The San Francisco singers have been meeting once a month at the ODC Dance Theatre at the corner of Shotwell and 17th. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to join them for the past few months. Big conventions are fun, and mid-sized all-day singings can’t be beat, but there is a special joy in singing with a smaller group of ten to twenty singers. You can hear every voice, and be inspired by individual singers; I find myself learning a lot from sitting across from Hugh, being bracketed by Mark on tenor and Leigh on alto, and hearing Joel beside me — and that’s mentioning only four of the powerful voices at this singing.
I’ve enjoyed singing with them so much, I wrote a tune for them. The singers gave it a good reading today, making it sound better than I thought it would.
Shotwell Street L.M. (PDF)
Carolyn organized a fifth Sunday singing in San Francisco, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Since I had no duties at my congregation I was able to attend. The church is beautiful, and beautifully maintained — a late nineteenth century wood-frame structure. The ceilings were a little higher than Sacred Harp singers prefer, but nevertheless I thought the sound was quite nice. Indeed, the only problem with the sound was that out of about 25 singers, there were only half a dozen men — but that has nothing to do with the building.
What was particularly nice about this singing was that perhaps a dozen members of the church joined us, mostly members of their choir. They were all good singers, and seemed to pick up Sacred Harp singing quickly. As it turns out, their music director, Chip, has had them sing from The Southern Harmony, and some of them had even accompanied Chip to the Big Singing in Benton, Kentucky. So they knew what shape-note singing should sound like!
After the break, Chip, the music director, led us in a couple of tunes by William Walker from the Southern Harmony. He told the altos that at the Big Singing, altos were not supposed to sing with the basses, and usually sang with the trebles. I love William Walker, and it was both interesting and fun to sing several of his tunes in his original arrangements — makes me want to go to the Big Singing myself some day.
This afternoon I managed to slip away from work and drive up to San Francisco for the monthly singing there. Carol and I arrived about twenty minutes after the singing was supposed to have started, but people tend to arrive late to that singing, and there were only half a dozen singers there. But after an hour, at the break, there were more than a dozen of us. I had to leave after the break to get back to work, but I did get a chance to chat with some singers I haven’t seen in a while — then we started the long drive back to church. We spent more time driving than singing, but it was worth it.
The San Francisco monthly singing was small this month. I know two of our regulars were singing in Christmas gigs, and probably several more had other holiday-time commitments, so we were down to about ten singers, two of whom were brand new. At one point, we had four in the bass section, and one singer in each of the other three sections. I like bass-heavy singings anyway, and since the tenor, treble, and alto were good strong singers, I thought it was a very nice sound indeed.
Erica and Hal brought copies of The Christmas Harp, a collection of shape notes tunes with Christmas-themed poetry, edited by Karen Willard. We sang quite a few songs from The Christmas Harp, and while it was challenging to sight-read so many tunes, it was worth it. We made a stab at singing Billing’s Shiloh, a tune which I absolutely love; but it is a challenging tune, and except for the first verse the words are printed at the bottom of the page, not with the notes; so we only sang the one verse. However, Karen Willard also paired Billings’s words to Shiloh with a charming plain tune by Billings, Jamaica; thus we at least got to sing most of Billings’s poetry for Shiloh.
All in all, a very enjoyable singing.
The Christmas tune “Star in the East” appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony as a three-part tune. It’s a great tune, and in the last decade, it has been reprinted as a four-part tune in Norumbega Harmony and The Christmas Harp. Now here’s yet another “Star in the East”; I wrote the alto part for this one, trying to retain as much as possible the incredibly spare harmony of the original while also making the alto part reasonably enjoyable to sing:
Star in the East.
We sang this at today’s San Francisco monthly singing, and it sounded fine.
Two weeks from today, some Bay Area Sacred Harp singers will be going up to Cloverdale, about two hours north of San Francisco, to sing in the Church of Heaven on Probation. This church was built in 1886 by a religious community centered around the charismatic figure of one Emily Preston.
Singers who have been to this church said it’s a wonderful place to sing, but I won’t be able to go because I have to be at my own church. So I decided to write a tune called “The Church of Heaven on Probation.” For the poetry, I found some excerpts from Emily Preston’s writings and adapted them into Common Meter. From what little I have been able to learn about Preston, her religious ideas strike me as being a little offbeat, what you might call American folk religion. So I wrote a folk-like tune with simple harmonization.
I presented this tune at the San Francisco monthly singing this afternoon. Even though close to half the singers were relatively new, the class gave a lovely reading of the tune. I have to admit that neither poetry nor music is particularly profound, but the singers seemed to have fun with it:
The Church of Heaven on Probation. C.M.
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.
The San Francisco monthly singing lets me introduce the occasional new tune. I had just finished up a setting of Isaac Watts’s hymn “The Rich Sinner Dying,” and presented it at this afternoon’s singing.
The Rich Sinner Dying. L.M.
It was a relatively small singing this month, with four tenors and mostly two people on the other parts. One of the altos was new, and two of the tenors were new singers. Yet even though it was a small singing, each part had at least one really strong voice, and the class as a whole gave a very clear rendition of this new tune.
Towards the end of the session, the other bass had to go, leaving me alone on in the bass section. I don’t like being alone in the bass section because that means I really have to pay attention to getting the notes right on songs I don’t know, I can’t take the time to space out and just listen every once in a while, and when my allergies kick in (not “if,” mind you, but “when”) I also have to make sure that I concentrate on taking care of my voice. In other words, I can’t be a lazy singer. But I like being a lazy singer, which is why I don’t like being alone in the bass section.