This is the night to shine for two new members of Haverford’s premier a cappella group.
By Mara Miller
It’s 9:10 the night before the show, and Leo Sussan doesn’t know his lines.
Other members of the Humtones, Haverford College’s oldest and one of its most popular a cappella groups, are getting a tiny bit tense. In less than 24 hours they have to sing a little, dance a little, perform corny skits, show corny videos-in other words, give students what they expect from a big Humtones show.
The 10 ‘tones sit in a circle on a small elevated platform on one side of the student center, which is just an old gymnasium with a few comfy chairs and a new TV mounted on the wall. They are rehearsing one of several comedic skits for their end-of-semester performance. Sussan, though a sophomore, is one of two new members welcomed into the group just this fall. In the skit, he’s supposed to be portraying an attendee of a Vampire Affinity Group meeting, where the Humtones drop pun after pun in mockery of the Twilight saga in addition to inside jokes about various campus personalities. But his cue comes, and Sussan is silent. “Uhhhh….”
“Dude,” says Mike Gelberg, a senior Humtone. “I know you’ve got a lot going on, but you’ve gotta memorize your stuff.”
“I know, I know,” Sussan mumbles.
They make it through the scene, but nobody is thrilled. “That was pretty terrible,” says Gelberg.
There’s a five minute break, and they scatter to get a drink or go to the bathroom. One remains in the gym, pacing laps around the stage with hands in pockets, mouthing to himself what could be his lines or lyrics for the performance. It is Dan Ikeda, a freshman, and the other novice in the group.
And how. The moment this tallish, thinnish, relatively nondescript nineteen-year-old opens his mouth, any question of mediocrity is gone. He croons an old Canadian folk song called “The River Driver,” with his comrades providing the harmonies and the beat-boxing behind him. His smooth bass fills the seemingly empty gymnasium.
At the last note, a figure pops up from one of the chairs tucked in the corner-a student had been watching TV in the gym the whole time. He claps and says, “Rock on, man!”
The Humtones smile. They know they won’t disappoint.
* * *
The Humtones are a centerpiece of the one-of-a-kind a cappella scene at Haverford. There are six groups on campus, plus a handful of Bi-Co (Bryn Mawr included) and Tri-Co (Swarthmore included) groups, and each seems to have its own personality. It’s not clear why people are so keen to join these collegiate barbershop quartet-type groups, whose performances are more like tacky variety shows than choral concerts. What is clear is that students are also keen to watch, listen to, and support these groups. Haverford doesn’t have fraternities or sororities, and some point to a cappella groups as a possible replacement, not in the dumb, meathead, kegger-hosting sense but in the sense that they are exclusive, and people generally think they’re pretty neat.
“I didn’t think it was this big before I got here,” said Ikeda, who joined this fall after getting callbacks from both all-male groups, the Humtones and the ‘Ford S-Chords. You can only take one callback, he said, and he rolled the dice for the Humtones. “I didn’t know what to expect, really, but I’m glad I joined.”
Ikeda also didn’t realize just how little actual singing is required-everyone in the background provides percussion or chimes “jim jim jim ba jim” or “da da dum da da” while one soloist sings the melody. “It’s pretty silly, really,” he said.
But the thinly veiled dorkiness is what makes Haverford embrace a cappella and the Humtones, he said.
At the end of their last rehearsal, group president Nick Lotito had gotten up on his soapbox for a brief motivational speech about how to engage the audience during a performance. “Look like you’re having fun,” he said. “Don’t try to look cool . . . a cappella is not cool.”
“If you try to look cool, you look like an idiot. Be a dork and people get into it.”
Ikeda said that the group atmosphere is generally “chill” and “fun.”
That atmosphere has been a godsend for Sussan, who took singing so seriously before college that his talent threatened to become a curse.
Before Haverford, Sussan was a student at the exclusive and rigorous LaGuardia Arts High School in New York, the performing arts school that inspired the movie “Fame.” He studied vocal performance there from ninth through twelfth grade.
He’s been singing ever since he was young-“I just remember wanting to join the chorus in fourth grade. I’m not sure why . . . there was only one other boy,” he said.
In high school, cutthroat competition was the norm. “People were stabbing each other in the back, with knives that had been stabbed into their own backs,.” he said. Pressure came from all directions. Every two semesters at LaGuardia, music students must perform in front of a jury in a sort of audition-cum-final exam assessment. If they’re not up to par, that jury has no qualms about asking the student to leave the school.
While some of his friends and classmates went off to musical conservatories for college, Sussan didn’t think that path was for him. “I had a friend who would always say to never make a profession out of your hobby, and I think that’s good advice,” he said. “I mean, part of me has always wanted to be a professional singer, but realistically, no.” So, he arrived at Haverford, ready to switch gears to the rigor of academia.
He said that the adjustment was tough, since his high school’s academic courses didn’t prepare him for the level of work at Haverford. He struggled to manage his time during freshman year. “To be honest, I didn’t even go to many a cappella shows,” he said.
