What makes for a really good convention? Good singing, good food, and good people — not necessarily in that order. The Seattle convention always seems to have all three of these things, and this year was even better than before.
Good singing: The Pacific Northwest has more than its share of fine singers, and you can count on most of them turning out for the Seattle convention. I feel there is something of a regional style in the Pacific Northwest, which could be characterized as loud but very tuneful, and a strong rhythmic drive without excessive emphasis on the first and third beats. Ornamentation is subtle or non-existent. Tempos vary widely, from fast to stately. I would call the tuning just intonation, with pure octaves and fifths, and sweet-sounding thirds with a distinct difference between major and minor thirds.
The overall impression is of a strongly rhythmic and sweet sound. Given how many Pacific Northwest singers also sing from the Christian Harmony and Cooper book (indeed, the Seattle area has the most important Cooper book singings outside the South), I wonder if singing from those books has some influence on the regional style. Regardless of the technical details, the sound is warm and full and loud, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Good food: Let’s start with at least three different kinds of pulled pork, including alder-smoked pulled pork. Now add a wide variety of casseroles, cooked greens, homemade bread and rolls, and many more dishes that I didn’t get a chance to sample. Finish off with blueberry pie, a dozen varieties of cookies, and really good coffee. Incredible food.
Good people: The Pacific Northwest singers are a really lovely bunch of people who have built up a culture of friendliness and hospitality that is hard to beat. They also seem to be really good at bringing along new singers, and welcoming younger singers. They somehow seem to maintain high musical standards without being judgmental. This kind of openness and hospitality fosters the kind of warm personal relationships that are so important for Sacred Harp singing.
At many Sacred Harp singings, you’ll see the occasional case of ruffled feathers, and one or two hissy fits. Maybe these things happen at the Seattle convention, but if so they’re not noticeable. The only thing I noticed is that some of the convention officers looked a little bit busy (and I may have noticed that only because I’ve been in that situation before) — given how big this year’s convention was, if all that happened was that they looked a little busy, that’s a major accomplishment.
Isaac Watts put it well when he wrote:
How pleasant ’tis to see
Kindred and friends agree,
Each in his proper station move,
And each fulfill his part,
With sympathizing heart,
In all the cares of life and love.
That’s a fine description of the Seattle convention. With such a warm singing culture, it was easy to be friendly, and to welcome newer singers. I felt fortunate to meet Devon and Ed, two newer singers, and Aubrey, a long-time singer from Canada. I enjoyed seeing old friends from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere; and my only regret is that, with so many people at the convention, there were a couple dozen people I didn’t get to talk with.
Above: Every good singing needs at least one baby.
Some random moments from the convention:
— I went to church on Sunday morning, and kind of forgot where I was. During the doxology, I sang the bass part (not quite the same bass part as 49t) quite loudly, and realized that no one else was singing harmony, nor was anyone else singing as loudly as I. Fortunately, I was standing next to my cousin’s daughter, who has a fine loud soprano voice, so I didn’t feel too embarrassed. Then the first hymn was a gospel-y arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine,” and forgetting myself again I sang it in my best Cooper book voice; but again, no one else sang harmony. So I toned it down for the rest of the hymns. Back at the convention, I mentioned this to Cornelia from Portland, and she said she had noticed the same thing at her church (of a different denomination). I wondered aloud how we could bring better singing to our respective churches, and Cornelia said she thought it is something you have to do slowly, over time, to loosen people up and get them singing better.
— One favorite moment from the convention: On Saturday afternoon, I wound up in the back bench of the bass section. There were perhaps thirty basses in front of me, and I was sitting between two very fine bass singers, Jordan and Jerry. It was an amazing sound, and I could feel my whole body vibrating, from the resonant chambers in my head through my chest and even down into my legs.
— Another favorite moment: In the last session on Sunday afternoon, I wound up sitting in one of my favorite spots: partway back in the bass section, right next to the altos. And oh, how fabulous those altos sounded. I know we need the tenors and trebles, but when I’m sitting in between a really good bass section and a really good alto section, there are moments when I believe we can do without the higher voices.
Above: A singer from Bremen, Germany (unfortunately I didn’t get her name) leading on Saturday.
And finally, a few facts and figures: There were over 180 singers in attendance over the two days of the convention, representing three foreign countries (Germany, Norway, and at least two provinces in Canada), and at least half a dozen U.S. states (Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Ohio, Georgia). Over 180 songs led.