Hitting a High Note

THE CROCUSES ON MONUMENT HILL SHIVERED AND SHOOK IN A COLD SPRING RAIN. But across Putnam Avenue, inside Tomes-Higgins House, the fifteen women who comprise the Grace Notes opened their mouths to sing, and there were nothing but blue skies:

Blue skies, smiling at me,
Nothing but blue skies do I see.
Bluebirds, singing a song,
Nothing but bluebirds, all day long.

The Grace Notes were arranged in a semicircle under a cut-glass chandelier that bathed them in pale yellow light. Their music director, Eric Martin, made corrections so minute and exacting that your average enthusiast would have no clue what he was talking about. “Get rid of the diphthong,” he said. “There’s one word, ‘birds,’ that’s going a little flat.” They ironed out the diphthong, sharpened the bluebirds, and then everything fell into place: “Ah, you’ve got the rhythm!” Eric said—no easy task when you’re singing four-part harmony and the musical mood of this Irving Berlin classic shifts sublimely but complexly from melancholy to bright.

The rain beat against the tall Victorian windows. In the gray distance, the still-leafless trees waved their limbs helplessly in the wind. But inside Tomes-Higgins, the spirit of optimism stubbornly persisted. Following “Blue Skies,” the Grace Notes ran through “In the Mood,” the jivey Glenn Miller hit from 1939; “Over the Rainbow,” new to the Grace Notes’ repertoire, done in the delicately syncopated style of Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole; and Ashford & Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with which the group often concludes its performances, the better to end not with mere optim-ism but with full-on, Motown-via-Greenwich inspiration.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell scored a Top Twenty hit with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in 1967—the year the Grace Notes were born. Well, technically, they were born somewhere back in the historical mists as the Blue Notes, under the auspices of the Junior League of Stamford; then became the Key Notes
of the Junior League of Greenwich; and finally, in the Summer of Love, sailed free of the League’s launchpad and rechristened themselves the Grace Notes. Now fifty years have tumbled past—five decades of youth, middle age, old age, death and renewal, blessed renewal—and the Grace Notes are in the mood to celebrate. They’ll hold their fiftieth Birthday Gala on June 8 at Christ Church (you’re invited).

If you’ve lived in town for any length of time, you have probably seen the Grace Notes. “We’re basically unavoidable,” observes Judy Gilmartin-Willsey, a first soprano who has been a Grace Note for about ten years and owns a framing shop in Armonk. If you haven’t seen them, then the first thing to know is that they sing “a cappella”—literally, “in the manner of the chapel,” which used to mean without the organ that was standard in big churches but not in chapels, but now means simply without instruments. “When we sing together, it’s all about blending,” says Ann Lockyer, who joined the group twenty-one years ago, after a career in fashion (she now co-owns a staging and redesign business). “You have to have a straight tone—no vibrato. Some people can’t turn it off. People come in and audition who are amazing, totally amazing, as soloists. But they can’t blend.”

The Grace Notes perform at events like the Junior League’s Enchanted Forest, the Greenwich Arts Council’s Art to the Avenue festival, and Greenwich Hospice’s Tree of Light celebration. You might even see them on the train platform in December, singing carols for the commuters.

On occasion they’re hired to deliver singing Valentines. Once, Mimi Sternlicht, wife of Barry Sternlicht, the high-powered real estate investor who heads Starwood Capital Group, had the Grace Notes surprise her husband at work. As Judy Gilmartin-Willsey recalls it, Ann Lockyer led the way, “all dressed up in leather, a wonderful black leather outfit.”

Ann picks up the story: “So he’s in a meeting in this tiny con-ference room, and I’m the first one walking in, and he looks up with the fear of God in his eyes.”

“He thinks she’s a stripper!” Judy chimes in.

“He thought, Oh, no, I’m going to have a middle-aged stripper,” Ann says. “And I lean down and I go, ‘Don’t worry, we’re just here to sing.’”

The Grace Notes might be found anywhere—even bursting into song at a downtown shop or a Starbucks. If not for their regular gigs, says Maggie McGirr, who joined the Grace Notes twenty-four years ago, “we’d be making a nuisance of ourselves on street corners.”

The Grace Notes’ core mission is to delight the soul with music, to soothe and to heal, and that means going where delight is often in shortest supply—to nursing homes whose residents might be physically infirm or slipping into a twilight of the mind.

“We sing at senior homes where they are fully aware and lucid, but we’ve also sung at many Alzheimer’s units,” Maggie says. “That can be the most gratifying. Apparently, music is the last thing to go. I remember one of my first troopings [as the Grace Notes call their outings], and we were in an Alzheimer’s unit. One woman was bent over in a wheelchair with her face down, and I thought, ‘Oh, the poor thing. I’m glad she’s here, but it can’t be helping her much.’ We sang ‘America the Beautiful’ at the end. And I saw her lips moving—she was singing every word of ‘America the Beautiful.’”

