Santa Cruz all-day singing announced for July

The local singing in Santa Cruz has announced that they’re going to host an all-day singing this summer. From a recent email update sent by Ed Rice:

“In other news, we’re having a Santa Cruz all-day singing on July 12 from 10-4 at the Live Oak Grange. More details will emerge as that date gets closer.”

I’ve long thought that Northern California has needed more all-day singings. The next closest all-day singings are in Los Angeles, 8 hours away by car, or Portland, Oregon, which is 10 hours away. There are plenty of us singers who love all-day singings, but who don’t have the time or money to travel much. Plus, more all-day singings means new singers don’t have to wait as long to get the full Sacred Harp experience — which in turn would likely mean that more new folks would stick with Sacred Harp singing. Kudos to the Santa Cruz singers for helping fill this need!

Seattle convention, day 2

What makes for a really good convention? Good singing, good food, and good people — not necessarily in that order. The Seattle convention always seems to have all three of these things, and this year was even better than before.

Good singing: The Pacific Northwest has more than its share of fine singers, and you can count on most of them turning out for the Seattle convention. I feel there is something of a regional style in the Pacific Northwest, which could be characterized as loud but very tuneful, and a strong rhythmic drive without excessive emphasis on the first and third beats. Ornamentation is subtle or non-existent. Tempos vary widely, from fast to stately. I would call the tuning just intonation, with pure octaves and fifths, and sweet-sounding thirds with a distinct difference between major and minor thirds.

The overall impression is of a strongly rhythmic and sweet sound. Given how many Pacific Northwest singers also sing from the Christian Harmony and Cooper book (indeed, the Seattle area has the most important Cooper book singings outside the South), I wonder if singing from those books has some influence on the regional style. Regardless of the technical details, the sound is warm and full and loud, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Good food: Let’s start with at least three different kinds of pulled pork, including alder-smoked pulled pork. Now add a wide variety of casseroles, cooked greens, homemade bread and rolls, and many more dishes that I didn’t get a chance to sample. Finish off with blueberry pie, a dozen varieties of cookies, and really good coffee. Incredible food.

Good people: The Pacific Northwest singers are a really lovely bunch of people who have built up a culture of friendliness and hospitality that is hard to beat. They also seem to be really good at bringing along new singers, and welcoming younger singers. They somehow seem to maintain high musical standards without being judgmental. This kind of openness and hospitality fosters the kind of warm personal relationships that are so important for Sacred Harp singing.

At many Sacred Harp singings, you’ll see the occasional case of ruffled feathers, and one or two hissy fits. Maybe these things happen at the Seattle convention, but if so they’re not noticeable. The only thing I noticed is that some of the convention officers looked a little bit busy (and I may have noticed that only because I’ve been in that situation before) — given how big this year’s convention was, if all that happened was that they looked a little busy, that’s a major accomplishment.

Isaac Watts put it well when he wrote:

How pleasant ’tis to see
Kindred and friends agree,
Each in his proper station move,
And each fulfill his part,
With sympathizing heart,
In all the cares of life and love.

That’s a fine description of the Seattle convention. With such a warm singing culture, it was easy to be friendly, and to welcome newer singers. I felt fortunate to meet Devon and Ed, two newer singers, and Aubrey, a long-time singer from Canada. I enjoyed seeing old friends from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere; and my only regret is that, with so many people at the convention, there were a couple dozen people I didn’t get to talk with.


Above: Every good singing needs at least one baby.

Some random moments from the convention:

– I went to church on Sunday morning, and kind of forgot where I was. During the doxology, I sang the bass part (not quite the same bass part as 49t) quite loudly, and realized that no one else was singing harmony, nor was anyone else singing as loudly as I. Fortunately, I was standing next to my cousin’s daughter, who has a fine loud soprano voice, so I didn’t feel too embarrassed. Then the first hymn was a gospel-y arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine,” and forgetting myself again I sang it in my best Cooper book voice; but again, no one else sang harmony. So I toned it down for the rest of the hymns. Back at the convention, I mentioned this to Cornelia from Portland, and she said she had noticed the same thing at her church (of a different denomination). I wondered aloud how we could bring better singing to our respective churches, and Cornelia said she thought it is something you have to do slowly, over time, to loosen people up and get them singing better.

– One favorite moment from the convention: On Saturday afternoon, I wound up in the back bench of the bass section. There were perhaps thirty basses in front of me, and I was sitting between two very fine bass singers, Jordan and Jerry. It was an amazing sound, and I could feel my whole body vibrating, from the resonant chambers in my head through my chest and even down into my legs.

– Another favorite moment: In the last session on Sunday afternoon, I wound up sitting in one of my favorite spots: partway back in the bass section, right next to the altos. And oh, how fabulous those altos sounded. I know we need the tenors and trebles, but when I’m sitting in between a really good bass section and a really good alto section, there are moments when I believe we can do without the higher voices.


