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Singing at home

New location

(I neglected to write up the fourth Sunday singing in September when it happened (a touch of bronchitis put me out of action for a bit), but I’ll post a few quick notes and back-date this to September 22.)

We were invited to sing at the Presbyterian church in Sunnyvale. Several of our regular singers couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts, which was too bad. But one of our regular singers, Marian, is a member of that church, and got some of her friends from the choir to come sing with us. They talked about maybe getting us to sing there regularly.

All in all, another good singing, even if we were a little light on tenors. I always enjoy it when new singers join us — and not surprisingly, since they sing in a church choir, today’s new singers picked it up quickly.

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Singing at home

Labor Day singing

A short singing for me tonight. I sang with another chorus in the afternoon, so arrived to the Berkeley weekly singing late and with my voice already somewhat tired. The class’s intonation was wavering a bit again tonight, and dealing with wavering intonation tires my voice. So, to my regret, I left not long after the break, having sung for less than an hour — but as much as I regretted leaving, I’m no longer willing to blow out my voice.

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Singing at home

In harmony

All our out-of-town singers had to catch early flights this year, so it was just us Palo Alto folks at the fourth Sunday singing: Jeannette singing treble, Ann and Phil on the tenor bench, Peter and I singing bass, and Terry singing alto. As much as I like the volume and excitement and bustle of an all-day singing, it was really nice to settle down and sing for nearly three hours with five other voices that I know well.

We started out by working through no. 240 Christian Song. We all felt that we could have done better singing this tune at yesterday’s all-day singing, so we took the time to sing through each part separately. I love singing through each part, one by one, and then putting all the parts together; I particularly enjoyed seeing what Jeremiah Ingalls did with each part, and with the interplay between the parts, in this tune. (My only disappointment was with the alto part; mm. 5-6 were boring, and overall it didn’t live up to the other parts.)

After that, we just sang as usual. I particularly enjoyed singing no. 113 The Prodigal Son; I think it’s one of those tunes that does better in small groups than in large groups. But all the tunes we sang today were enjoyable. Yesterday’s all-day singing had been a little disappointing for me; the intonation problems that have sometimes plagued us in the Bay Area crept into the all-day singing (this was quite noticeable in the three hours of video I shot at yesterday’s singing). But at today’s singing, we listened closely to each other, and stayed in tune. I particularly like it when a class of Sacred Harp singers is so in tune with each other that you can hear harmonic overtones, which vibrate through your whole body even at low volumes, and more than once today we got some overtones going.

I came out of today’s singing feeling fabulous — and thinking about how maybe it would be fun sometime to sing Sacred Harp in a smaller ensemble. I mean, wouldn’t it have been great to have been a part of the Denson Quartet?

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Singing at home

Who’s beside you, who’s behind you

Will is visiting from Kalamazoo, and because we were a little short on basses, he came and sang bass for a while. He is one of those singers that I enjoy sitting next to. It’s not just his musical ability, it’s not just that he’s a good singer — he’s also a nice easygoing person who’s not competitive and not trying to prove anything; and he’s someone who obviously feels the meaning of the music (however he filters it through his own belief system) and expresses that meaning through his voice and presence.

After the break, Will went to sit in the back row of the tenor section. And while we already had a strong tenor section during the first half, I noticed that Will seemed to make the tenors sound even a little bit better. In the urban revival of Sacred Harp, we are taught that the best singers always try to sit on the front bench, because that’s where the action is; but having strong singers in the back row can help those of us who are merely average sing above our general level of competence. (Indeed, in other choral groups I’ve sung with, I always try to figure out who the best bass singer is, then sing right next to him, or in front of him, so I’ll sing better).

This made me think about the really excellent singers I’ve known who have consistently sat in the back: Natalia, who used to sit in the back row of the treble section of the Berkeley weekly singing and helped make that section sound sweet and powerful; Susan and Marsha, who tend to sit in the back row of the alto section of the Berkeley weekly singing, and make a good alto section even better; Ken who sat in the back row of the trebles in the Newton, massachusetts, monthly singing, always seeming to improve what was already a strong and melodious treble section; Mark, whom I’ve often seen sitting the the back of the Berkeley weekly singing and various all-day singings and conventions; etc., etc.

(I should add that while I prefer to sit in the back row of the bass section, it has nothing to do with thinking myself to be one of those good singers — I like to sit in the back row because I’m a pretty big guy, and I can spread out in the back row without worrying if I’m going to trip or kick a leader, or elbow the singer next to me, or generally feel claustrophobic.)

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Singing at home

Good singer

The altos at today’s second Sunday Palo Alto singing were sounding particularly good today, and I finally commented on the fact. Marion said with due modesty that I couldn’t mean her, because she sings rather softly. Yes, I said, but you have what must be perfect pitch, and you’re an all-around excellent singer.

We Sacred Harp singers of the urban revival sometimes fall prey to the mistaken thought that in order to be a good singer you must be loud. But good singing cannot be equated with loud singing. One of the best Sacred Harp singers I have sung with is not very loud (at least, not by Sacred Harp standards, although I’ve heard her perform other kinds of music and be able to reach the furthest seats in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco without the assistance of amplification). She may not be loud by Sacred Harp standards, but I’ve sung next to her, and she is a fabulous singer: perfect intonation, discrete use of subtle ornamentation, wonderful enunciation, amazing breath control, a superb sense of rhythm and a sense of how to manifest the rhythms of both text and tune, a deep sense of the tradition, and generally a very high level of musicianship. She is also a careful listener, and she is one of those singers who can make all those around her sing better — I know that when I sat next to her, I became a much better singer. So loudness is not all that important. Sacred Harp singing is a combination of tradition, text, tune, and community, all in service of realizing something larger than ourselves.

