When Seth Bocknek tells people he’s part of a barbershop quartet, most think of doo-wop, he said.
In doo-wop, typically only the lead would sing the words while the two higher harmonies sing the “oohs” or “shoo-bee-doos,” while the bass honks out the rhythm, he said. But that’s not barbershop.
“It’s totally different,” Bocknek said. In real barbershop, “all four people are singing the words and notes at the same time.”
Although one might not associate young people with barbershop, it’s growing, he said. And on July 2, the 22-year-old is taking his quartet to the big stage at the Air Canada Centre later this summer, when he will compete against others in the under-25 category at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Collegiate Quartet Contest.
Bocknek, who is from Richmond Hill, Ont., has been fascinated with barbershop ever since he was in high school and stumbled across a barbershop performance video on YouTube.
“I thought, ‘ Wow, that’s crazy! I didn’t know that existed!’” he said. “I thought it was really cool… I just liked the style of singing.”
The society’s website describes the barbershop style as having four-part chords, featuring songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies with a standard metre.
“At the highest level, it’s incredible,” Bocknek said. “It takes a lot of vocal talent, and it really moves the audience. It’s made people cry.”
Bocknek, a self-described band geek, had been playing trumpet throughout elementary and high school, but became fed up with the instrument. When he saw the YouTube video performance, he knew he wanted to try his hand at singing barbershop.
The problem was, where do you find a group of young people interested in singing in that style? Bocknek took to Craigslist and Kijiji, asking if anybody wanted to sing with him. That’s when he discovered the Barbershop Harmony Society.
“My first reaction was I was kind of weirded out by it,” he said, describing it as almost cult-like. For example, there are specific songs that every society member learns so that no matter where they go, they can always sing along with fellow members. Many participants are hugely into the culture, he said, and it can get to be a bit much for him.
Nevertheless, the society introduced him to other fans of the genre, and eventually led to the creation of his current quartet, Shoptimus Prime – a name that started as a joke, referencing the Transformers character Optimus Prime.
“We didn’t take ourselves seriously,” he said, joking that they probably would have thought twice about the name if they knew they were going to be good. “But people seem to like it.”
The quartet consists of lead singer Michael Black, tenor Michael LaScala, bass singer Tom Mifflin, and Bocknek singing baritone. Together, they’ve competed twice in the Ontario District Quartet Contest. The first time, they had only been singing together for a month, but they tied for seventh place out of 22 quartets. The next year, they won the contest.
The July contest is the second time they’ll have competed in the collegiate competition. The first time was in Portland, Ore., and they came in 10th place out of 23 other collegiate quartets.
This year marks the first time in half a century that the contest takes place in Toronto, and they’re hoping to beat that score. They’re already off to a good start – in the preliminaries, they came in second in the collegiate division.
The collegiate division is part of a larger, more competitive four-day contest in which quartets of all ages sing for the top spot. The larger contest is a huge deal in the barbershop world, Bocknek said, and the winning group gets celebrity-like status. It’s incredibly competitive, he said, and people fly in from around the world to participate.
Shoptimus Prime’s success so far comes from the dedication of its singers. Although they don’t all live in, or even near Toronto – LaScala lives in Buffalo, N.Y., and Black lives in Guelph, Ont. – they get together every Sunday to practise.
Bocknek said they ultimately hope to win the collegiate competition before they “age out” in two years – the collegiate level is only for singers under 25.
Once that happens, Bocknek hopes to head to China to master the Mandarin language. He studied translation at the University of Ottawa, where he focused on translating French and Spanish, but he called mastering Mandarin his end goal in life. He’s been studying since high school and said, at this point, he can carry on a conversation.
After that, although he might continue singing for fun, he said he couldn’t see himself competing anymore given the tough competition in the main division.
So if this year doesn’t bring Bocknek to the top spot, he and his fellow singers will spend the next two years practising constantly, trying to grow enough to win.
Bocknek said he recommends people listen to this music, even if you think you know what it sounds like. You might find it’s completely different from what you expect.
For more about Shoptimus Prime, visit www.shoptimusprimequartet.com.