The Grace Notes know that, especially among the elderly, outward appearances tell only a fraction of the story. “Some people are sort of laid out and they really don’t look like they’re all there,” says Debbie Hires, a Greenwich native who once contemplated a singing career (at present she chairs the parents’ board at Greenwich Country Day School). “Then you see their toes start moving, and you know you’re getting through.”

“We always have to remember that—that you may have someone who seems not to be responding, but the music is meaning something to them,” Maggie says. “I like to think that the music takes them back to a happier time. Then maybe if they feel happy for a few minutes, they can take that into their present.”

Singing for “well” audiences can have more lighthearted satisfactions. Not long ago the Grace Notes performed in Stamford for an audience whose members had mental-health issues but otherwise were in fine fettle. Judy stepped forth and introduced a Queen song from 1980 that has proved remarkably durable: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Judy says she told the audience, “They always have me introduce this song, because I’m a little crazy.”

“And someone in the audience goes, ‘Well, we’re all crazy.’”

FINDING THEIR VOICE

A cappella singing has gone in and out of style over the years. In this country, its roots seem to be democratically tangled: one strand has Southern black men harmonizing in barbershops in the 1860s, a practice that evolved into a national craze (its DNA can be found in soul, doo-wop and rock); another strand has male glee clubs mushrooming in Eastern colleges around the same time, singing operetta and choral music. The Whiffenpoofs of Yale, established in 1909 as a modern counterpart to the fustier Yale Glee Club, is among the oldest college groups still in existence; colleges have remained a cappella bastions through the genre’s waxings and wanings.

By 1967 a cappella’s bloom was fading in the culture at large, but holding fast among those who attended college in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Donna Moffly, the first president of the Grace Notes, recalls that the Grace Notes of 1967 were a little—how shall one say?—corny. Everything changed with the arrival of music director Helen Bingaman in 1969.

“She was just terrifically talented and professional,” Donna says. “She brought in really sophisticated music.”

“When I got in there, they were singing ‘When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along,’” Helen remembers. “That wasn’t going to fly.”

Helen had just quit teaching music in Greenwich public schools to make way for her first child when she was asked to fill in as the Grace Notes’ music director for three weeks. She stayed till 1977 and returned for a second tour of duty from 1983 to 1999. Grace Notes present and past (“We call ourselves the DisGrace Notes,” Donna says) speak of Helen with affection, reverence and a little trepidation.

“It was very scary,” Ann Lockyer says of her audition at Helen’s house. Grace Notes hopefuls would have to locate and sing the middle note of chords that Helen would play on the piano, so that Helen could judge whether they could find the harmony. “She was very strict—brought me right back to Catholic school. But she’s a lovely, lovely lady, and she got a ton out of the group.”

Helen balanced American standards like “A String of Pearls” and “You Make Me Feel So Young”—important to the older audiences—with melodic newer songs like “If” (by David Gates of the band Bread) and “Time In a Bottle” (by Jim Croce). Under her aegis, the arrangements were intricately tailored to the Grace Notes—indeed, were commissioned by them or done by Helen herself—and could change according to the group’s vocal composition. “At that time, so many people smoked,” Helen says, “and the second altos could go very, very low. I could have arrangements that went as low as low C. Eventually they quit smoking, of course, so I had to raise it.”

Having set a lofty standard, Helen handed her baton, as it were, to Alexander Constantine, who in turn handed it to Eric Martin—directors of formidable talents themselves. (The Grace Notes are volunteers, but the music directors are paid, necessitating some fundraising.) On June 8, when the Grace Notes convene for their fiftieth birthday, they will honor Helen and her overarching contribution.

“Well, that’s what I hear, yes,” Helen says, sounding cautiously pleased. “I wonder what they’re going to say.”

Helen’s were ambitious years. The Grace Notes sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Shea Stadium, performed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Empire State Building and shared the bill with The Nylons—a male a cappella group famous for its version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—at the Palace Theatre in Stamford. They were the first women’s group to be invited to take part in Spring Sing, an annual, high-caliber get-together of former collegiate a cappella singers. And they staged elaborate children’s holiday shows at the Greenwich Library. “They were always mobbed,” Helen says. “We had a live donkey one year. We had sheep.” The DisGrace Notes still swear that one named Lamb Chop bleated to the rhythm of pa rum-pum pum pum in the “Little Drummer Boy” song.

The Grace Notes added three new pieces a month to their repertoire—a substantial workload—but the challenge brought out the best in them. “They were getting to please themselves as well as other people,” Helen says. “I thought that made them better musicians.” She thinks for a moment. “We asked a lot of the Grace Notes. It was a very tight ship.”

It was also a large ship, consisting of thirty-two singers. Donna remembers that Thursday morning practices at Second Congregational Church required three babysitters to watch over the swarm of children. “See, in my day, the ladies weren’t working,” says Donna. “They were housewives, and they volunteered, took care of the kids and were there when their husbands came home on the train.”

