Singing at home


I neglected to write this singing up right away, and now all I have is my notes:

“Counted 25 [singers], incl. 6 basses, 4 altos, 3-4 trebles, the rest tenors — people moved around. Loud, fast, pretty much in tune this week. Fun singing with this many.”

Posted 5/23.

Singing at home

A third day of singing

Carol and I headed over to the Berkeley weekly singing tonight, for a third day in a row of singing. It was a smaller turnout than usual; I counted fourteen people at one point. The singing was very good, in the best tradition of the Berkeley weekly singing: fast, loud (but not too loud), and pitched a bit high. And while we did get a little screechy a couple of times, mostly we were very much in tune with each other.

After hearing 268 David’s Lamentation sung quite slowly at yesterday’s Healdsburg singing, I decided to lead it at a fairly quick tempo. I was thinking of a field recording I got a few years ago from Hal Eisen, which was only identified as being by “Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention”; in this recording the singers used a tempo of about 116 beats per minute. (Note that William Billings, the composer of David’s Lamentation, specified that 2/4 time should be sung at 120 beats per minute.) Berkeley singers like to sing fast, and tonight we sang it at about 120 beats per minute; furthermore, the class sang it the way I like best, with a bit of a swing to it. Sung at the slow tempo, you can sense King David’s sadness at the death of Absalom; but at the quicker tempo, I get more of a sense of the sharp urgency and complexity of David’s grief.

Singing at home

Two ways of singing?

One of the differences between traditional Southern Sacred Harp singing, and Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival, is that traditional singing is centered around all-day singings and conventions, while the urban revival tends to be centered around the local or practice singings. In the heartland of Sacred Harp singing, you can drive to a different all-day singing almost every weekend of the season, which means that local or practice singings just aren’t that important. But in the urban revival, there might be only one or two all-day singings or conventions per year within driving distance, so we invest a good bit of emotional energy into our monthly singings, or (if we’re lucky) our weekly singings.

In my experience, monthly and weekly singings of the urban revival can take on one of two formats. On the one hand, the monthly or weekly singing can take on the format of an abbreviated all-day singing: you try to sing as many tunes as possible, so you don’t sing more than a couple of verses of any one tune, and if a tune doesn’t sound quite right you don’t pause to fix it but just move right on to the next tune.

On the other hand, the monthly or weekly singing can take on the format of a kind of rehearsal. If a tune doesn’t sound quite right or if one section is struggling, you take the time to review each struggling part separately, and work on the tune until you get it right. And instead of getting through as many tunes as possible, you’re willing to sing lots of verses of a given tune so that you can really learn how to sing it.

To distinguish the two formats, we might call the first one a local singing, and we might call the second one a practice singing. Both these formats are perfectly good; neither one is better than the other. Both have strengths: the local singing probably produces more adept leaders, and the practice singing probably produces more accurate singers. Both formats also have weaknesses: the local singing can tolerate poor leaders but suffers when there’s not a critical mass of experienced and accurate singers; while the practice singing can may not give enough people enough practice at leading.

In the Bay area, we have both types of singing. The weekly Berkeley singing is definitely the first type of singing, a local singing: it aims to provide a two-hour experience of an all-day singing each week; there is lots of peer pressure to become a good leader; you get dirty looks if you lead more than two verses of a tune; there are no part reviews and if a tune goes badly you just go on to the next tune. The twice-monthly Palo Alto singing is definitely the second type of singing, a practice singing: if a tune doesn’t go well, you go over it until everyone knows it; you might sing every verse of an unfamiliar tune, in order to get it right; no one really worries about who leads a tune.

After that long introduction, we finally come to tonight’s Berkeley singing. There were about sixteen singers, a little less than the typical number of twenty or so singers; that meant the sound was not quite full enough to sound like an all-day singing, and some parts simply drowned out the other parts (something that rarely happens in an all-day singing). And while there were good strong singers in every part — e.g., Ted from Chicago, with his beautiful bass voice, sang with us; and our own Hugh, who grew up singing Sacred Harp, sang treble — there were few enough singers that sometimes you were hearing individual singers rather than a section of singers. So it didn’t sound like a mini-all-day singing.

