Chiming in: When you’re a Chime, you’re a Chime all the way

By:
02/11/2010

Last Saturday night, the audience in Gaston Hall erupted in laughter as a nearly unintelligible cacophony rang out. On stage, an unlikely cast of characters—a bourbon-drinking Jesuit, Jersey Shore’s the Situation, and Midnight Madness toilet-shooter Alex Thiele, to name a few—sang out simultaneously.

Despite their disparate identities, the characters’ connection was apparent from their striped, flat-bottomed neckties: they were all Georgetown Chimes.

The characters, on the other hand, were definitely not Chimes. The men were performing “Occupations,” one of the a cappella group’s classic routines, in which each singer answers the question of what he would be if he were not a Georgetown Chime. The group performed in front of a crowd that had braved one of the worst snowstorms Georgetown had ever seen to witness the 37th Annual Cherry Tree Massacre.

For the nine men on stage and the 215 others who came before them, “Occupations” tries to answer an almost unfathomable question—who would they be without the Chimes? The Chimes are more than just an a cappella group to them. It is a brotherhood steeped in 64 years of tradition, and the defining experience of their time at Georgetown—and in some ways, their time after too.

Cherry Tree Massacre, created by the group almost four decades ago, serves as a showcase of the Chimes’ history as much as their impressive vocal range. Needless to say, a lot of work goes into preparing for the concert.

“It was a culmination of a week and a month of always thinking about it, always practicing,” Scott Moody (MSB ’10) said of Cherry Tree. “We practice four times a week. We’d practice Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday of every week … All the work that we put in really showed and really paid off in the end.”

As the Chimes’ current leader, Moody would know. Called the ephus, which means “leader among equals,” Moody was the one responsible for leading the Chimes’ preparation and performance.

Moody said that about Cherry Tree five hours before he would be on stage acting out the role of a jobless business school senior. He was rehashing the inaugural show of the night before, the first of five Cherry Tree concerts this month.

Shortly removed from his first performance and with just a few hours until his next, Moody spent his brief recovery time on his laptop in the Chimes House, the gray townhouse near the corner of 36th and Prospect Streets NW that serves as home base for all things Chimes.

Fellow Chimes filed in and out of the house. Some were returning from the basketball game at the Verizon Center, where a week earlier the group had sung the Star Spangled Banner in front of President Barack Obama (and over 20,000 others). Others could be heard in the back of the house, singing.

The Chimes House serves alternately—and sometimes seemingly simultaneously—as practice space, party space, and living space for the group. Moody doesn’t live there (“My parents did not want me to live here, just because of the state of the house,” he said). But Arthur Woods (MSB ’10), a fellow Chimes senior, wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

“It’s like kind of living in a huge commune in some ways,” Woods said. “Everyone’s using the house, hanging out, drinking, or studying, doing work, singing. It’s a good experience.”

Of course, when you lose count of how many people have keys to your house and you are hosting frequent parties, coming home can be an adventure.

“Going upstairs after a party, I never cease to be amazed at what I find,” Woods said.

If the Chimes were a fraternity, then 3611 Prospect Street NW would obviously be the frat house. But that’s a comparison the group members take issue with.

“It’s not a frat,” Matthew Gorey (COL ’12) said. “A frat is united by a common desire to have friends in college and drink a lot of alcohol. Whereas I would say that if you are a part of this group, it’s because you are very, very close with the other people in this group and you like to sing. Ultimately that’s the reason people keep coming to reunions for decades.”

The Chimes certainly have a strong sense of tradition and institutional memory. Each new Chime is even numbered in succession, right down to #224, Jimmy Dailey (COL ’11). Any of the current members, known in Chimes parlance as Actives, can not only recall the names of Chimes from years and decades past, they have personal friendships with them.

The Actives meet and talk with older Chimes throughout the year, but Cherry Tree Massacre is an especially common time for alumni to return to Georgetown. On Saturday afternoon, some of the Actives talked about how the Chimes House can turn into a boarding house for visiting alumni.

Seemingly on cue, Rich Del Bello (MSB ’06) and Eddie Keels (COL ’06) enter the house, bags in tow.

