. If you like a cappella music, you just need to know that it exists. Or maybe you’re a fan of Take 6, but you’ve never heard of the Bobs. You don’t know the Nylons. Maybe you like Rockapella, but you don’t realize what’s going on with the Persuasions. You don’t even know that they exist.

And there are no events, there’s nothing for a cappella people to get together and exchange ideas and information at. The only thing that was out there was the Harmony Sweepstakes, and that was a small community event that happened just in San Francisco bay area, before it ended up going to a couple regions.

I mean, when I was in college, I produced the first ever Boston Harmony Sweepstakes, and that’s only because I called them and I told them, “I think I can put on a regional for you out here,” while I was directing the [Tufts Beelzebubs]. They said, “Okay, that sounds fun!” So there was nothing. The first a cappella weekend was at the A Cappella Summit out on the West Coast. I approached the people who do the Harmony Sweepstakes and said, “Let’s turn this into an event.” First time people got together. Great success.

The [International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella] didn’t exist. There weren’t any places to buy CDs and all that kind of stuff. I mean, you name it, I just to tried to get there to be a community. The Contemporary A Cappella News was originally a newsletter.
Now, it’s so easy. Now, any time anybody wants to meet up with friends with similar interests they can just do it. It was different back then. 

How has the process for writing an arrangement changed from when you wrote your first a cappella arrangement to now, as a seasoned professional?

Wow, that’s a good question. I don’t know that my process has changed a great deal. I would say that I’m just more experienced at it, so it’s not that big a deal for me to arrange. I don’t need to use a particular process. I just dive in.  But that’s because I’ve done over two thousand arrangements. I’d say that, if anything, popular music has changed and expanded and gone in different directions, which then open up new sonic territories and timbres. Of course, you can still do all the things from the past, but for example, when you look at dubstep and modulations of low tones and half-time breakdowns and things that we’d write in “The Sing-Off,” it’s just new colors, new tempos, new textures, new things to play with. But the overall idea is the same. You want to find a way to maximize the sound that you get from the different voices that you have, and maximize their potential. Use them to their fullest in their strengths and abilities without showing any weaknesses. Every group has strengths and weaknesses. 

The book is obviously aimed at current or future a cappella arrangers. But do you think that a cappella enthusiasts or non-arrangers would benefit from reading the book as well?

I would hope that non-arrangers would read it and become arrangers. That’s part of what I want to do. For many years in the early days, I was one of the only people doing custom contemporary a cappella arranging, possibly the only person or the only person to say that. But if people wanted arrangements, they called me and that was that. And I had other people working for me, the staff, and we were just this arranging house. Now, there have got to be thousands of people arranging in the contemporary a cappella style. I mean, if you look at there being over a thousand college a cappella groups and each group has one person on average arranging, that’s a thousand people. And I like it better that way. I want everybody to make music, I want people to sing, I want the world to, you know, spread harmony through harmony. So my hope is that the book will get more people arranging, and as a result, more people will sing. 

What do you hope readers who are not interested in becoming arrangers will take away from the book?

I would say for some of them, [the book is a good introduction] if they have a passing knowledge of or interest in music – maybe they played an instrument in high school as opposed to singing – [or] if they’ve got any understanding of theory. Or, they want to understand how this is built. How does this work? I mean, there are times when I’ll read manuals or a chemistry book or a book on macroeconomics. I’m not an economist! I mean, I have businesses, but how much specifics of understanding if the larger markets matter in what I do when I’m making sheet music? Probably a small amount, but I’m just interested in that. How does it work and why does it work that way?And I would say I think this book is very approachable in that regard. I don’t think you have to be a serious music theory nerd to be able to read the book and get something out of it. Specifically because there are a lot of different pointers about the creative process and about how to treat and approach voices that don’t require any understanding or knowledge of music theory at all. 

What kinds of feedback have you gotten from readers in the a cappella community, or readers just in general?

I have heard nothing but excitement and positive feedback. In fact, I’ve been kind of amazed that so many people in so many places have been purchasing it. I would say the number one feedback that I’ve heard from anyone is, “When can I get this book? Why is it taking so long to get to me?” The most common email I respond to is that! So that makes me happy. That’s a good problem to have.

And I like the idea of there being a website, building off of the book, where people can share their ideas, their current arrangements and things they’ve learned from the book as well.

Yeah, that was the plan from the beginning. We knew that the second we were done publishing the book, we’d go, “Ah, we left this thing out!” or “Oh, I wanted to add this thing!” or “Oh, there’s so much more to say!” Plus, like I said, the music style changes, so we wanted an ongoing dialogue. We knew that we’d have much more success if we put a book out.

It had to be digital as well as paper, first of all. We would only put songs in the book that we could get the digital rights to, as well as the paper rights. So if we couldn’t get the digital rights, we wouldn’t put it in the book because we didn’t want anything to hold the book back from being downloaded on an iPad and used in that manner as well.

And the website is just getting started because Dylan and I are both quite busy, but the idea would be that people would say, “Here’s my arrangement,” or “What’s going on in these four measures of this song?” or “How do I end this song? It fades out in the original. What’s the best way?” Any kind of question like that, and one of the two of us will jump in and try to continue the dialogue. I think of it a little bit like the book “Freakonomics.” The two guys who wrote that, they’ve got a podcast and a blog. It’s just an ongoing discussion about all things economics. 

So what’s next for you personally? Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on?

I will say that the number one thing that I’m working on this holiday season is trying to be a good dad. The last few years have been crazy, with “The Sing-Off” in four countries, the movie “Pitch Perfect” and the House Jacks touring. I’ve performed on four continents just in this year alone, plus workshops and teaching, and then writing the book. So I’ve spent a lot of time away from home, a little more than I’d have liked, and with the exception of a short trip to Missouri, I’m home until early February. All the way through the holidays I get to be Dad. And then the next big projects I’m working on...The House Jacks already have a couple trips already planned earlier in the year, and I’m also working on the first ever (fingers crossed) musical on Broadway that’s all original, called “In Transit.” It was Off-Broadway, and it got a lot of awards, and my hope is that it will be successful, fingers crossed! 

That’s very exciting!

Yeah, it started out with a few songwriters and lyricists, people on their computer just putting a cappella numbers together, but doing musical theatre songs (original ones). And it grew, and grew, and grew, and eventually the last step was that it went to Off-Broadway with a cast of about seven. And then after a couple years on hiatus, a cappella was exploding, and I thought, “Wow, we should bring it back to Broadway.” So they put a whole team together, the director they got attached won a Tony for “Newsies.” It’s a total top-notch team, some really great talent, and they were like, “Okay, maybe we should get somebody who really knows a cappella.” They called me and I was like, “I’m just too busy. I’m so sorry. I would love to do this.” But then I said, “But I have to do it anyway.”

So we had one round of auditions that went super well, and we’re going to have another one in February. And we’re expanding out the show to have a cast of eleven or thirteen or something, so we’re going to have extra people, and extra voices, and extra layers and stuff. So it’s very exciting. It’s obviously not on Broadway yet, but the hope that it’ll get there!


Reach Shaina here or follow her on Twitter.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.