Above: A singer from Bremen, Germany (unfortunately I didn’t get her name) leading on Saturday.

And finally, a few facts and figures: There were over 180 singers in attendance over the two days of the convention, representing three foreign countries (Germany, Norway, and at least two provinces in Canada), and at least half a dozen U.S. states (Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Ohio, Georgia). Over 180 songs led.

Seattle convention, day one

A quick summary of day one of the Seattle convention:— More people this year, from as far away as Bremen, Germany. The singing has been very good indeed; when I got to lead today, the sound in the middle of the hollow square was powerful and resonant. And best of all, the Seattle singers are so friendly, and the food is so very good.

Seattle convention, day one

(Above) This will give you an idea of the size of the class. Lindy, from the San Francisco Bay area, is leading.

Seattle convention, day one

(Above) Here’s the view of the class from the bass section. Ed, a new singer, assisted by Jerry, leading no. 56.

Singing again

AFter a month away from singing due to bronchitis and laryngitis, I was finally able to sing again this week. And what better way to get back into singing than with the Palo Alto singers.

The Palo Alto local singing has been getting really good recently. Some of these folks have been singing together for years and years, which means that the singing starts off with an advantage. But mostly it just seems like the singing is going well; every singing group goes through its ups and downs, and the Palo Alto singing seems to be going up at the moment.

What I especially like about the Palo Alto singing is the excellent intonation. When we’re singing, I can often feel the overtones from the good intonation vibrating in my chest and head. Why has our intonation gotten so good? Perhaps it’s because we have been leading tunes at somewhat more moderate tempos; perhaps it’s because we’ve been singing more than just a couple of verses of each tune, which gives us times to get the intonation exactly right. Mostly, though, I think it’s because we’re relaxed and we take the time to listen to each other. Good intonation requires good listening — you can get the rhythm by watching the leader, you can get the melody by looking at the book, but the only way to be in tune is to listen to the other singers.

We had two new singers today, and I don’t know what it felt like to them, but to my ears they both sounded great right from the start. Now both of them have done lots of other kinds of singing, so they were starting from a relatively high level; but it’s also true that it’s much easier to sing if the group you’re singing with is in tune and in rhythm with each other.

Even though I was still struggling a little on the higher notes — my voice hasn’t quite recovered from the bronchitis, I guess — it felt really good to sing today. It’s amazing what eleven good singers can do inside a room with wood walls and ceiling: I got carried away by the waves of sound.

Ziegler memorial singing

The second annual Dominic Ciavonne Ziegler Memorial Singing took place today. More than forty of us gathered in the Felta Schoolhouse in Healdsburg, California, and sang for five or six hours, with an hour break for dinner in the middle of the day. An all-day singing is a great way to start the year!

Since this was a singing in memory of Dominic, a young singer who died just two years ago at age 23, I was glad that someone led 448b, the one tune Dominic is listed as leading in one of the Minutes Books (at the 2010 Golden Gate All-day Singing). It was also good to see Dominic’s parents, his brother, and several of his relatives, as well as a lot of the singers who had known him through the Berkeley weekly singing. It was also nice to see a range of ages from a baby to people in their seventies — that wide range of ages felt good at a memorial singing.

I thought it was a particularly good singing: like the best of Bay Area singings, it was loud, fast, and joyous. The pitching tended to be fairly high, even by Bay Area standards — some of the tunes felt to me as though they were pitched at or above written pitch — but the higher pitches sounded good in that room, and our intonation stayed generally true even at those high pitches. The tempos, as you’d expect at a Bay Area singing, were fast. The overall effect was joyous.

The Healdsburg Sacred Harp community is a nice group of singers, with a well-deserved reputation for being relaxed and welcoming. I saw that in action today: one of the basses was singing Sacred Harp for the first time today, and we pushed him up to the front bench, and surrounded him with experienced singers, to make sure he would find it easy to get started. That kind of thing was repeated over and over again, little welcoming kindnesses that are so characteristic of the Healdsburg singers. And, thinking back, that’s just the kind of singer Dominic was — he was friendly and welcoming, and invited lots of new folks to come check out Sacred Harp singing.

At the end of today’s singing, the secretary reported that we had more than 40 leaders from four states (California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas), who led at least 88 tunes. Dinner on the grounds was excellent. It was a lovely small singing with a nice family feel to it — a fitting memorial for a fine tenor singer.


Phil invited singers to stop by his new house in Sebastapol on their way home, and several of us did — there’s one room in the house that he thought would be good for singing, and he wanted to try it out. We sang three tunes in that room, and it really was a fabulous singing space. Let’s hope Phil hosts some singings up there sometime soon.

How slow?

