Over the past eight weeks, the members of Cherry Hill High School East’s a cappella group, Stay Tuned have become national stars.
The group appeared on a new Lifetime reality television show entitled “Pitch Slapped.” The eight episode first season of the program detailed Stay Tuned and another high school group, Highland Voices from Northern Highlands Regional High School, as they competed against each other at a variety of competitions in the late spring and early summer of 2015.
The season finale of the show aired on Feb. 23. While it was exciting for the students to see the show on television, some of them feel some the full story of the group still hasn’t been told.
From inception to national television
Stay Tuned is a fairly new a cappella group, having only been formed in the 2012–13 school year. Cherry Hill East music teacher Heather Lockart formed the group through a combination of the school’s male and female a cappella groups three years ago.
“We did one song for an audience in a concert that they went nuts over,” Lockart recalls about the group’s first performance. “The possibilities of mixed gender music is so much bigger than a single gender group.”
In just a few years, Stay Tuned became one of the best competitive a cappella groups in New Jersey. Their reputation and the competitive nature of a cappella in New Jersey prompted Lifetime producers to begin contacting Lockart.
“We actually got contacted by the production team many times,” she said. “Finally, my colleagues said you have to get back to these people. I said I would hear them out and see what it’s about.”
After speaking with producers, Lockart talked to the students and parents about applying. After the students expressed a ton of excitement about the project, she applied.
Early last year, Lockart found out Stay Tuned would be chosen for the show along with Highland Voices. She tried to surprise her students with the news.
“I played it off as if I was really sad,” Lockart said. “I put on a calm, not very happy face. I didn’t really talk to anybody, I was strictly business with classes. I played it off and said, ‘I’m so sorry guys. I hate to break this news to you, but we have to get ready for TV.’”
The students in the 21-member group were ecstatic upon hearing the news.
“All of us were really nervous,” senior Sam Waldman said. “I didn’t think we were going to get it.”
“It was just an eruption of excitement,” senior Jack Tremper said. “It was pure joy.”
“He taught us how to really sing a song”
In “Pitch Slapped,” Stay Tuned would go head-to-head with Highland Voices over the course of eight episodes, with the two groups competing in a final summer invitational competition in the finale. Each school was paired with a mentor. Stay Tuned’s coach was Deke Sharon, described as the “father of contemporary a cappella” by Lockart. Sharon’s work with Stay Tuned was the highlight of the show for most of the students.
“He had an eight-week plan,” Tremper said. “It wasn’t a spur of the moment.”
“We learned how to put our music together very quickly,” senior Abigail Kramer said. “We learned how to be productive, which is something we struggled with during the year. We learned how to get things done.”
Tremper felt the most important thing the group learned from Sharon was how to impact the audience through singing.
“He wanted us to sing four different emotions — sadness, joy, anger and fear,” Tremper said. “He explained to us how we can take those emotions and throw them into more complex songs. That was one of the cooler things he taught us. He taught us how to really sing a song.”
Stay Tuned had an impact on numerous people during filming. In the third episode, the group sang “Beneath Your Beautiful” from Labrinth featuring Emeli Sande. A week later, the group heard how much their song touched one particular girl.
“We got a letter a week later and it was an anonymous letter from a girl around high school age,” Tremper said. “She wrote to us about how she pulled out of school, she had social anxiety, fear of the world, depression. When she heard us perform that song, she felt a switch flip. She felt we were singing to her. She told us that she was looking at colleges and was motivated by us singing.”
Stay Tuned spent another day singing for people at a homeless shelter. It was a moment Kramer said she’d remember for a long time.
“You could just see the smiles on their faces,” she said. “It started opening them up, and it was something that really got to me. It made me so happy to know you could make someone’s day better.”
The “real” Stay Tuned
After the season finale of “Pitch Slapped” aired, a number of members felt the show didn’t accurately portray the group. Stay Tuned entered the show as a frequent second-place finisher to Highland Voices. Stay Tuned was portrayed throughout the show as an underdog, a role senior Sam Waldman felt slighted by.
