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Singing at home

Anniversary

Chris Thorman began singing Sacred Harp 25 years ago with the Palo Alto Sacred Harp singers. He came to sing with us today in honor of the anniversary.

From left to right: Doug, Mark, Chris.
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Singing at home

The post-singing singing

We had eight people show up today for three hours of singing, including two out-of-town singers. We sang some old favorites that weren’t led at the all-day singing (China, Stratfield, etc.). We worked through a few tunes that we did sing at the all-day singing, but where at least some of us weren’t satisfied with the way we sang them yesterday — and we worked on them till we all felt reasonably happy with the outcome. I also introduced three new tunes that I had written, and the singers very graciously worked through them and offered useful comments (I’ll post those here as separate blog posts). And we ate leftovers from the Saturday night social — yum!

All in all, a pleasant way to wind down from the all-day singing.

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Singing at home

Singing at St. Mary the Virgin

Carolyn organized a fifth Sunday singing in San Francisco, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Since I had no duties at my congregation I was able to attend. The church is beautiful, and beautifully maintained — a late nineteenth century wood-frame structure. The ceilings were a little higher than Sacred Harp singers prefer, but nevertheless I thought the sound was quite nice. Indeed, the only problem with the sound was that out of about 25 singers, there were only half a dozen men — but that has nothing to do with the building.

What was particularly nice about this singing was that perhaps a dozen members of the church joined us, mostly members of their choir. They were all good singers, and seemed to pick up Sacred Harp singing quickly. As it turns out, their music director, Chip, has had them sing from The Southern Harmony, and some of them had even accompanied Chip to the Big Singing in Benton, Kentucky. So they knew what shape-note singing should sound like!

After the break, Chip, the music director, led us in a couple of tunes by William Walker from the Southern Harmony. He told the altos that at the Big Singing, altos were not supposed to sing with the basses, and usually sang with the trebles. I love William Walker, and it was both interesting and fun to sing several of his tunes in his original arrangements — makes me want to go to the Big Singing myself some day.

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Singing at home

Latest Golden Gate All-Day Singing info

I updated the Golden Gate All-Day Singing page, with latest info on the 2014 singing — PLUS — photos from 2010, 2012, and 2013 Golden Gate singings that I’ve never shared before. To check it out, click here.

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Singing at home

Singing again

AFter a month away from singing due to bronchitis and laryngitis, I was finally able to sing again this week. And what better way to get back into singing than with the Palo Alto singers.

The Palo Alto local singing has been getting really good recently. Some of these folks have been singing together for years and years, which means that the singing starts off with an advantage. But mostly it just seems like the singing is going well; every singing group goes through its ups and downs, and the Palo Alto singing seems to be going up at the moment.

What I especially like about the Palo Alto singing is the excellent intonation. When we’re singing, I can often feel the overtones from the good intonation vibrating in my chest and head. Why has our intonation gotten so good? Perhaps it’s because we have been leading tunes at somewhat more moderate tempos; perhaps it’s because we’ve been singing more than just a couple of verses of each tune, which gives us times to get the intonation exactly right. Mostly, though, I think it’s because we’re relaxed and we take the time to listen to each other. Good intonation requires good listening — you can get the rhythm by watching the leader, you can get the melody by looking at the book, but the only way to be in tune is to listen to the other singers.

We had two new singers today, and I don’t know what it felt like to them, but to my ears they both sounded great right from the start. Now both of them have done lots of other kinds of singing, so they were starting from a relatively high level; but it’s also true that it’s much easier to sing if the group you’re singing with is in tune and in rhythm with each other.

Even though I was still struggling a little on the higher notes — my voice hasn’t quite recovered from the bronchitis, I guess — it felt really good to sing today. It’s amazing what eleven good singers can do inside a room with wood walls and ceiling: I got carried away by the waves of sound.

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Singing at home

How slow?

ABout halfway through tonight’s weekly Monday singing in Berkeley, a couple of first-time Sacred Harp singers walked in, and sat in the tenor section. They were friends with Susan, who made sure they sat next to an experienced singer; this is all the way it should be.

Now the Berkeley singing tends to sing tunes at a good fast clip, and tonight was no exception. However, when new singers show up, I think it’s nice to lead one or two tunes at a more moderate tempo, out of politeness to those new signers who are sight-singing nearly every tune for the first time, an exercise which can be tiring.

