Reflections on singing


I love “I’m on My Journey Home,” written in 1859 by Sarah Lancaster. Originally written as a three-part tune, the versions in the Denson book (345b) and the Cooper book (207t) each added different alto parts. The Denson book’s alto line is adequate, but it’s not a standout.

The Cooper book’s alto part, written by Belle Spivey in 1902, is much more exciting. Spivey daringly adds several crunchy dissonant intervals between the altos and some of the other parts (major seconds if singing in the same octave, ninths if in different octaves). If you ignore Lancaster’s treble part and just sing the tenor, bass, and Spivey’s alto line all in the same range, it’s a haunting sound. Like this:

“I’m on My Journey Home,” Cooper book 207t, minus treble part

Not a polished recording — pretty much everything was done in one take — but good enough to give the idea of the sound.

Reflections on singing

Singing four part harmony at home

At the moment it doesn’t feel safe enough for me to sing in-person and indoors. It’s not just COVID. It’s also a very bad flu season, and RSV is a serious problem as well. I’m vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, so it’s safest for me to not sing in groups.

But I really miss four part singing. So I’ve been singing with myself, using GarageBand to record the four different vocal parts. When singing Sacred Harp, the tenor and treble parts may be sung in the lower (men’s) octave, but the alto should always be sung in the upper (women’s) octave. However, one of my vocal problems is serious difficulty singing in the falsetto range, which means I have to sing the alto part in the lower octave. Yet it turns out that many Sacred Harp tunes sound pretty good even with all the parts sung in the same octave.

In addition to singing traditional Sacred Harp tunes, I also sang a tune I wrote, “I Will Go on My Way.” Not that you need to hear me singing, but here’s a recording:

“I Will Go on My Way”
New compositions Reflections on singing

Yet another new tune

New tune: Purisima Creek.

God knows why I’m writing so many shape note tunes these days. I think it’s because I have fewer outlets for music because of the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, I was singing three and four times a week: in a traditional chorus, Sacred Harp, folk music jam session, and a quartet; and voice lessons on top of that. The pandemic stopped all that. But for the first year of the pandemic I didn’t notice that I was no longer doing much music, because I was working seven days a week.

Now we’re pretty much out of the pandemic, but it still doesn’t feel entirely safe to sing. Now I’m lucky to be able to sing a couple of times a month — outdoors, maybe distanced, maybe with a mask, depending. I’ve pretty much stopped singing online, as I just don’t find it as satisfying as in person singing.

What I really want to do is sing with other people. In the absence of actual choral singing, at least I can write music….

All-day singings & conventions Reflections on singing

473 Carmarthen

Cornelia Stanton leading 473 Carmarthen at the 2018 Pacific Northwest Convention — Washington (a.k.a. the Seattle Convention):

I had been standing in the back of the room recording video for a quarter of an hour when Connie got up to lead Carmarthen. From where I stood, there was a noticeable difference in the quality of the sound as she began leading — brighter, more vibrant. I suspect this was because Connie made lots of eye contact, and smiled a lot. When I have sung in traditional choirs, the directors will often to tell the choristers to smile so that we will sound better, and of course the same thing should work for Sacred harp singers as well: catch the eyes of singers, smile at them, they will smile back, and that will brighten up their sound. In any case, I always enjoy it when Connie lead because of the joy she communicates to the class.

Reflections on singing

Billings in another context

I’ve been singing with the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) chorus — not impressive at it sounds; it’s a non-auditioned community chorus — and this fall I talked the director into having us sing some works by William Billings. It wasn’t hard to talk him into programming Billings, for a number of reasons: several of Billings’ works are staples of the college chorus repertoire; you can get free scores on the Choral Public Domain Library and other Web sites; and there are plenty of excellent performances on Youtube that choristers can watch to help them learn the pieces.

Only one of the works the director programmed is in The Sacred Harp: no. 254, Rose of Sharon. It has been fascinating to sing this familiar tune in a completely different context.

First of all, the Rose of Sharon that we have in The Sacred Harp is not quite the piece of music that William Billings published in The Singing Master’s Assistant in 1778. A few of the notes are different, e.g., in the bass part, the second note (“of”) in m. 70 may be sung as E below middle C, or the E below that; in m. 6 (“I”), only the treble part has an eighth note, while the other three parts have quarter notes; etc. A slightly more significant difference is in the repeat section: we repeat mm. 98-110; but Billings originally intended the repeat section to extend from m. 98 to the last measure. These are minor differences, however, that don’t change the character of the tune very much.

Differences in tempo, however, are significantly different. According to The Complete Works of William Billings, Billings intended the following tempi: in the 2/4 sections, a quarter note equals 120 beats per minute; that’s not much different from the tempo we would use in the Sacred Harp tradition. But in the 6/4 sections, Billings would generally give a dotted half note about the same value as a half note in a 2/4 section, i.e., a dotted half note is about 60 b.p.m.; this is noticeably slower than Sacred Harp practice. And in the 6/8 sections, Billings wants a dotted quarter note to equal 80 b.p.m., while in the Sacred Harp tradition we would tend to make a dotted quarter note close to 120 b.p.m.

Interestingly, performance practices between the CCSF chorus and Sacred Harp singers are not as noticeable as you might think. The CCSF chorus does sing the tune at written pitch, but we would not pitch it much lower here in the Bay Area. The CCSF chorus director is aware of early American choral practices, and encourages a full-throated, open sound, without any vibrato; he asks us to rehearse without a piano so we don’t get sucked into equal temperament tuning; and he does not have us slow down at the end of the piece. Oh, and since it’s a community chorus, the voices are a mix of pretty ordinary and really good, just as in Sacred Harp singings.

The big difference, from my point of view as a singer, is that in the CCSF chorus we get to work on Rose of Sharon for extended periods of time. The plain tunes and simple fuguing tunes in The Sacred Harp are pretty straightforward so there’s not much need to practice them, and besides when you sing multiple verses it’s like practicing the same piece of music three or four times. But an anthem like Rose of Sharon is a more complex piece of music, well worth spending time on going over tricky bits to get them just right, paying attention to timing and entrances and intonation, etc.

In fact, I suspect that that is just what singers did in the singing school tradition out of which the Sacred Harp tradition came: they worked on the more difficult tunes until they got them right. And in reality, many of us today do exactly the same thing — except that we watch Youtube videos or listen to audio recordings of Sacred Harp tunes, instead of working through the more challenging anthems with other live singers. Maybe it’s one thing if you grow up in a traditional singing family, where your parents make you learn how to sing and work you through the tricky bits of the more challenging tunes; I guess the rest of us will have to make do with Youtube.