As a sophomore, with his schedule more under control, Sussan decided to return to the realm of singing. But which group to join? Which one is the best?
“A couple of my friends kept saying, ‘Hey, try out for the Humtones!’ And I knew a couple of the guys, and I liked them all,” he said. Sussan also knew several members of the ‘Ford
S-Chords and wasn’t quite as fond.
He said that perceived prowess had no effect on which group he tried out for, and that if he had fit in best with one of the newer or lesser known groups, that’s where he would have headed. “It wouldn’t have mattered if I thought one was better than the others,” he said. “It was just about who’s in the group. And the Humtones are just more fun.”
* * *
It’s Friday night now, almost time for the show. There are 200 folding chairs set up in the gymnasium, all facing that small gray platform with the microphone in the middle. Some Humtones are sitting on the gym’s couches, reading copies of the college humor magazine. Some are fiddling with the lighting equipment. Ikeda is pacing again, and Sussan is trying to pick out a tie. Jeans, white collared shirt, tie-that’s the Humtone uniform. “This one is so Bar Mitzvah-y,” he says as he holds up a navy blue option.
The show is scheduled to start at 8:30. Now it’s 8:13, and Sussan’s tie has yet to make it around his neck. 8:19, and nobody can figure out how to hook up the speakers. The first audience members show up at 8:20, and sit patiently while a handful of last-minute kinks are worked out.
The show’s title and theme, “The Humtones Suck,” is both a half tongue-in-cheek tag of self-deprecation and an excuse to make those vampire jokes. It’s funny, because they don’t suck.
Or maybe it’s funny because they do suck, and they know it. Most likely it’s funny because nobody’s sure. The lights dim and the performance starts with a homemade video introducing the Humtones. Friends in the audience are laughing already.
Sussan takes the solo mike first, just like in practice. The first verse of “The River Driver” is smooth sailing, and jaws drop at his voice, but in the second verse he misses the first word. The second. A whole line. Crap. It’s rehearsal all over again.
He jumps in when he remembers the lyrics, and finishes flawlessly, but that’s probably not the way he wanted to start out his first gig as a Humtone.
After they breeze through their second song, a throwback Backstreet Boys tune, it’s time for the newbies’ initiation. Each year, the freshmen and other new members must put together a skit that makes fun of the upperclassmen and perform it at the semester show. So, the upperclassmen clear the stage and Ikeda stands alone under the lights while Sussan scrambles to fetch his guitar from the side of the room. It looks like they’ve written a duet, and Sussan’s providing the accompaniment. “We’re supposed to mock the upperclassmen,” Ikeda explains to the audience. “Which, given the theme of tonight’s show, shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Maybe he underestimated the task at hand. They stumble over the words, stop, and start again. And again. Sussan puts down the guitar, laughs, and reaches down to peer at his note sheet. The two eke out a verse of their little ditty, which mocks group members for things like being short, going bald, and continually falling flat with the ladies. Typical Haverford, really.
But their skit is more pause than song. “Uhhh,” says Ikeda into the microphone, more than once. “Sorry!”
When it becomes clear to the two onstage that there’s no hope of resurrecting their skit with dignity intact, Ikeda simply belts into the microphone a melodious “Humtones suuuuuuuuck!” and they both take a bow.
* * *
The rest of the show-more catchy songs, more oddball skits, another amusing video-passes without incident, and the audience is all smiles as they file out of the gym.
“We kinda bombed,” said Ikeda later.
But if anything, he said, it made the performance better. “I think it’s funnier that it went terribly,” he said. “The upperclassmen want us to make fools of ourselves.”
“It’s like, ‘Welcome to performing. You’re going to mess up sometimes, and we want to watch you crash and burn miserably, and laugh at you.'” Ikeda said he and Sussan, both running on minimal sleep in the midst of a merciless finals week, had finished the skit two hours before the show and hurried to print out the lyrics. Memorization, or preparation, was out of the question.
You’d think that Sussan, professionally trained to expect perfection, might not react so well to a comically disastrous a cappella debut.
“I just took it as a joke,” he said. “I just realized, you know, this isn’t a big deal. There are no music critics here. It’s your friends, and your friends’ friends, and they’re having a good time. Screwing up actually makes it more comfortable to be onstage.”
He said that earlier in the year, he used to practice alone often, honing his solos in open auditoriums around campus. Since a cappella was so popular, and the Humtones so well-liked, he figured that things would be pretty stringent. “That’s before I understood I could relax about it,” he said.
Sussan is amused by the fact that, as a Humtone, he gets bigger audiences than the vast majority of Haverford’s sporting events. It comes back to that combination of talent, nerdiness,
and a healthy dose of self-deprecation that makes a cappella groups so damn endearing. If this show had been at LaGuardia, it’s doubtful Sussan would be grinning ear to ear.
“People come to hear us sing,” he said. “And act like losers, too.”