When talking about NBC's "The Sing-Off" with the members of its musical creative team, one thing becomes immediately apparent - this show is absolutely unique. No other show - reality or otherwise - combines the same elements of music, choreography, costuming, stage movement/blocking, competition, and camaraderie. Additionally, it has brought contemporary a cappella music into the national consciousness in a way that has never been seen before.
The music staff (Ed Boyer, Ben Bram, Christopher Diaz, Nick Girard, Rob Dietz, and Deke Sharon) bring many individual and diverse talents to the project, but the process of crafting the show requires that they be able to think with one mind, one vision, and collaborate seamlessly to bring the final polished product to the screen.
Ed Boyer (Vocal Supervisor) has been working on "The Sing-Off" since the first season, when Deke asked him to mix the music that takes the show into and out of commercial breaks, also known as the "bumpers." For most of the season, he worked remotely from across the country, but flew to LA for the live finale. Starting with the second season, he began mixing the vocals of the competing groups. Mixing vocals is obviously central to the successful presentation of the show, but paradoxically Ed notes that, "When done correctly, this kind of mixing shouldn't be noticed." So if you've never been curious about who does this part of the work, then he must be doing something right. Somehow doesn't seem fair, does it? But Ed gladly endures it all for the sake of art.
After participating in the first season of the show as the arranger for the SoCals, Ben Bram (Vocal Arranger) got a call from Deke about coming on as an arranger for the second season. After many rounds and interviews with producers, he got the good news that he was officially on the project on the same day that he graduated from USC - a red letter day, to be sure. Ben observes that, above all, working collaboratively with contestants, producers, choreographers, directors, crew, production staff, and, oh yeah, the other members of the musical staff are what makes this project work the way it does. Each week the arrangers are called upon to help the groups choose the songs they'll be singing that week, cut the songs down to the appropriate length, arrange and lead rehearsals for the ensemble opening song, help the groups with arrangements of their competition pieces, and coach the groups to the highest level of performance and musicality. Ben notes that contestant morale is always a concern, as the schedule is intense and the groups are away from home and working very hard to deliver their best possible performances. It's a grueling process for everyone, but it pays off in the end, sometimes at unexpected moments.
Ben described a moment of rehearsal for the opening number of episode 3 of this season. He had the opportunity to arrange "Somewhere Only We Know" by Keane, and after everyone had learned their notes, he had the whole group stand together in a big huddle with the soloists facing the rest of the group. "Everyone sang their hearts out, and being right in the middle of everyone, I could feel the raw, vulnerable, intensity of everyone's voices. I was overwhelmed beyond just tearing up, it was another feeling that I can't even put into words. Almost an out of body experience. When it was over, everyone was silent for a second, and we all acknowledged that something really special had just happened. Everyone was so connected to the song and to each other that the results were just magical. That feeling is why I do a cappella, and why I do music."
Far away in another hemisphere, Rob Dietz (Assistant/Vocal Arranger) heard the news that "The Sing-Off" was being extended to the full fall season this year while he was living in Australia. He had worked with Deke Sharon for several years on various projects, and the thought occurred to him that the additional work load might well mean that more "muscle" might be needed on the creative team. Sure enough, the opportunity arose, and Rob packed up and headed to LA, beginning Season 3 as an assistant to the music team, but soon getting a promotion to arranger and voice coach. As an assistant, his focus was more on the logistical and organizational aspect of the show's production, but once he moved into his new assignment, he was almost completely involved in the specific preparation of the music for the show, from arranging music to coaching the groups. As the season progressed and the arrangers/coaches became more and more familiar with each of the groups, Rob notes that the perspective was valuable to help each group define what played best to an audience for them. Familiarity with one another on staff was also a factor, as staff members found it easier to collaborate among themselves as the season went along, in order to help create the best possible performance opportunity for each group given the parameters of the competition.
Another new addition for the expanded third season was Christopher Diaz (Vocal Arranger), who had also collaborated with Deke on a variety of projects. Christopher notes that in spite of his official job title, he found his role most effectively to be that of coach. He does work on arranging music, certainly, but he finds himself working directly with the groups on performance and musicality, and focusing on the communicative aspect of each piece. "Some of the show's most memorable and exciting performances throughout the seasons have been those that contained a real connection to the spirit of the original song," Christopher says. "It's one of my favorite things to help a group find what that original intent was and then form it to fit their vision for the piece."
Christopher described the process of choosing and arranging songs for each week's competition as a real collaboration among all the people involved. Even if an arranger or a group begins the week with a "complete" arrangement for a particular song, it will invariably grow and change over the course of the rehearsal time and will often end up in a very different place from where it began. That process of creation, as well as the spirit of collaboration and the overarching desire these groups bring to create something really special, inspires Christopher. "I hope that people know just how talented and driven every group member is to give their absolute best each performance. It's a really cool thing to be a part of."