Donna herself left the Grace Notes only when she and her husband, Jack, bought the Greenwich Review, the precursor to GREENWICH magazine, in 1987. “Today the group is about half the size, but that’s the reason—they’re professionals, they’re working.”

DEDICATION AND SISTERHOOD
The Grace Notes’ membership fell to a low of thirteen. “Everybody’s lives, for whatever reason, are more complicated now,” Ann Lockyer says. “Sometimes we joke that we have a hard time getting the younger women because they’re exercising way too much.”

A decline in the popularity of a cappella undoubtedly contributed to the attrition—though this has dramatically reversed itself. A cappella is back in the zeitgeist. Nobody knows quite how or why: The TV show Glee? The a cappella supergroup Pentatonix? The movie Pitch Perfect? The desire to hear great human voices in their pure, un-autotuned glory?

Whatever the reason, the Grace Notes are growing again. Their schedule is less demanding to allow for the living of those complicated lives; there are no holiday shows to put on or Spring Sings to fly off to. “We call it the kinder, gentler Grace Notes,” Ann remarks. They learn fewer pieces of music than they did in Helen’s day, but, on the other hand, they learn them so thoroughly that they’re able to tease out subtleties over time and can, by a sort of muscle memory, lodge them permanently in the group’s repertoire.

As for the repertoire: The Grace Notes have retained nursing home standards like “You Make Me Feel So Young” for obvious reasons. They also rejuvenate themselves with “new”—rock era—songs like “Dancing Queen” (in full costume), “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (with a killer lead by Debbie Hires), and a medley of Madonna songs (including “Vogue”). “That was risky,” Ann confesses. “There’s nothing like getting Greenwich housewives of a certain age out there, dancing.”

“Madonna sort of flies over our target audience,” Judy adds. “But they’re entertained.”

Debbie lobbied for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song in which beauty runs up against sadness: the Grace Notes’ music committee shot it down. But she’s exceptionally pleased that they’ve begun performing “Over the Rainbow”—a complex arrangement with two soloists that requires the group to approximate the rhythm of the ukulele. “That’s going to be a real crowd-pleaser.”

In many ways, the Grace Notes do not really change. It was never a group for dilettantes. Most Grace Notes have formal music backgrounds, whether they were stars of their college choirs, music school students, theater mavens or even pros (one current member, Jennifer Powderly Weiss, was in the road company of a Broadway show). They are so serious about their music that they can drive their families batty. “Some of our kids got tired of us singing so much,” Donna says. “My daughter, Audrey, when she was about in kindergarten, told me that if I sang too much, that little thing hanging down in the back of my throat was going to choke me to death.”

If you heard a Grace Note practicing alone, you might hear her singing just one note of a given chord. This can seem alien—and alienating. “Even my husband will say, ‘Please don’t do that,’” Ann says. “Some of the parts are all ‘ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba,’ and that’s it. Not very pretty,” unless heard amid the harmonic whole. “Most people don’t understand,” says Judy. “They think you’re all singing the same part, but maybe in a different pitch or something. Noooo!”

Judy likes to practice in the privacy of her mobile rehearsal studio—her car. “We have bumper stickers: ‘Caution: Driver Singing,’” she reports. “Once, I’m driving along, ba-da-ba-da-bop, and I hear a siren behind me. Cop pulls me over. I roll down the window and he goes, ‘Talkin’ on your cell phone!’ And I go, ‘Oh, no. I’m not talking on my cell phone. There’s my cell phone. Go look at my bumper sticker.’”

When they practice collectively, the Grace Notes have always been convivial and given to chatting at the slightest opening. “Let’s be honest,” Helen says with a musical laugh. “That’s what they do. That’s what we do. If you’re not careful, they’ll take over.” These days, Eric Martin deploys an efficient little “Shh, shh” to bring the singers to order. “It’s hard to keep fifteen women in line,” Debbie Hires says. “He’s very patient with us, dealing with all the commentary and talking and chatter.”

Still, the group has nothing less than a perfectionist work ethic, massaging every tiny wrinkle in every song. “That is, for me, the tedious part of making music,” Maggie McGirr says. “But it does separate the men from the boys, I’ll say, even though we’re a women’s group. It’s tedious, but what a difference—what a difference for the listener.”

Perhaps the greatest constant through the years has been the Grace Notes’ sense of sisterhood. “There’s a very unique friendship bond that occurs,” Ann says. “These women never would have known each other—we all have such different lives—except that we all love to sing. These women give a lot to each other, in the friendships and the support for our daily lives. As much as it’s about giving, we get a lot back.”

“A lot of us have had horrible health things,” Judy says. “And so it’s nice to have your sisters.”

“When we work as hard as we used to work,” Donna Moffly says, “you do get this feeling of sorority, and it never leaves you. I love all these girls. I can’t wait to see them again. Plus, we’ll remember the damned songs forever, to our deathbeds.”

 

 

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