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Singing at home

Lining out

At tonight’s singing, after the break, Susan stood up to lead the class in no. 163b, “China.” Several people had had to leave during the break, and we were down to less than 20 singers; yet in spite of that, my sense was that the singing was stronger; we had hit our stride. Susan asked for all three verses, which we sang quite well — loud and true and with good rhythm — and then Susan told us there’s a fourth verse, which she would line out for us.

I have never heard of anyone lining out a verse for a Sacred Harp class. indeed, the old New England singing schools, from whence the Sacred harp tradition springs, was begun to replace the old chaotic lining-out of hymns with Regular Singing. As Regular Singing continues to die out in churches, the lining-out of hymns is making a modest come-back in some worship services; I’ve lined out a few hymns myself, and rather like it. But, as I say, it was odd to hear lining-out in a Sacred Harp class.

Susan would barely get the words out of her mouth when the class would respond with a rush of sound, not even waiting for her to mark time. I have never heard a lined-out hymn sound so good. There was no stumbling or fumbling for words; Sacred Harp singing develops a singer’s memory. There was no hesitation about the music; even though we were all looking at our books, Sacred Harp singing turns singers into excellent sight-readers, so even the distraction and novelty of lining-out did not distract the class from singing the music. There was no need to wait for Susan to mark time; the Sacred Harp tradition cultivates musical leadership among all singers.

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Singing at home

Overheard

The conversation was something about the nature of Sacred Harp, and the fact that we happened to be singing in a church building. But, said one person, this isn’t religion for us.

There are others in our Sacred Harp group for whom the religious content is quite important. But I think for most people who sing with us — as for most people who sing in the northern urban revival — this isn’t about religion.

Irving Lowens says somewhere that the 18th century New England singing schools were a form of popular music; they were entertainment more than religion. Maybe we have returned to that; in this minor way, perhaps the urban revival is truer to the 18th century roots of the singing school than is traditional Southern Sacred Harp singing.

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Singing at home

Resemblance

A new singer — I think tonight was his second time singing — stood up to lead “Sherburne.” The class responded to his solid beat, and really sang out. I was sitting next to Lucas in the back bench of the bass section, and I murmured to him, “Rock on!”

“It sounded like Queen!” he said.

It took me a minute to realize he was referring to the 1970s glam rock band. “You’re right, those chord progressions, yeah,” I murmured back. “Now all we need is Freddy Mercury in the trebles.”

He grinned and nodded. He was about to add something, but the next person stood up to lead a lesson and we turned our attention back to the class.

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Reading list

Reading list: Sacred Song in America

I had a committee meeting tonight and could not attend the weekly Berkeley singing. Instead, a short reflection on an essay by Stephen Marini about Sacred Harp singing:

When he was writing Sacred Song in America, Stephen A. Marini spent seven years traveling across the United States finding out about American sacred song traditions. He participated in and listened to many different kinds of sacred singing, and he interviewed notable composers and performers of sacred song. Since he is a historian by trade, of course his book talks about the history of sacred song in the United States. The third chapter in the book, “Sacred Harp Singing,” is devoted entirely to the Sacred Harp singing tradition.

Marini has been singing Sacred Harp since the mid-1970s, and he is a central figure in the New England branch of the Northern revival. He not only has an intimate and first-person knowledge of key moments in the history of the Northern revival, he also knows a fair number of the most influential traditional Southern signers.

In “Sacred Harp Singing,” Marini tells us how Sacred Harp singing is a form of sacred song, although the way in which it is sacred may differ for Northern and Southern singers. He interviewed several prominent traditional Southern singers, and they told him that they explicitly consider Sacred Harp singing to be a form of sacred song. However, many Northern singers don’t talk about Sacred Harp music as being a form of sacred song and, says Marini, “the cultural divide between northern and southern singers could hardly be greater.” Many northern singers do say that they find something implicitly “sacred” in Sacred Harp singing, and some Northerners even talk about it as being sacred song. Yet even then, Northern notions of the sacredness of the music are typically different from, and less unified than, traditional southern notions. We could say that while traditional Southern singers are modernists, Northern revival singers are postmodernists.

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Singing at home

Another path into Sacred Harp singing

I wound up chatting with another newcomer this evening, and as usual I asked how he got interested in Sacred Harp singing. He told me he heard about it through iON, a sort of New-Age-y radio character, who said it has healing properties. (You can listen to what iON says about fasola singing by clicking on the mp3 file on the “Information Farm” blog.) He said, “That may sound a little strange….” “No,” I said, “I’m a minister, I do a lot with the healing properties of music.” Later, I made sure to ask him to come stand in the middle of hollow square when I led a song later that evening. He seemed to enjoy the experience.

It does seem to me that there can be a healing quality to the sound you hear in the middle of the hollow square; perhaps that is the unidentified something that some people find compelling about standing there and leading a lesson. Certainly, healing is mentioned in some of the songs in The Sacred Harp (e.g., 56b Villulia); and healing is definitely a feature of the Christian tradition, which is central to the spirituality of traditional Sacred Harp singing. But in the northern revival singings I have attended, I have rarely heard it articulated explicitly: that Sacred Harp singing might have healing properties.

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Singing at home

The alto section

Some of us had a brief discussion at the Berkeley singing tonight about whether men could sing in the alto section. One person suggested that alto sections are always all women. I thought that there had to be a place for those few men whose strongest voice is their falsetto (i.e., counter-tenors), which places them in the alto section. But did I know of any men who sang with the altos? Yes, I did: Bruce Randall sings in the alto section — you know, that Bruce Randall, the one who has one of his songs in the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp. But I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with that justification, for Bruce Randall is not a traditional Southern singer.

When I got home, I looked at the relevant section in the Rudiments of Music section of The Sacred Harp, Chapter I, section 5: “The Sacred Harp uses four-part harmony. The parts, in order of increasing pitch, are bass (sung by men), tenor (men and women), alto (usually women)….” So the primary reference source holds out the possibility that men can sing with the alto section, albeit rarely; and presumably there have been some traditional male Southern singers who have sung alto.

This, however, raised another question for me. What about women, like my friend Bette, whose voice gets lower as they get older? In Bette’s case, her voice is now so low that she sings in the bass section of her church choir. We in the northern revival might have the tendency to interpret the Rudiments of Music fairly literally, and lean towards excluding women from the bass section; or we might put the question out on the Fasola email list — appealing to a higher authority, assuming that someone out there with a broader knowledge of the tradition could tell us about a time when a traditional Southern singing included a woman, or women, in the bass section.

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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.

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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.