How to Sing a Love Song
Deke Sharon, A91, knew what the students in the Tufts Chamber Singers were bracing for—that he would listen to their a cappella rendition of “Orange Colored Sky” and point out every tenor who went flat and every alto who missed an entrance. What else would they expect from the guy who produced NBC’s competition show The Sing-Off and coached and arranged the voices in all three Pitch Perfect movies?
Yet pitch perfection wasn’t Sharon’s goal for this group. They were already technically excellent, he told the students as he faced them on the Distler Performance Hall stage. He was more concerned with getting them to tap their toes, bop their heads, and sway to the song’s jazzy rhythm.
“I don’t care if the notes are wrong,” he said, snapping out a beat with his fingers. “I want you to feel the groove.”
Jazz legend Miles Davis, he said, recorded trumpet sounds that were clearly off, but it was still great music. “Jazz is not about coloring inside the lines,” Sharon said. “Have fun, take the risk.”
Slowly, the singers loosened up. With each run through, more looked up from their sheet music. Their voices became more playful. More started smiling. You can hear if someone is smiling when they sing, Sharon said, noting that it also helps with resonance.
Sharon, often called the “father of contemporary a cappella,” got his start as director of the Tufts’ a cappella group the Beelzebubs. In February, he was back at Tufts for a whirlwind three-day residency where he coached the Chamber Singers, the Tufts Concert Choir, and seven of Tufts’ nine a cappella groups, culminating in a first-of-its-kind all-Tufts a cappella concert.
In between rehearsals, Sharon met with students and gave lectures, where he talked about his time with the Beelzebubs, his years of touring with the professional a cappella group the House Jacks, and his work as an arranger and coach for television, movies, and Broadway.
There was technical talk, but also plenty of stories. He told students how easy it was in his day to sneak into a Tufts building at 2 a.m. to use a piano—cameras and alarms have ended that, students told him—and how hard it was to get authorities in China to approve broadcast of The Sing-Off China. (It wasn’t the music they disliked; it was the democratic notion of viewer voting.)
David Locke, chair of the Department of Music, knew Sharon as a student, and happily followed his meteoric career. Locke invited him to do the residency as a service to Tufts’ student-run a cappella groups. “I wanted Tufts students to know that the music department supports all music activities on campus, not only the courses offered by the department,” he said. “Deke is a marvelous musician and charismatic performer; we want students to learn from him.”
And if some of those students might be enticed into checking out the music department’s relatively new Music, Sound, and Culture major, which welcomes students with any kind of music backgrounds, all the better, Locke said.
As for the Chamber Singers, once they got the groove of the song, Sharon pressed them for more emotion. “Orange Colored Sky,” after all, is about the “flash, bam, alakazam” of falling for someone.
“When you fall in love, you feel like you’re skipping down the street,” Sharon said. “Sing it like you’re in love.”
Look into the eyes of someone in the audience, he said. Look at each other. But make a connection.
“You can stare out into the distance if you’re singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’—but only ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’” he said.
Making connections is not just a stage direction for Sharon. He promotes an idea he calls “harmony through harmony,” the notion that people singing in groups connects people who might not know each other otherwise, cultivating diversity, communication, and teamwork. Everyone—yes, even you, he says—should sing, and we should all do it more often.
“If you make music the right way, you can change the world,” he told the students. “Know that, and that it matters.”
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.