The altos at today’s second Sunday Palo Alto singing were sounding particularly good today, and I finally commented on the fact. Marion said with due modesty that I couldn’t mean her, because she sings rather softly. Yes, I said, but you have what must be perfect pitch, and you’re an all-around excellent singer.
We Sacred Harp singers of the urban revival sometimes fall prey to the mistaken thought that in order to be a good singer you must be loud. But good singing cannot be equated with loud singing. One of the best Sacred Harp singers I have sung with is not very loud (at least, not by Sacred Harp standards, although I’ve heard her perform other kinds of music and be able to reach the furthest seats in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco without the assistance of amplification). She may not be loud by Sacred Harp standards, but I’ve sung next to her, and she is a fabulous singer: perfect intonation, discrete use of subtle ornamentation, wonderful enunciation, amazing breath control, a superb sense of rhythm and a sense of how to manifest the rhythms of both text and tune, a deep sense of the tradition, and generally a very high level of musicianship. She is also a careful listener, and she is one of those singers who can make all those around her sing better — I know that when I sat next to her, I became a much better singer. So loudness is not all that important. Sacred Harp singing is a combination of tradition, text, tune, and community, all in service of realizing something larger than ourselves.
In any case, Marion is another one of those singers I like to sit near — she may not be loud, but I know she was making me a better singer today. I want to be more like her!