HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogA Voice, Your Voice

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Ah, James Taylor. So simple, yet so good. He has a voice.

And when I say "a voice" I don't mean his vocal chords. Rather, I'm speaking of the combination of his characteristics and perspective that make him one of a kind. Plenty of singer-songwriters out there, only one James Taylor.

It's perhaps ironic then that we have so many voices in a cappella, but not nearly as many Voices. If you catch my meaning.

Would I like your group to develop its own voice, its own style? Very much. But before I start nudging you in that direction, I want to make sure you're ready.

Is your group good? Focused? Cohesive? Are you just singing for fun or are you hoping to do something new? The development of a voice can't be forced. It'll happen when it's time, with a combination of experience and care.

In the case of one person, it's a very natural process, as no one told Elvis Costello or Tom Petty to sing in a particular way, write in a particular way, record in a particular way. Well, some people gave them advice, suggestions, perhaps even edicts (from their record label or manager), but in the end it was one man's journey, one man's sense of style.

In a cappella the process is different. It often starts with one person, usually a group's founder/director/arranger, but it's impossible for it to move forward without at least tacit approval or complicity. No one is dragged kicking and screaming into new territory. Moreover, since it involves multiple people, it's usually a more considered, discussed and perhaps cerebral process, requiring late night discussions, lengthy emails, disagreements, trial and error.

In hopes of making that process easier for your group, let me offer a few thoughts from my own and others' experiences:

* Start with what you know, what you like, what you want. This will likely be framed or described in terms of other groups. I've been told often that M-Pact was formed to be a hybrid of Take 6 and the House Jacks. Or it can be the result of a formula, just as Take 6 melds gospel songs, jazz harmonies and r&b vocal stylings. To be clear, this isn't a destination or even a pit stop along the way. It's more of a blueprint, an initial road map. Somewhere to start.

* Next, once you start on your path, do not turn back. In the case of the House Jacks, our plan was to be an original rock band which meant original music. Cover songs were so much easier, and audiences could grab on to them right away, but we got advice from several other musician who told us we'd turn a corner, and we'd begin to have fans who would like us for our music, not like us because we sang other people's music. Eventually this happened, and we were signed to a record label specifically because of our original music, but it took time and persistence. For years.

* Talk is cheap. Ideas are often easy. Execution is where the actual work happens, as the mechanics will often be very frustrating. We wanted conceptually to be a rock band, but what did that sound like? How could we make guitar sounds with our voices that would work in a live setting without effects? How could vocal percussion effortlessly weave into the sound of just a few voices on stage? Maybe this seems obvious now, but it was not obvious. Many things didn't work, and and it took thought, and experimentation, and time to learn what would work.

* You might find the destination for your group is the journey itself. In the House Jacks, we're still trying different crazy things with each album which means we still run into walls, still come up with ideas and sounds that just don't work. By design we're constantly morphing, looking to reinvent ourselves and our sound, which will not necessarily be your group's goal. Some groups find a sound and stick to it, which is absolutely fine, and more common. No one is looking for Pentatonix or Straight No Chaser to change their sound; their fans want more of what they're doing, and there's no reason right now for a shift. If this concept isn't making much sense, consider pop music over the past 50 years: the Beatles and Madonna were/are shape-shifters; James Taylor and Willie Nelson are not. Up to you.

* It's not enough to just want to be different. As Ed Boyer wisely replied to a group asking him for advice as to how to be different, "what's different about you?" If you can't answer that question, you can't move to the next step. You have to know what you and your group does well in addition to knowing what other groups are doing, where the community and the sound has been, and where things will likely be going. If you're looking to build a city that will show up on the map, you need to know the map, and also where you currently are.

* Here's the tough one: You're not good at everything. I don't believe the tired adage that "anyone can do anything!" A 5'4" man cannot play in the NBA. Period. Stupid to try. Nor could Kobe be a jockey. The key to success is to find the nexus of your talents and your passions. I'm assuming if you're reading this, a cappella or at least vocal music is a passion, so you're well on your way. And you can sing, so again, there's going to be a sweet spot between desire and ability. But where is that desire? What's your personal style? Your life experience? How are you perceived by others? What's your personality? What do you have to say to others that's true, that's real, that's compelling? This is not the time to whine about being overweight or over 40. Exhibit A: Sweet Honey in the Rock. They will fill your spirit and make your soul soar, and they will in no way rely on many of the performing cliches you probably think are necessary to be successful in popular music.

A serious consideration of this last point is as far as I can get you on this journey. The self-honesty has to come from you, as does the searching, the testing, the discussing and disagreeing and wanting and failing and landing on your feet. I want to help you, and so do the people around you, if you'll ask for their help, and ask big, open, non-leading questions, and prepare yourself for the honest answers that might not be what you think you want to hear... but they're what you need to hear if you're going to find the Voice within your voices.

Why do I care? Because this, ultimately, is all that matters in music. Saying something meaningful to you in a way that's meaningful to others in a clear, direct, honest and unique voice. Communication. The a cappella community has a significant number of students, which is fantastic, and also many casual singers, which is also fantastic, and they can and should sing however they'd like without assuming the weight of pioneering genius in addition to the myriad technical and logistical hurdles they face.

But for those of you who are looking at a cappella professionally, or even semi-professionally, you're probably not only wanting to be great but wanting to be different and special... but you've got some college gigs and a cruise ship gig coming up and you need to learn "Gangham Style". Art meets commerce meets only so many hours in the day meets different opinions...

So, what should you do? How should you handle all of the above?

I don't know. What's different about you?


Deke Sharon founded CASA (and other stuff), makes TV shows ("The Sing-Off"), movies ("Pitch Perfect"), sings (The House Jacks), produces albums (Straight No Chaser, Street Corner Symphony, Committed, Nota, Bubs), wrote a book (A Cappella Arranging), publishes sheet music (Hal Leonard), and custom arranges music (over 2,000 songs). You can find him at www.dekesharon.com