After Hours: In Harmony

Hank Stelzer is member of Columbia-based barbershop chorus

Last Saturday, a man who had been singing for less than a year took the stage before a packed ballroom in Jefferson City and performed songs for the crowd in a straw hat, bowtie, and suspenders. That man is state forestry extension specialist for the School of Natural Resources at Mizzou, Hank Stelzer, who has recently become a part of the group known as the Boonslick Chordbusters. Apart from the occasional church choir, Stelzer had never seriously sung before in his life.

“I’m a late bloomer,” he says.

Six months ago, Stelzer traveled to Springfield, Missouri, to work on some extension activities. His son, a music instructor in Springfield, also sang in a local choir, the ShoMe Statesmen, who happened to be rehearsing while Hank was in town. So, he decided to check it out. However, when he arrived at the rehearsal, he learned that he wouldn’t be able to just sit and watch as he had assumed. So instead, he joined in.

“And the rest is history, as they say.”

Since then, Stelzer has been signing and performing with the Boonslick Chordbusters. Each week, the Columbia-based barbershop chorus sings together in the Missouri United Methodist Church downtown, where the group of 20 or so men and women with various singing experience rehearse for two hours every Thursday. On top of their weekly rehearsal, the singers also find ways to spread their music through the city, something new recruits are not always aware of.

Midway through Stelzer’s first rehearsal with the Chordbusters, someone said, “Okay we’re going.”

“What do you mean we’re going?” Stelzer said.

“Well, we’re going to walk around town and sing at the bars.”

From Shakespeare’s Pizza to packed college bars, the singers frequently crash downtown establishments and serenade the patrons with a mix of old and not-quite-as-old songs.

“It’s kind of cool to see the reactions on the kid’s faces,” Stelzer said.

When not taking their singing to the streets, the group performs their official shows or events, most of which are set up by Stelzer, who also acts as the group’s event coordinator. “They call me the gigmaster,” he said. Stelzer has booked some of those gigs in interesting ways.

While Stelzer was participating in last fall’s homecoming parade, Christopher R. Daubert, CAFNR vice chancellor and dean, approached him.

“You do odd things,” he said to Stelzer, dressed as Smokey Bear.

“Yeah,” Stelzer said. “And I also sing barbershop.”

After chatting some more, the dean invited Stelzer and the Chordbusters to perform at this year’s CAFNR Unlimited auction fundraising event, and next week, they’ll sing the national anthem at the Mizzou softball game.

The four-part harmony in a barbershop quartet consists of bass, tenor, baritone and lead. Stelzer, typically bass, has also gone beyond his typical range to sing baritone and even some lead. “You can train your voice to sing beyond, if you will, your normal range or what you feel comfortable with,” Stelzer says. “You just have to know your limits.”

While some people may struggle to get out of their comfort zone or think they are too far along in life to express themselves in new ways, Stelzer says, “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”

“If you think you can’t carry a tune, you’ll be surprised what you can do.”