Singing at home

The joy of friendly house singings

I do like friendly house singings, and that’s what we had today.

Today the Palo Alto Sacred Harp singers met in Sue’s house. At the peak, there were fourteen of us singing: six tenors, two trebles, three altos, and two basses. This proved to be a nice balance of voices for the room: the tenors dominated, as they’re supposed to, but you could also hear all the other parts.

I always have a delightful time singing with the Palo Alto crew. Everyone is friendly and relaxed; everyone is willing to go over a part or sing the shapes a second or third time until we really get it right; and we tend to sing more verses and more repeats which I find helps make me a better and more accurate singer. Today, Jeannette and some others chose less familiar tunes, and it was good to work on unfamiliar tunes in such a friendly and supportive atmosphere. We also sang a lot of our favorites, and it was equally good to spend time singing without having to think so much.

Unfortunately, I had to leave early to go back to work, so I didn’t get to stay for the pasta dinner after the singing.

(On a side note, today Paul and I talked briefly about West Gallery music; we’re both interested in Sacred Harp-style music that can include melody insturments. I pointed him to some online sheet music for West Gallery music, and I’ve now added those links to the sidebar. I’ve set one West Gallery tune in four-shape notes, and someday I’ll have to bring this to a Palo Alto singing so Paul and I can sing some West Gallery music!)

Singing at home

Small but good

We had a light turnout in Berkeley tonight: something like 16 people before the break, and an even dozen after the break. Treated as a performance, maybe it wasn’t the best singing ever: we were a little raggedy-sounding at times, and we struggled a little with tunes that we should know. But it was still a good singing.

One reason it was a good singing was that everyone who led was invited to pitch their own tune — you didn’t have to, but you were invited to do so. Some of us are pretty good at pitching — others of us, like me, are not so good; I consistently pitched tunes a second lower than would have been best. But pitching tunes myself, and listening to others pitch tunes, forced me to listen more carefully to the other singers; and the more you listen to the other singers, the more sensitive your own singing becomes. By the second half of the singing, we had all relaxed a lot, we were listening better to one another, and — sure enough — our singing started to sound better, too.

Another reason it was a good singing for me was that I got to listen to Hugh sing treble; Hugh grew up singing Sacred Harp in Mississippi, and he knows how to sing. A highlight of the evening for me was singing 46 “Let Us Sing,” in which his treble got the rest of us to sound better than we ever have on that tune.

N.B.: Posted several days late (again!) due to crazy work schedule.

All-day singings & conventions

Seattle convention

This year’s Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Convention — Washington (which for convenience I’ll call the Seattle convention) took place in the Sunset Hills Community Center in Seattle over the past two days, February 16 and 17. I was able to attend almost all of the Saturday session, and the last hour and a half of the Sunday session. Here are four brief vignettes of the convention as I experienced it:

(1) I stayed on the back bench of the bass section the whole time I was singing. I prefer sitting on the back bench, even though sometimes those of us on the back bench may sound a little more raggedy than the front bench singers. But the back bench was not raggedy at this convention. The whole bass section was strong, and that strength extended to the back bench, where were seated some very fine singers. I also like to sit as near to the altos as I can, and the alto section at this convention was also strong.

Where I sat turned out to be a good place to sit: the room brightened the sound and emphasized the higher notes, so that even though I was sitting at the back corner between a strong bass section and a strong alto section, I could hear the tenors and trebles clearly; I suspect I was sitting where the best sound was.

And this is the view from where I was sitting (click on the thumbnail below for a larger image):

Seattle, 16 Feb. 2013

All-day singings & conventions New compositions

Composium at the Seattle convention

Kevin Barrans organized a “composium,” a singing of new compositions or newly unearthed old compositions, at the Seattle convention on Saturday afternoon. A little over fifty singers attended the composium, and the class sounded amazing, especially considering the singers were sight-singing, and considering that some of the new tunes were quite challenging.

I was able to attend an hour and a quarter of the composium, and enjoyed hearing 16 excellent tunes. Here are brief mentions of the tunes I heard, in alphabetical order:

Singing at home

In tune

I just got my copy of Sacred Harp Singings 2012 & 2013: 2012 Minutes, 2013 Directory, and Names and Addresses of Sacred Harp Singers — also known as the Minutes Book. On page 177, in the minutes for Camp Fasola 2012 Adult Session, Wednesday 13 June, “Lesson: Questions Not Yet Answered Panel Discussion,” I find the following:

“Question: How do you think Sacred Harp singing has changed the most? Answer: … The singers were more in tune with one another decades ago and seemed to listen to each other better than we do today….”

Unfortunately, the minutes don’t say which of the four panelists — Dan Brittain, Judy Caudle, Buell Cobb, or David Ivey — made this remark.

I think a lot about intonation listening to other singers when I’m singing from the Sacred Harp, probably for theological reasons: for me, singing represents an unmediated manifestation of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and which theologian Bernard Loomer has explained as the web of life: the deep awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings (see note below). This is in direct contrast to the theological grounding of our consumer society, in which many people hold that the highest value is gratifying one’s own personal needs and desires regardless of impact on the web of life. When I sing, I’m hoping for the New Jerusalem to literally come down among us, adorning us with shining grace.

As a realist, I know this won’t happen, because there is no such thing as singing perfectly. Of all the musical instruments, the human voice is both the most perfect, and the most subject to physical changes and limitations. You could hear plenty of those limitations at tonight’s singing: it seemed that nearly everyone was coughing or clearing their throat, and many voices sounded husky.

Yet tonight we sang better than we have for a long time. The many husky voices may have helped keep us from one of our besetting sins in the Berkeley weekly singing, singing loudly enough that we can’t adequately hear the other parts (a tendency of ours that is exaggerated by the acoustics of All Saints Church). More importantly, we had good leadership in each of the sections. Now I know we’re all supposed to be equals when we sing Sacred Harp, but I also know that there are some singers who can make a whole section sound better, because these people listen carefully to the other parts, and they listen carefully to the others in their section, supporting and encouraging others with their voices. These singers, the best singers, may not be the ones you hear over all the others, but when they’re in a section somehow that whole section starts singing together, and the whole sounds better than the sum of the parts.

I’m doing badly at describing this, I know; I also have trouble trying to describe how the New Jerusalem will come down to earth. Suffice it to say that tonight we were singing together better than we have been recently. As Carol and I walked out after it was over, I said, “That was a pretty good singing tonight.” “It was,” she said. We went home feeling good.

Note: For you theology geeks, here are two theological references:

Reading list Singing at home

The new Cooper book: a quick look

In Berkeley tonight, we sang a number of tunes from the new Cooper book. It is a pleasure to use: the larger page size, and the careful typesetting, make it easy to read and beautiful to look at. I’ll write an in-depth review when I have had time to look through the book more carefully, and read through the tunes that are new to this edition. But my first impression is certainly very positive.