Singing at home

The ones we rely on

Phillip, Carol, and I were standing around outside All Saints Chapel after singing was over. There had been about twenty people, and about half the class had been brand-new or relatively new singers. Phillip and I had both been sitting on the second bass bench, on either side of a new singer.

We agreed that when you sit on the second bass bench in All Saints, the only basses you can hear well are the ones on either side of you. You can hear the trebles across the hollow square; if you’re on the right hand side of the basses you can hear the tenors pretty well (that’s where I had been sitting), and if you’re on the left hand side you can hear the altos pretty well (that’s where Phillip had been siting); but you can’t really hear the front bass bench much at all. So because we were sitting on either side of a new singer, we were pretty much on our own.

Phillip said that he liked sitting in the back, because it forced him to sing without relying on other basses. I agreed; I had enjoyed being forced to listen to the tenor section, and tuning the bass part that I was singing to them.

And this led us into a discussion of who exactly we listened to in each section; because we realized that we had been listening to singers in the other sections that we knew were reliable. “In that section, you can totally rely on so-and-so,” we’d say, “they’re always perfectly in pitch, they always sing all the notes right.” Interestingly, these singers weren’t always the loudest singers, or the singers with the best voices, or the most musical singers — although sometimes they were that, too — they were the ones you can rely on to get you back on track when you mess up, the ones we rely on.

This strikes me as a worthy goal, perhaps the most worthy goal in Sacred Harp singing: to become one of those singers we rely on.

Singing at home

Large class, lots of new singers

The Berkeley singing owns perhaps a dozen loaner books. Ten minutes after the regular singing began, we had already loaned out all the loaner books, and people were sharing books with their neighbors. We did have one visiting singer from Michigan, and maybe one of our regular singers forgot to bring their own book; even so, I’d guess that we had fourteen new singers. Of these new singers, I’d guess that ten were brand new and had never been to the Berkeley singing before. Even though we were missing some of our regular singers, just before the break there were more than 30 singers: 7 or so altos, 4 trebles, 12 or more tenors, and 8 basses. (I thought I counted 33 singers, but from where I was sitting it was hard to see everyone.)

Many of the newcomers came for the singing school, which was led by Will Fitzgerald, and which began a half an hour before the regular singing. I was still surprised at the number of newcomers, and I’m not entirely clear why there were so many tonight.

We had enough strong singers that each section sounded good. In fact, the class sounded very good indeed. Partly this was because most of the songs people led were quite familiar to the regular singers, and not all that challenging; you could tell that the regular singers chose songs that the other regulars would know well. Leaders also tended to maintain a moderate or slow tempo; sometimes the Berkeley singing has a tendency to sing at a breakneck tempo, which is great fun but difficult for newcomers.

In short, I thought this would have been a good singing for new singers: a singing school to start off, strong singers in every section, sensitive leaders that made sure that newcomers would be able to sing along. I asked my partner Carol, who has just started singing with us, what she thought. She thought tonight was pretty good, but she asked why we didn’t have something for beginners every week. She reminded me of the way the contradance groups in the Boston area structure their weekly dances: the first half hour of every dance consists of instruction, and dances led at a slow speed, all specifically for beginners; as the evening progresses, the dances get faster and more difficult. Beginners come early, and drop out as the dances get too hard for them; the experienced hardcore dancers (the ones who have little interest in teaching new dancers) arrive late so they don’t have to deal with the stumbling new dancers.

Carol wondered why the Berkeley singing couldn’t do the same thing. Her suggestion has merit. But I suspect that it would be difficult to implement: contradances have a single caller who decides which dances to lead; Sacred Harp singings rotate leaders, and it could be difficult to get everyone on board with the idea that the first half hour of a singing should be easy tunes led slowly. The other possibility would be to designate the half hour before every singing as a time for learning; experienced singers who like to mentor new singers would show up, while the singers who only want to sing and lead fast and difficult tunes could arrive late.

Have other local singings tried to set aside a time for beginners at every singing? Would this idea even work? I just don’t know. But I do know that we’re losing too many of our visitors and new singers — the ones who come once or twice, then never return — and that bothers me.

All-day singings & conventions

Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington), day two

Carol and I went to church with my cousin and her daughter, so we missed the morning session. We arrived just in time for dinner-on-the-grounds. The first hour of singing after dinner was very good, though it also tended to be very fast. The class’s energy began to flag a little in the last hour of singing, though the singing was still very good.

One thing I noticed today was that I liked the room in which we were singing. The Keewaydin Clubhouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now owned by VFW Post 5760, has relatively high ceilings for a Sacred Harp singing, and a somewhat longer reverberation time than usual. But you could still hear every voice quite well, and the sound was mellower and less strident than in some rooms. I found the sound to be as good in the back row of the bass section as on the front bench — different, but as good.

Now we have to run to catch our plane. Suffice it to say that the 2012 Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington) will remain in my memory as one of the best singings I’ve attended, for the quality of the singing, the food, and the hospitality.

