Online singing

Jamulus singing

My work schedule finally allowed me to join the regular twice-monthly Bay Area Sacred Harp Jamulus singing.

There were about 15 log-ins, and three of those log-ins had more than one person singing. So we may have had twenty total humans singing together. We had one singer log in from Kansas, and his total latency as reported in Jamulus was about 74 ms; I did not notice that he slowed us down. Another singer logged in from San Diego, and I’m not sure what his latency was. But most of us had latencies in the range of 30-50 ms. This tended to keep tempos slower than usual.

Singing using Jamulus is getting easier. I’ve gotten used to the lack of visual cues; it’s still annoying, but it’s no longer disconcerting. I’m better able to judge how to stay on tempo: it’s a fine line to walk because on the one hand you need to have rock-solid time and stick with that time no matter what, but you also have to listen carefully in case the overall group is slowing down, in which case you have to adjust your internal metronome.

However, I still get tripped up by things. For example, this time I thought I was watching my volume level on the Jamulus controls, but at one point when I had to look down at the music, I unconsciously raised my volume enough to push my audio feed into the red zone. Jamulus has no room for error — you go into the red zone, your audio feed sounds horrible, and all the other singers have to mute you. I adjusted my mic volume down, and that solved the problem. And it wasn’t just me — another singer had the same problem.

I also wonder what will happen when we try music we don’t know well. So far, we’ve been sticking to tunes that all of us know well. When we start learning new tunes, for example some of the new music in the Shenandoah Harmony, will it just turn into chaos?

Nevertheless, singing with other people in real time — even in not in person — was enormously uplifting. The pandemic can really get you down, and this singing was a good antidote to that.

Online singing

Zoom singing

A good singing, and well attended. I think there were something like 25 total log-ins.

We continued with the usual format: people post their choice of tunes in chat, Lena goes down the list one by one, Leigh uses the web app Mark developed to find an appropriate field recording, and when it’s time to sing Lena mutes everyone so that you only hear the field recording. One or two singers led their own tunes, singing the tenor (melody) line, instead of relying on a field recording.

An interesting feature of this month’s singing is that some people who just discovered Sacred Harp joined the Zoom singing. During the break, I assigned them to breakout rooms with a couple of experienced singers to answer any questions they might have had. These new singers stuck with us for the whole session, but I wonder how it was for them. The rest of us know what it sounds like when you’re in the middle of a live singing; we learned with the support of other singers in our part; but these new singers have none of that. I hope they decide to come back.

Online singing

Another Jamulus singing

One challenge with Jamulus is reducing latency, and in some major metropolitan areas (like the Bay Area), you can have a great deal of latency to singers who live close to you, even if you both have good fast Internet service. Because if the packets have to travel up to a Tier 2 network, then up to a Tier 1 network, then back down to a Tier 2 network, and further down, it’s going to take a while — and the Bay Area has so much Internet traffic from small users up to really big users that things are just going to get slow at times.

In online forums, I came across one way to reduce the potential latency for all singers: host your Jamulus server in the cloud. The idea is to host your server on something like Amazon Web services that has a data center near you.

So Mark, one of our Bay Area singers who’s also a software engineer, set up a Jamulus server for us on AWS’s norther California data center. We tested it this afternoon with four log-ins totaling five singers, and the latency was better than I’ve experienced using Jamulus servers that are hosted locally in Palo Alto or Mountain View.

Not to say the latency was low. I probably had the highest latency, ranging from about 60-70 ms to 40-50 ms by the end of the session. This was counter-intuitive, because although the location of the AWS server is a Big Secret we sort of know where it is, and I was probably physically closer to it than anyone else in the session. Cyprian, who joined us from the North Bay, had better latency than I did, though he was probably 75 miles farther away. Also of interest: Adam joined briefly from Seattle, and his latency was about the same as mine.

Because of the latency, we had to keep the tempos slow. Then we often let the tempo slow down while singing a tune. And once or twice a tune just turned into chaos.

Nevertheless, it was so good to sing with other people in real time that all the frustrations were worth it. I hadn’t realized how much I missed singing in four part harmony.

I had to go back to work, and only stayed in the session for an hour. But it was good enough that I’m looking forward to doing it again.

Online singing

Jamulus singing

David set up a Jamulus server at his house in Berkeley, and we both logged on this afternoon to try it out. The latency was perhaps a little high, and it was strange at first singing without being able to see David leading, but we got used to it pretty quickly.

We sang a couple of tunes, then noticed that someone had dropped in to listen. We wound up chatting with Rob from Rancho Cucamonga. A trained musician and a guitarist, he was interested to hear us singing solfege; he’s just discovering Jamulus and was listening to different sessions to get a feel for it. It was sort of like when you’re singing Sacred Harp in person, and someone hears you and comes in out of curiosity. This could be a side benefit to singing on Jamulus!

David and I sang a few more tunes, then we both had to go. While it’s not the same as singing in person, it was really good to be able to sing together with another person in real time — it was also really good to be able to sing with David once again, who is a really good singer.