Now I’m wondering if there isn’t a way to combine the best of both formats. At the Palo Alto singing we usually put a table in the middle of the hollow square — maybe this Sunday I’ll try removing the table from the middle of the hollow square so those who wish can work on their leading skills (just in time for the Golden Gate All-Day Singing at the end of the month), while we also work on improving the accuracy of our singing.

(One last comment: it was good to be able to get back to singing after a month when the demands of my job kept me from singing much at all.)

Singing at home

Small but good

We had a light turnout in Berkeley tonight: something like 16 people before the break, and an even dozen after the break. Treated as a performance, maybe it wasn’t the best singing ever: we were a little raggedy-sounding at times, and we struggled a little with tunes that we should know. But it was still a good singing.

One reason it was a good singing was that everyone who led was invited to pitch their own tune — you didn’t have to, but you were invited to do so. Some of us are pretty good at pitching — others of us, like me, are not so good; I consistently pitched tunes a second lower than would have been best. But pitching tunes myself, and listening to others pitch tunes, forced me to listen more carefully to the other singers; and the more you listen to the other singers, the more sensitive your own singing becomes. By the second half of the singing, we had all relaxed a lot, we were listening better to one another, and — sure enough — our singing started to sound better, too.

Another reason it was a good singing for me was that I got to listen to Hugh sing treble; Hugh grew up singing Sacred Harp in Mississippi, and he knows how to sing. A highlight of the evening for me was singing 46 “Let Us Sing,” in which his treble got the rest of us to sound better than we ever have on that tune.

N.B.: Posted several days late (again!) due to crazy work schedule.

Singing at home

In tune

I just got my copy of Sacred Harp Singings 2012 & 2013: 2012 Minutes, 2013 Directory, and Names and Addresses of Sacred Harp Singers — also known as the Minutes Book. On page 177, in the minutes for Camp Fasola 2012 Adult Session, Wednesday 13 June, “Lesson: Questions Not Yet Answered Panel Discussion,” I find the following:

“Question: How do you think Sacred Harp singing has changed the most? Answer: … The singers were more in tune with one another decades ago and seemed to listen to each other better than we do today….”

Unfortunately, the minutes don’t say which of the four panelists — Dan Brittain, Judy Caudle, Buell Cobb, or David Ivey — made this remark.

I think a lot about intonation listening to other singers when I’m singing from the Sacred Harp, probably for theological reasons: for me, singing represents an unmediated manifestation of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and which theologian Bernard Loomer has explained as the web of life: the deep awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings (see note below). This is in direct contrast to the theological grounding of our consumer society, in which many people hold that the highest value is gratifying one’s own personal needs and desires regardless of impact on the web of life. When I sing, I’m hoping for the New Jerusalem to literally come down among us, adorning us with shining grace.

As a realist, I know this won’t happen, because there is no such thing as singing perfectly. Of all the musical instruments, the human voice is both the most perfect, and the most subject to physical changes and limitations. You could hear plenty of those limitations at tonight’s singing: it seemed that nearly everyone was coughing or clearing their throat, and many voices sounded husky.

Yet tonight we sang better than we have for a long time. The many husky voices may have helped keep us from one of our besetting sins in the Berkeley weekly singing, singing loudly enough that we can’t adequately hear the other parts (a tendency of ours that is exaggerated by the acoustics of All Saints Church). More importantly, we had good leadership in each of the sections. Now I know we’re all supposed to be equals when we sing Sacred Harp, but I also know that there are some singers who can make a whole section sound better, because these people listen carefully to the other parts, and they listen carefully to the others in their section, supporting and encouraging others with their voices. These singers, the best singers, may not be the ones you hear over all the others, but when they’re in a section somehow that whole section starts singing together, and the whole sounds better than the sum of the parts.

