HomeAn Interview With Deke Sharon on "The Sing-Off"

Evan Feist's picture

Deke Sharon, or the aca-papa as I call him, musically directed Pitch Perfect, produces The Sing-Off, and started the very website/organization you’re currently reading. He’s done a billiontrillion more things that you can read about in the various bios written about him. In my opinion, he started it all and helped foster this community of ours. I was lucky enough to be able to ask him a few questions about the upcoming season of The Sing-Off.  Enjoy!

Evan: How did The Sing-Off come about?

Deke: Sam Weissman (director of many movies, including Mighty Ducks 2 & George of the Jungle) and Bobby Newmyer (producer of many films, from Sex Lies & Videotape to The Santa Clause to Training Day) approached Sony 5 years ago with an idea to make a movie about the collegiate a cappella world. Sony suggested an a cappella reality show instead, and The Sing-Off was born.

Evan: What's it like to be back?

Deke: Imagine if Christmas was cancelled, North Pole boarded up, you can't believe it, you morn it, you get over it, you get neck deep in other holidays... and then Santa calls, and he's remarried to Jewel. 

Evan: How has the landscape/market changed since PTX, Pitch Perfect, etc?

Deke: It's an order of magnitude. When I started CASA in my dorm room, graduated and told people I was going to make a career of a cappella, people either snickered behind my back or said "what's that?" Ten years ago, a cappella was a punch line, the pastime of uncool Ivy League dorks. Now we're spitting out viral videos each week, NPR is calling, and I can't mention a cappella to anyone without their eyes getting big followed by an excited story. 

Another way of looking at it: 20 years ago, "a cappella" meant classical choral music, church choir, doo wop or barbershop, end of story. Now, do you know what barbershoppers call our contemporary style? Simply "a cappella."

Evan: What was it like/how was it different working with mega titan Mark Burnett?

Deke: Mark Burnett has a management style that I admire very much: he hires great people, then lets them do their jobs unfettered. He was kind, supportive, genuine, and very hands-off. I was allowed to dive right in and get to work. Very easy transition. 

Overseeing the show daily from Mark's team were executive producers Jane Mun and Dean Hauser, both new to a cappella, but incredibly smart, creative, and fast learners. Plus founders Sam Weissman and Deb Newmyer (who took over for Bobby when he passed away) were on set every day, so the show had superlative oversight throughout. 

Evan: You've done a lot.  A lot a lot.  What's next/is there another passion project in the works?  What have you always dreamed of doing but haven't quite figured out yet?

Deke: Oh, my a cappella bucket list is still very long. You name it, I hope to make it happen one day. Broadway's on that list. 

Evan: Anything you'd like to impart to the world about "this thing of ours"?

Deke: Yes: you too can do it, just don't expect to be amazing when you first get started. You don't need to be Michael Jordan to play a game of basketball with your friends, but you do need to practice shooting free throws from time to time before you can reliably hit the basket. 

Evan: What can we expect from the new season? Why do we absolutely have to stay glued to every single second?

Deke: This season boasts an almost impossible level of diversity and consistency. Every group is very solid, and taken together the range of sound and style is phenomenal. Why stay glued? Because these are great people making real, honest music that's far more complex and challenging than any other music reality show. High wire singing without a net. 

Evan: Are there any rituals prior to taping/performing TSO?

Deke: Not per se, beyond a few word I share to all the groups before we hand out mics and set up for the opening number. The entire 7-day-a-week experience is designed to get groups ready so that the show is simply the next step. 

Evan: What's the mentoring process like, especially for a group as young as Vocal Rush?

Deke: Every group is different, with different strengths and different needs. Some need more work on tuning, some vocal production, some arranging, some movement. Once a song is chosen, we focus every decision on finding the perfect marriage of group and message, 

Evan: The on screen team has stayed relatively the same over the years, care to comment about that? Or Jewel as the new judge?

Deke: Ben, Nick and Shawn love the show and love this music. This shows in their work ethic, their comments, their facial expressions. Not every thing they say makes it to air (not enough time), but you can tell on screen or in person that it's a labor of love. This is essential, since the audience effectively sees the show through the eyes of the judges. Their love of a performance becomes everyone's love of a performance. 

As for Jewel, you'll see: she's a perfect storm of charisma and cleverness. Great insights as a singer and performer herself, she figured it all out right away. 

Evan: After a few seasons, I assume you've got the hang of this.  What, if anything, did you purposely change/tweak/alter on this season?

Deke: We have some great new themes, and a new twist at the end of each show: instead of the departing group singing a swan song, we have the bottom two groups battle it out, back and forth, reminiscent of the riff-off scene in Pitch Perfect (but singing the same song). You do not want to miss these, and as the show progresses, they just get better and better, providing some of the most compelling a cappella ever aired on television. 

Evan: During pre-, production, and post: what are your everyday duties?

Deke: Help find groups, cast groups, structure days, oversee my team (the best a cappella team on the planet), choose songs, arrange songs, rehearse groups, keep groups pumped up as they sit in their boxes during long tapings yet help them relax and focus as I walk out on stage with them and give them their pitch, interface with other departments, fight battles on behalf of the groups from time to time, put out fires, deal with drama, find the nexus between what the other producers & NBC want and what the group wants and can do, wipe tears, push when pushing is needed, make sure every group is performing at 100% of their abilities but not overextended, reinforce proper vocal technique and preserve voices as much as possible, work closely with choreo to make sure each song's impact is maximized without compromising vocals, interface with the various tech folks (front of house, monitors, mixers) to ensure things sound great for the singers, audience, judges and viewers at home... and anything else that needs doing to make sure every song is the best it can be, every moment is powerful, every singer on stage is happy and engaged, every television executive is thrilled the show is on the air. 

I live in the hotel with the groups, and it's generally 8am to midnight or 1am 7 days a week for about 2 months. It's a cappella boot camp.

Evan: How has The Sing-Off changed your life?

Deke: More than anything, The Sing-Off gave us all the first major opportunity to show the world what we do: complex arrangements, instrumental textures with vocal percussion, incredibly compelling vocal performances. By showing so many different groups, we've taken control of the idea and meme of a cappella. Before The Sing-Off, I had to explain to most people what I do, and convince them what can be done with the human voice. Now, they nod and smile. 

About the writer:
Evan Feist has been in music/vocal percussion for over 10 years. He has his Bachelorʼs Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and holds two Master's degrees in Music Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. When not producing and composing for Stacks of Wax Production, he teaches voice, piano, vocal percussion, songwriting, and music business. He currently directs and manages many high school a cappella groups throughout the NY Metro area. Evan is currently available for workshops and clinics specializing in writing/arranging for a cappella groups, vocal percussion, group and solo improvisation as well as starting/managing an independently sustainable group. Please feel free to contact him for help and guidance in all your musical endeavors.
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