In any case, Marion is another one of those singers I like to sit near — she may not be loud, but I know she was making me a better singer today. I want to be more like her!

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Singing at home

Why Sacred Harp makes you a good singer

Between way too much to do at work, and a graduate class I stupidly registered for, I have had no time to write about singing. Here are some notes from the weekly Berkeley singing of July 29 — posted three weeks late.

During the break tonight [July 29], I talked a little with Erika. She and I had both been away from the Berkeley singings — she had been singing with a choir (I neglected to ask which choir), and rehearsals were Monday evenings. And she had some interesting comments on how singing skills learned in Sacred Harp transferred to more conventional choral singing. (A little background — she said she had not sung with a conventional chorus since high school.)

The other altos remarked on how Erika was never tentative on entrances — this is obviously something we learn in Sacred Harp singing, she said, where in a fuguing tune, you need to come in on your part without hesitation. The director complimented her because she was always looking up — as she pointed out, you have to be looking up from your book in Sacred Harp singing to see what the leader is doing; and I would add that because we are forced to look from words to music to leader, we become adept at looking up and then finding our place in the music once again. Finally, and obviously, she said her sight-singing skills were above average — she was used to being confronted with an unknown piece of music, and just singing from it.

I had not thought before about how Sacred harp teaches us to handle entrances, and teaches us how to be able to look up. Not that I’m necessarily good at either skill — Erika is a much better singer than I — but I am certainly better than I was before I started singing Sacred Harp.

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Singing at home

Back to Berkeley

After a month away, Carol and I headed over to the Berkeley weekly singing tonight. We almost didn’t go: We had been home from our cross-country trip less than twenty-four hours. I was beat from my first day back at work (I love my job, but the first day from vacation is always brutal). Neither of us felt much like driving an hour to get to singing. But we went anyway.

And I did. We got off to a bit of a rough start: the four parts weren’t quite in tune with each other, and we sounded a little ragged. But then the tenors began to really sing; the altos followed (we had a great alto section tonight); then the trebles began to hit their stride; and Jeremy kept the rest of us bases in line. Afterwards, Carol said, “I thought we sounded really good tonight.” I hemmed and hawed, and wanted to point out all the mistakes and problems we were having (certainly, I was having my own problems; I’m never happy with my own singing); but in the end I had to admit that she was right: we sounded pretty good tonight.

And I also have to admit that by the time the singing was over, I was in a much better frame of mind. A good singing will do that for you.

Posted a week late due to work commitments 🙁

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Singing at home

Oh well

A frustrating evening for me: when we started singing, for once my allergies weren’t active, and I could sing without thinking about it. But within half an hour, the sun was down and the night-blooming plants let loose their pollen, my head plugged up, and I had to work hard to sing. Sometimes I really hate living in the Bay area — there is always something in bloom.

Aside from that, it was a pretty good singing.

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Singing at home

An unusual singing

At tonight’s weekly singing in Berkeley, we had an unusual situation: there were far fewer men than women. One of the reasons I like singing Sacred Harp is that there are usually as many men, or even more men, than women. That “choir-y” sound that too many church choirs have (and which I find less pleasing than the Sacred Harp sound even when the church choir is better rehearsed and more skilled) comes in part from an oversupply of sopranos.

Because there were so few men, Hugh, who usually sings treble, came and sang with Mark and me in the bass section. I had never sung next to Hugh before, of course, and it was great fun to do so; and I have to say that for all that he’s a treble, he certainly made a pretty good bass.

It was also fun hearing about the Mississippi Sacred Harp convention from Hugh. (At the last minute, I had managed to get the entire Memorial Day weekend off, and I thought about going, but unfortunately last-minute air fares were far too expensive.) It was good to hear that Jackson and Erica drove up from New Orleans to go to the convention; and of course Warren was there; and only after hearing about the people who were there did the fine singing get mentioned.

[Posted six days late due to heavy work commitments.]

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Singing at home

Twice as many basses

Today at the second Sunday Palo Alto singing (which took place on a first Sunday, which I’ll explain in a minute), we had two tenors, two trebles, one alto, and four basses. This, to my ear, is an almost perfectly balanced proportion of voices. As William Billings said in his essay “To the several Teachers of Music” in The Singing Master’s Assistant, Lesson XIII:

“ONE very essential thing in Music, is to have the parts properly proportioned; and here I think we ought to take a grateful notice, that the Author of Harmony has so curiously constructed our Organs, that there are about three or four deep voices suitable for the Bass to one for the upper parts, which is about the proportion required in the laws of Harmony….” (The Complete Works of William Billings vol. II, ed. Hans Nathan [Boston: American Musicological Society / Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1977], p. 18)

That’s not far from the proportion that we had in today’s class, and we sounded wonderful. Billings is right: the laws of harmony are such that a group of singers sounds its best with a big bass section. In Western harmony, the bass grounds all the other voices, and big bass sound — “majestic,” Billings calls it — makes every other voice sound better. And yes, as a bass who loves to sing bass, I am biased — but try it sometime, have twice as many basses as any other part, or three times as many, and see how good you sound.

And why was the second Sunday singing on the first Sunday? We’ll be singing at the San Francisco Free Folk Festival next week, supporting Terry and Peter in their Sacred Harp workshop.

[Posted a week late, due to heavy work commitments.]