The Prime-time journey began on a fateful August 2011 afternoon, when then-baritone Seth Bocknek decided to send out a persuasively worded (we’ll let him think) e-mail, wondering whether Tom, Michael Black, and original tenor Adrian Smith might be interested in forming a quartet to compete in the International Collegiate Contest of barbershop quartet singing. The geographical logistics were cumbersome, the expectations paltry—but form a quartet they did. And much to the surprise of these four students (who have since all graduated and moved on to well…other stuff), things sort of took off from there.
‘Shoptimus Prime tied for 7th at their very-first provincial competition—in October 2011—and then went on to place 1st at the following provincial competition, in April 2012. Unfortunately, in May of 2012, tenor Adrian Smith moved out to Calgary, AB, to complete his Master’s degree in Geophysics (that’s right: not just a pretty face). In spite of the severe limitations the move placed on the quartet, ‘Shoptimus Prime managed to place 10th at their first International competition and, in October 2012, to make history by becoming the youngest-ever quartet to be crowned the Ontario District Quartet Champions—an achievement that, once earned, renders the quartet ineligible to re-compete at the provincial level.
Recognizing that continuing to sing together might be only slightly trickier given the 3,200 km increase in distance, ‘Shoptimus Prime was forced to look at other formation options in order to keep the quartet active. In November 2012, Adrian stepped back from the quartet, and Michael La Scala—an experienced young barbershop singer from Buffalo, NY—became the new tenor of ‘Shoptimus Prime. Happy to have found a way to keep the quartet going and honoured to be the 2012 Ontario District Champions, the quartet started striving to make some noise at the international level, competing each July in the International Collegiate Competition against a handful of other top-caliber quartets, the members of which must be younger than 26 years of age. In their new formation, the quartet qualified to compete in July 2013 at the International Collegiate Quartet Competition in Toronto, ON, where they placed 7th.
A year later, the quartet returned to International Competition, this time in Las Vegas, placing 12th in the pool of collegiate quartet competitors. Shortly thereafter, the quartet announced that founding baritone, Seth Bocknek, would be leaving the quartet to continue his studies in Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Ever the gluttons for punishment, the quartet went searching for another baritone and were lucky enough to find another La Scala brother to take Seth’s place. With new member Joel, the foursome competed in their final year of eligibility for the International Collegiate Quartet Contest and were thrilled to earn a silver medal in the contest, the highest placement ever for a Canadian quartet in the contest.
2016 was a busy year personally for the guys, with tenor Michael La Scala moving to Florida temporarily for work and bass Tom Mifflin getting married. After sitting out of competition that year, the group returned to the contest stage in 2017. For the first time, the boys qualified for the International Quartet Contest in Las Vegas, NV, finishing 47th in the pack.
The name ‘Shoptimus Prime—the brainchild of bass Tom Mifflin—is an homage to both [barber]shop and Optimus Prime, the robot leader of the Autobots in the entertainment franchise Transformers. A constant source of confusion among the older [pre-Megan-Fox] generation, the name was proposed as a joke but somehow stuck and has ever since proven to be fittingly symbolic of the quartet’s goofy, exhuberant demeanor.
In their time together so far, ‘Shoptimus Prime has facilitated youth a cappella workshops, opened for Juno Award winners, busked on the downtown streets of Toronto, sold themselves out for a national advertising campaign, recorded music for an award-winning video game soundtrack, performed alongside college a cappella ensembles, and disseminated the infectious joy of singing to thousands of people, from all walks of life.