I counted four, or maybe five, newcomers this evening. We had what was for us a good turnout tonight: six or seven in the bass section, a dozen or more in the tenor section, six or seven trebles, and five altos. As usual, Hal and a couple of other experienced singers made a point of greeting all the newcomers, and giving them a quick explanation of how Sacred Harp singing works.
I am always interested to watch the path of newcomers. How did they find out about Sacred Harp singing? How did they find out about our local singing? What does it feel like to them when they come to an actual singing — does it live up to their expectations, or not? How do we welcome them, and how do we teach them enough so that they can have some fun right from the beginning? And how long do they stick around?
One of the newcomers came to sit in the bass section, and we made sure to tell him that if he sat in the front row, he could listen to more experienced singers sitting behind him, and beside him. Hal was in the front, and checked in to make sure the newcomer knew what was going on.
“Someone gave me one of the cheat sheets,” said the newcomer.
“Do you read music?” asked Hal.
“Yes,” said the newcomer. Hal assured him that he would be fine. And then the singing began.
Another newcomer came in half an hour late, and slid into the back bench of the bass section. When the break came, he stuck around long enough to introduce himself when it was time for introductions, and said he lived across the street and decided to come in when he heard us.
After the introductions were over and people got up to eat snacks, I went over to try to talk to both new basses. The one who had come in late had already disappeared, but I talked with the other one. It turned out that he’s a minister as well, and we talked a little bit about where Sacred Harp singing fits in to American hymnody, and a little about the theology found in The Sacred Harp. He mentioned that the hardest part was trying to sing the notes, and I assured him that many of us who come every week sometimes just have to sing, “Nah, nah, nah,” instead of “Fa, sol, la.” Then I had to run to the bathroom, and left him to talk with others.
After the break, the other new bass — the one who had come in half an hour late — did not return. Was he not that interested anyway? — after all, he just wandered in on a whim. Or was it hopelessly confusing to try to sing without any explanation? Or did no one talk to him during the break? I don’t expect him to return next week.
But for the other newcomers, I thought that this evening was an excellent evening to begin singing Sacred Harp. It was a well-attended singing, with six or seven in the bass section, a dozen or more in the tenor section, six or seven trebles, and five altos. Each section had at least two strong singers to lead the singing, and I noticed that the alto section rearranged themselves so the two strongest singers sat in the back bench, behind the newcomers. And in general, it was a good singing: we had a good mix of faster, more challenging songs and slower, easier songs; and we had some really good singers (including a couple of singers visiting from other local singings). After the last song was finished, everyone just sat there for a minute or two — no one seemed to want to stop. And more people than usual stayed around afterwards to chat.
As we were leaving, I made a point of talking to the other new bass. “You have to come back next week,” I said, smiling. “We need more basses like you!” He smiled.
How many of the newcomers will come back? Unlike in traditional singings, newcomers don’t have bonds of family, friendship and local community to prompt them to come back. What, if anything, will prompt our newcomers to return?