It was just before 7 p.m. when I arrived at First Presbyterian Church. I ascended the wide steps toward the sanctuary, passing a quartet of fellows breaking apart and analyzing their vocal harmonies. I smiled at the jovial sounds they produced and descended the opposite end of the stairs, making my way around the side of the church and into Westminster Fellowship Hall. Men of varying ages were scattered around the room and chatting. My host, Dr. Bruce Bickley, vice president of marketing and public relations for The Capital Chordsmen, had already informed me that this was not their usual practice venue. On Thursday evenings, they normally rehearse in the second-floor auditorium of the Tallahassee Senior Citizens Center, unless the Center is closed for maintenance.
Members Steve Pennington and Gene Kelley Jr. greeted me upon arrival and almost immediately asked, five months in advance, if I would like them to serenade me on Valentine’s Day. I was charmed and smiled again. Barbershop singers have a way of making people smile.
I took a seat aside from the group as choral director Greg Hilliard Jr. made his way to the front. He removed a pitch pipe from his shirt pocket and blew a B-flat. All at once, the walls of the rectangular hall reverberated with the sound of awakening male vocal cords. I suddenly felt as though sitting was futile, as if the power of human voices in unison might lift me off my chair and into the heavens. Tethered only by gravity, I remained seated and watched Hilliard guide the group through a series of warm-ups, instructing the chorus to rise up and down by half steps and project a full, warm exhalation of sound from their diaphragms. The group moved through these exercises with occasional instructions by Hilliard to change vowel sounds and sit up straighter. They were organized and attentive.
The Capital Chordsmen received their charter from the international Barbershop Harmony Society in 1966, making 2016 their 50th anniversary season. A half-century of existence has meant highs and lows—pun intended—for this four-part a cappella chorus. The Chordsmen have experienced occasional flat points in membership but have progressively improved in state contest performances. In recent years, in fact, these Tallahassee barbershoppers have been hitting all the high notes. Membership has steadily increased—currently 35 members—and 2013 and 2015 yielded their best-ever competition scores, especially their championship at the Panhandle Region Chorus Competition and second place finish in the statewide Sunshine District Competition last year.
Organization is another key—and another pun—to their success. As the vocal warm up concluded, Dr. Bickley passed me a copy of What’s Happening! – The Weekly Newsletter, produced by their President Steve Jacobsen, a Capital Chordsmen singer since 1994. The two-page publication indicated that rehearsal that evening would be divided into two phases: reviewing Christmas music in preparation for their ambitious series of upcoming holiday events and fine-tuning two carefully selected numbers for their September and October competitions. Before diving into their scheduled practice songs, the chorus gathered in the back of the room for a quick photo op. Following a few formal snapshots, the group crunched together and selected one of their most enthusiastic tunes “Hello Mary Lou” to belt at the camera. The lyrics began, “Hello Mary Lou. Goodbye heart. / Sweet Mary Lou I’m so in love with you.” I smiled, yet again. I couldn’t stop. My cheeks ached and so did my heart. The space I occupied with The Capital Chordsmen filled with life. They propelled energy in layered harmonies. Beautiful, unaccompanied voices rang out from energetic faces and well-postured bodies. These men love to sing, and they do it as often as possible.
Existing within the chorus are multiple quartets that practice and perform on their own schedule. The quartets—that currently include The Rolling Tones, Good Intentions, Four Oysters in Search of a Pearl, In-A-Chord, and the collegiate quartet The Noel Cats— sing for private events, community socials, and professional society gatherings. They also spend Valentine’s Day delivering carnations and their ever-popular Sweetheart Serenades across Leon, Gadsden, Wakulla, and Franklin counties. Proceeds and donations gained from these events contribute to their Carraway-Anton Music Scholarships awarded to up to five students from FSU, FAMU, and TCC each year. This scholarship program, which began in 1995, has increased younger membership—the eligible students attend rehearsals and participate in public performances—and has helped support young barbershop singers in their academic endeavors.
Broadening their reach toward the youth of Tallahassee proved beneficial in more ways than one when the Chordsmen hired Greg Hilliard Jr. as director in 2012. Hilliard had earned his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University’s prestigious College of Music and was already an accomplished barbershopper with more than 10 years of experience. Hilliard has guided the group to new levels of excellence. His knowledge of music is evident in how he directs. Throughout the rehearsal, I watched Hilliard provide continuous feedback and immediately correct any inaccuracies with statements like, “Almost a B-flat is not a B-flat.” He was persistent, addressing each section to ensure their notes and voice dynamics were spot-on. When necessary, Hilliard also used a pitch-correcting app on his tablet—what the men call his “torture tool.” The screen lights up in affirming green when they sing their notes exactly on pitch. Hilliard is also funny and relatable when making statements like, “I think we were pretty good on pitch, maybe just a half step off. But what’s a half step between friends?” The men chuckle and go right back to work.
The Capital Chordsmen’s motto is “Sing better every day,” and Jacobsen’s What’s Happening newsletters close with, “It’s GREAT to be a Barbershopper!” These guys are open about their passion. And passion backed by tradition, strong leadership, and talent made for a sincere and soul-stirring version of “O Holy Night” that Thursday. Though it was only mid-September, I reached for my phone at the conclusion of rehearsal and input The Capital Chordsmen’s December 8 and 13 Holiday Harmony concerts at the Senior Center into my calendar. I shook hands with the members and listened to their proclamations about why they love this vocal art form so much. The overarching opinion was that they simply love to sing and to make people smile. I exited the Fellowship Hall at 9:30 p.m. With a hearty, a cappella rendition of “Four Leaf Clover” ringing in my head, I drove home feeling as if I had witnessed something special, something historical, something personal. And I couldn’t stop smiling.
For more information about The Capital Chordsmen and their upcoming performances, visit capitalchordsmen.org.