The lead singer on Paradox Voice Band’s new mash-up, “Shut Up and Dance with Somebody,” Tenor-Beatboxer Tom Ostrander has been singing since he could talk, beginning with reciting songs from such classic Disney films as “Pocahontas,” “The Aristocats,” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Growing up in a musical family, Tom was exposed to a wide variety of musical genres, from the classic pop-rock of Billy Joel to soundtracks from musicals like “Les Misérables” and “Pippin.” Later, Tom attended Santa Clara University, where he studied Mechanical Engineering, while singing as a hobby. However, in his search for a way to bridge his problem-solving ability with his passion for music and performance, Tom discovered Acoustics, the study and engineering of sound. While in school, he immediately found a home in the collegiate a cappella scene, performing for four years with aca-group SUPERTONIC as both singer and beatboxer, while also serving in leadership roles, including Rehearsal Director in his senior year. Determined to continue with a cappella music after graduation, Tom made a beeline for San Francisco’s Paradox Voice Band, and we’re so happy he did! We were curious about how such a rare singer-percussionist came to exist in the first place, so we asked Tom about that, and this is what he said:
Q: Is it true that beatboxers are born, not made?
A: Well, it certainly doesn't hurt when they’re born, but I have known plenty of people who fell in love with rhythm and percussion later in life. It all comes down to the age-old adage of "practice making perfect"... and being ready to sound silly in the meantime.
Q: What's inside you that calls you to make beatboxing sounds, and how early did you start?
A: As I like to think of it, I started my career at the ripe old age of two, when words were still in the works. There actually is a home movie of me as a baby, in my pajamas, singing “The Washing Song” from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with perfectly matched sounds. When I saw that video, it reminded me of just how early I caught on to rhythm, tempo, and specific sounds. I think that's what calls me to beatboxing, just being fascinated with trying to mimic an inhuman sound with nothing but my own human voice. It's a fun challenge.
Q: What's the difference between a beatboxer and a vocal percussionist?
A: As best as I can tell, beatboxers and vocal percussionists are very similar, with one nuanced difference. When I think of vocal percussion, I think of a classic, rock-band drum set and the precise emulation of those sounds. Vocal percussion, in my opinion, creates a very clean rhythm section, with an easily identified set of instruments, like a snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat, or shaker. A beatboxer takes the basic elements of vocal percussion and melds them with more atmospheric bass sounds like synth, disc-scratching, animal noises, or even a lawn mower - the unusual, interesting sounds. In this way, a beatboxer can afford to be less precise than a vocal percussionist because of how cool that lawn mower sound is... and if you know how to make that sound, please let me know!
Q: I’ve heard you make quite a few of those sounds, and I bet you've had a whole lot of weird looks over the years from people who have no idea what you're doing, haven't you? What can you tell us about those experiences?
A: Well, being at college, there wasn’t much spare time, so I ended up practicing between classes, making those weird sounds, and working on new effects while skateboarding to my next class. The looks I got were PRICELESS, particularly when I saw someone, whose head was bopping to the beat I was creating, turn around to see that there was no boom box – it was just me, buzzing my lips like a little kid. I totally recommend this method of practicing, since it lets you work on being comfortable performing in front of people and gets you some fun stories to share with your music friends!
Q: I know you also are an aspiring voice-over artist, having witnessed firsthand your spot-on Alvin the Chipmunk in Paradox's "Christmas Don't Be Late" a couple weeks ago. Were you a fan of cartoons when you were little?
A: Most certainly. I grew up loving Boomerang on Cartoon Network, the show where they played classic Warner Brothers cartoons (“Bugs Bunny,” “Daffy Duck,” “Tweety and Sylvester”) as well as some of the newer cartoons (“Ben Ten,” “Dexter’s Lab,” etc.). Later in life, I discovered the whole realm of voice acting and was intrigued to see what I could do. We'll see where it goes.
Q: On top of the beatboxing and character voices, you're also a heck of a high tenor too, with an absolutely beautiful voice. With so much talent, how do you ever choose what to do?
A: Thank you; you're too kind! That's been a really fun part of my performance career, to be so versatile. I try to be helpful and fill in where the need is greatest to create the best show possible. If everyone else looks good and sounds good, then I’m great. Simple as that.
Q: What does music mean to you, and why is singing in an a cappella band important to you?
A: Music has been an anchor for me to work through many elements of my life, from learning how to be a better friend to how to embrace the unknown. Music is a medium of communication in which I can most fully express myself, allowing me to tap into what I connect with lyrically and emotionally, and A Cappella is a medium that I can bring more to, with my own style of vocal percussion, which allows me to inject ambiance into song.
Editor’s Note: Well put, Tom, well put. In the time that we’ve know you, you’ve shown yourself to be a uniquely versatile musician with a generous spirit. If your lead “Shut Up” vocal is any indication, we’re in for many more wonderful experiences singing with you. Thanks for helping making Paradox Voice Band a such a nice place to be.