Singing at home

Tempo and tuning

We had about 20 singers show up tonight, more than I would have expected for the day after Christmas. Although some of our regular singers were missing, we had visiting singers from Connecticut and Virginia, and even one or two new singers.

During the first half of the singing, the class kept slowing the tempo down. I’m not quite sure what was going on: I could see that singers were watching the leader, lots of people on the front bench were beating time in synch with the leader, but the class as a whole just kept … slowing … down. On top of that, the class wasn’t staying in tune with itself. This could have been a problem for me, since I’m a singer who’s too easily led astray, but I figured out that the altos were keeping right to the pitch, so I just sang in tune with them.

Tempo and tuning problems got to the point where I decided to say something when my turn to lead came round again. I’m reluctant to say anything to a class; yes, I’ve led a small church choir, but I am most assuredly not a particularly good Sacred Harp singer, let alone someone who could qualify as a singing master. But in this case, it seemed to me that this was a very simple issue: we were not listening to the singers around us as much as we usually do, and by not listening as carefully as usual, we as a class were causing tempi to drag and intonation to waver. So in spite of my misgivings, I said something.

The class did get better after I said something. But I’m not convinced that I had much to do with the improvement. I spoke just after break, and sometimes elevated blood sugar is all it takes to improve singing. Then too, David and Susan showed up at break, and David and Susan are singers who can improve the class by their simple presence. Or it may have been the addition of David’s strong male voice to Rebecca’s strong female voice on the tenor front bench which made the difference. In any case, the singing markedly improved after the break; some minor intonation problems persisted, but we had no more problems with tempo.

I’ve always been fascinated with the socio-musical dynamics of group singing. Anyone who has sung in a choir knows that sometimes the choir sounds great, and sometimes for no apparent reason it doesn’t sound great. With a choir, it’s easy to blame poor performance on, or give credit for good performance to, the choir director. But a Sacred Harp singing has no choir director, and with no choir director you can see how other factors serve to affect performance. Obviously, some of those factors are musical (one good singer in a section can carry that whole section; etc.). But equally important, I think, are the social factors: I’ve known personality conflicts on the tenor front bench to upset an entire singing; on the other hand, the mere arrival of a beloved singer can move a Sacred Harp class from the mundane to the transcendent.

2 replies on “Tempo and tuning”

You’re so on the mark about the delicate balance of personal and musical factors that can affect so seemingly sturdy a structure as a Sacred Harp singing. And yet, in my experience, you can go away saying, “Well, that was a good time,” even if it was out of tune or there was dissension among the tenors.

Tuning problems are sticky because those causing them generally don’t know it, while those affected by them generally can’t mention it.

I’ve noticed that troubles in tempo often lead to problems tuning – because we’re not singing together, lots of discords happen, which cause us to slide further out of tune.

I also think that the solution to both problems, at a Sacred Harp singing, can be found in observing accent. Since newer singers (here defined as anyone who has been singing less than their whole lives) often have trouble staying out of their books, it’s important to have another way to stay together. Accent provides a clear pulse and reinforces the rhythm – like everything in a Sacred Harp singing, it’s a deeply practical element of the tradition, and classes that sing with strong accent don’t typically lose or gain time.

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