Shotwell Street. L.M.

The San Francisco singers have been meeting once a month at the ODC Dance Theatre at the corner of Shotwell and 17th. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to join them for the past few months. Big conventions are fun, and mid-sized all-day singings can’t be beat, but there is a special joy in singing with a smaller group of ten to twenty singers. You can hear every voice, and be inspired by individual singers; I find myself learning a lot from sitting across from Hugh, being bracketed by Mark on tenor and Leigh on alto, and hearing Joel beside me — and that’s mentioning only four of the powerful voices at this singing.

I’ve enjoyed singing with them so much, I wrote a tune for them. The singers gave it a good reading today, making it sound better than I thought it would.

Shotwell Street L.M. (PDF)

Chaville (en francais)

In honor of the Paris Sacred Harp singers, here’s a tune I wrote based on a French text.

The text is from a French metrical psalter published in 1729, the Psautier Genève. The psalms were set in rhyming metrical poetry by Clément Marot Théodore de Bèze in 1563, and revised in 1729 by the Synode Wallon, published in 1730 in Amsterdam. The text of this psalter is available online here, or (in a form that I find more convenient) here. I note with interest that the 1730 edition, available on Google Books, includes one page introduction to the principles of singing, using solfege syllables; the syllables used were ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si.

Some of the meters in the Psautier de Geneve are fairly complicated, but I found that Ps. 150 (one of my favorite psalms) had been put into a relatively uncomplicated 7s D. meter (i.e., The tune I wrote for this metrical psalm is in the style of the First New England School.

I wanted to present the tune to the Palo Alto local singing, but when I tried to sing the French I found it very difficult singing in a foreign language; this gave me a new appreciation for the abilities of non-English speaking Sacred harp singers. Because my French accent was so bad, I decided to add a line-by-line translation in metrical (but non-rhyming) English. Here’s the version I presented to the Palo Alto singers, which we sang in English:

Chaville for English speakers

The Palo Alto singers liked the tune. I was reasonably happy with it, or at least happy enough that I figured I would neither embarrass myself, nor give California singers a bad name, if I sent to the tune to the Paris Sacred Harp singers. By the way, the tune is named for the suburb of Paris where the Paris Sacred Harp singers currently hold their local singing.

And here, for purists, is the version I sent to the French singers; if you want to experience what non-English speaking Sacred Harp singers experience, try sight-singing the tune entirely in French:

Chaville for French speakers (with metrical English translation)

Finally, for those who are interested: after I wrote the tune, and after we sang it in Palo Alto, I realized I could look up the original melody given in the 1730 Amsterdam book. I transcribed the original melody into shape notes, and here it is:

Psaume 150, original melody

The Bee

And, following on from the previous post, here is the second child-friendly tune we sang today:

The Bee. C.M.

If you actually sing either of these tunes with young children, pitch them in a range where the children feel most comfortable singing (probably around middle C to A above).

Background: The tune is one that has long been associated with this poetry. And while young children today probably won’t be familiar with the word “doth,” I decided not to alter the wording since this is such a famous poem. (Indeed, if you remember Alice in Wonderland from your childhood, you’ll recall that Alice recites a fractured version of this first verse.)

Commentary: I know, I know, it is so obvious that this song has been produced by a children and youth minister. And yes, I do indeed enjoy teaching moral precepts to children. If you do not like teaching morality to children, you hereby have permission (like you need my permission) to use the silly words from Alice in Wonderland instead.

Happy Is the Child

An email exchange with Mark, a Sacred Harp singer and the parent of two toddlers, got me to thinking about music for young children (age 5 and under).

Years ago, I took a workshop in leading songs with children, and the leader of the workshop (an experienced children’s chorus director) pointed out that young children sing best in a range from about middle C to the A above middle C; this is precisely the range of one of the all-time great children’s songs, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Not only is this the most comfortable range for young children to sing in, but they actually hear best in this range. So if you want to teach a Sacred Harp tune to a child, the ideal melody would be one that which would have a range of about a sixth, and which could be pitched from about middle C to A. This rules out most, but not all, tenor melodies in The Sacred Harp.

Another thing to remember about young children is that they don’t read (most of them, anyway). So a Sacred Harp tune with lots of words, or lots of verses, is going to add a layer of difficulty for young children. And while young children are good at memorizing, they find it easier to remember lyrics that have words and images that they understand — like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” This rules out many tunes in The Sacred Harp, which may have words that young children simply don’t yet know.

If you’re looking for a Sacred Harp tune with a tenor melody that has a range of a sixth, plus words that young children will find comprehensible, about the only tune that comes to my mind is 46 “Let Us Sing.” I’m sure there are others — but not many others.

Fortunately, Isaac Watts wrote a whole book of poetry for young children: Divine Songs for Children. Most of the tunes are aimed at older children, but there are plenty of stanzas and couplets that work well for young children. So I decided to set some of Isaac Watts’ poetry to child-friendly melodies, and then harmonize them in Sacred Harp style.

Now the number of Sacred Harp singers who have children age 2 through age 5, and who want to teach their children Sacred Harp-y tunes, and who furthermore want to have their young children sing along with other Sacred Harp singers — well, this is going to be a pretty small number of people. But I work with children, and this is the kind of thing I find fun, so I wrote two tunes, and we sang them today in the Palo Alto local singing. The singers present liked the tunes pretty well, but the two-year-old and the four-year-old who were there did not join in singing with us.

Here’s the first tune:

Happy Is the Child. 8s.

Oh, and this tune? It’s adapted from “Jimmy Rose He Went to Town,” in the book American Folk Songs for Children by Ruth Crawford Seeger. My copy of this book is a well-worn, much used copy owned by my mother, a schoolteacher who taught kindergarten for over a decade, and preschool (ages 3 and 4) for nearly a decade.

On to the next tune.

New Web site for Palo Alto Sacred Harp

Seems like all the cool kids have a Sacred Harp Facebook group, but none of us Palo Alto singers wanted to deal with Facebook (maybe it’s because we live in Silicon Valley and familiarity breeds contempt).

But we needed a Web site, and we didn’t have any money to spend. So we used open source software, and now we have a Web site:

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.

Time Like the Tide

The Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw based a recent choral composition on a text familiar the Sacred harp singers, the poetry of 266 Kingwood. That composition got me interested in the poetry, so I did some research on its origin. The earliest instance I could find of this text was published in 1796, in a somewhat different form, in The Poetical Monitor, a hymnal published to support an orphanage in London; there the poem is attributed to someone named “Green.” In 1798 the text was published by Thomas Humphrys in his A Collection of Hymns, in a form much closer to the poetry of Kingwood. I chose to set the 1798 version.

I presented this tune to today’s Palo Alto local singing. It proved to be more challenging than I had wanted it to be. The time changes in particular were challenging — I led them where a quarter note in 4/4 time equaled a quarter note in 6/4 time; I think the singers expected one measure of 4/4 time to equal one measure of 6/4 time. I should have changed the 4/4 time signature to 2/2 throughout. And there were some passages that need to be revisited, and probably revised. Nevertheless, it was a fun tune to sing — and here’s the draft version:

Time Like the Tide. 8.8.6.D. (PDF)

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.