by Zachary Caronna
Sometimes, the most extraordinary things hide away in the most ordinary places. Like an oyster housing a pearl, St. John’s Episcopal Church is the unassuming home to a most wonderful enterprise at seven-thirty every Monday night. As many before me, I had arrived intending to watch a rehearsal for the Tallahassee Community Chorus…what I happened upon was an experience I’ll never forget.
Walking into the archaic building, I noticed a ruckus emanating from down the hallway to my left. Following the sound, I found myself at the entrance of a large room containing as diverse a group of people as I’d ever set eyes upon. It was amazing to see Florida State students laughing with counterparts who’d been attending these meetings for almost thirty years. There was a palpable pleasure wafting its way around the place.
Within a few minutes, the organization’s president, Jan Smith, stood in front of the assembly of men and women, who listened to find out what would befall their upcoming weeks. Logistical statements finished, Jan returned to her seat, one person in sea of people, and taking her place at the head of this crowd was a tall man with a stuffed binder.
Dr. André Thomas lifted his hands, drawing absolute silence from those in the room. Only after he was sure that everyone was paying attention did his hands fall into rhythm. From the lips of nearly 200 men and women emitted the most mesmerizing sounds: the mouths to my right bellowed out deep tones that shook the infrastructure of the building tasked with containing this chapel of its bewildering resonance; these were met beautifully with sweet, seraphic notes to my left that brought the hair along my spine to attention. The room almost swayed from side to side, the voices raising and lowering us as if waves amid a torrential oceanic storm… all the while, the ship’s captain remained steadfast at his podium, orchestrating the movements of the tempest. This was one of the very first rehearsals for Tallahassee Community Chorus’ next performance, set to commence April 30th, and yet I felt as if I’d already witnessed the opening act of a master composer’s magnum opus.
If this performance was to be labeled as such, it would not be without some serious competition — first and foremost due to the longevity of the program. Established in 1988 with the help of the Florida State School of Music, the Tallahassee Community Chorus has been a fixture of this city’s artistic foundation since its inception. At the time of its founding, it consisted of a mere 37 members, a number that has since swelled immensely. What’s perhaps most amazing about their established culture of success is the manner through which the organization acquires members: those who wish to join need simply to register and pay a minor admission fee. The Tallahassee Community Chorus is a non-audition chorus — a rarity amongst competitive programs. According to many (especially those within the chorus), the primary reason for the success of a program that does not hold tryouts is that their director is able to coach-up anyone.
Dr. André Thomas carries himself as an erudite man would: upright, attentive, and receptive to anything he comes across. His body language is an extension of the way he approaches life: he’s at all times proper, aware of anything and everything going on around him at all times, and he never refutes a notion without first thinking it through entirely. His personality and presentation make him a natural leader. Said a current chorus member, “I’ve learned a lot. He’s very good at keeping the entire choir engaged. He’s good at not just making the rehearsal fun, he’s also good at making sure the entire rehearsal is productive.” Dr. Thomas’s ability to ensure that people remain energized while open to what he’s teaching them is one of the key reasons why the chorus has experienced success or such a sustained period of time.
His attention to detail is something of a gift, as well. Through the rehearsal I attended, Dr. Thomas stopped the divine singing every few measures, pointing to individual members and telling them not to round off the ends of their words and to alter their pitch by a half-note. Each small amendment honed the heavenly sound, as well as the notion that this man has an unearthly-talent for making music and teaching people. It’s no wonder he was awarded the Robert Shaw Coral Award by the American Choral Directors Association, or the Distinguished Service Award (twice) by the Africa Diaspora Sacred Music and Musicians Program. “He has a remarkable ability to zone in on the details that really make you jump from good to great,” says Executive Director Randall Webster. Of course, the program is not called the Dr. Thomas Chorus. While the man’s contributions to the organization are undeniable, Tallahassee Community Chorus is exactly what its name suggests: a community chorus. Each member of the chorus is as instrumental to each other’s success as they are to their own, learning each other’s parts in order to assist their comrades when needed. The diversity within the chorus brings a plethora of perspectives and experiences to the table, enabling each singer to obtain the right sort of advice to fit their individual needs, whether it’s from a youngster studying music at FSU or an elder with 30 plus years of singing experience. This altruistic attitude isn’t limited to rehearsals; the choral members depend on each other for more than simply artistic growth. The majority of members spend time with one another outside of Tallahassee Community Chorus too.
