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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.

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Anonymous 4 singing Sacred Harp

Tonight I went to hear a concert by Anonymous 4 (A4) at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The first half of the concert was Spanish sacred music from 1300; the second half of the concert was Sacred Harp and gospel tunes. As much as I loved the first half of the concert, since this is a Sacred Harp blog I’ll focus on the second half.

The second half opened with “I’m on My Journey Home,” no. 345 in The Sacred Harp. This seemed an appropriate choice to open the concert: A4 is well known for brining the music of women composers to greater prominence, and this tune was written in 1859 by Sarah Lancaster, one of the few women composers in The Sacred Harp. Other Sacred Harp songs they performed included Jewett and Wayfaring Stranger.

A4 used ornamentation sparingly at first: one or another singer might slide up into a note now and then. But as they went on, a little more ornamentation crept in: more slides, an occasional vocal snap, and a few lovely grace notes and rolls. They sounded more spontaneous live than they do on their beautifully controlled recordings of this music.

From the point of view of a Sacred Harp singer, what is most remarkable about listening to A4 is their flexible sense of time. When we Sacred Harp singers sing in a traditional convention setting, or in a local singing, the beat tends to be unvarying; it almost has to be that way with a large group of singers who don’t sing a song more than once in a given day. But with just four singers in a disciplined and well-rehearsed group, it’s possible to let the rhythm vary with the needs of the tune. I especially like the way all four singers breathe together, and take a little pause, and then begin the next phrase: this makes A4 sounds like a single entity; it is the kind of rhythmic feeling you will hear from a solo singer. This flexible sense of rhythm lets A4 build a different kind of emotional power than that achieved with the rock-solid rhythm of a convention setting.

As the concert drew to a close, A4’s singing felt even more powerful. The first half of the concert achieved a kind of mystical transcendence; whereas the shape note and gospel music followed another avenue of sacred music, and had an ecstatic feeling.

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Singing school, final session

We had 28-30 people show up for the final session of the fall singing school today (people kept coming and going, so I never got a firm count). Our singing master once again was Julian Damashek. Julian was planning on spending a short time on fuguing tunes, and then throwing it open to a question and answer session, but it quickly became clear that there were lots of absolute beginners who had not attended the first two sessions of the singing school. So Julian spent a quarter of an hour quickly going over the basics, before moving into his planned session on fuguing tunes. Then someone from the class asked about repeats, and Julian went over what a repeat is, when it is optional, and when it is not optional. And that ate up the entire hour. It’s amazing how quickly an hour goes by!

Once again, the class sounded very good indeed, thanks both the the experienced singers who came, and the many newer singers who sang extremely well.

And now a little review and evaluation of the singing school as a whole:

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Singing school, part 2

We had the second session of the fall singing school today. Julian Damashek was our singing master this time, and his session was quite different from, but equally good as, the first session taught by Marsha Genensky.

Julian taught a quite traditional singing school: much of what he taught was material that can be found in the “Rudiments of Music” section at the beginning of the 1991 Sacred Harp. He focused on tune, time, and accent. He began with tune, or getting the notes right, and went over the fa, sol, la system of shape notes, and how that makes it easy to sing the tune. While this was review for some of the new singers, there were a fair number of new singers who had not been able to attend the first session of the singing school and for whom this was new information.

He then went on to talk about time, and led the class in beating time for both double time and triple time tunes. He asked the singers to stop worrying about the tune for just a moment, and concentrate on beating time (even if they got a few notes wrong). So we all beat time together for a 4/4 tune, a 2/4 tune, a 3/4 tune, and a 6/4 tune.

By this time, the hour allotted for the singing school was almost over, and Julian just touched on accent. He told the class that in Sacred Harp singing, you accent the first and third beats in a 4/4 tune, and in a 3/4 tune you accent the first beat and, to a lesser extent, the third beat.

Teaching from the “Rudiments of Music” is really important, and really difficult. Having sat through some mediocre singing schools on the “Rudiments of Music,” I can tell you that when the singing master is not perfectly focussed and organized and is less than warm and entertaining, a singing school on the “Rudiments” feels like a waste of time. Julian was focussed, organized, warm, and entertaining, and I enjoyed every minute of his teaching.

