HomeCrossing Over: Deke Sharon at Chorus America 2011

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We are living in the golden days, my friends. Summer vacations are here and the weather is warm. This time of year always reminds me of the road trips I took with my family as a kid. Each July, we’d own the highways of America in our blue minivan, traveling to faraway locations such as the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, and the shores of Lake Michigan.

My mother acted as the car’s DJ, feeding the tape deck with an endless supply of Kings Singers cassettes. In fact, we listened to The Kings Singers so often that I didn’t realize until years later that many of those songs were first performed by pop artists like The Beatles, Billy Joel, and Randy Newman. I only knew of The Kings Singers’ versions and heard the originals later. So for me, The Kings Singers has always epitomized that crossroads or sweet-spot between classical choral music and contemporary pop.

Musical “crossover” was a much-discussed subject at Chorus America’s Annual Conference in San Francisco in June. CASA founder Deke Sharon spoke to an auditorium full of chorus leaders about the American mainstream culture’s renewed interest in the vocal arts, as evidenced by the popularity of shows like "Glee", "The Sing-Off", "American Idol", and "The Voice".

Let’s seize this moment and bring new audiences into the choral music fold, he said. Contemporary a cappella music can serve as a “gateway drug” into classical choral music.

One of Sharon’s recommendations was for choruses that usually program classical works to offer a pop or jazz concert during their season line-up. The idea is that audiences new to choral music will be attracted by songs that they can immediately relate to.

“Popular music is the music of our lives,” Sharon said. “You can’t buy groceries without hearing this stuff. It’s our music and we all know it. So when you weave in melodies from [popular music] you’re immediately tapping into a collective unconscious that we all share.”

Some choruses are up for trying out this approach and have already implemented pop/jazz programs in their season line-up.

Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director of the professional vocal ensemble Octarium, said, “We do a regular concert we call ‘Should Have Been Choral’ where we perform music from other genres transcribed into unaccompanied SSAATTB. While this concert is always one of our best-attended of any season in which it appears, we do it because it allows listeners to approach choral music in a new way and to realize that choral music doesn't have to be what they assume choral music is.”

Other choruses, however, have expressed that they feel like they wouldn’t be true to themselves by singing pop or jazz, or feel like they would not be able to perform those styles well. 

“I love jazz,” said singer B Van Elsen, “but disagree that the same chorus that can do jazz well can also do classical music well and vice versa. It's just different. And I feel there's nothing worse than a stiff, classically-trained chorus (or solo singer, for that matter) trying to be hip and swingin’.”

I’d like to push Sharon’s recommendation for musical crossover a step further. I’d be interested to hear both traditional choral ensembles and a cappella groups perform and commission “mash-up” pieces that combine elements of classical music and contemporary pop. Not only would a mash-up like this be a cool experiment, but in a very concrete way it would build bridges between old and new music, which is another thing that Sharon suggested choruses strive for.

For example, how about a song that mashes The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” with the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem? Or what about Rachmaninoff’s “Now Let Thy Servant Depart” and Radiohead’s “Reckoner”? As someone who enjoys listening to a whole host of musical genres, I’d jump at the chance to hear hybrid pieces like these.

But no matter the repertoire or style, at the end of the day “contemporary a cappella has the same aim as traditional choral music,” says Sharon. “We're all trying to reach people through our voices.”

We all want people to walk away from our music feeling moved. With this shared goal in mind, we can all learn from each other in our mission to bring the vocal arts to more and more people.

About the author:
Jan-Marie Petersen is communications & advertising manager at Chorus America. She is also associate editor of Chorus America’s Voice magazine and editor of www.singernetwork.org. Chorus America is an association that strengthens choral music organizations and provides their leaders with information, research, leadership development, professional training, and advocacy to help them deliver the best possible contributions to their communities and to the choral art: www.chorusamerica.org.