Other events Singing at home

Singing school, final session

We had 28-30 people show up for the final session of the fall singing school today (people kept coming and going, so I never got a firm count). Our singing master once again was Julian Damashek. Julian was planning on spending a short time on fuguing tunes, and then throwing it open to a question and answer session, but it quickly became clear that there were lots of absolute beginners who had not attended the first two sessions of the singing school. So Julian spent a quarter of an hour quickly going over the basics, before moving into his planned session on fuguing tunes. Then someone from the class asked about repeats, and Julian went over what a repeat is, when it is optional, and when it is not optional. And that ate up the entire hour. It’s amazing how quickly an hour goes by!

Once again, the class sounded very good indeed, thanks both the the experienced singers who came, and the many newer singers who sang extremely well.

And now a little review and evaluation of the singing school as a whole:

Other events Singing at home

Singing School, part one

We had a good turnout for the first session of our singing school — we had set out 54 chairs, and at one point every chair was taken. A dozen or so experienced Sacred Harp singers showed up to help support Marsha Genensky, our singing master for the day. The new singers were about evenly split between people who had sung a few times at a local Sacred Harp singing, and people who had never sung Sacred Harp before but who had some singing experience.

Marsha traced the background of solfege syllables from the Middle Ages up to the development of the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables used in early American singing schools. She demonstrated how the scale worked with only four solfege syllables: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, and back to fa. She showed the class how early American hymnals printed the syllables “F, S, L, M” to indicate pitch. Later, these same syllables were printed beneath standard round-headed notes, and finally notes with different shaped note heads were developed to help make it easy to sight-read a piece of music: fa corresponded to a triangular note head, sol to a round note head, la to a rectangular note head, and mi to a diamond-shaped note head. (Link to a sample scale in shape notes.)

Marsha then organized the class into a scale: some people sang a low fa, a different small group so, the next group la, and so on up the scale. Then she told us to sing our note when she pointed at us — and by “playing us like a marimba,” she had us sing the tune to “Amazing Grace.” (She also told the class that the name of the tune is actually “New Britain,” while the name of the hymn or poem is “Amazing Grace.”)

By this time, the class was ready to sing some songs, and Marsha led us through a couple of easy songs. She had each section — altos, trebles (with men and women singing an octave apart), tenors (the melody line, with men and women singing an octave apart), and basses — sing their part separately and slowly, using the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables. Then she put us together so that we were singing in four parts. The experienced singers kept us on our parts, and there were plenty of other fine voices in the room, so we sounded great!

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing….

Singing at home

Hooking new singers

Quite a few people came into the singing late tonight, mostly people I didn’t recognize, and most of them sat in the tenor section as is recommended for new singers. But I didn’t realize how many of them there were until I stood up to lead a song: we had four tenor benches set up with three to four people sitting in each bench; call it fourteen tenors. I looked at them with surprise and said, “Boy, there are a lot of you.” Plus we had two new singers out of half a dozen in the alto section, and our usual half a dozen basses and four or five trebles: somewhere close to thirty people total.

We had good strong singers in each section, so it was a good singing, and at least the newcomers got to hear what Sacred Harp singing sounds like. But how many of them will come back? In the urban revival of Sacred Harp, we often call our local singings “practice singings,” but you have to know the basics of how to sing Sacred Harp music before you can practice. In Berkeley, we have a monthly learner’s group, which is fabulous, but that only happens once a month. I don’t think we are particularly good at hooking new people who have little or no singing experience — most of our experienced singers in the urban revival either knew how to read music, or were pretty darned good musicians, before they ever showed up at one of our singings. Yes, there are exceptions — and my sense of those people is that they have a greater than ordinary innate ability, and a strong will.

I have to think that any viable Sacred Harp community in the urban revival either has to plan for at least one serious singing school each year, or has to gather the bulk of its singers from from other communities of experienced musicians. It’s no accident that many of the urban revival Sacred Harp communities are affiliated with a university, sometimes with a for-credit course in Sacred Harp singing like the Sacred Harp class at Brown University that funnels singers into the Providence, R.I., local singing — or are close to a community of musicians, like Norumbega Harmony which sponsors an annual singing school at the New England Folk Festival. (Or check out this event for music educators.)

I’ll be curious to see how many of tonight’s new singers return, and how long they stick with it. I hope they all come back — it would be great fun to sing with 30 people each week, instead of a score or two dozen.