Due to heavy work schedule, posted 4 days late.

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Singing School, part one

We had a good turnout for the first session of our singing school — we had set out 54 chairs, and at one point every chair was taken. A dozen or so experienced Sacred Harp singers showed up to help support Marsha Genensky, our singing master for the day. The new singers were about evenly split between people who had sung a few times at a local Sacred Harp singing, and people who had never sung Sacred Harp before but who had some singing experience.

Marsha traced the background of solfege syllables from the Middle Ages up to the development of the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables used in early American singing schools. She demonstrated how the scale worked with only four solfege syllables: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, and back to fa. She showed the class how early American hymnals printed the syllables “F, S, L, M” to indicate pitch. Later, these same syllables were printed beneath standard round-headed notes, and finally notes with different shaped note heads were developed to help make it easy to sight-read a piece of music: fa corresponded to a triangular note head, sol to a round note head, la to a rectangular note head, and mi to a diamond-shaped note head. (Link to a sample scale in shape notes.)

Marsha then organized the class into a scale: some people sang a low fa, a different small group so, the next group la, and so on up the scale. Then she told us to sing our note when she pointed at us — and by “playing us like a marimba,” she had us sing the tune to “Amazing Grace.” (She also told the class that the name of the tune is actually “New Britain,” while the name of the hymn or poem is “Amazing Grace.”)

By this time, the class was ready to sing some songs, and Marsha led us through a couple of easy songs. She had each section — altos, trebles (with men and women singing an octave apart), tenors (the melody line, with men and women singing an octave apart), and basses — sing their part separately and slowly, using the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables. Then she put us together so that we were singing in four parts. The experienced singers kept us on our parts, and there were plenty of other fine voices in the room, so we sounded great!

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing….

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At the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse

The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in downtown Berkeley had one of its open houses this afternoon, and invited us Sacred Harp singers to give a demonstration and workshop.

We started with a half hour demonstration in the lobby at two o’clock. It was a little noisy, with people coming and going, and a children’s instrument-making workshop over in the corner. But once David and Susan got us organized into a hollow square, and invited passers-by to come join us, and handed out loaner books for them to sing from, and explained a little bit about what it is we do — once we got the preliminaries out of the way and began singing, we quickly overwhelmed any ambient noise. We had some good experienced singers in each section, too, and it turned out to be a really good singing.

Later in the afternoon, after all the Sacred Harp singing was over, I got to talking to a woman who had heard us singing in the lobby. She said, “Did you meet that guy from Trinidad? No? Well’s he’s not only a musician, but he’s also a very spiritual man, involved with — ” and here she mentioned something about which I knew nothing ” — and when he walked by and heard you singing, he said, Whoa, that’s powerful.” She told him that he should stay and sing, but he had something else to do, and didn’t want to get drawn in; because if he had gotten drawn in, he would have gotten deeply drawn in. Of course, most of the power he felt was from the music itself, but we were in good voice today.

After singing in the lobby for half an hour, David and Susan led us all upstairs for the workshop and demonstration. David gave a nice concise introduction to Sacred Harp singing, covering both the technical side of it, and talking a little about the power of the music itself. We had a good number of singers: five basses, including one newcomer who had a fine voice and kept right up with the rest of us; five altos, including two newcomers, one of whom first sang Sacred Harp at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in 1974; six or seven trebles, including one woman who had just gotten back from singing with Larry Gordon’s Village Harmony chorus where she sang some Sacred Harp songs, and a couple of other newcomers; and eight or nine tenors, with four newcomers. Every section was strong, and the singing stayed at that high level we had reached while singing in the lobby.

One peculiar thing I noticed: We were singing in a fairly small room, and the five of us basses had our backs up against a freestanding whiteboard. When we got singing, that white board acted as a resonator behind us, giving a little additional amplification. It was a weird but not unpleasant feeling to feel that resonant board vibrating a few inches from my back.

We sang for about an hour, and then it was time to go. Those of us who are regular singers talked to the newcomers and encouraged them to come sing with us in Berkeley or San Francisco. And then as we packed up the loaner books and got ready to go, we looked at each other and said, That was a pretty good singing, wasn’t it?