Other local singings

In which I talk about the Palo Alto singing, and then digress at length

Ellen hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house; her living room makes a very nice singing room. We wound up with thirteen singers: just two tenors and two trebles, four altos, and five basses. As much as I prefer the lower voices, we really were heavy on the basses and altos, and it could have been awkward. But it wasn’t awkward: the singers listened to each other, and responded to what they heard other singers doing. I suspect we were also aware that we had four relatively new singers, and it felt to me as though we were all making sure the newer singers could hear what was going on around them.

And now it’s time for a long digression:

Coincidentally,earlier today someone named Sheryl posted a question on the FaSoLa Discussions list, asking: “In a small group, such as 12 or 16 people, should someone who sings very loud in larger groups ‘tone it down’ for the sake of the overall sound, or to allow everyone to hear their own parts?” In other words, Sheryl is asking about local or practice singings, and thus the answer to her question is obvious.

The purpose of a local or practice singing is to learn how to sing Sacred Harp; in order to learn how to sing Sacred Harp, you really should know how your part interacts with the other parts; and so in a local or practice singing, it makes sense for singers to moderate their voices to the point where we can all hear one another. I felt it was precisely this that the Palo Alto singers did today: the more experienced singers listened hard to each other, and created a supportive learning environment for newer singers.

Conventions and all-day singings are a different matter; in those settings, more volume is certainly allowable. But even there, singing Sacred Harp is always a cooperative venture, so the point of singing very loudly should be to make the group as a whole sound great; which still means you have to listen carefully to the rest of the singers.

I’m a minister, so I can’t help getting a little bit theological here. Singing, like any other human activity, is spoiled by an inordinate amount of pride; obviously, I should take an appropriate level of pride in my singing, but if I’m singing loudly because I think I’m a real hotshot, that’s an example of inordinate pride. This kind of pride is basically selfishness. Selfish pride has a strong tendency to screw things up; it’s an attempt by one person to place too much importance on themselves.

One implication of Sheryl’s post is this: loud singing that grows out of selfish pride can be divisive; instead of drawing singers together, Sheryl’s post shows how pride-filled singing drives people away from singing. An ancient Hebrew proverb puts it this way: “By insolence [also translated as pride] the heedless make strife, but wisdom is with those who take advice”; taking advice in this instance is a kind of social feedback loop; listening carefully to other singers is really a way of taking advice on how I should be singing. Or to quote another ancient Hebrew proverb, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.” When I sing too loud in selfish pride, I may not realize it, but I look like a selfish ass; it’s fun to sing loudly, but it’s wise to remember a little moderation in volume can keep me from looking like a selfish ass.

I think this is one of the things I like about the Palo Alto local singing: many of the singers are quite good musicians; some are professionals or amateurs who perform at pretty high levels; but there’s more humility than pride.

Citations: NIV, Prov. 13.10, 11.2.