Other events

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.

Other events Singing at home

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:

Other events Singing at home

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.

Other events Singing at home

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….

Other events

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?

Other events

Singing school this fall in the Bay area

There will be a Bay area singing school this fall, on three Sundays — Sept. 11, 25, and Oct. 9 — from 1-2 p.m., followed immediately by the regular Peninsula/South Bay twice-monthly singing. I’ve put an announcement up on this Web site here — and there’s a PDF of the flyer available here.

Please tell all your friends and relations and co-workers to join us at this singing school!

And if you’re an experienced singer, please come if you possibly can and support the singing school. I’ll even provide lunch as an added inducement for you to come (just give me a week’s notice).

Other events

On the road back from Alabama

We’re driving back from Alabama, and stopped at Nashville on the way. Of course we had to go down to Broadway and 2nd Ave. to walk past the honky-tonk places to check out the music. It all seemed so commercial after the National Sacred Harp Convention — it sounded very polished (mostly), pretty slick, and so rehearsed it was just a bit boring. We stopped outside a few places to listen, but always walked on before going in. In the honky tonk places, you’re mostly meant to sit and consume the music passively while drink your beer.

Then we passed two fellows playing fiddle and guitar on the sidewalk. They were playing an old-timey fiddle tune, with no amplification. It was the kind of music that you’re meant to dance to, or sit there and talk with the musicians in between tunes.

We stood there and talked to the musicians between the tunes. On the right with the fiddle is Jason a.k.a. Blind Watermelon McCoy, and on the left with the guitar is Truett Rayborn. Much more fun than sitting and passively listening. (Good dance music, too — I tried to get Carol to dance with me, but she wouldn’t.)

This may sound pretty far from Sacred Harp singing, but I don’t think it is. Sacred Harp singing is participatory, it hasn’t been prettied up to sell records, it simply exists to provide pleasure and meaning to life. Just like old-timey fiddle tunes played on a street corner by musicians who like to talk with you while you listen.

Other events


Susan from the altos and Shelby from the trebles have been singing with the Kitka Vocal Ensemble’s Community Chorus. The Kitka Community Chorus was about to do its first gig, performing Balkan a capella music, but they didn’t have quite enough music for a full concert. So Susan and Shelby said the Berkeley Sacred Harp singers would fill out the evening with some participatory singing.

My sweetheart Carol and I watched as people came in to the upstairs room at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall on Chestnut Street in Berkeley. The Kitka Community Chorus was about eighteen women, and they brought family and friends. About ten of us Sacred Harp signers showed up, and I noticed with relief there there were going to be at least two of us on a part. By the time the Kitka Community Chorus started singing, the room was full.

“These women are good!” I thought to myself. Great intonation and dynamics, solid group discipline, and all the singers had great individual voices. They blended well together, and created a nice rich sound. Sure, I could kvetch that the Georgian song they did didn’t sound like it used exactly that weirdo scale the Georgians use, but the chorus still sounded fantastic.

When it was our turn to sing, Susan and her husband David gave a nice brief intro to the tradition, informed the audience that this was a participatory tradition rather than a performance tradition, and formed us up into a hollow square to make that point stronger. We sang 38b Windham, then Susan invited anyone who wanted to come up and sing with us, or just stand in the middle of the hollow square and soak up the sound. Carol, who stayed in the back of the hall said that when Susan said that people could come up and sing along, two teenaged girls sitting near her said “Yes!” quietly to each other. Lots of people came up to sing with us, and half a dozen stood in the middle of the hollow square.

Susan stopped us after five or so songs, which was about right. Left to our own devices, we would have sung the rest of the evening, and annoyed everyone who wanted to get at the refreshments, and tell the Kitka Community Chorus members how great they were.

Carol and I were standing around talking with David, who told us about the old-time Sacred Harp singer who said, “I’d travel five hundred miles to sing Sacred Harp, but I wouldn’t walk across the street to listen to it.” Carol and I laughed; that about summed it up. Or, to be more polite about the same point:–Earlier in the evening, David and Carl and I had been talking about how it’s impossible to commodify Sacred Harp singing — if you commodify it, I insisted, then it isn’t Sacred Harp music, and that’s why I sing it, because you can’t commodify it.

Other events


It was kind of a strange place to be singing. Alemany Farm nestles on the side of a hill right next to the freeway, a small urban farm serving to educate San Franciscans about food security issues. It was a regular work day for volunteers today, but SF Refresh was also presenting some workshops on whole body care (and composting; I wasn’t quite sure where the composting workshop came in). We were asked to give a workshop on Sacred Harp, the thought being that the music is a kind of healing music.

I got lost and arrived late. There were eight of us regular singers from the San Francisco and Berkeley singings. In the forty minutes I was there, another five or six people came and joined in: one person wearing a t-shirt that I thought was from Alemany Farm, one person whom I later learned sang opera, a man from New Zealand and a woman who appeared to be his sweetheart, a woman wearing a snappy fedora, and maybe one other that I’m forgetting. I thought it would be far more difficult to hear each other, especially with the wind, but we were on a small stone patio, and of course we were loud, so it wasn’t so bad — though when we were done, i realized I had pushed my voice more than I had realized.

It was different, singing at an urban farm. I’m not sure we accomplished much in the way of healing or whole body care, but half a dozen people had fun singing with us, and some of the volunteer farm workers who walked by seemed to enjoy listening to us. I would have to say it was one of the more unusual venues — standing in the middle of an urban farm — in which I’ve sung.

Other events

“Awake, My Soul”

City Church of San Francisco sponsored a showing of the Sacred Harp documentary “Awake My Soul” this evening (they showed the one-hour cut, not the full four-hour documentary). A good number of Bay Area Sacred Harp singers showed up. Matt and Erica Hinton were both present, and Matt Hinton answered questions from the audience after the film. One of our local singers asked Matt Hinton why the documentary focused on the big conventions, and Hinton gave several answers:– first, from a film maker’s point of view, local singings don’t film particularly well; then too, the sound produced by a big singing simply sounds better.

But the most interesting reason from my point of view is simply that Georgia, where the Hintons live and did much of the filming, is in the heartland of Sacred Harp singing where there is a convention within driving distance nearly every week of the year. He said that for those of us who live outside this heartland, a convention is a big deal that only we only get to experience a few times a year; thus for us, the local or practice singing looms large in importance. This is another way in which Sacred Harp singing of the urban revival outside the South winds up being a substantially different experience than traditional singing.