This camaraderie extends to the very top of the organization. The board of directors is especially hands-on in their methods of orchestrating the program. When asked about what sets Tallahassee Community Chorus apart from other major choral programs, Dr. Thomas could not praise them enough. “It has an exceptional board of directors. Our board is a totally singing board…Everybody on the board is a singer in the choir…It makes it almost like a family. And they work so hard for every concert. It would not happen without the leadership of a board.”
The close-knit relations within the chorus means that the chorus can do things other organizations of its kind cannot do, evident in the variety of performances each season. A season for the Tallahassee Community Chorus includes two performances consisting of “traditional” choral arrangements of revered composers bookending a Unity concert. This second concert is where Dr. Thomas’s creativity really shines, as he organizes performances designed to observe the diverse cultural influences present within the community as well as bring attention to the community around him. The ability to transition from conducting classical music to composing and performing styles of music that vary so immensely (this past Unity concert featured Thomas’s own Jazz pieces and Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts) is one of the many characteristics that makes the Tallahassee Community Chorus experience a unique one among the musical community.
These Unity concerts draw people from all walks of life together, which the program uses to bring awareness to partner organizations hoping to aid troubled people, including Habitat For Humanity, Big Bend Cares, and America’s Second Harvest. While working with charitable foundations is nothing new for the program, this particular aspect is among President Jan Smith’s most important contributions, and with it she has begun initiating a process that many of the most successful modern enterprises have undergone. As Dr. Thomas steers the artistic side of the chorus, Jan Smith is constantly refurbishing and remodeling the ship as it makes its amazing journey. “My role as president is basically to make the chorus a long-term enterprise… to bring the organization of the chorus into the 21st century to better track our audience and better organize our fundraising.”
With everyone doing their part to help carry the team, the Tallahassee Community Chorus has traveled further than anyone had thought possible. Randall Webster, a musician in his free time, has had the pleasure of traveling around the world in his years, including before his time as a board member for the chorus. He would be the first to tell you that the program is not just another group chorus. “I’ve been to choral concerts and major halls around the world. I’ve been to 28 countries. And we stack up against any of them, which is really remarkable as a resource for our community. To have that right in your backyard is just remarkable.” The list of venues this esteemed organization has performed at includes Prague, Rome, China, and Carnegie Hall.
The chorus’ next destination: Ireland. From June 20th to the 30th, Tallahassee Community Chorus will be performing traditional Irish songs as well as a few Dr. Thomas will have prepared especially for the festival. Former member Annie Barry, who lived in Ireland, will be returning to help teach the group many of the Irish songs they’ll be featuring.
It’s not uncommon for former singers to come back and impart their life experiences with the chorus, as the program welcomes any opportunity to explore new perspectives and learning opportunities. Many past singers returned to join the chorus for the 25th Anniversary season performances. Jan and Randall are expecting the same to happen next season, when the chorus will be celebrating its 30th year – especially considering Dr. Thomas’s impending retirement. While it’s important to always look forward, it is just as vital to be aware of where you currently stand. Dr. Thomas is more than aware that his time with the hand on the wheel is nearing its final chapter. Yet you wouldn’t know it by listening to him speak or watching him do the thing he loves most. He can talk endlessly about his favorite services – especially those in Rome and China, where he was not only able to bring the byproduct of his passion to the blissful ears of people from entirely-new societies but also to show his choral members things many people don’t get to see in their lifetimes. “You can’t ask for more.”
We don’t quite know what the future holds for the Tallahassee Community Chorus, but if history is any indication, there’s no reason to worry. With an ever-changing roster and a system for success predicated of dynamism, Tallahassee Community Chorus will continue on making the extraordinary ordinary.