The 2014 Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention is in the record books. The quartet and chorus contests were hard-fought, epic battles, full of unforgettable performances. Now that we're back home and coming down off the high (and the jet lag) from our trip to Las Vegas, it's time for us to collect our thoughts, share some of our feelings from the week that was, and properly thank the people who made it such a memorable experience for us.
First and foremost, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our sigificant others and to our kids. They sacrificed for us so we could spend a ridiculous amount of time and money working on our craft, all for the privilege of traveling to the Mojave Desert in July. If that isn't love, what is?
Mike, Drew, and Ed got in earlier in the week and did some sightseeing on the Las Vegas strip on Tuesday while TJ and his family got ready for their late afternoon flight. The Collegiate International Barbershop Quartet Contest kicked off in the evening, and when the dust had settled, top honors went to The Academy from the Sunshine District.
Afterwards, we headed to Mike's hotel room on the 20th floor of the MGM Grand for a trio rehearsal while we waited for the tenor section to arrive. TJ made it to the MGM Grand around 10 p.m. with all but one piece of luggage. Thankfully, his quartet uniform made the flight. All of his other clothes would arrive the next morning. Once settled, he joined us in Mike's room, and we did some honest-to-goodness rehearsing. After that, it was off to bed; we had a big day ahead of us.
The Big Day. The quarterfinal round of the International Quartet Competition started at 10 a.m. We had — quite ironically — drawn last in the quarterfinal round, so we had all day to think about executing the contest package, plenty of time either to get ourselves psyched...or psyche ourselves out. We started the day off smart, enjoying a long, relaxing breakfast in the hotel cafe before parting with our families and getting down to business.
Over the months leading up to this international, we had been fortunate to have the help of some brilliant barbershop minds. Brent Graham, George Gipp, Steve Armstrong, Tom Gentry, and Richie Lavene all made contributions to our performance. But the most influential coaches we had going into this particular competition were Brian Beck, Theresa Weatherbee, and Debra Lynn.
During our afternoon rehearsal, Theresa and Debra visited us, and helped us make minor adjustments and refinements to the set. Debra also helped nurse TJ through some vocal health issues brought on by a minor infection and the arid desert air. When we finished rehearsing, we thanked these lovely, dynamic ladies for their wisdom & guidance with a pair of keepsake red wine glasses, etched with the Last Men Standing emblem and our credo, Still Standing...
After a light dinner and a brief rest, it was time to get suited up, warmed up, and head over to the Grand Garden Arena. When we got there, Debra and Theresa were waiting for us, and they stood by our side for the remainder of the evening as we sang through the songs a few times in the ready room. No more tweaking, no more coaching. Just reassuring us, keeping us calm, and protecting us from ourselves as we got ready for the biggest moment of our lives. We're indebted to them for their support.
Then came the call: on to the photo room! We had a crazy time with the folks at Miller Photography during our pre-stage portrait session. We had plenty of laughs, and that helped us to stay loose. Next stop: the stage!
As we arrived backstage, McPhly, a perennial Top 20 quartet from the Far Western District, was finishing their ballad – a smooth, buttery arrangement of Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring – that brought a roar from the crowd that seemed deafening compared to the tender chords that preceded it. They followed it up with a hot, swinging rendition of Rock It For Me. They'd been away from contest for 3 years, but they'd picked up right where they'd left off. Talk about a tough act to follow.
Now it was our turn. This was our big moment. Months of work, thousands of dollars in expenses, thousands of miles of driving, and countless hours of rehearsal had all led up to this. 2 songs. 6 minutes. A blink of an eye. One brief opportunity leave our mark and touch lives through music. We pulled ourselves together in the wing, then let go. It wasn't about winning. It wasn't about making the 20. It wasn't even about scores anymore. Thousands of people had been sitting for nearly 12 hours with only a few breaks. The last chords they would hear that day would come from us. All we wanted to do was reward the barbershop faithful for their patience.
"Representing the Mid-Atlantic Disrict: Last Men Standing!"
Out on the stage and into our first tune, I Never Knew/Get Me To The Church On Time. The stage felt warm and bright. Like in any big arena, there was a bit of an echo bouncing off the far wall, but it wasn't distracting in the least. The medley brought a warm, pleasant reaction from the crowd. The applause put us at ease for the final song of the contest: All The Way. We gave it everything we had, and sent the final chords of the tag soaring through the rafters. Big cheers from the audience. And as we broke to accept the applause, it happened: people stood up. Not all of them, but enough that we were able to notice. People standing and applauding us on the international stage. Sweet!
As we came out into the lower lobby, our friends, family, and coaches were waiting to congratulate us. We'd finished off the opening day of the competition in grand style. From there, we had our live interview on the international webcast, and invited Debra and Theresa to join us on camera. After that, it was out of the studio and into the arms of our families for photos while waiting for the Top 20 call-off.
Once the Top 20 had been announced and we knew we wouldn't be moving on, we made our way into a mostly empty arena to collect our score sheets and competitor lapel pins from the Contest Administrators. We still had no idea where we had placed. We had come into the contest ranked 51st; so finishing anywhere above 50th on the toughest stage in the world would be considered a victory. We waited...and waited...then finally —
"Last Men Standing: 29th!"
We had improved our average by three points, and jumped 20 places in the standings! Ed grabbed TJ in a bear hug and picked him up off the ground. From there, it was back to our rooms to change, then off to celebrate with our families.
