Singing at home

High energy

Almost from the beginning, tonight’s singing had a lot of energy. We had exhilarating singing for about forty-five minutes: a loud bright sound, true intonation, and faster than normal tempi — in fact, a couple of times the class seemed to speed up the lesson and the leader had to work to keep up; once, the leader stopped us and reminded the class to pay attention to the leader.

Why was the singing so good? Perhaps because some of the singers who came down for the Golden Gate stayed for tonight’s singing, including a particularly strong bass and a particularly strong alto. Now plenty of our local singers are good, strong singers; but when you’re singing with 20 or so people, just a couple of strong new voices can add something exciting. And there is something about going back to your regular practice singing after a good all-day singing or a convention: the excitement of singing with a large group can stay with you for some time.

After that first forty-five minutes, our energy began to flag a little. We mostly had had bright, high-energy songs. I felt myself getting a little tired; our intonation wasn’t quite as true; and I was relieved when we had a tune that didn’t take quite as much energy on my part. We recovered after break — not surprisingly, we took a longer break than usual — and the singing got strong again in the second half, although for me it never quite hit that transcendent level we reached early on. Perhaps if we had interjected a few more slow or somber tunes among the high-energy tunes we could have maintained our energy for longer; though that seems like overkill for a two-hour practice singing.

All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate All-Day Singing

Info on 8th annual Golden Gate: click here.

The seventh annual Golden Gate All-Day Singing took place today, the annual singing put on by Bay Area Sacred Harp. Attendance was lower this year than last year, no doubt because this year the singing happened to fall the day before Easter; this probably cut in to attendance by out of town singers (who may have had family obligations), and even by local singers (some of our regulars didn’t make it). Nevertheless, we had over 90 singers join us over the course of the day, including singers from Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Michigan, and Massachusetts; as well as singers from all over northern California.

My only complaint was the singing was louder than I prefer, partly because the room was so very bright acoustically. Years ago, I damaged my ears with too much punk rock and too many hours using power tools without hearing protection. So now at big singings I prefer to sit on the back bench in a far corner of the bass section. But even sitting back there, my ears were ringing by mid-day. I know Sacred Harp singers are supposed to love being in the center of the hollow square, but if you think about it, it’s really not a great place to be if you don’t care for loud music. (What I really need to do is go get fitted for a pair of high-quality musician’s earplugs: 10 db drop in the noise level would make the hollow square tolerable, and a 20 db drop might make it pleasant.)

That aside, the singing was quite strong. Every section had several very strong singers to carry them along, and plenty of ordinarily strong singers to boot. Some of those who led lessons set tempos that were quite fast, but the class not only managed to keep up but on more than one occasion speeded the tempo up. As usual, I got introduced to a couple of songs that I had never heard sung before — and that, I think, is the best thing about all-day singings and conventions: the opportunity to sing through a significant portion of The Sacred Harp.

P.S. Of course we sang Billings’ “Easter Anthem” — how could we avoid it on the day before Easter?

Update: Here’s a great video of Jill leading 52t, with children:

Singing at home

No. 479, Chester, with the original words

Today is the day before April 19 — and April 19 (as is well know by every schoolchild in Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts) is the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington, the battle that began the Revolutionary War. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and April 19 was a big holiday for us as kids: we got to go see the parade, and watch the reenactment of the battle (the Red Coats always lose), and wander around town with our friends.

So I could not resist leading Chester, no. 479, by William Billings, with the original words probably written by Billings. The first verse appears in his 1770 tune book The New England Psalm-Singer:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

The other four verses appear in full in his 1778 book The Singing Master’s Assistant:

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

I assume that these last four verses were written after the 1770 book, for these verses mention events that had not yet happened in 1770, but were very much in people’s minds in 1778.

Tonight, we sang the first and fourth of the original verses. Tonight’s class gave a powerful and stirring rendition of this glorious tune — perhaps because these words are more fun to sing than the perfectly fine poetry that’s in the book, for these words were written to match the tune. And in case you want to try this yourself, here’s a PDF of the tune with the four of the original five verses:

Chester. L.M. With original words.

Singing at home

No. 334

I’ve been working through some of the mid-nineteenth century tunes in The Sacred Harp, and a couple of weeks ago came across no. 334, “O Come Away.” Temperance songs were a small but important category of mid-nineteenth century hymns, and the words to “O Come Away” are typical of the category:

We welcome you!
Ye who with taste perverted
Have seized the cup and drank it up —
We welcome you here!
Come join us in our holy aim,
The poor besotted to reclaim,
The broken heart to cheer again,
O come, sign the pledge!

Personally, I have a fondness for temperance songs, partly because earlier generations of both sides of my family were temperance people, and partly because in my work I’ve seen the ugly side of alcoholism. But I know I’m a minority — most of the people I sing with haven’t much interest in these hymns, nor in the tunes that accompany them.

Tonight, a man walked into All Saints Chapel while we were singing, and started talking loudly. He wasn’t the usual crazy street person you see in Berzerkely; he was clean and well-shaven. But he was obviously wasted — a strong smell of alcohol on his breath, and by the look of him, probably some other intoxicants in his bloodstream — he was pretty much out of his head. He had locked himself out of his apartment building nearby, and we managed to get him home. Not long after he had gone, my turn came to lead a song, and I chose no. 334, which I led as a sort of prayer for that man — in hopes that he could find a way to live his life that wouldn’t involve that level of intoxication ever again.

When the singing was over, and I was walking to my car, I had to walk past the building where he lived. There was an ambulance and a firetruck out front, their red lights flashing in the night. I hoped that they weren’t there to pick up that man — but he was so wasted that I can’t help but wonder if he was why there were in front of that particular building.