ALUMS GO BANANAS AT NATIONAL BARBERSHOP CONTEST
Out of the 15,000 singers participating in this year’s MNBA America Collegiate Barbershop Quartet Contest in Indianapolis, Ind., only one of them performed while wearing a banana costume. He was from Haverford College.
“Was I self-conscious? Absolutely not,” says Larry Bomback ’04, the banana in question. “You're talking to someone who wore a toilet-paper toga at his first Humtones show.” Along with two other former Haverford Humtones—Eric Acton ’04 and Matthew Lewis ’04—as well as Lewis’s brother Scott (Drew University), Bomback has proved that there is a cappella-life after college. Last March the quartet took first place in the competition’s New England and Eastern Canada district, moving on to the international division with 19 other college quartets.
Outside the group, Bomback serves as both the operations manager of the New York Youth Symphony and professor of Music 101 at Hunter College; he also sings with the Big Apple Chorus and the ‘Round Midnight Quartet. A history major, Lewis currently works as a supply chain consultant in a government services practice for the Canadian consulting company CGI; Acton uses skills learned in the disciplines of mathematics and linguistics as an economic analysis consultant with Charles River Associates. Lewis’s brother Scott studied political science at Drew and now works for Aetna.
For the initial regional competition, the group took a more traditional tack. “In a competition, your ‘set’ is comprised of two songs, typically a ballad and an upbeat song,” explains Lewis. “Our district's set consisted of the barbershop standard 'I'm
Alone Because I Love You' as well as the traditional jazz standard 'Lover Come Back.' Our interpretation of 'Lover' actually went over really well. We swung the song (the way Billie Holiday traditionally performed it), which isn’t typically how the song is performed in the barbershop world.”
But the group decided to mix things up a bit for their international debut. “We went into internationals knowing that we didn't have a prayer to win,” notes Lewis, “so we decided to go for 'memorable' instead of high scoring.” Developing what he calls “the first ever comedy college international set,” Lewis and company created a banana-themed performance, complete with a parody of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” rewritten from the perspective of a banana “facing death-by-ice-cream Sundae.” The foursome also performed the classic “Yes We Have No Bananas.” Naturally, a costume was in order.
“At one of the rehearsals, I just started singing the song, and realized that it would make a great barbershop tune,” explains Bomback. “The other guys agreed, so I went ahead and arranged it, and we decided to sing it for the contest. We figured we couldn't sing the song without wearing a banana suit, because banana suits are just funny and this is a funny song.”
The Humtones have been known for their theatrical stunts, their performances more and more resembling sung narratives over time. Bomback notes, “We decided to make our semester concerts into actual shows with storylines…we did one about history, and one about a murder mystery, one about a hospital drama. We also incorporated a lot of instruments into our later shows, it was our little way of sticking it to the a cappella genre!”
Lewis echoes, “Prior to my year in the Humtones ('04) we weren't known for our theatricality. In fact, the group was known as the guys who sang stoic and with their hands in their pockets. I'd like to think that the banana set was like a Humtones set, but sanitized for a more general audience.”
As strange as judges and spectators might have found the group’s performance, the four young men experienced a bit of culture shock themselves at the competition. Lewis notes, “For folks like Eric, my brother and myself (aka, casual barbershoppers), it was a bit bizarre and overwhelming...There was a guy walking around filming a documentary on barbershop at this convention. It seemed to be in a similar vein as 'Spellbound' or 'Wordwars,' in other words, a real life Christopher Guest movie. That should give you an idea of the kind of folks you run into at a barbershop convention.”
But having fought their way to this final competition, how did the lads fare? “If you were wondering, we placed dead last! Not a big deal, really,” admits Lewis, “we didn't expect to do much better. The group that won was from New Zealand (it's truly an international competition). If we do it again, we're certainly going to climb the rankings a bit, but all in all it was, if nothing else, an interesting experience.”
The group will have one more chance at victory before Lewis turns 25, ending his eligibility for college competition. Despite the hassles of coordinating the lives of four young professionals living in Connecticut, New York City, Philadelphia, and D.C., Lewis remains dedicated to the group: “If you're in an a cappella group, or chorale, or chamber singers or anything really,” he explains, “music becomes a big part of your life, and in many ways something that defines your experience in college. If it was important to you, it's not something you can turn off like a faucet. It's important to find ways to keep singing, or playing your instrument after college.”
Lewis advises current students that if singing is “something that makes you happy and is an important part of your life now, don't chalk it up as something you used to do when you graduate. There are plenty of choruses or groups out there. I sing with the Orpheus Club in Philadelphia. Larry joined the Big Apple Chorus in Manhattan…If you don't keep making music, you will really feel like something is missing in your life.”
—James Weissinger '06