“I love the fact that we can roll in, in the snow, after hitching a ride, and walk in and be home,” Keels said. “When we’re in the Georgetown area … we know that our home is here. We walk in and we weren’t like, ‘I wonder if anybody’s home?’ This is our house, forever.”

That may seem a bit presumptuous of Keels, but that’s really how the Chimes work. Even though none of the current Actives were at Georgetown with Keels and Del Bello, they are welcomed with open arms. And not just as a courtesy to alumni—the two are greeted as close friends.

Part of the process of becoming a Chime involves getting to know former Actives. That doesn’t mean just making phone calls or collecting signatures. It’s about forming real relationships with the men who sang the same songs before you.

“You hear people talk about frats,” Keels said. “It’s one thing to be a frat, where the hazing is in the forefront, and where all that crap and drinking and all that stuff is really what it’s all about. Then you get a group like this. And whereas we love our drinks—believe me—it’s kind of nice that the whole [idea of]‘frat’ coming from the word brother is really in the center.”

Still, the empty cans of Keystone and half-eaten Wisey’s strewn around the Chimes House on a Saturday afternoon can’t help but call to mind the other connotation of “frat.” It also doesn’t help matters that the left-over debris from the post-concert celebration was cleaned up by aspiring Actives.

They would be the Neophytes, more commonly known as Neos, the Chimes’ singers-in-training. Once a student auditions and demonstrates the requisite vocal talent to be a Chime, then the hard work of the Neo process begins.

On Saturday, Tyler Holl (COL ’13) was one of the Neos found tidying up the house. For him, a little bit of labor hardly seems like a punishment or hazing. It’s just fair.

“That doesn’t really bother me,” Holl said of the cleaning. “I think it’s all just part of the process. We all live here. I mean, this is my house too. Part of this mess is mine. So it’s just kind of what you have to do. You have to clean your dorm room every once in a while. You’ve got to clean the house too.”

Cleaning is hardly the most demanding part of the Neophyte process. To earn their Chimes tie, Neos must learn the Chimes’ vast repertoire, requiring the memorization of upwards of 100 songs. A deep knowledge of the group’s history and traditions is needed as well. Neos are supposed to contact former Actives and get to know them—that’s how someone like Del Bello or Keels can walk back into the house years after graduating and feel right at home.

“[For] the Neo process, these guys need to know who we are, they need to know all these guys [in pictures]on the wall,” Del Bello said. “They know all of us, they’ve heard stories about us.”

With all the requirements, it’s no surprise that the transition from Neo to Active can take well over a year. Holl, who auditioned at the beginning of last semester, estimated he spends one to two hours a day working in some way toward becoming a Chime. Currently he has about 65 songs memorized and is still scratching the surface of the group’s history.

“It’s so rewarding that it doesn’t really even matter how much work you have to do, just because it’s just such a great group and you really want to be a part of it,” Holl said. “I think that’s what was really exciting for me, that it wasn’t just you learn a couple of songs and then you move on after four years and that’s it, you never talk to anyone again.”

However great the reward of finally becoming an Active, the extended Neophyte period unavoidably produces attrition. Of the 15 or so new Neos who came in with Holl in the fall, only about half remain.

Those who do stick it out get a crash course in what it means to be a Chime. The wisdom and stories of alumni far removed from their college experience can help put the meaning of the Chimes in perspective to the Neos, many of whom are fresh out of high school and simply looking for a group to sing with.

One of the former Actives that the current and aspiring Chimes have learned the most from is Tim Naughton (MSB ’77). Naughton serves as Chimes President, an elected position that handles long-term planning and many of the non-singing functions of the group.

“The first thing I try to do [when talking to new Chimes]is remind them they’re not at Georgetown to be a Chime, they’re there to be a student,” Naughton said. “But the second thing I tell them is that I’m still learning how wonderful it is to be in the Chimes. The experiences for me just keep coming.”

Every Chime has countless stories to share about who they performed for, where they travelled, and what they did with their fellow Chimes. Even though they see each other nearly every day while school is in session, many of their favorite memories are of trips they all took together—anticipation for this year’s spring break trip to Germany was palpable.

The more Chimes that get together, the more powerful the experiences, like at a small reunion last year in New York.