ABout halfway through tonight’s weekly Monday singing in Berkeley, a couple of first-time Sacred Harp singers walked in, and sat in the tenor section. They were friends with Susan, who made sure they sat next to an experienced singer; this is all the way it should be.

Now the Berkeley singing tends to sing tunes at a good fast clip, and tonight was no exception. However, when new singers show up, I think it’s nice to lead one or two tunes at a more moderate tempo, out of politeness to those new signers who are sight-singing nearly every tune for the first time, an exercise which can be tiring.

So I started in to lead a tune at a fairly slow tempo — well, slow by Berkeley standards; I figure I was leading a 4/4 tune at a slow moderato, maybe 84-88 beats per minute. The class kept pushing the tempo, however, so that by the time we had finished singing the shapes we were singing at a fast moderato, say 100-108 beats per minute. I reminded the class to watch my tempo, and we started off singing the words at a slow moderato, but by the end of the tune had sped up about the same amount again.

I ahve experienced this before, and I have watched as better, more experienced leaders than I have had their tempo speeded up or slowed down by the class. Ask any Sacred Harp singer, and they will tell you that whoever is leading is in charge, and that the class always follows the leader — but I think we’re fooling ourselves when we say that, because it’s not entirely true. Local custom can be a stronger force than even the most experienced leader.

2 vs. 4

Sue hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house in Mountain View today. There were twelve to fourteen people in Sue’s music room — which just about filled the room — and it was a very good singing indeed. It was especially fun to have an out=of-town singer, JT from Austin, join us.

Of course we sang a lot of Christmas tunes from The Sacred Harp. In addition to those tunes, Paul and I each brought a different version of “Star in the East,” a Christmas tune from William Walker’s Southern Harmony; my version was Walker’s version with an alto part that I wrote, and Paul’s was a complete re-harmonoization of the melody, with a quite challenging and very interesting bass part. I also brought the three-part version of Lowell Mason’s “Antioch” (a.k.a. “Joy to the World”) from the Southern Harmony.

At one point, JT led a 4/4 tune in 4, and someone asked what was the difference in elading a tune in 4 versus leading the same tune in 2. We tried to explain how when you lead a 4/4 tune in 2, the class is going to tend to accent the first and third beats more heavily than if you lead it in 2. Finally JT said, “Let’s just try it.” So we did: JT led the same tune in 2, at the same tempo, and you could hear the much stronger accents on the first and third beats. When we finished, the person who had asked the question said they really understood the difference now. And I was glad we had done the experiment, too — you really notice the difference when you lead a tune in 4, then immediately lead it again in 2.

Back in Berkeley

After a two month absence, I was able to sing at the Berkeley weekly singing again this week. I picked the right night to return, as there were close to thirty singers at one point in the evening: something like ten tenors, nine or ten basses, four or five altos, and three or four trebles. All Saints Chapel, the site of the weekly singing, sounds much better when there are two dozen or more singers. And any singing sounds better — in my opinion, anyway — when there are lots of basses. And it was just a good class of singers — sure, there were plenty of newer singers, but every part had at least one or two singers who were both good musicians and very aware of the Sacred Harp traditions.

As we were singing, I got to thinking about tradition-bearers within the Sacred Harp tradition. Tradition bearers are usually thought of as those individuals who pass along a folk tradition, not by writing about the tradition, but by face-to-face communication like oral transmission, teaching, demonstration, etc. The Sacred Harp tradition gets complicated a little bit by the fact that the material culture of our tradition consists of written texts: a tunebook, and minutes books. So maybe we could say that the Sacred Harp tradition consists of folk traditions transmitted orally and through demonstrations (such as singing schools) which are centered around our (written texts) material culture.

I’m not a folklore scholar, so this is about as precise a definition I can offer. But I think it’s a useful definition, because it helps me think about the folklore that surrounds our written texts.

So, for example, when I wanted to start an all-day singing in Palo Alto, I found barebones written instructions in The Sacred Harp, and I found general outlines of all-day singings in the minutes books, and I had outlines written down by previous chairs of Bay Area singings. But I knew much more from having attended a number of all-day singings and conventions, particularly Bay area all-day singings. And my first step was not to consult the written texts available to me — my first step was to have long talks with Chris Thorman and Carolyn Deacy, because at that time they were the primary Bay area tradition bearers if you wanted to know how to run an all-day singing. (Now that Hugh McGuire is singing regularly again, I would also sit down and talk with him — he has chaired his share of all-day singings and conventions, and grew up singing in the tradition in the South.)

