Singing at home


There’s some kind of cold going around the Bay area. I’ve mostly avoided it, but I have been feeling run-down and congested for the past week. Today I was feeling run-down enough that I almost didn’t go to the weekly singing.

Because of the holiday, there weren’t a lot of singers — a dozen or so instead of the usual score or more, and only three singers in the bass section, one of whom was more congested than I was. Then one of the basses went to the tenor section. When there’s only one other person in the section, I find I have to really focus: no dropping out for a minute because my concentration flagged; no passing over the notes I’m too lazy to read the music carefully. And I have to make sure I sing carefully so I don’t blow my voice out before the end; which when I’m congested means breathing well and not tightening up when the congestion interferes with the singing.

At the end of the evening, I felt really good. The New Age folks talk about how singing is “healing,” meaning I think some sort of existential or spiritual healing. Some folks meditate and concentrate on their breath; some do yoga and pranayama breathing exercises; these and other spiritual practices involve breathing carefully and deeply. Aside from any purported spiritual effects, breathing deeply is also physically healing: you pump up your blood oxygen levels, and yes it can loosen congestion in your lungs.

So at the end of tonight’s singing, I felt energized and upbeat. No mysterious spiritual force at work here — that’s simply what often happens when you do a lot of deep breathing.

Other events


Susan from the altos and Shelby from the trebles have been singing with the Kitka Vocal Ensemble’s Community Chorus. The Kitka Community Chorus was about to do its first gig, performing Balkan a capella music, but they didn’t have quite enough music for a full concert. So Susan and Shelby said the Berkeley Sacred Harp singers would fill out the evening with some participatory singing.

My sweetheart Carol and I watched as people came in to the upstairs room at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall on Chestnut Street in Berkeley. The Kitka Community Chorus was about eighteen women, and they brought family and friends. About ten of us Sacred Harp signers showed up, and I noticed with relief there there were going to be at least two of us on a part. By the time the Kitka Community Chorus started singing, the room was full.

“These women are good!” I thought to myself. Great intonation and dynamics, solid group discipline, and all the singers had great individual voices. They blended well together, and created a nice rich sound. Sure, I could kvetch that the Georgian song they did didn’t sound like it used exactly that weirdo scale the Georgians use, but the chorus still sounded fantastic.

When it was our turn to sing, Susan and her husband David gave a nice brief intro to the tradition, informed the audience that this was a participatory tradition rather than a performance tradition, and formed us up into a hollow square to make that point stronger. We sang 38b Windham, then Susan invited anyone who wanted to come up and sing with us, or just stand in the middle of the hollow square and soak up the sound. Carol, who stayed in the back of the hall said that when Susan said that people could come up and sing along, two teenaged girls sitting near her said “Yes!” quietly to each other. Lots of people came up to sing with us, and half a dozen stood in the middle of the hollow square.

Susan stopped us after five or so songs, which was about right. Left to our own devices, we would have sung the rest of the evening, and annoyed everyone who wanted to get at the refreshments, and tell the Kitka Community Chorus members how great they were.

Carol and I were standing around talking with David, who told us about the old-time Sacred Harp singer who said, “I’d travel five hundred miles to sing Sacred Harp, but I wouldn’t walk across the street to listen to it.” Carol and I laughed; that about summed it up. Or, to be more polite about the same point:–Earlier in the evening, David and Carl and I had been talking about how it’s impossible to commodify Sacred Harp singing — if you commodify it, I insisted, then it isn’t Sacred Harp music, and that’s why I sing it, because you can’t commodify it.

Singing at home


At the break, I turned to chat with a new singer who had joined the basses. As usual, I asked him what brought him to sing Sacred Harp.

“Well, I really like to sing Maori music,” he said.

“Maori?” I said. I wasn’t sure that’s what he said, and didn’t see the connection.

“Maori, you know, from New Zealand,” he said. He explained that he couldn’t find anywhere in the Bay area to sing Maori music, and a friend had suggested that maybe Sacred Harp would be a possible substitute.

I’ve heard of people coming to Sacred Harp singing from Renaissance music, bluegrass, punk rock, folk music — but never before from Maori singing.

Other events


It was kind of a strange place to be singing. Alemany Farm nestles on the side of a hill right next to the freeway, a small urban farm serving to educate San Franciscans about food security issues. It was a regular work day for volunteers today, but SF Refresh was also presenting some workshops on whole body care (and composting; I wasn’t quite sure where the composting workshop came in). We were asked to give a workshop on Sacred Harp, the thought being that the music is a kind of healing music.

I got lost and arrived late. There were eight of us regular singers from the San Francisco and Berkeley singings. In the forty minutes I was there, another five or six people came and joined in: one person wearing a t-shirt that I thought was from Alemany Farm, one person whom I later learned sang opera, a man from New Zealand and a woman who appeared to be his sweetheart, a woman wearing a snappy fedora, and maybe one other that I’m forgetting. I thought it would be far more difficult to hear each other, especially with the wind, but we were on a small stone patio, and of course we were loud, so it wasn’t so bad — though when we were done, i realized I had pushed my voice more than I had realized.

It was different, singing at an urban farm. I’m not sure we accomplished much in the way of healing or whole body care, but half a dozen people had fun singing with us, and some of the volunteer farm workers who walked by seemed to enjoy listening to us. I would have to say it was one of the more unusual venues — standing in the middle of an urban farm — in which I’ve sung.

Singing at home

Hooking new singers

Quite a few people came into the singing late tonight, mostly people I didn’t recognize, and most of them sat in the tenor section as is recommended for new singers. But I didn’t realize how many of them there were until I stood up to lead a song: we had four tenor benches set up with three to four people sitting in each bench; call it fourteen tenors. I looked at them with surprise and said, “Boy, there are a lot of you.” Plus we had two new singers out of half a dozen in the alto section, and our usual half a dozen basses and four or five trebles: somewhere close to thirty people total.

We had good strong singers in each section, so it was a good singing, and at least the newcomers got to hear what Sacred Harp singing sounds like. But how many of them will come back? In the urban revival of Sacred Harp, we often call our local singings “practice singings,” but you have to know the basics of how to sing Sacred Harp music before you can practice. In Berkeley, we have a monthly learner’s group, which is fabulous, but that only happens once a month. I don’t think we are particularly good at hooking new people who have little or no singing experience — most of our experienced singers in the urban revival either knew how to read music, or were pretty darned good musicians, before they ever showed up at one of our singings. Yes, there are exceptions — and my sense of those people is that they have a greater than ordinary innate ability, and a strong will.

I have to think that any viable Sacred Harp community in the urban revival either has to plan for at least one serious singing school each year, or has to gather the bulk of its singers from from other communities of experienced musicians. It’s no accident that many of the urban revival Sacred Harp communities are affiliated with a university, sometimes with a for-credit course in Sacred Harp singing like the Sacred Harp class at Brown University that funnels singers into the Providence, R.I., local singing — or are close to a community of musicians, like Norumbega Harmony which sponsors an annual singing school at the New England Folk Festival. (Or check out this event for music educators.)

I’ll be curious to see how many of tonight’s new singers return, and how long they stick with it. I hope they all come back — it would be great fun to sing with 30 people each week, instead of a score or two dozen.

Singing at home


This has nothing to do with what happened at tonight’s regular practice singing, but…

I’ve been dreaming about Sacred Harp singing recently. These are not dramatic dreams: nothing really happens except that I’m sitting in the second bench of the bass section in a local singing, and we sing. I wish I could remember what we sing, but I never do.

God only knows what a psychoanalyst would make of this.