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Trumpet singing

I managed to change my work schedule so I could attend tonight’s singing from vol. 2 no. 3 of The Trumpet, and I was glad I did: this was a particularly good issue with lots of good music. Fifteen of us gathered in Carolyn’s living room in San Francisco, with three each of trebles, altos, and basses, and the rest in the tenor section; we had some very good singers in the class, so all the tunes got a good reading.

Since I’m a big fan of the New England School, of course the highlight of the singing was the anthem “The Radiant Band of Music” by Stephen Jenks. Jenks had left the treble part unfinished at his death, and in 2001 Nikos Pappas completed the tune. The added treble part was very sensitively done, very “Jenksian” if you will. I love singing Jenks: he can be quirky and odd at times, but his tunes are satisfying to sing. Some of his later tunes seem a little too much influenced by Lowell Mason and the Better Music Boys; and on the last page of this five-page anthem, Jenks uses conventional chord progressions that are definitely too reminiscent of Lowell Mason. But in the four pages before that, there was enough New England School quirkiness to satisfy me, including: odd time signature changes (e.g., mm. 18-21); descending unisons / parallel octaves that break apart (mm. 22-25); antiphonal singing over drones (top system, p. 94); etc. Great fun to sing!

Among the fuguing tunes, I particularly enjoyed Contrition by Rebecca Wright; when you’re sight-singing, it’s hard to listen to the other parts, but the bass part sounded just right to my ears. I also enjoyed singing the plain tune Bremen by Wade Kotter; I especially like the dotted quarter-eighth note slur in m. 10, which felt just exactly right. And Hurricane Creek by D. W. Steel was a blast to sing — my only complaint is that it needs another verse. I also think it needs to be sung with an unwritten repeat going back to m. 12; you don’t want the tune to end, and I want the leader to have the option of taking the class back to sing the ending one more time.

Will Fitzgerald, one of the editors of The Trumpet, was at this singing. At the end of the singing, I told him that I thought this was perhaps the best issue yet. Full disclosure: one of my tunes is in this issue, but since I’m always unhappy with my own tunes, its inclusion would tend to make me like this issue less. Thus it’s possible that this issue of The Trumpet is better than I think it is.

A big thanks to the editors and production team who put The Trumpet together!

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Northfield as early music

In other news from the alto bench of the Berkeley weekly singing, Marsha led a singing school at the Madison (Wisconsin) Early Music Festival. Here’s a video of Marsha leading the class in no. 155 Northfield:

The room is kind of echo-y for Sacred Harp, but they sound really good!

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Final thoughts from Camp Fasola

Yesterday afternoon, on the last day of Camp Fasola, half a dozen of us were sitting on a porch at Camp McDowell; I was the only non-Southerner in the group. We were idly talking over what we had done at camp, and one of the others brought up the fact that sometimes Camp Fasola various people would sit in a lesson showing that they knew more than the others, or even more than whomever was teaching the lesson. He said, “It’s like a — like — ” and then he stopped, unable to find a suitable way of putting it. I said drily, “Up in New England, we call it a pissing match.” Everyone laughed, but we went on to refine the idea further: a sense of competition often emerges among Sacred Harp singers.

Why is this so? Why do we Sacred Harp singers get competitive at times?

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Camp Fasola, community singing

Camp Fasola culminated in a two hour singing tonight; local singers were invited to attend, and a dozen or more were in attendance.

Tonight’s singing was in the Chapel of St. Francis at Camp McDowell. The interior is mostly wood and glass, which was good for the sound of our singing; but the ceiling is very high and steeply pitched, and the room has a long reverberation time, which was not so good. I sat on the left end of the front bench of the bass section for an hour, and I could hear fairly well from there — more precisely, I could hear the trebles (since they were directly across from me) and the altos (since they were to my immediate left), and I could hear the front bench tenors, and above all that a general hum of singing. It was a good sound, a bright and exciting sound, but not what you’d call a clear and distinct sound.

Many of tonight’s leaders set pretty fast tempos. It may be that the room pushed us in that direction; or more likely it was pent-up excitement and energy being released at the end of the last full day of camp. I know when it was my turn to lead, I set a tempo that was a little faster than I had intended. Sometimes you just get caught up in the mood of a singing, whether you mean to or not.

There has been a teen conference of some sort going on while we have been here at Camp McDowell. Their leaders asked us to sing for their evening worship service tonight, so after the community singing, we walked over to sing for them. The teens were sitting on the ground completely silent, each one holding a candle. We walked up in silence, sang two verses of both 47b and 45t, then walked away in silence. I don’t know what it felt like for them, but it was a magical moment for me: singing at night under a starry sky for a hundred or teens all lit by candlelight, then walking away leaving silence behind us.

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Thoughts from Dan Brittain

At Camp Fasola this morning in a workshop called “Sacred Harp Harmony and Style,” Dan Brittain kept saying things that were eminently quotable. I tried to write down a few of the things he said:

In response to several questions about the “right” way to do things: “Respect the local tradition.” And once he added that you’ve got to travel around and listen to how people sing.