From Thursday onward, we were spectators for the contest sessions, but we still had some uplifting experiences around the convention. We sat through and incredible Semifinals round, which started off with a performance by the reigning International Senior Quartet Champion, our friends and Mid-Atltantic District brethren, Faces 4 Radio. They had a great hit and got the audience primed for an exciting contest.
We cheered on our friends in 'Round Midnight, the remaining M-AD quartet, as they performed another boundary-pushing modern set that included a cover of Aerosmith's '90s anthem, Cryin'.
After the semifinals, we decided to split up for a bit and enjoy some down-time. Mike and Kristin went poolside for a few hours. TJ, Mandy, and Henry had dinner with Mandy's parents. Drew went back to Harrah's for family time with Katherine, Maddie, and Ella. And Ed went to the Association of International Champions (AIC) Show.
After the AIC Show, we reunited in the conference center to hang out and sing some tags. By chance, we stumbled upon the Youth In Harmony tag room, where up-and-coming young singers gather to learn tags and sing with experienced barbershoppers. Sure enough, there were a dozen young guys in the room crashing chords together, and we were one of the only competing quartets to find them that evening. We spent an hour teaching tags and singing with these enthusiastic young men before it was time to move on.
As we walked out into the main foyer with its marble floors and high ceilings, several past champion members of the AIC were coming out of their post-concert reception. Most of them said a brief hello as they went by. Then, out stepped our friend and coach, Brian Beck, himself a two-time International Quartet Champion. Instead of walking by, he let the rest of his party move on, and he stopped right in front of us...
"I missed you guys in the contest. Let's hear what you sound like in this nice, big hall."
When a two-time champ tells you to sing, you SING. We did a song he hadn't heard in any of our prior coaching sessions. He gave us some subtle non-verbal "hints" as we did our thing. When we finished, he smiled and nodded in approval. Evidently, we're starting to get it right.
On to Friday, and a marathon International Chorus Competition that was billed as a Clash of the Barbershop Titans. For the first time in history, superpower choruses the Vocal Majority and the Masters of Harmony would be competing on the same stage. But first, breakfast.
Drew and Ed headed over to the arena while Mike and TJ went to grab a bite. Breakfast was one of the highlights of the week, not because the food was extraordinary (they went to Denny's), but because it was the first time TJ had ventured outside the hotel since we arrived. Getting outside and seeing the famous Las Vegas strip firsthand was a big deal, not to mention that impressive desert sun. And since we were in Vegas, we were bound to see something you don't see every day, like a dude standing on the sidewalk in a Transformer costume.
When we got to the competition, we saw choruses pulling out all the stops in their bids for the medals. Kentucky Vocal Union morphed into zombies to Michael Jackson's Thriller. The Alliance staged an entire circus for the second year in a row. Sound of the Rockies turned the stage into the deck of a pirate ship. Salem Senataires were a misfit orchestra. And the Great Northern Union gave us Christmas in July, complete with snow machines and teenagers ice skating across the stage.
But at the end of the day, the loudest ovations and the highest scores went to the 158-man Vocal Majority, who opened with a simple, elegant rendition of You'll Never Know, followed by the powerful Civil War era march, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, with an updated verse and choreography celebrating American soldiers returning from the Middle East. The VM won an unprecedented 12th gold, and the Masters took home a different color medal for the first time in 25 years.
One of the big highlights came after the contest had ended and the scores were tallied. Outgoing champions Toronto Northern Lights came on to perform their swan set. They did a brilliant anthology that included snippets of their most memorable contest sets, featuring some of the incredible characters they had created over the years: the depression era bread line, the mimes, the robots, and the vegetable patch. It started on a serious note, then rapidly descended into pure TNL lunacy. As the sound of July 4th fireworks began to echo outside the arena, they followed up this chaos with an uproarious, satirical, quintesentially Canadian send-up of all things 'Murican. They closed with a heartfelt tribute, Changed For The Better, that ended with an 8-part climax. A spectacular farewell from the outgoing champs.
After the chorus contest, headed to the conference center to sing around. We found the Chordatorium, and we were most welcome, since few other quartets managed to get there. We ended up doing four songs for an appreciative crowd. After that, we sang for the GNU at their medal party, then moved back to the hotel to visit the Mid-Atlantic District's most accommodating hosts, Bob & Noreen Ramsey. As usual, they had put out a spread that could feed a small army.
Saturday brought our best opportunity for some leisure time. We spend most of the day apart, focusing our time on our signifcant others and families, who had been so supportive of us throughout our quartet journey. More sightseeing on the Vegas strip, more lazy time at pool, not a care in the world.
The evening brought a memorable acceptance set by the VM, the Hall of Fame induction of the Boston Common, and an incredible quartet finals round that culminated in the crowning of Musical Island Boys as the 2014 International Quartet Champion.
Then, Saturday night...singing around! We hit as many hospitality rooms as we could find. We sang for the Rainbow Group. We entertained again in the Chordatorium. Then over to the hotel, and the Sounds of Aloha hospitality suite, where the Mai Tais were plentiful, and the warmth of the folks matched that of the Hawaiian sun. One more visit to our friends in the Ramsey Room, then back down to the conference center to sing tags until sunrise. Sure enough, when it was time to head off to bed, we looked around and realized that, of all the stragglers who were still standing, we were the only full quartet among them. Last Men Standing were, in effect, the last men standing.
All in all, it was a pretty good week.