I’m doing badly at describing this, I know; I also have trouble trying to describe how the New Jerusalem will come down to earth. Suffice it to say that tonight we were singing together better than we have been recently. As Carol and I walked out after it was over, I said, “That was a pretty good singing tonight.” “It was,” she said. We went home feeling good.

Note: For you theology geeks, here are two theological references:

Reading list Singing at home

The new Cooper book: a quick look

In Berkeley tonight, we sang a number of tunes from the new Cooper book. It is a pleasure to use: the larger page size, and the careful typesetting, make it easy to read and beautiful to look at. I’ll write an in-depth review when I have had time to look through the book more carefully, and read through the tunes that are new to this edition. But my first impression is certainly very positive.

Singing at home

New sound

Carol and I headed over to to the Berkeley weekly singing tonight. I wound up sitting in front of Leland, and at the break I turned to him and said, “Have you changed something about your singing recently?”

He looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

“You sounded good,” I said. “I mean, you have a great voice anyway, but you sounded particularly good tonight.”

He shook his head. “No, I haven’t changed anything. I was just working on intonation tonight.”

We both agreed that you can hear yourself singing much better when you sit in the back bench of the bass section; there’s a wood-and-plaster wall right behind you that acts as a sounding board. It’s one of the few places in All Saints Chapel where I don’t feel in danger of over-singing.

And later I thought to myself: Intonation, yeah. We singers of the urban revival talk about accent and ornamentation and rhythm, but the few times I have heard traditional Southern singers, what really stood out for me was their precise intonation, and their careful tuning with other singers. Intonation is barely mentioned in the Rudiments chapter of The Sacred Harp, so we singers of the urban revival don’t talk much about it, but maybe we should.

Singing at home

Turn over

Tonight it struck me again: What a lot of change there has been in the people who sing at the Berkeley weekly singing! I looked around and noticed that quite a few of the regular singers who came tonight didn’t sing with us two years ago: several singers moved to the Bay are from somewhere else, several who are new to Sacred Harp singing. And quite a few former regulars were missing, people who have moved away, or can’t come Monday evenings any more.

We’ll see many of the missing people at all-day singings; in the Bay area, the all-day singings seem to me to be what provide the continuity over the years.

Posted a week late due to heavy work schedule.

Singing at home


We had some better-than-usual singing in Berkeley tonight. We had a fine visiting singer, David from Seattle, and I’ve noticed that really good visiting singers often improve a local singing — both, I suspect, because the addition of a fine voice always helps, and also because we local singers tend to be on our mettle and so we sing better.

But I was also thinking about a conversation I had with Marsha when we were driving back from the Trumpet singing. We were talking over why several stalwart singers were no longer coming to the local singings — and of course you always fear that they got tired of us, or the singing was bad one week, or something equally horrible. But when we went over the list of reasons why those former stalwart signers were no longer with us, they were had nothing to do with Sacred Harp: he got married and moved out of town, she’s doing a postdoc in another city, he’s on the road playing music, she’s finishing a graduate degree, he moved to the North Bay, and so on. I could think of one stalwart who stopped coming because he’s singing with another group, but he still comes when he can.

“It’s a very transient population,” said Marsha. And that’s really what it comes down to: we live in a major metropolitan area where many people come and live for only a few years while they go to school or hold a job, and then they move on. So we are always integrating new singers, and always saying goodbye to stalwart singers.

Posted six days after the fact, due to working long hours — another reason some singers drift away from Sacred Harp for a time.

Singing at home

A solid singing

I managed to get over to the Berkeley weekly singing tonight, in spite of having to officiate at a memorial service this afternoon. It was worth the long drive: a good solid singing. My voice was tired from yesterday’s singing, and from the memorial service this afternoon, so I sat on the back bench and didn’t sing all that much. Will came over and sang next to me. It was a real pleasure to sit next to his fine singing voice, and the pleasure was increased because the back bench of the bass section sits up against a wood-and-plaster wall which resonates delightfully.

Although it was a good singing, my voice and I were tired, and went home after break.