More on the importance of listening: “You’ve got to listen to each other in order for it to sound like Sacred Harp. You can’t just sing loud — and not listen to the people around you.”

After singing no. 288 White: “Moderate speed should be the rule. You can hear a lot more of those harmonies. You can sing fast, but that should be the exception.”

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Camp Fasola, class singing no. 2

Thunderstorms today, with some heavy rain and near gale winds.

Maybe there was electricity in the air, because the singing was more lively this evening during the class singing. I especially noticed that tempos were faster. I was watching some of the campers who have never sung Sacred Harp music before, and at times the pace was fast enough that they looked lost. When I talked with a couple of them later, they said they did feel a little lost.

And I thought about Dan Brittain’s workshop in the morning when he said that his preference was to lead tunes at slower tempos, so the class can better hear the harmonies.

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Camp Fasola, class singing no. 1

Carol and I arrived at Camp Fasola, held at Camp McDowell in Double Springs, Alabama, in time plenty of time for dinner, and right after dinner was the first evening singing in Pradat Lodge. I found it a little difficult to hear the other parts at first — maybe the room was not square enough, or the ceiling was a little high, or the carpet on the floor deadened the sound too much. In any case, it took me a good quarter of an hour to get used to the sound, and be able to pick out the other parts.

Once I figured out how to hear, I could sit back and enjoy the singing. Most leaders led at tempos that felt somewhat slow to me; but I’ve been singing every week in a local singings that’s known for its fast tempos. I liked the slower tempos on most of the tunes we sang tonight; I also noticed that the slower tempos required singers to accent more carefully, with more differentiation between the first and third beats than is required with a faster tempo.

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Learners’ group in Los Angeles

Laura Boyd Russell, who sings Sacred Harp in Los Angeles, sent me an interesting note in response to a recent post, and attendant comments, on Sacred Harp singing schools. I asked Laura if I could post the entire note here, and she graciously gave me permission to do so. Here’s her note:

Greetings, Dan,

Your recent blog entries concerning retaining the interest of new-to-Sacred Harp singers, learner groups, and singing schools have been particularly of interest to Rick and me. We thought you might be interested in what we’ve found to work in Los Angeles in a small way.

As you’ve noted, frequently visitors attend one or two singings and never return. Over several years we noticed this too. We thought it might be a help to have a “bridge” between introductory-level singing and full-out participation. As a result, we started a Sacred Harp Learners Group in spring 1999. Since then, Rick and I have been hosting Learners Group one Saturday a month from 4 to 6 at our home. (In L.A., many regular local Sacred Harp singings are hosted in private homes also).

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Singing school in Berkeley with Cassie Allen

Today Bay Area Sacred Harp sponsored a singing school led by singing master Cassie Allen, a fifth generation Sacred Harp singer originally from Alabama. 61 people attended all or part of the singing school, which was held in All Saints Chapel in Berkeley, our usual Monday evening singing space. And although I was working the registration table for much of the class, I was able to hear almost everything from where I sat.

At the beginning of the singing school, Cassie Allen gave an overview of the history of Sacred Harp singing, from its roots in Colonial New England, through the development of four-shape notes and the publication of the first tune book titled The Scared Harp, right up to the present day. She emphasized that this is a living tradition of singing. She also reminded the class that this is a form of sacred song, and the religious aspect is very important to many traditional singers (as is true for some of us who are not traditional singers).

Then she gave discussed and demonstrated some of the core material in the “Rudiments of Music” section of The Sacred Harp, including: note shape and pitches; major and minor scales; accenting the first and third beats; and the modes of time. She spent a good amount of time demonstrating how to lead all the different time signatures.

The people in the class were of many different ability levels, from those who have been singing for decades, to those who started singing months or weeks ago. I was impressed that Cassie Allen was able to keep the interest of the long-time singers, while not leaving the brand-new singers in the dust.

Talking with some brand-new singers after the singing school, I also realized that three hours is not nearly enough time to cover all the material that a new singer needs to know in order to feel truly confident. A week-long singing school like Camp Fasola is an obvious way for new singers to get an intensive introduction to the rudiments, but not everyone can travel to Alabama for a week of singing. Here in the Bay Area, we have a Learner’s Group that meets for a half an hour every month, and we sponsor a singing school about once a year, but it takes us perhaps two years to provide as much formal instruction as in a week as Camp Fasola. Not that I’m advocating for more singing schools in the Bay Area; we don’t have enough volunteers to provide much more in the way of formal instruction. But it is worth remembering that any time we can offer a singing school, we should do so.

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Easter eggs and singing

At last this year I was able to go to Chris and Carolyn’s annual Ukranian Easter egg making workshop and Sacred Harp singing in San Francisco. Seven of us made Ukranian Easter eggs…

…and after that, five of us were able to stay long enough to do some singing; and yes, of course we sang no. 236, the Easter Anthem.

Photo by Carol S.