“Great. Do it again,” said director John David Maybury. The men’s a capella barbershop chorus included members who widened their eyes, stretched their mouths, and stood on their toes with each elongated note. The music, lighthearted and joyful, swelled from an encompassing wall of sound to a soothing hum. The group knew their parts by memory but repeated the same notes until they got it right.
This is the new Catoctones.
They’re back, and they’ll be performing at the Baker Park Band Shell on July 4 as part of the Independence Day festivities throughout the day.
The dozen-plus group, based in Frederick, looks quite different from their 1967 beginnings, when there were no auditions and talent varied widely. Despite this, the Catoctones has a storied history of winning barbershop harmony competitions with a string of championships from the mid-’90s to early 2000s. They held annual concerts that packed venues year after year.
“We were big. Twenty to 30 men on a Tuesday night,” said Catoctones president Dean Martin at a recent Tuesday-night rehearsal. That all changed when their director left due to family obligations in the mid-2000s. “We kept dwindling and dwindling in size,” he said. This led to a hiatus for several years.
After driving hundreds of miles to participate in other barbershop groups, Martin, who lives in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, decided to relaunch the Catoctones. “Maybe two to three years ago, I wrote a letter to all the guys that I knew had been a part of the Catoctones before, and I sat down and formulated a list of goals.” He presented his new vision for the Catoctones and was elected president shortly after. “The basic tenets were, I want a chorus of guys that want to work hard at singing well,” he said. New requirements included auditions and a commitment to study tracks at home.
Martin held the Catoctones, including himself, to a higher standard. He hired talented, non-affiliated musicians to provide vocal evaluations. “We didn’t want to look like a couple of us were just picking guys who we wanted to be in the chorus,” Martin said. “So we needed to pass the audition ourselves.”
The next challenge for Martin was to find a director for a much-needed cultural shift. “It was time to start looking for someone to take us to the next level,” he said. “I wanted someone that was kind of fresh out of college because there’s a lot of cool a cappella stuff that is happening in the college scene. I knew they would have new teaching techniques.”
Maybury, Catoctones’ wiry, energetic director, started in January. Maybury sticks out in being at least 20 years younger than most members with a full head of dark blond hair. But when he emphatically gesticulates how a note should sound, Maybury looks like a longtime Catoctones member. He is a tough musical director with thoughtful, detailed instruction and witty aphorisms (“If you want to ruin a song, sing it all the way through”). Maybury is in a constant state of tinkering to not only find but sustain the perfect note. He even sent the group a 17-page list of critiques on issues such as body alignment and proper vowel pronunciation. Maybury’s newly purchased iPad takes his watchful ear even further in analyzing Cactoctones’ voices to assess if they achieved perfect pitch.
Maybury’s culture of self-evaluation is infectious. Members have spirited conversations about how to improve competition scores through a choreography revision or a more complicated song finale.
“Singing is within our innate nature. Without it, we wouldn’t really have a soul. It makes us happier. It fights almost every disease by releasing endorphins,” said Maybury. “My biggest goal for this group is to provide a place where guys feel fellowship, where guys feel empowerment, where they feel they have a better quality of life.”
Catoctones’ harmony is clear even when the music stops. Members crack jokes in between songs about a note they missed or being too old for a choreography move. Catoctones strive for perfection but are able to laugh at the mistakes along the way.
Assistant director Roger Crist has been a Catoctones member for 36 years. He served as a director from 1986 to 1999. His long journey with the Catoctones is a chase for something almost mystical. “It’s a unique sound you don’t get anywhere else — the desire, the striving to get the perfect chord,” said Crist. “Listening to expanded sound, it sounds like there’s more than the four parts that are there.” This is because voices produce not only an actual tone but an overtone that can be harmonically pleasing. When the message and music come together, Crist can be at a loss for words.
“We sang for Dean’s daughter’s wedding. We sang a song called ‘Little Girl.’ We couldn’t make it through the song,” said Crist. “I have a daughter and she and my wife came out on the back porch to listen to us practice. And at that point, because of what you’re singing ... tiny little fingers on your cheek. And talking about your little girl growing up ... how she got her heart broken by her first love. You relive those moments with your child. And then you’re singing to her to send her off to someone else. My daughter asked me to sing at her wedding. I said I can’t do it.” Crist began to choke up. “Not that I don’t want to, but I couldn’t even get the song started. You become part of that emotion. You relive those moments.”
With some rehearsals lasting over two hours, the Catoctones strive to embody what they sing whether it’s a lullaby, a romantic serenade, or a national anthem. They have a string of summer performances culminating with a Sept. 17 Mid-Atlantic District contest. Despite being an underdog facing larger, more established groups, the Catoctones placed third overall last year. Musical pride is coming back to the Catoctones, and Maybury hopes for more vocalists to enter the fold.
“If you join us, we’ll help empower you.”