So I started in to lead a tune at a fairly slow tempo — well, slow by Berkeley standards; I figure I was leading a 4/4 tune at a slow moderato, maybe 84-88 beats per minute. The class kept pushing the tempo, however, so that by the time we had finished singing the shapes we were singing at a fast moderato, say 100-108 beats per minute. I reminded the class to watch my tempo, and we started off singing the words at a slow moderato, but by the end of the tune had sped up about the same amount again.

I ahve experienced this before, and I have watched as better, more experienced leaders than I have had their tempo speeded up or slowed down by the class. Ask any Sacred Harp singer, and they will tell you that whoever is leading is in charge, and that the class always follows the leader — but I think we’re fooling ourselves when we say that, because it’s not entirely true. Local custom can be a stronger force than even the most experienced leader.

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Singing at home

2 vs. 4

Sue hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house in Mountain View today. There were twelve to fourteen people in Sue’s music room — which just about filled the room — and it was a very good singing indeed. It was especially fun to have an out=of-town singer, JT from Austin, join us.

Of course we sang a lot of Christmas tunes from The Sacred Harp. In addition to those tunes, Paul and I each brought a different version of “Star in the East,” a Christmas tune from William Walker’s Southern Harmony; my version was Walker’s version with an alto part that I wrote, and Paul’s was a complete re-harmonoization of the melody, with a quite challenging and very interesting bass part. I also brought the three-part version of Lowell Mason’s “Antioch” (a.k.a. “Joy to the World”) from the Southern Harmony.

At one point, JT led a 4/4 tune in 4, and someone asked what was the difference in elading a tune in 4 versus leading the same tune in 2. We tried to explain how when you lead a 4/4 tune in 2, the class is going to tend to accent the first and third beats more heavily than if you lead it in 2. Finally JT said, “Let’s just try it.” So we did: JT led the same tune in 2, at the same tempo, and you could hear the much stronger accents on the first and third beats. When we finished, the person who had asked the question said they really understood the difference now. And I was glad we had done the experiment, too — you really notice the difference when you lead a tune in 4, then immediately lead it again in 2.

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Singing at home

Back in Berkeley

After a two month absence, I was able to sing at the Berkeley weekly singing again this week. I picked the right night to return, as there were close to thirty singers at one point in the evening: something like ten tenors, nine or ten basses, four or five altos, and three or four trebles. All Saints Chapel, the site of the weekly singing, sounds much better when there are two dozen or more singers. And any singing sounds better — in my opinion, anyway — when there are lots of basses. And it was just a good class of singers — sure, there were plenty of newer singers, but every part had at least one or two singers who were both good musicians and very aware of the Sacred Harp traditions.

As we were singing, I got to thinking about tradition-bearers within the Sacred Harp tradition. Tradition bearers are usually thought of as those individuals who pass along a folk tradition, not by writing about the tradition, but by face-to-face communication like oral transmission, teaching, demonstration, etc. The Sacred Harp tradition gets complicated a little bit by the fact that the material culture of our tradition consists of written texts: a tunebook, and minutes books. So maybe we could say that the Sacred Harp tradition consists of folk traditions transmitted orally and through demonstrations (such as singing schools) which are centered around our (written texts) material culture.

I’m not a folklore scholar, so this is about as precise a definition I can offer. But I think it’s a useful definition, because it helps me think about the folklore that surrounds our written texts.

So, for example, when I wanted to start an all-day singing in Palo Alto, I found barebones written instructions in The Sacred Harp, and I found general outlines of all-day singings in the minutes books, and I had outlines written down by previous chairs of Bay Area singings. But I knew much more from having attended a number of all-day singings and conventions, particularly Bay area all-day singings. And my first step was not to consult the written texts available to me — my first step was to have long talks with Chris Thorman and Carolyn Deacy, because at that time they were the primary Bay area tradition bearers if you wanted to know how to run an all-day singing. (Now that Hugh McGuire is singing regularly again, I would also sit down and talk with him — he has chaired his share of all-day singings and conventions, and grew up singing in the tradition in the South.)

Or, for another example, if you want to learn how to sing Sacred Harp, you can find basic instructions in the Rudiments section of The Sacred Harp. And you can attend practice singings, which in the Bay Area are dominated by people like me, who may be competent singers and who may even have quite a bit of knowledge about the tradition, but who are not really tradition bearers. So you have to find tradition bearers that you can listen to sing, and watch lead tunes. In the Bay area, I have found two kinds of bearers of the singing traditions: (1) singers from the South who grew up singing Sacred Harp and who have both internalized the tradition and are talented enough to be able to pass it on; (2) singers who have been singing in the Bay Area long enough that they embody our emerging regional tradition and who are, again, talented enough to pass those traditions on.

