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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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 🙁

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.

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.]

Singing at home

Lots of new singers, and creeping pitches

It was Memorial Day, and as you’d expect, the turnout at the Berkeley weekly singing was light. One of tonight’s singers was Asa, who started singing Sacred Harp with Neely Bruce at Wesleyan, and who is presently working on a multimedia performance that will incorporate Sacred Harp singing. Asa brought some of the Polish, Danis, and American artists who are working with him on this multimedia performance to experience Sacred Harp singing first hand. We had so few of our regular singers, our singing was a little raggedy at times, our intonation was off at times, and I felt that we were not singing at our best for these visitors. But our visitors were more interested in Sacred Harp singing as a community-based practice rooted in the local landscape, and from that perspective we were at our best tonight: singers were friendly and supportive to each other, with none of the eye-rolling and judgmental attitudes that can creep into Sacred Harp singing (or into any choral singing, for that matter). I think all our visitors had fun and felt welcomed, and that’s more important than almost anything else.*

I did notice one oddity in tonight’s singing. Eric was pitching the second half of the singing; he tends to pitch tunes a little high, which is very much in the Berkeley tradition; but more than once, it seemed to me that the class raised his pitch by a half tone or more once we started singing. This was odd because typically when singers go off pitch, we go down in pitch, not up; we go down because it’s generally easier to sing a little lower than a little higher. But tonight we would sing the notes, Eric would stop us and drop the pitch down about a half step, and then as soon as we started singing we’d go right back up to where we were before. Eric said afterwards he wished he had corrected the pitches down a whole step or more — then maybe we would have crept up a half step to a reasonable pitch! In any case, it was an oddity that I’d never heard in a Sacred Harp singing before: pitches creeping up, instead of down.


* Of course, the most important thing in Sacred Harp singing, for some of us, is the sacred dimension of the singing. But I would argue that the communal aspects of singing help us to understand what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God, which theologian Bernard Loomer says corresponds to what some people think of as the web of life: that is, the deep and sacred understanding that we are all connected; not a sparrow falls to the ground but that God is aware of it; the lion and the lamb will lie down together; and it is incumbent upon us in our sacred communities to act as if we are indeed all connected. Thus it is not enough merely to sing in tune with each other; we should also strive to be spiritually in tune with each other. [/sermon]

Singing at home

Flatt and Scruggs vs. SS Decontrol

A smaller number of singers turned out this week than did last week, perhaps twenty at the peak; and quite a few people left after the break, leaving us with 5 basses, 3 altos, 2 trebles (both men), and 6 tenors. Interestingly, I felt the singing got better after the break: you could hear each part clearly, and people were obviously listening to each other and not just singing as loud as possible.

During the break, I said to Hugh that I thought he was a good influence on the Berkeley singing. He asked, How so? I said that I noticed we had been singing at somewhat slower tempos than the usual breakneck Berkeley tempo, which I thought was doing us some good, and I attributed that in part to the influence of his Mississippi style. He said that while we weren’t quite singing at a Mississippi pace, he too had noticed that we weren’t singing every tune as fast as usual.

Mind you, I enjoy singing Sacred Harp tunes at breakneck speeds. When it is done well, singing Sacred Harp fast and loud gives me all the thrills of the 1949 recording of Flatt and Scruggs playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” — unbelievably fast and incredibly precise. Except sometimes we sound less like Flatt and Scruggs and more like SS Decontrol — loud and fast and exciting, but not what you’d call tuneful or intelligible; and as much as I like hardcore, I think when I’m singing Sacred Harp I’d rather sound like Flatt and Scruggs.

In any case, after the break tonight we sang a number of tunes at a nice moderate tempo. You could hear that we were listening to each other more. This is a good thing to do in a practice singing: learn how the tunes sound, learn how to sing them with precision. And then when we have an all-day singing, and Mark comes back down from Vancouver to sing with us, he can lead 217 at a breakneck speed, and we’ll sing it with all the precision of Flatt and Scruggs.