We had eleven singers at this afternoon’s second Sunday Palo Alto practice singing. Of those eleven, one was singing Sacred Harp for the very first time, two had only come two or three times before, and three had been singing less than a year; in other words, half the class had been singing for less than a year.
It was a very pleasant singing. The three brand-new singers listened hard and sang when they could. There were three long-time Palo Alto singers who can hold a singing together no matter what: Terry, who can sing any part; Phil, who can sight read anything and who can pitch songs so that everyone sounds their best; and Peter, who can anchor the all-important bass part (for my money, the basses are more important than the tenors, because they keep the rhythm and provide the root of the harmony). The rest of us were in the middle somewhere: the three who have been singing less than a year are all pretty good singers by this point, and the other two of us are reasonably competent.
As we were singing, I couldn’t help noticing how different a practice singing is from an all-day singing or a convention. It’s so obvious how exciting and exuberant an all-day singing or convention can be that I almost don’t have to mention it: anyone who attended one knows how you can get picked up and carried away by the waves of sound. But a good local singing has its own quieter charms: I like the way you can really hear the individual quality of the best singers, and hear the way the best singers sing to and with each other. A good practice singing is also a supportive community where you can work on things like reading the notes with greater precision, hearing how your part interacts with each of the other parts, and using your voice to support other singers.
All this points up a big difference between traditional Southern singers and those of us in the northern/western urban revival. Traditional singers can learn to sing Sacred Harp from family and friends; they can also go to an all-day singing or convention nearly every weekend to hear some of the best singers. We revival singers learn to sing Sacred Harp in our practice singings, and many of us might attend only one or two all-day singings a year.
Because of this last point, some singers in the urban revival try to make every practice singing into a mini-all-day-singing. I think we would be better off recognizing that a practice singing is different from an all-day singing: a practice singing should sound great but should emphasize learning and becoming a better singer (i.e., practice singings are like rehearsals). And then on the other hand, we need more all-day singings in the urban revival: we need more venues where we can really show off our skills (i.e., all-day singings are like gigs).