Singing at home

Theology and Sacred Harp singing

In his essay “Sacred Harp Singing,” Stephen Marini assess the religiousness of Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival, and says in part: “The religious meaning of Sacred Harp today, I think, reflects the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions to secondary expressions… Northern [sic] singers have grown up after modernization disenchanted the worldview of primary religious institutions. They are secular urban individuals who have found in Sacred Harp a secondary expression of sacrality that fits well into their disparate and often eclectic worldviews.” (in Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music and Public Culture [Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003], pp. 86-87)

After the weekly singing tonight, I spent half an hour discussing theology with another singer. We compared his Calvinist theology with my Unitarian Universalist theology. It was one of the better theological discussions I’ve had in some months. And because we were not having the discussion within a formal or traditional religious setting, I guess Marini is correct: our conversation was a small example of the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions.

By way of contrast, I was talking with a couple of other signers last week who said they feel no religious content at all in Sacred Harp singing — it’s just music for them. And I suppose this is why last weekend the Portland Sacred Harp group had a singing school to teach singers about properly emphasizing the words of the songs. For those of us for whom the words have some level of meaning (in my case, very figurative and metaphorical but not less religious meaning), it is intuitively obvious where the proper emphasis belongs; but for those who feel no religious content in the songs might not think much about the words at all.

All-day singings & conventions

19th Annual Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon

The Portland convention opened this year with a sort of singing school. Tom Malone of Molloy College taught us about appropriate emphasis for different time signatures. He was an engaging speaker, and seemed very knowledgable. His presentation reminded me of countless such presentations in the urban folk revival, where an expert tells us urbanites how to properly perform music that comes from a cultural and geographic location far from where we are sitting. Tom Malone told us how Elmer Kitchens was a Primitive Baptist preacher who knew his Bible and knew how to properly emphasize the poetry of the songs he wrote. Most of us urban revivalists never feel quite secure in our knowledge of proper performance techniques, and we depend on such lectures and workshops to keep us properly in the tradition.

I noticed that when the singing started, immediately after the singing school, everyone sang rather sweetly, as if singing in a choir. But after an hour had gone by, the singing had gotten free and even wild. It’s good to know the tradition, but knowledge alone isn’t enough; if the Spirit isn’t moving the singers, the singing falls flat.

At lunch time, I ate with the chair of the convention. It turned out that we are both church-goers, and our conversation drifted away from Sacred Harp to some extent. We both agreed that we dislike praise bands in church. She made a good point about projecting the words to hymns on a screen in front of the worship space: those projected words give you no information about tune or rhythm, and just a little bit of knowledge about reading music can make it so much easier to sing. “If I were going to church tomorrow, and I can’t because I’ll have to be here, I’d go late,” she said. “So you could miss the praise band and the praise songs,” I said, and we both laughed.

We talked about how white the singers were at the Portland convention; she was one of the few people of color in the room. “I don’t understand why it’s so white here,” I said. “Well, I come from the Black church tradition, and we didn’t have any of these [pointing to her Sacred Harp book] at my church,” she said. “But neither did we!” I said. “I remember some Lowell Mason tunes, and of course we had Coronation — I think everyone had Coronation — but nothing else from The Sacred Harp.”

We didn’t come to any conclusions, but both of us like the music very much. “I tell everyone about it, because I think everyone should sing it,” she said.

Reading list

Why people went to early singing schools

Noted without comment:

The singing-school’s enormous popularity during the 18th century was obviously due to more than a great love for music or for learning. Here was a rare chance for approved social intercourse between boys and girls. No doubt the youngsters welcomed the break in routine provided by the chance to learn to read music, but they also used the singing-school as a place where they could make new friends, exchange notes, flirt, walk home together after lessons, and, in general, enjoy themselves. As an example of what went on, one might cite a letter, written in an unguarded moment, from a Yale undergraduate to his friend Simeon Baldwin (later a distinguished New Haven attorney) in 1782:

“…at present I have no Inclination for anything, for I am almost sick of the World & were it not for the Hopes of going to singing-meeting tonight & indulging myself a little in some of the carnal Delights of the Flesh, such as kissing, squeezing &c. &c. I should willingly leave it now, before 10 o’clock & exchange it for a better.”

It is easy to see that many marriages must have grown out of singing-meetings, and the old tune-books show plenty of handwritten evidence of incipient love-affairs of long ago.

from “The American Tradition of Church Song,” by Irving Lowens, in Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: Norton, 1964), pp. 282-283.

Singing at home


The conversation was something about the nature of Sacred Harp, and the fact that we happened to be singing in a church building. But, said one person, this isn’t religion for us.

There are others in our Sacred Harp group for whom the religious content is quite important. But I think for most people who sing with us — as for most people who sing in the northern urban revival — this isn’t about religion.

Irving Lowens says somewhere that the 18th century New England singing schools were a form of popular music; they were entertainment more than religion. Maybe we have returned to that; in this minor way, perhaps the urban revival is truer to the 18th century roots of the singing school than is traditional Southern Sacred Harp singing.