Singing at home

Two ways of singing?

One of the differences between traditional Southern Sacred Harp singing, and Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival, is that traditional singing is centered around all-day singings and conventions, while the urban revival tends to be centered around the local or practice singings. In the heartland of Sacred Harp singing, you can drive to a different all-day singing almost every weekend of the season, which means that local or practice singings just aren’t that important. But in the urban revival, there might be only one or two all-day singings or conventions per year within driving distance, so we invest a good bit of emotional energy into our monthly singings, or (if we’re lucky) our weekly singings.

In my experience, monthly and weekly singings of the urban revival can take on one of two formats. On the one hand, the monthly or weekly singing can take on the format of an abbreviated all-day singing: you try to sing as many tunes as possible, so you don’t sing more than a couple of verses of any one tune, and if a tune doesn’t sound quite right you don’t pause to fix it but just move right on to the next tune.

On the other hand, the monthly or weekly singing can take on the format of a kind of rehearsal. If a tune doesn’t sound quite right or if one section is struggling, you take the time to review each struggling part separately, and work on the tune until you get it right. And instead of getting through as many tunes as possible, you’re willing to sing lots of verses of a given tune so that you can really learn how to sing it.

To distinguish the two formats, we might call the first one a local singing, and we might call the second one a practice singing. Both these formats are perfectly good; neither one is better than the other. Both have strengths: the local singing probably produces more adept leaders, and the practice singing probably produces more accurate singers. Both formats also have weaknesses: the local singing can tolerate poor leaders but suffers when there’s not a critical mass of experienced and accurate singers; while the practice singing can may not give enough people enough practice at leading.

In the Bay area, we have both types of singing. The weekly Berkeley singing is definitely the first type of singing, a local singing: it aims to provide a two-hour experience of an all-day singing each week; there is lots of peer pressure to become a good leader; you get dirty looks if you lead more than two verses of a tune; there are no part reviews and if a tune goes badly you just go on to the next tune. The twice-monthly Palo Alto singing is definitely the second type of singing, a practice singing: if a tune doesn’t go well, you go over it until everyone knows it; you might sing every verse of an unfamiliar tune, in order to get it right; no one really worries about who leads a tune.

After that long introduction, we finally come to tonight’s Berkeley singing. There were about sixteen singers, a little less than the typical number of twenty or so singers; that meant the sound was not quite full enough to sound like an all-day singing, and some parts simply drowned out the other parts (something that rarely happens in an all-day singing). And while there were good strong singers in every part — e.g., Ted from Chicago, with his beautiful bass voice, sang with us; and our own Hugh, who grew up singing Sacred Harp, sang treble — there were few enough singers that sometimes you were hearing individual singers rather than a section of singers. So it didn’t sound like a mini-all-day singing.

Now I’m wondering if there isn’t a way to combine the best of both formats. At the Palo Alto singing we usually put a table in the middle of the hollow square — maybe this Sunday I’ll try removing the table from the middle of the hollow square so those who wish can work on their leading skills (just in time for the Golden Gate All-Day Singing at the end of the month), while we also work on improving the accuracy of our singing.

(One last comment: it was good to be able to get back to singing after a month when the demands of my job kept me from singing much at all.)