Online singing

BASH Zoom singing

We had the inaugural Zoom singing for Bay Area Sacred Harp this evening. Lena Strayhorn was the gracious host, and she followed Clarissa’s lead from the Seattle Zoom singing by asking people to say a little something about the tunes they chose.

Leigh did the screen sharing, and she came up with a couple of innovations that I liked. First, she shared audio only, so that while the recordings were being played you could still see all the other singers (though of course they were muted); it was nice to be able to see everyone else while we were singing to ourselves. Second, her husband Mark developed a Web app that allowed her to find recordings of the tunes online very quickly, which made everything run more smoothly.

I also enjoyed the people who chose to sing their own tunes. Of special note: the Kostka family had all four parts in their family, and led us in Rainbow; it was great fun to hear them singing for us live.

We had over 20 people on the call, so at the last moment I introduced another innovation: during our 15 minute socializing break, I randomly assigned people to breakout rooms with half a dozen others for about 10 minutes. That way, we could have actual conversations; otherwise, with 20+ people on a Zoom call, it would have been pretty chaotic.

I’m already looking forward to next month’s BASH singing.

Other events

At the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse

The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in downtown Berkeley had one of its open houses this afternoon, and invited us Sacred Harp singers to give a demonstration and workshop.

We started with a half hour demonstration in the lobby at two o’clock. It was a little noisy, with people coming and going, and a children’s instrument-making workshop over in the corner. But once David and Susan got us organized into a hollow square, and invited passers-by to come join us, and handed out loaner books for them to sing from, and explained a little bit about what it is we do — once we got the preliminaries out of the way and began singing, we quickly overwhelmed any ambient noise. We had some good experienced singers in each section, too, and it turned out to be a really good singing.

Later in the afternoon, after all the Sacred Harp singing was over, I got to talking to a woman who had heard us singing in the lobby. She said, “Did you meet that guy from Trinidad? No? Well’s he’s not only a musician, but he’s also a very spiritual man, involved with — ” and here she mentioned something about which I knew nothing ” — and when he walked by and heard you singing, he said, Whoa, that’s powerful.” She told him that he should stay and sing, but he had something else to do, and didn’t want to get drawn in; because if he had gotten drawn in, he would have gotten deeply drawn in. Of course, most of the power he felt was from the music itself, but we were in good voice today.

After singing in the lobby for half an hour, David and Susan led us all upstairs for the workshop and demonstration. David gave a nice concise introduction to Sacred Harp singing, covering both the technical side of it, and talking a little about the power of the music itself. We had a good number of singers: five basses, including one newcomer who had a fine voice and kept right up with the rest of us; five altos, including two newcomers, one of whom first sang Sacred Harp at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in 1974; six or seven trebles, including one woman who had just gotten back from singing with Larry Gordon’s Village Harmony chorus where she sang some Sacred Harp songs, and a couple of other newcomers; and eight or nine tenors, with four newcomers. Every section was strong, and the singing stayed at that high level we had reached while singing in the lobby.

One peculiar thing I noticed: We were singing in a fairly small room, and the five of us basses had our backs up against a freestanding whiteboard. When we got singing, that white board acted as a resonator behind us, giving a little additional amplification. It was a weird but not unpleasant feeling to feel that resonant board vibrating a few inches from my back.

We sang for about an hour, and then it was time to go. Those of us who are regular singers talked to the newcomers and encouraged them to come sing with us in Berkeley or San Francisco. And then as we packed up the loaner books and got ready to go, we looked at each other and said, That was a pretty good singing, wasn’t it?

Singing at home

Small type

The San Francisco monthly singing was quite strong: though numbers rose and fell as people came and went over the three hour singing, there were up to eight tenors, up to eight basses, and as many as five trebles; and while there were only three altos at any one time, what they lacked in numbers they made up in strong singing.

We’re continuing with the “open call” system, where singers call a tune when the spirit moves them (as opposed to calling tunes in turn). There were some extended silences while members of the class leafed through their books and thought about what to lead next. But there were also some moments when what one singer led would prompt another singer to lead another tune that somehow related to the first tune. So Lucas from the bass section led 63 “Coronation” by Oliver Holden; the harmonies of that one reminded me of 479 “Chester” by William Billings, so I stood up to lead that; and that prompted Julian to stand up and lead 297 “Conversion” by Supply Belcher. For me, the juxtaposition of those three tunes helped me to hear each individual tune a little bit better.

That’s one great strength of the open call system. I still get impatient with the long silences, but I feel the strengths and weaknesses balance out.

I was sitting next to Lucas in the back row of the bass section when another one of the basses (I think his name was Miles) stood up to lead 195 Worcester. Now Worcester is one of the tunes I dread singing, along with Bear Creek, because the type is so small. I know both tunes reasonably well, but I most certainly haven’t memorized them and am completely dependent on reading the music — which I can’t read very well with my middle-aged eyes because the type is too blasted small. I could see Lucas was having similar problems: do you hold the book close to your eyes where it looks bigger but you can’t quite focus on it, or do you hold the book away from your eyes and pray for the best?