Or, for another example, if you want to learn how to sing Sacred Harp, you can find basic instructions in the Rudiments section of The Sacred Harp. And you can attend practice singings, which in the Bay Area are dominated by people like me, who may be competent singers and who may even have quite a bit of knowledge about the tradition, but who are not really tradition bearers. So you have to find tradition bearers that you can listen to sing, and watch lead tunes. In the Bay area, I have found two kinds of bearers of the singing traditions: (1) singers from the South who grew up singing Sacred Harp and who have both internalized the tradition and are talented enough to be able to pass it on; (2) singers who have been singing in the Bay Area long enough that they embody our emerging regional tradition and who are, again, talented enough to pass those traditions on.

It’s easy to name the first type of bearer of singing traditions: there’s Hugh McGuire, and then we get some visiting singers like Carol Selleck who sang with us in Palo Alto this fall. It’s not quite as easy to name the Bay Area singers who are the bearers of our peculiar regional singing traditions. I would think about those singers who have been singing in the Bay Area for quite a few years, who embody the Bay Area style of fast tempos, straight rhythms (very little swing), minimal ornamentation, and pure harmonies (i.e., Bay Area singers seem to sing in some form of just intonation). I know I’ve learned a lot from watching and listening to Chris Thorman, a gifted singer who has been singing in the Bay Area for more than half his life. I’ve also learned a lot from watching and listening to people like Linda Selph, talented singers who learned to sing in the Bay Area, have been singing here for a decade or two, and who embody our regions traditions.

I thought about our bearers of singing tradition while I sat in tonight’s Berkeley singing. In addition to traditional Southern singers, and Bay area singers, we also have a lot of singers who moved here from some other region of the urban Sacred Harp revival. If I listen hard at our Bay Area singings, sometimes I can hear the influences of the Chicago singers (hey, that sounded like Judy Hauff); or the influences of the Western Massaschusetts singers (hey, that sounded like someone who learned to sing by listening to Tim Ericksen), or the northern New England singers (hey, that sounded like someone who sang with one of Larry Gordon’s groups). I think I sound like eastern New England singers, because eastern New England singers sound like the church singing I grew up with and that’s something I’m never going to get over. — And then when Hugh stands up to lead, I can hear Mississippi loud and clear (which is utterly delightful).

As I sit there and listen to all these competing influences at our singings, I’m amazed that I can distinguish a Bay Area sound at all. And sometimes that Bay Area sound gets swamped, and disappears for a while. But I heard it tonight — that solid bass with the other parts singing pure fifths and fourths above it; that solid straight rhythm; and above all those fast tempos. But who is bearing that Bay Area tradition for us? — who are the singers who embody that sound, who are talented enough that the rest of us schlumps are willing to learn from them? This is the challenge of emerging regional traditions within the urban revival: the rest of us being willing to pay attention to the local tradition bearers long enough for regional traditions to truly emerge.

Watching Sacred Harp videos

My work life has been pretty time-consuming, so I haven’t had much time to sing Sacred Harp in the past few months. (Oh, and there was that other group that Hannah-from-the-altos and I sang with, but that’s a story for another post.) In any case, I’ve been getting my Sacred Harp fix in other ways: singing by myself, giving a presentation on Sacred Harp to a church group, and — watching Sacred Harp videos.

Yep, watching videos. Watching lots of Sacred Harp videos. After all this video-watching, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

(1) The best collection of Sacred Harp videos is not on Youtube — it’s on Vimeo. Go to where you’ll find “Sacred Harp Memories” has uploaded incredible vintage footage dating back to the 1970s.

If you want to show your friends some real Sacred Harp singing, this is what you should be showing them.


(2) The Cork, Ireland Sacred Harp group has uploaded a huge amount of video from their conventions and other singings. The Cork singers have a sweet and flowing style, and I admit to liking a sharper, more rhythmically defined style of singing. Nevertheless, I really appreciate the care that goes into making the videos: excellent audio quality; good mic placement (so all four parts are balanced); camera mounted on a tripod with little or no herky-jerky camera movement; simple but effective editing and titles. I wish everyone who made Sacred Harp videos (including me) produced videos of this high quality.

(3) Having watched videos from many different regions, I’ve determined that there are one or two places where I’ve not yet sung but would really like to sing. The Lookout Mountain Convention, for one. Bremen, Germany, for another, even though I know I’ll never get there.

Then I found a whole cache of videos from the 2013 Kalamazoo, Michigan, singing. Not only was it fun to see some West Coast singers in these videos (Linda, Clarissa, Jeff), and some other people I know or recognize (Will, Bess, several others); not only are there several men wearing ties (including at least one bow tie); but I like the way these people sing — slower than us Bay area singers but with great power, with enthusiasm that bursts through at all the right places. And while the production qualities of these videos are not such that you’d show them to your friends who are asking you about Sacred Harp, they are exactly the kind of videos we Sacred Harp singers want to see — because the camera pans across all the singers, and from several different vantage points, so you can see exactly who was there.

Here’s one of the Kalamazoo singing videos to get you started: