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Singing at home

One path into Sacred Harp singing

More newcomers this week. I asked one of these newcomers how he came to find out about Sacred Harp singing. I didn’t get the full story, but apparently he had seen the book somehow, was interested enough the music that he got the book, then got some of his friends to sing through some of the songs. Early on, he found recordings of Sacred Harp songs by Chanticleer; he knew about field recordings but was less interested in them. (Interestingly, he never found the “Rivers of Delight” album by the Word of Mouth Chorus, or the sound track from the movie “Cold Mountain,” two recordings that have inspired other people to seek out the northern revival of Sacred Harp.) Tonight was the first time he had attended a Sacred Harp singing, but he already owned the book, he had already heard recordings, and he had already started to sing the music. At the same time, he didn’t know about singing the shapes, nor was he familiar with the traditions that go with leading a song — two things that for many Sacred Harp singers are defining elements in the tradition.

In short, his path into Sacred Harp singing resembles the paths taken by the first singers in the northern revival: find the book, get a group of friends together to sing the songs, and only then encounter elements of the tradition like singing the shapes and leading styles.

Categories
Singing at home

Newcomers

I counted four, or maybe five, newcomers this evening. We had what was for us a good turnout tonight: six or seven in the bass section, a dozen or more in the tenor section, six or seven trebles, and five altos. As usual, Hal and a couple of other experienced singers made a point of greeting all the newcomers, and giving them a quick explanation of how Sacred Harp singing works.

I am always interested to watch the path of newcomers. How did they find out about Sacred Harp singing? How did they find out about our local singing? What does it feel like to them when they come to an actual singing — does it live up to their expectations, or not? How do we welcome them, and how do we teach them enough so that they can have some fun right from the beginning? And how long do they stick around?

One of the newcomers came to sit in the bass section, and we made sure to tell him that if he sat in the front row, he could listen to more experienced singers sitting behind him, and beside him. Hal was in the front, and checked in to make sure the newcomer knew what was going on.

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Singing at home

Raised sixths, and postmodern rootlessness

The first part of this week’s singing was the monthly “Other Book” singing, a time to sing from the Cooper book, Norumbega Harmony, Eclectic Harmony, etc. In the spirit of openness that has marked the Berkeley singings over the past several weeks, I saw a willingness of all singers to experiment, and of more experienced singers to do a little more teaching for the rest of us.

One subject came up that has been passionately discussed many times by singers of the urban revival. Towards the end of the “Other Book” singing, I asked us to sing Lebanon by William Billings, no. 2 in Norumbega Harmony. I had been playing through it at home, and noticed that if you try to raise the sixth, as is common Sacred Harp practice for songs in a minor key, at one point you get part of a diminished chord. So I was curious as to how we would sing the song. Unfortunately, since we don’t really know the song, we sang a fair number of wrong notes (I know I sang plenty of wrong notes), so I couldn’t be sure: did the experienced singers raise the sixth, or not?

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Singing at home

Openness to experimentation

It was a light turnout tonight, with three trebles, three altos, four or five tenors, and six or seven basses (a few singers changed from one section to another in the course of the evening).

We continued our experiment of having each singer pitch their own song, if they chose to do so, in order to continue to build our skills as singers. Pitching tended to be quite low — although I don’t have a particularly good ear, based on notes I could not sing I’d estimate that one song was pitched a good fifth below notated pitch. Yet in spite of the generally low pitches, there were no negative comments — everyone continued to be very supportive. I was aware that this openness to learning and making mistakes gave me more confidence as a singer. I kept working on the same problems I’ve been working on for the past year — breath support, rhythmic accuracy, and intonation — yet I felt a freedom to focus more than usual on my own problems without worrying about what others thought, and wound up making particularly good progress on breath support.

In keeping with this new sense of experimentation, one of the newer women singers decided to join the bass section. During the break, I mentioned that is was great to have a woman in the section, and asked how it went for her; she said the tenor section, where she had been singing, was just too high for her voice, and this felt better; and I didn’t ask why she chose to join the bass section rather than the alto section. The treble section got shaken up a little, too:– During the break, one of the basses went to sing with the trebles, the first time in a while that a man has sat in that section. And one of the regular altos sat with the trebles; later she said she was able to do so in part because the pitches were so low.

A youngish man wandered into the singing about halfway through, and sat in the tenor section. He was welcomed and coached throughout by a couple of experienced singers. I talked with him briefly after the singing was over, and he said that he lived across the street, had heard the singing, and decided to come over and check it out. But I got the impression that he felt he was in over his head, and I have my doubts as to whether he’ll be back.

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Singing at home

Nasal consonants

Attendance has been off a little bit as we head into summer. Some of the regulars were missing from the bass section this week, but a newcomer, an experienced Sacred Harp singer who has just moved to the area, sang strongly enough that the absence of some regulars was less noticeable.

Tenor Will and alto Marsha apparently got into a conversation during the break, about how to pronounce certain words. When Will’s turn came to lead, he invited us to sing words ending in a vowel followed by a nasal consonant (m, n, ng, etc.), such that we started sounding the nasal consonant midway through that note. This sounds complicated, and some of us didn’t quite understand Will at first. He demonstrated: “Instead of singing ‘hoooooome’, sing ‘hooommmme’.” (I got what he meant pretty quickly because I had once had a singing teacher correct me when I emphasized those nasal consonants; but that’s the way I had learned to sing from listening to records by bluegrass signers like Lester Flatt, and old-time country signers like Hank Williams.) Will’s idea was a good one: when we sang that way, it sounded much better. There’s a quality that harmonies take on when sung with nasals that you just don’t get when you try to sing only those pure choir-y Italian vowels.