Finale Spotlight on A Cappella Guru Deke Sharon
July 1, 2015 | by Scott Yoho
Back in May I was delighted to discover a video interview with Deke Sharon, the “musical force behind NBC’s ‘The Sing Off’ and both ‘Pitch Perfect’ films.” In the video we see Deke using Finale 2014 to demonstrate one of his arrangements, which have become widely influential in the a cappella world and beyond.
After we shared a link to the video on social media, we received this tweet from Deke:
“FINALE!!! My life saver! Been using your amazing program since 1991 for over 2000 a cappella arrangements. THANK YOU!”
Emboldened by his kind words I reached out to ask if he’d be willing to be interviewed for the Finale blog and was delighted when he agreed.
How would you describe your arranging style?
Honestly, I’m not sure I can. People tell me they can absolutely tell if I’ve arranged something, and I don’t know how they can tell. Moreover, sometimes they’re wrong, and maybe it’s because I’ve influenced others… who knows. I just do what makes sense to me, and arrange in a variety of styles so it’s a rather wide bandwidth more than a clearly defined style.
What vocal arrangers have been most influential on you?
So many musicians, and arrangers in general (like Claus Ogerman and Nelson Riddle), as well as everything from classical arrangers (Vaughan Williams) through vocal jazz (Gene Puerling) up through modern a cappella groups (so very many, like the Bobs and Vocal Sampling), with a healthy dose of world music thrown in (From Bulgaria’s Les Voix Mystere to Ladysmith Black Mambazo). I wouldn’t begin to know how to tease these apart, as my iPod is like my brain: a thick gumbo of music spanning the globe and a thousand years.
Have you had to develop your own notational style for certain vocal techniques?
Pitch and rhythm are generally straightforward, but timbre can be a challenge, as extended vocal techniques and non-linguistic sounds have no clear spelling. I do my best, and then teach in person whenever possible.
Have any Finale or notation tips to share?
There is no doubt that many and perhaps even most of your users have many skills I don’t but I’ll bet I have the upper hand when it comes to lyrics, since pretty much every note in an a cappella arrangement has a syllable attached to it. I could probably speak at length (boringly) about the changes over the years… let’s just say I’d like to give a hug to whomever decided that a copied music section’s lyric changes no longer effect the original’s lyrics. That has added years to my life!
How do you notate “percussion” parts? Are there generally accepted syllables for different “instruments”?
The vocal percussion and beatboxing traditions are aural with each person having their own style and technique, so as a result 99% of the time nothing is notated, and when it is it’s usually a simple pattern a measure or two long at the end of the arrangement to give the director a general guideline. Let’s be honest: most drummers can’t even read drum notation, so I’d be wasting my time!
Do you tailor the number of parts to the specific number of singers in a group or do you take what you need from the song you’re arranging and use that to determine the number of singing parts needed?
It depends if I’m custom-tailoring an arrangement to a specific group or if I’m arranging something for publication that will be sung by a wide variety of ensembles. I try to make arrangements no harder than they need to be so that people can focus on emoting rather than extended rehearsing.
Do you have any advice for people who want to sell their own arrangements or otherwise earn their living though a cappella-related endeavors?
I do, and get asked about publishing arrangements so very often that I wrote a blog post about it, to which I direct people weekly: http://www.casa.org/content/sheet-music-and-big-brick-wall
As for people wanting more info on a cappella related endeavors, I usually send them to www.acappella.how, which I just started this year. A one-stop, ad-free clearinghouse of how-to a cappella information.
What was your introduction to Finale?
I reviewed it long ago, in 1991, for the Contemporary A Cappella Newsletter, and have been a convert ever since. I will admit I initially preferred arranging with pencil and paper, but as Finale has grown and expanded it has become increasingly clear that there’s no better tool for a composer or arranger.
What do you like about Finale?
You can do pretty much anything with it. I use it for sketches, and to publish music. It’s a high performance vehicle and a beater car, always getting you where you need to go.
Also, anyone can use it at many levels. I can always spin off midi files and PDFs, which I do, but being able to also send a .mus or .musx file and tell my singers to download notepad for free so they can watch the music scroll by as it’s playing (and make tweaks if needed) is priceless.
What would you change?
Since you asked: The default sound for vocals is always that washy “ah” choral sound, which when arranging a cappella always needs to be changed. I wish vocals always defaulted to a piano sound, which is much more useful in complex 12 part arrangements. This would save me 2 minutes, not a big deal.
You guys fixed the backward compatibility issue (THANKS!)
Ooh – here’s one more suggested fix: If I’m dragging lyrics from one staff to another and the second staff has rests, I’d love to have those words not copy, so I don’t have to go through and erase them. Often there are harmonies that don’t sing every word that the melody does, and having lyrics not “stick” to rests would definitely save time.
What you think is necessary to re-establish confidence in our innate human ability to be musical that was lost with the advent of recording technology?
We’re all animals, and like animals we use communication to connect with others, form bonds, mate. Singing is found throughout nature, from crickets to song birds, and is very clearly a part of human history, as it was the first music, and has been documented as a part of all cultures through time. All of our ancestors used to gather together around the fire at the end of the day and sing, tell stories, make music.
Something has happened in Western culture, a downward spiral, that started with a chosen few taking the stage, and then the birth of recorded music where we could listen to others make music instead of making it ourselves, and finally with the shaming of singers ala American Idol. The result is that people think they need to sing like Pavarotti or they’re garbage, and if they open their mouths in public they’ll be ridiculed. This is a travesty.
The result is that you have people singing in their showers, in their cars, under their breath. Going to karaoke bars and getting drunk before they dare take the stage. We don’t pass by a group of 30 year olds shooting hoops on a Sunday afternoon, so why should we so harshly judge some friends getting together to sing a couple songs on the street corner? We need to return music to the people, rather than the chosen few. The Simon Cowells of the world should be exposed for what they are – exploitive, shameful bullies who make fun of others to make money – and we should inspire more people to get back in touch with their own innate desire and ability to sing. They joy and connection in vocal harmony should be able to be experienced and shared and celebrated by everyone.
What music has recently moved you?
The high school group I’m working with on the new Lifetime show has been moving me every day. We recognize that teenagers lead the most fascinating, emotionally rich, complicated lives which is why they’re the focus of so many movies and stories (from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games), but they’re usually portrayed by older actors (ahem, Grease). This isn’t necessary, because when teenagers are given a voice and an opportunity to really express themselves it can be so very powerful, so very moving.
What’s next? An a cappella reality show on Lifetime? Will your participation include being on-screen as well? How is that going?
Yup! We’re shooting that right now in New Jersey. I’m one of two hosts/coaches, and will be on-camera working with a great high school group from Cherry Hill, near Philadelphia.
Just finished the first week, and I’m very excited for people to see this show, as for the first time (unlike The Sing Off, Pitch Perfect, Glee, etc.) people will be able to see how a cappella is really crafted before groups hit the stage.
If you’d like to learn more about Deke and his music, check out his website at www.dekesharon.com where he even offers free a cappella arrangements. His published music can be found at http://capublishing.com and he offers free a cappella arranging tips at http://www.acappellaarranging.com. Thanks again to Deke for not only sharing his time with us, but for so generously sharing his knowledge with other singers and arrangers.