“There were like 30 guys there, and everyone’s just been drinking and singing all night,” Gorey said. “At like two in the morning there were like 15 of us up on the rooftop, overlooking Central Park smoking cigars, and it started snowing. And we were just screaming music. And there were people from across the street, 20 floors up, opening their window while we were singing Christmas music, and cheering, and singing Christmas music. You get access to ridiculous experiences.”

What’s striking about the stories the Chimes tell is how often music and singing remain the core of the experience. With all their talk of fraternity and brotherhood, the fact can almost get lost that the Chimes are Georgetown’s most accomplished a cappella group. These men, as close as they have become, came together ultimately for one reason: to sing.

Their singing is inexorably connected to their brotherhood. And it is literally brotherhood—women are not allowed into the group. That feminine exclusion is not just a result of the group’s pseudo-fraternity nature; musical considerations are also a concern.

“I really like the sound of just men’s voices, not men and women mixed,” Holl said. “I really knew that I wanted to join an a cappella group that was all men.”

Such gender division is not unique to the Chimes. While there are a number of co-ed a cappella groups at Georgetown, the Captiol G’s are also all-male, while groups such as the GraceNotes and Harmony are exclusively female.

It is their shared love of song that makes the Chimes’ fraternal bonds so strong. A Chime from any era can meet any other and, thanks to the repertoire they learned as a Neo, they can sing together.

“There’s a unique friendship that can form from performing and singing with someone,” Woods said. “You establish a connection. The idea of a quartet—you have to form a cohesive bond with the people you’re singing with, otherwise you get off rhythm, you’re not singing the right thing. In doing that there’s, I think, actually more of a subliminal connection you’re forming with other people.”

While it can fade a little into the background when hanging around the Chimes House, the group’s singing came back into the fore at sound check Saturday night, when they put the finishing touches on their Cherry Tree Massacre performance. From that point on the Chimes were all business, displaying the kind of precision and professionalism that has become their hallmark—the reason they are chosen to sing for presidents.

Cherry Tree Massacre is their chance to show off for the Georgetown community. Created back in 1974, when Chimes President Naughton was just a freshman, it was designed as Georgetown’s answer to the a cappella experience shared by New England colleges.

“The first year was only one weekend and only one show,” Naughton said. “And over time the show was so popular that we started to do two shows, and then two weekends, and then three weekends. I don’t what the limit is, but I suspect we could do five shows and still have people coming.”

While the first Cherry Tree concert featured only a cappella groups from other colleges alongside the Chimes, in the years since, Georgetown has seen its own a cappella scene explode. Now there are at least seven other groups in addition to the Chimes, enough so that the past weekend’s performances were able to showcase only Georgetown singers.

“The Chimes are obviously the oldest group at Georgetown so they have a lot of respect from the a cappella community,” Diana Kolar (M+SB ’12), who sings with the GraceNotes, said. “It’s great that the first weekend of Cherry Tree every year they really kind of bring all the Georgetown groups together.”

During Saturday night’s show, each group sang its set and then thanked the Chimes for making their performance possible. In between sets, the Chimes-focus of Cherry Tree became even more apparent. A former Chime served as MC, and during intermission former Actives mingled in the aisles, including Del Bello and Keels. It was every bit as much a celebration of the group as one of their monthly Chimes Nights at the Tombs.

Basically, it was another one of those Chimes experiences, a story that the current students could one day tell when a Neo called them up to learn about what being a Chime is all about. Cherry Tree Massacre served as a reminder of just how important the Chimes are to them.

“I’m realizing that this is probably going to be one of the most defining things about my whole Georgetown career,” the Neophyte Holl said. “And that’s just really exciting for me, that I already found something that is really going to be with me for the rest of my life so early in my college career.”

For the senior members of the Chimes, it offered both time to reflect and a reminder that their time as an Active was nearing an end.

“It will be bittersweet,” Woods said, looking ahead to his final Cherry Tree show. “But the cool thing about the Chimes is that you never move on from being a Chime. You’re always a Chime.”

That could not be clearer than at the end of the concert Saturday, when the Actives, as per Cherry Tree tradition, called all the Chimes present, from Neophytes to alumni, up on stage to sing the fight song. The suddenly packed stage was covered by a cast of Chimes that spanned generations. They all shared a common bond. If they were not Georgetown Chimes, how different their lives would be.


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