It’s easy to name the first type of bearer of singing traditions: there’s Hugh McGuire, and then we get some visiting singers like Carol Selleck who sang with us in Palo Alto this fall. It’s not quite as easy to name the Bay Area singers who are the bearers of our peculiar regional singing traditions. I would think about those singers who have been singing in the Bay Area for quite a few years, who embody the Bay Area style of fast tempos, straight rhythms (very little swing), minimal ornamentation, and pure harmonies (i.e., Bay Area singers seem to sing in some form of just intonation). I know I’ve learned a lot from watching and listening to Chris Thorman, a gifted singer who has been singing in the Bay Area for more than half his life. I’ve also learned a lot from watching and listening to people like Linda Selph, talented singers who learned to sing in the Bay Area, have been singing here for a decade or two, and who embody our regions traditions.

I thought about our bearers of singing tradition while I sat in tonight’s Berkeley singing. In addition to traditional Southern singers, and Bay area singers, we also have a lot of singers who moved here from some other region of the urban Sacred Harp revival. If I listen hard at our Bay Area singings, sometimes I can hear the influences of the Chicago singers (hey, that sounded like Judy Hauff); or the influences of the Western Massaschusetts singers (hey, that sounded like someone who learned to sing by listening to Tim Ericksen), or the northern New England singers (hey, that sounded like someone who sang with one of Larry Gordon’s groups). I think I sound like eastern New England singers, because eastern New England singers sound like the church singing I grew up with and that’s something I’m never going to get over. — And then when Hugh stands up to lead, I can hear Mississippi loud and clear (which is utterly delightful).

As I sit there and listen to all these competing influences at our singings, I’m amazed that I can distinguish a Bay Area sound at all. And sometimes that Bay Area sound gets swamped, and disappears for a while. But I heard it tonight — that solid bass with the other parts singing pure fifths and fourths above it; that solid straight rhythm; and above all those fast tempos. But who is bearing that Bay Area tradition for us? — who are the singers who embody that sound, who are talented enough that the rest of us schlumps are willing to learn from them? This is the challenge of emerging regional traditions within the urban revival: the rest of us being willing to pay attention to the local tradition bearers long enough for regional traditions to truly emerge.

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Singing at home

Singing in Saratoga

From my notes, two weeks after the singing

The regular fourth Sunday Palo Alto singing was actually in Saratoga, in Connie and Tom’s house. There were about ten of us, with a nice even distribution through all the parts.

Someone decided to lead 497 Natick today. Recently, and for no good reason, I’ve taken a dislike to Natick’s bass part. Don’t get me wrong, I still like Natick as a whole, and the bass part sounds good in combination with the other parts. But I don’t care for the bass part itself. So today, I switched to the tenor bench for this tune. I love Natick’s melody, especially the quick shift down to fa in measure 4 after holding sol for three beats, and descending eighth notes in the last two measures. It was also a real pleasure to sing next to Phil; he is always dead-on accurate in his pitch, rhythm, and enunciation, and he’s musical to boot. But my voice doesn’t do well singing tenor for very long, so I quickly switched back to the bass section.

A woman from New Mexico has been singing with us while staying in the area for a few months (for the life of me, I can’t remember her name, even though I know it perfectly well), and today she led us in no. 553 Anthem on the Beginning. As it turned out, none of the rest of us could remember having sung it before, so we sang it once with the notes, and then with the words. It’s not a particularly difficult anthem, and we did a creditable job getting through it — though I’m not sure how well we would have done if we hadn’t had someone leading it who knew it well. When we got done, she turned to Phil and said that she noticed he had gotten every single note right. The rest of us, needless to say, had made our share of errors — but that’s our Phil: he can sight-sing just about anything you put in front of him, and sing it well, and make it sound musical.

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Singing at home

Singing in a small room

From my notes; posted a month after the singing

Today’s regular fourth Sunday Palo Alto singing was hosted by Stephanie. She had a fairly small room for us to sing in, and with about ten of us there, there wouldn’t have been much room if anyone else showed up. It turned out to be a very good singing: when you’re only a few feet from every other singer, you can really hear everyone’s voice, which is quite enjoyable.

I particularly enjoyed singing with Paul, who doesn’t often get to singings. Paul can get notes down below the C two octaves below middle C (that is, below C2). In between tunes, we got to talking a little bit, and he said he’s now singing with the Slavyanka Russian Men’s Chorus — and there are guys in that ensemble who can sing lower than he, down to A1. Wow.