Last, and far from least, is the Vocal Big Daddy himself, CASA's founder, Deke Sharon (Vocal Producer) who has been part of "The Sing-Off" since its inception in 2009. He was contacted by the Executive Producer, Josh Greenberg, to arrange music for the first show. Arriving on the scene to begin production on Season 1, he soon found that, as professional as the television production staff was, they had no idea about the unique needs of a cappella musicians, and as a result, that month was pretty much solid insanity for Deke. He dove in and hit the ground at a dead run, dashing all over the place fixing things that no one had known needed fixing until he got there... and, oh yeah, doing some vocal arranging too. "I knew this was our one chance at a televised a cappella reality show," he says, "and if it didn't work on NBC, no one else would take a chance. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission, right? I was fully at peace with the prospect of being fired for wildly overstepping my bounds."
Far from being fired, he was promoted to Vocal Producer, and, starting with Ed Boyer, he began forming the creative Dream Team described above (which also includes Nick Girard). With the changes made between seasons 1 and 2, and again between 2 and 3, Deke says he thinks they have things figured out fairly well - ready for Season 4, we hope.
What is a "vocal producer" anyway? As one might imagine, it involves many aspects of the production, and no day on the job looks exactly like the next one, or the one before. "On any given day," Deke says, "I'd float between individual group rehearsals (music and choreo), arranging in the music room 314 (which we nicknamed "Pi”), being on planning phone calls, dealing with logistics via email." Additionally, he might be involved in checking wardrobe and choreography for issues that might get in the way of a group's ability to perform, helping a singer with vocal trouble get to see a doctor, and other details that could derail a group's performance if overlooked. In addition, Deke and his creative team are greatly concerned with group morale, and making sure they are happy with the choices of songs and arrangements. Luckily, Deke has been involved with a cappella from all sides for more than two decades, so he has knowledge of How It's Supposed to Go in most situations involved in a cappella performance and production.
A crucial dimension of the "Sing-Off" experience is the friendship and camaraderie that develops among the groups and the staff, who are all involved in this intense and extraordinary musical experience, one that, in many cases, will shape and re-direct life directions. Deke talks about the tradition that began this season, where the most recently eliminated group would sing a concert for the other groups in the wee hours following the performance of their swan song. Those "little" things, like the jam session that spontaneously erupted during a group choreo rehearsal, and laughing together in the hotel's hot tub, indicate an atmosphere of friendship and collegiality that we don't always see on camera (though there are hints of it now and again).
One of the complications of producing an a cappella competition on a major television network is that the influence of the Powers That Be can't be overlooked. The network, in order to create the kind of product they believe will continue to advance their "brand" must, by necessity, shape and guide what ends up going out on their stations. Deke understands the need for this, but also offers these thoughts:
Fact is, it works like this: everyone's friends behind the scenes, no secrets, all the groups learn from each other and are pulling for each other, and everyone does their damnedest to kick ass every single week. Groups take calculated risks, groups try to find the heart of the song while simultaneously stopping the show with pyrotechnics, and so on. And then a group either sings in tune or it doesn't. A song is either received well by the judges or it isn't. And then a story is built around it so that the people at home have something easy to digest, and can follow along without having to work very hard.
True reality is nuanced and chaotic. The judges aren't always right... (t)hey do their best but they're not infallible. Nor are the singers, who perform under extreme pressure and are not always perfect. But that's too messy for a network show, so it's all packaged for the public.
I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I want the show to be easily digestible so that the general public can watch and fall in love with a cappella. I just want to make sure the a cappella community understands what's going on and doesn't drink the kool aid.
Being a part of this show and driving its creative process, with all its ups and downs, hairpin turns and soaring exhilaration, has to be unbelievably intense and, at times, beyond exhausting. How do these creative dudes - Ed, Ben, Rob, Christopher, Nick, and Deke - stay with it, remain focused on the goal, keep going in the face of 20-hour work days and constant pressures? As an answer, here are a few more choice words from the iconic Mr. Sharon:
It's a passion, a lifelong mission. As a student at Tanglewood, I got some great advice: "If you could see yourself doing anything other than music, do it! You can always make music for fun, but if you make a career of it there will always be someone willing to work harder, get up earlier, lose sleep..." I realized that if I want to be a musician, I have to be that guy who can't do anything other than a cappella, and won't give up until something is right.
We get it, Deke. And thank you to all of you for sharing your energy, music, and thoughts.
About the author:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University. She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus. She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical? These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium. She is also a Northern California CASA Ambassador.
[photo credit: Warren Bloom]