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.