Laura Boyd Russell, who sings Sacred Harp in Los Angeles, sent me an interesting note in response to a recent post, and attendant comments, on Sacred Harp singing schools. I asked Laura if I could post the entire note here, and she graciously gave me permission to do so. Here’s her note:
Your recent blog entries concerning retaining the interest of new-to-Sacred Harp singers, learner groups, and singing schools have been particularly of interest to Rick and me. We thought you might be interested in what we’ve found to work in Los Angeles in a small way.
As you’ve noted, frequently visitors attend one or two singings and never return. Over several years we noticed this too. We thought it might be a help to have a “bridge” between introductory-level singing and full-out participation. As a result, we started a Sacred Harp Learners Group in spring 1999. Since then, Rick and I have been hosting Learners Group one Saturday a month from 4 to 6 at our home. (In L.A., many regular local Sacred Harp singings are hosted in private homes also).
“Learners” is facilitated primarily by Rick and is structured not as a singing but — depending on number and music experience level of new people — as basic instruction (with one simple visual aid) along with two hours of everybody reading through each part in unison, one part at a time, then putting the parts together. Most newcomers sit with the tenors at first and are encouraged to explore which part(s) suit their voices best. Rick chooses songs according to who shows up with what experience. He’s developed a method of working through fuguing tunes that works very well.
Often — in fact, usually — experienced local singers outnumber newer ones. Sometimes there are no newcomers. It’s fortunate for this group that a few of our best local singers have been interested enough to participate regularly ever since 1999. The relaxed pace seems to serve a purpose for longtime singers which really can’t be indulged in a regular singing without spoiling the singing.
Although the primary purpose of Learners is to aid newer singers, we consider us all to be “learners” and try to make it interesting to singers of all levels. We don’t turn Learners into a regular singing, ever. When only old-timers are there, we might sing through more complicated songs that people want to work on, or that Rick has noted deserve attention based on recent fiascoes at a convention.
Learners is also a place for questions about Sacred Harp tradition, leading, convention protocol, and FAQs of all kinds. Rick is a teacher professionally (not music), and people seem to enjoy the facilitated sightsinging practice. My contribution is anchoring the tenor section, keying, as a sidekick, and doing beverages and basic snacks during the social break. 🙂
I doubt our version of Learners could work without a consistent location and regular personnel. But within that context, a lot of procedural variations could be possible. Most of our new local singers that have stuck with Sacred Harp over the past decade seem to have come to/through Learners: either before ever going to a singing, or after attending a one or two singings first. We have no data, of course, but that’s how it looks to us.
Very best regards from us both, and thank you for the work you’re putting into Sacred Harp singing and for your weblog.
Laura Boyd Russell
My thanks to Laura for sending along this account of the L.A. Learner’s Group. I’d love to hear from other people (including Bay Area singers, of course) about what you’ve done to help new singers. And I’d love to hear from new singers about what’s working for you, and what you think you’d like more of.