The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 29, 2002
April 29, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 32


Time Out With: John Bader, Academic Adviser, A Cappella Singer

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

He's been an Alleycat, a Whiffenpoof and a Ranger, but John Bader is not quite ready to be dubbed the singing dean. Not yet, anyway.

Bader, assistant dean for academic advising in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is the a cappella academic. While earning three degrees and carrying on an impressive professional career, he has lived and breathed everything a cappella.

Since 1995, Bader has been a bass singer with the Tone Rangers, a group of seven golden-piped 30- and 40-somethings that has been called "one of the most humorous and clever a cappella groups in the country."

Hopkins students know John Bader as assistant dean for academic advising in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. The a cappella world knows him as a Tone Ranger.

The Washington, D.C.-based Tone Rangers have performed at the Kennedy Center, the MCI Center and the National Institutes of Health, and on May 19 they will sing the national anthem at Camden Yards. The group has three times won the Audience Favorite Award at the Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival, an annual event where it has won eight other awards.

To hear the group, go to

This year the Rangers won the big prize--an opportunity to compete in the national finals on Saturday in San Rafael, Calif.

Bader is not about ready to quit his day job, however.

Bader, who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been at Hopkins just over a year. Prior to coming here, he was policy director for the successful Jon S. Corzine for U.S. Senate 2000 campaign in New Jersey and from 1994 to 2000 was director for Washington programs and an assistant professor of political science at the UCLA Center for American Politics and Public Policy in Washington, D.C.

Before joining the Tone Rangers, Bader's big claim to singing fame was being selected for Yale University's Whiffenpoofs, one of the world's best-known a cappella groups.

Days before the national music competition, The Gazette sat down with the assistant dean to discuss his singing career.

One thing we learned is that a good bass singer is hard to find.

Q. How did the Tone Rangers get started?

A. The group was founded about a dozen years ago by a bunch of guys who sang together at Cornell, in a group called the Hangovers. And, as you probably know, the a cappella tradition runs very deep in the Ivy League. I sang in two men's groups in college, the Alleycats and then the Whiffenpoofs, the men's senior group at Yale and really the grandfather of all modern a cappella singing groups.

Q. How selective are the Whiffenpoofs?

A. Very selective. The singing community at Yale is enormous. If you count up all the 14 singing groups, the choruses and everything, something like a fifth of all Yalies sing in an organized fashion.

Q. Fast forward a little. How did you become a Ranger?

A. I had stayed connected, involved with singing after I graduated from college. Most of my friends, and my wife, are singers. This is my world. About seven years ago a friend I had sung with at Yale, who was in the Tone Rangers, said one of the basses had just left and would I like to audition.

Q. Who are the Tone Rangers?

A. We have a lawyer, a lobbyist, a guy in software sales, another in software quality management, a management consultant and so on. These are busy people. We also have 12 children among us, and all seven of us are married. We can't do this all the time and we can't take it as seriously as we did in college. We try to rehearse once a week, and we perform once, maybe twice, a month.

Q. Have you had to pass up any golden opportunities?

A. I wouldn't say any golden opportunities. We do turn down gigs regularly, though--some of them good-paying gigs--because we simply can't pull it off. Sometimes clients will also ask for things we can't do. When you sing a cappella, you have set arrangements with other guys, and it takes a lot of time to learn them, to perfect them and to do them well.

Q. When did you begin singing?

A. I started singing in choruses when I was in the seventh grade [in Virginia] and did some all-county, all-state things.

Q. What was your first impression in college of live a cappella music?

A. I couldn't believe it, actually. It was like a whole world opening up. I had never seen people sing in that format. I also never considered that you could do popular music in this format.

Q. You sing bass. Has that always been your specialty?

A. It's my voice range. I can sing baritone, but basses are coveted. It is difficult to find a good bass, and if you don't have a good bass, you really don't have a good men's group. Tenors do the fancy stuff and most of the solos, but basses sort of hold the group together and give it the richness that a men's group would have.