So when we sang the notes, both Lucas and I flubbed the entrance to the fuguing section. So, apparently, did most of the basses, because Miles looked sadly at us and asked in a plaintive voice, “Basses?…” I replied brightly, “Sorry, I can’t read it, I guess I need new glasses.” Lucas muttered under his breath, “That’s just bad typesetting.” We did a little better when we sang the words, but not that well. Of course the other sections got through it perfectly well, so as much as I’d like to blame my eyes, I guess I also ahve to blame my incompetence as a singer.

Other events

Singing school this fall in the Bay area

There will be a Bay area singing school this fall, on three Sundays — Sept. 11, 25, and Oct. 9 — from 1-2 p.m., followed immediately by the regular Peninsula/South Bay twice-monthly singing. I’ve put an announcement up on this Web site here — and there’s a PDF of the flyer available here.

Please tell all your friends and relations and co-workers to join us at this singing school!

And if you’re an experienced singer, please come if you possibly can and support the singing school. I’ll even provide lunch as an added inducement for you to come (just give me a week’s notice).

Reading list

Bay Area singers in The Trumpet

The latest issue of The Trumpet, the online publication of new tunes written in the Sacred Harp tradition, contains three tunes by Bay Area singers.

Julian Damashek, who sings in the tenor and bass sections of the Berkeley singing, contributed “God of Might” (p. 18), a version of which he presented at the monthly Other Book singing in Berkeley last fall. It’s a good solid plain tune, fun to sing, and to my ears very much in the tradition of late twentieth and early twenty-first century tunesmiths of the urban revival. I think Julian’s strength in his melodies, and “God of Might” has an affecting folk-like melody.

S. Sandrigon, who sings in the tenor and bass sections of the Berkeley singing (under a different name, which I shall not reveal), contributed “Die No More” (p. 23), for which he wrote both text and tune. According to his blog, S. Sandrigon is “an imaginary American poet and songwriter.” I love his post-modern verse, and other tunes of his I have found great fun to sing, and to listen to. The present text, with the odd metrical scheme of, is set to an air adapted from Tchaikovsky, in the unusual key of F# major (a key used by Billings, but not so common among later shape note tunesmiths). A version of this tune can be found on S. Sandrigon’s blog here.

The third Bay Area tune was one of mine, which somehow managed to slip past the editors in spite of its not being as well-crafted as the other tunes in this issue of The Trumpet. I’m slowly reading through the tunes in the rest of the issue. Unfortunately, I won’t get a chance to sing them because I’m going to miss the Trumpet Singing in the Bay Area on June 23 — I’m on the road, driving towards the National Sacred Harp Convention, and then on to a professional conference — I would love to sing Julian’s tune again, and sing S. Sandrigon’s tune, and all the other good tunes.

Other events


Susan from the altos and Shelby from the trebles have been singing with the Kitka Vocal Ensemble’s Community Chorus. The Kitka Community Chorus was about to do its first gig, performing Balkan a capella music, but they didn’t have quite enough music for a full concert. So Susan and Shelby said the Berkeley Sacred Harp singers would fill out the evening with some participatory singing.

My sweetheart Carol and I watched as people came in to the upstairs room at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall on Chestnut Street in Berkeley. The Kitka Community Chorus was about eighteen women, and they brought family and friends. About ten of us Sacred Harp signers showed up, and I noticed with relief there there were going to be at least two of us on a part. By the time the Kitka Community Chorus started singing, the room was full.

“These women are good!” I thought to myself. Great intonation and dynamics, solid group discipline, and all the singers had great individual voices. They blended well together, and created a nice rich sound. Sure, I could kvetch that the Georgian song they did didn’t sound like it used exactly that weirdo scale the Georgians use, but the chorus still sounded fantastic.

When it was our turn to sing, Susan and her husband David gave a nice brief intro to the tradition, informed the audience that this was a participatory tradition rather than a performance tradition, and formed us up into a hollow square to make that point stronger. We sang 38b Windham, then Susan invited anyone who wanted to come up and sing with us, or just stand in the middle of the hollow square and soak up the sound. Carol, who stayed in the back of the hall said that when Susan said that people could come up and sing along, two teenaged girls sitting near her said “Yes!” quietly to each other. Lots of people came up to sing with us, and half a dozen stood in the middle of the hollow square.

Susan stopped us after five or so songs, which was about right. Left to our own devices, we would have sung the rest of the evening, and annoyed everyone who wanted to get at the refreshments, and tell the Kitka Community Chorus members how great they were.

Carol and I were standing around talking with David, who told us about the old-time Sacred Harp singer who said, “I’d travel five hundred miles to sing Sacred Harp, but I wouldn’t walk across the street to listen to it.” Carol and I laughed; that about summed it up. Or, to be more polite about the same point:–Earlier in the evening, David and Carl and I had been talking about how it’s impossible to commodify Sacred Harp singing — if you commodify it, I insisted, then it isn’t Sacred Harp music, and that’s why I sing it, because you can’t commodify it.