“I resented the role,” she said, “to be portrayed that way and to say we had zero strengths. One of the big criticisms on the shows was not being able to do (choreography). We win best choreo awards left and right.”
“It was a bit ironic to watch the world think ‘Wow, they can’t do anything.’ Despite our flaws, we had a lot more potential than the show made people think.”
“They portrayed us as a terrible group singing-wise,” Kramer added. “They said we had no soloist, our beatboxer was bad, but honestly I thought we were better than what they said.”
The group also transformed a lot as the show progressed. Waldman felt there was a lot of change people didn’t see in the episodes.
“The No. 1 thing that they did not show that we learned was an attitude shift,” Waldman said. “Before, we tried to motivate each other through negativity, we were very very critical. You need a certain degree of criticism in your group, but it got to be so much that we weren’t finding any positive things about our performances.”
“Maturity-wise, we grew a lot,” senior Winnie Cross said. “(The producers) were trying to make us more dramatic than we already were.”
Tremper said the team grew a lot tighter during the show, something he felt the episodes didn’t portray well.
“It kind of looked like five or six members contributing,” he said. “There were will 21 people there and consistently working hard. You really didn’t get the group dynamic from the way it was portrayed.”
Another storyline not touched on during the show was the growing friendship between Stay Tuned and Highland Voices. Prior to the show, the two groups had a serious rivalry between each other. That rivalry cooled completely during filming.
“We had heard a lot of stories from members of the group before us who competed at the ICHSAs,” Kramer said. “They had a really big rivalry with them.”
“Before the show, we didn’t like them,” Kahn said. “But as soon as we met them, we became friends right away. We actually have a group chat together.”
Stay Tuned and Highland Voices have not competed against each other since the show was filmed. However, that will change as the two will face off again later in March.
Post-production: Stay Tuned moves forward
More than half of the members of Stay Tuned from the show graduated from Cherry Hill East in 2015. However, the members who remain say this year’s group has improved thanks to its experience on the show.
“There’s no pettiness, there’s no drama,” Kramer said. “Everything everyone does is for the good of the group.”
“We made a different approach this year,” Kahn said. “It has had an effect on changing the culture of the group.”
Lockart said last year’s experience has had a marked impression on her returning students.
“Having the rehearsals daily for hours, working with Deke, working on their own, having to get their arrangements down, they had no choice other than to be motivated,” she said. “That alone was a huge learning and growth experience for them.”
Stay Tuned has gained notoriety thanks to its television appearance. A number of the group members have received a positive response from the community.
“I went to the school musical, ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” senior Sergio Parsi said. “I was in the back and a woman with her daughter who was 6 came over and said, ‘My daughter was too nervous to come talk to you, but she loved you on the show.’ It was very heartwarming. I almost didn’t know how to react.”
“I’ve gotten messages from people in France and the Philippines,” Tremper said. “It’s so cool that reached so far.”
Stay Tuned is now making its way through the International Championship of High School a cappella stages. The group competed in the regional quarterfinals in January and finished in the top-three, allowing them to advance to the semifinals. On March 19, they will travel to Northern Highlands Regional High School for the semis, where they will compete against a number of schools, including Highland Voices.
The group has a number of big stage performances coming up as well. The day after the ICHSA semifinals, Stay Tuned will perform at Carnegie Hall as they perform in an a cappella concert by their old mentor Sharon. The next week, on March 26, the group will take the stage at the Kimmel Center as a guest at an International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella competition.
Despite the busy schedule, none of the students believe it’s too much. In fact, they feel there’s no such thing as too much a cappella.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Tremper said. “It’s a not a hobby, it’s a part of me.”
Those who missed seeing Stay Tuned on “Pitch Slapped” can watch the entire first season on demand atwww.mylifetime.com.