All-day singings & conventions

Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington), day one

What constitutes a good Sacred Harp singing? Of course a good singing is one where the class is energetic and sings so well that you feel you’ve transcended the usual petty cares of life and achieved some measure of transcendence. But there are at least two other important criteria for determining how good a singing is.

One of these other two criteria is how good the food is. But this criterion doesn’t really concern the food. Good dinners-on-the-grounds at all-day singings or conventions, or good snacks at local singings, are expressions of hospitality and of caring for each other or for visitors. The other of these two criteria is how well the class welcomes newcomers and strangers. It’s most comfortable for regular singers to spend all their time greeting old friends, and thus ignoring newcomers and visitors. But the best singings are those where newcomers and visitors are made to feel comfortable and a part of the singing community.

Judged by all three of these criteria, the first day of the Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington) was an excellent singing. The class was indeed energetic, and sang so well that there were many of those transcendent moments when you’re carried away by the music and poetry, and lose all sense of self.

The food was excellent. Not only were there the usual high-calorie, stick-to-the-ribs food you expect to see at a singing — meat and potatoes and casseroles and yummy deserts — but a wide variety of vegetarian dishes and side dishes, even including green vegetables (brussels sprouts! kale!). And the dessert table was incredible, with cakes and pies and cookies and lots of chocolate and more. There was enough food there for twice the number of people who came.

The local singers were incredibly welcoming. My partner Carol has just started singing, and Jim, an experienced local signer, immediately made sure Carol sat next to him in the tenor section, and talked with her during the recesses, and was generally friendly and welcoming. In church, we call people like Jim “pew buddies” — a friendly person who sits next to a newcomer during the service and makes sure the newcomer feels welcome and comfortable.

My cousin and her daughter were supposed to come to check out the singing after dinner. I had asked my cousin to text me when they arrived, and I tried to keep an eye out for them so I could welcome them. But I needn’t have bothered, because the local singers took care of everything. My cousin and her daughter were welcomed at the registration table, given loaner books and basic instruction. Susan, one of the local singers, asked them to accompany her into the middle of the hollow square while she led a song. Then at the next recess, I asked strong local singers if my cousin and her daughter could sit next to them during the singing, and although one person did turn me down, the next two I asked were very welcoming.

So I would rate this first day of the convention as one of the best singings I’ve attended: good singing, good food, and very welcoming. Sacred Harp singings aren’t really about how well I as an individual sang or sounded, or how good the music. The best singings are really about selflessness and radical hospitality and community, and out of these things comes the warmth from which good singing can grow.

Singing at home

Tired voices

Not long before the break this evening, we had 27 singers at the regular Berkeley singing. The singing was loud, exuberant, with a very strong tenor section driving the rest of the singing (which is the way it should be). I was sitting next to Alex in the bass section. In between tunes, he turned to me and whispered, “We sound great tonight!” Cynic that I am, I said, “Yes, but how long will it last?” My cynicism proved prophetic: voices sounded fatigued after the break, and with the fatigue not everyone could stay on pitch and we wandered off into unintentional microtonality. Sometimes the Berkeley singing feels like we’re having a competition to see who can sing the loudest, rather than a cooperative venture to raise our voices together in song.

Singing at home

Trumpet singing

Hal and Erika hosted a singing of vol. 2, no. 1 of The Trumpet at Hal’s house this afternoon. We started off with just five of us: Hal and Erika on tenor, Betty on treble, Marsha on alto, and me on bass. We began by singing “Jumalan Rauhaan” by Steve Luttinen and Kim Bahmer. I’m not the best sight-singer and found it challenging to be that exposed when sight-singing unfamiliar music, but at the same time I often find it easiest to hear a tune when there’s only one or two voices in each section: it can be easier to hear the harmonies and the interplay between the voices. In any case, “Jumalan Rauhaan” sounded quite nice with only five voices, and the simple AABA’ structure made it easy to sing. We moved on to “Ivey” and “Jane’s Encouragement,” neither of which came through so well for us, so we put them aside to revisit later.

By this time, more people had showed up, and pretty soon there were nine of us: two on each part, except three on tenor. We worked through “Goss,” a tune with what I’d call an AA’BA’ structure (though arguably what I’m calling the A’ part should be called the C part). Marsha pointed out that the melody line bore some resemblance to a fiddle tune, especially in the A part. I liked the tune, but wished the last note of the fourth measure of the bass part had been an A (la), not a D (la).

Then we took on “Melanie” by Anne Heider. This is a challenging tune. It’s in 3/2 and begins on the weak middle beat, which is unusual. The harmonic progressions are unusual for a Sacred Harp tune. And the rhythmic pattern in mm. 3 and 7, where bass and treble lines are out of synch with the tenor and alto lines on the weak middle beat is unusual. After we struggled through the notes, we got into a discussion of this tune, and then of other things, and then we took a break so we could eat the yummy snacks Hal and Erika had provided.

And I’ll take this opportunity to leave the Trumpet singing for a moment and discuss whether this and other tunes have too many unusual features to make them Sacred-Harp-friendly….