Q. How do the Tone Rangers differ from, say, the Whiffenpoofs?

A. There are a couple of important differences. One is that we don't just stand in a horseshoe and do a traditional shoulder-to-shoulder thing, in which a soloist goes out and comes back into the shoe. We do a lot of different formations, and each of us holds a mic, as opposed to a college group where you don't do that. Also, our voices are more mature. A college singing group has a thinner sound because singers really don't begin to reach their prime until their 30s, 40s and even later. So, there is a different timbre that an older group has. We also have very little turnover. College groups have new people coming and going all the time.

Q. Do you use choreography for any of your numbers?

A. I'd say about a third of our songs feature some kind of choreography that is planned and executed. And many other songs, we just sort of move naturally because you don't have to stand right next to somebody to hear him; you're hearing it from monitors and the speakers.

Q. What are the other bands in the national championships like?

A. Our competition is going to be people probably more comfortable, and also younger. We are probably going to be the oldest group on the stage, probably by 10 years. We're the Susan Luccis of the singing world. We keep plugging at this, and now we finally got our chance at the nationals.

Q. How would you handicap your chances?

A. We're going to get killed. You look at the resumes of the other groups, and they are basically professional groups, people who do three, four, five or 10 concerts a week. They do it full-time, and they have enormous repertoires. We have no intention of winning. Our only intention is to have fun, and that is probably the best we are going to do.

Q. What are competitions like?

A. A lot of times, groups are trying to out-impress each other, so they pull out all the stops musically. They do their most complex arrangements, or they feature their most extraordinary soloist. What they end up doing is forgetting the audience. We feel it is very important to connect with the audience, make the audience laugh, to participate rather than just watch.

Q. What was your best, or most memorable, performance?

A. This year's regional was the most amazing musical experience I ever had, and I've sung in front of stadiums, on television, in front of royalty and so on. But I have never stood in front of 500 people and have them roar from the minute we started singing to the second we stopped. It was like we were rock stars or something. It must be such a rush for professional musicians who get that kind of response night after night.

Q. Do you have any groupies?

A. Aside from our spouses? We have a mailing list of about 300 or 400 people. There are probably about 50 of them who come to every concert.

Q. You and the Tone Rangers have sung the national anthem at a Wizards game. Any other places?

A. When I was in college, [the Whiffenpoofs] sang at Yankee Stadium. It was funny because when they introduced us as a Yale group, the crowd booed. Tough crowd, but they did cheer after we sang.

Q. Coming up, the Tone Rangers are singing at an Orioles game. Where next?

A. I've already talked to Coach Pietramala about us singing at a [Hopkins] lacrosse game.

Q. What is a typical Tone Ranger show like?

A. We think of this as a whole show that involves talking with the audience as well as singing. A lot of our humor comes from the things that we do between songs.

Q. How many songs in the group's repertoire?

A. About 25. It's always a challenge for a group that doesn't rehearse very often to get new stuff. Getting good arrangements is very hard. This is a challenge for singing groups from high school on.

Q. What types of songs do you perform?

A. We do some really traditional stuff, ballads like "Loch Lomond" and "Shenandoah," but we try to make the repertoire a little more classic rock. All of our new stuff tends to be obscure rock 'n' roll from the '60s and '70s. "The Night Chicago Died," a one-hit wonder by a band I can't even remember. "I Think I Love You," which was a Partridge Family song. If you turn on classic rock on the radio, you probably never hear these songs, but everyone knows them, and some of them are kind of kitschy and offbeat.

Q. Does your singing career ever link up with your life at Johns Hopkins?

A. I'm very sensitive to the importance of music and performance to student life. I'm very supportive, encouraging students to become involved in the arts. I tell them it was such a central part of my education and my time in college, that it shaped who I know, who I married, what I do, probably more than what I studied. I'm also always looking to find a way to have our group sing on campus. I did not want to introduce myself to this campus as the singing dean. I wanted to establish my credentials first, but now I'm not afraid to get out there.