Singing at home

Composing plain tunes, transcending self, and making mistakes

On the drive over from the Peninsula to Berkeley, Julian and I talked a little about composing Sacred Harp tunes. We agreed that the easiest tunes to write are anthems; next in difficulty are fuguing tunes; and most to difficult to write are plain tunes.

Singers generally like to sing anthems, and the composer has more latitude to play with rhythm and melody, so it’s relatively easy to write an anthem that’s fun to sing. Fuguing tunes are somewhat more difficult to write, but their structure greatly limits the choices the composer can make; and singers really like to sing fuguing tunes; the only thing that makes fuguing tunes harder to write than anthems is that you generally have to write a short plain tune section, but that can be mediocre as long as the fuguing section is fun.

Plain tunes, by contrast, are far more difficult to compose. It’s hard to produce a new plain tune that will stand out from the hundreds of other plain tunes that have been written. Even William Billings struggled with plain tunes: he wrote two nearly perfect plain tunes, 479 Chester and 178 Africa, but his original tunebooks are filled with many more that are boring and mediocre. This makes the achievement of William Walker even more amazing: he wrote plain tune after plain tune that was filled with inventiveness, and that had excellent melodies in all the parts.


The first half of the singing tonight was again loud. The singing was tuneful and uplifting at the beginning, but began to flag a little by break time. Rebecca stood up during the announcements and suggested that singers not sing too loud, and that we give attention to and listen to the singers around us. Yet even so, the second half of tonight’s singing was not as good as the first half (though it didn’t get ragged as did the second half of last week’s singing). This may have been due to singers getting tired out, or it may have been due to the fact that a good many singers left during the break. All the sections except the altos thinned out in the second half; the trebles and the basses were especially thin.

And some exceptionally fine voices did stay in the second half. They were the ones who helped to carry the rest of us, and kept the singing on track. I particularly noticed the following: in the treble section, Rebecca’s voice remained true and tuneful; and in the tenor section, I heard James, David, and Miles as equally true and tuneful. I could tell there were a couple of fine women’s voices in the tenor section as well, but from where I sat in the basses, I couldn’t pinpoint who they were.

The standout section for me, though, was the altos: they sang together well as a section, and you could tell they were listening to each other, and to the other sections. The best Sacred Harp singing, in my view, is essentially selfless: you sing, not to show off your own voice, but to support and encourage the voices around you. I’ve heard some Christian singers say that you’re singing for God, not yourself. From my own theological viewpoint, I think of it somewhat differently: you lend your own vocal talents, whatever they may be, to the greater good that is the total voice of the community of singers; in so doing, your own talents are magnified by others, and added to by the talents of others, and so you are able to transcend your own limitations and soar away to a higher state. That’s the way all human communities work, when they work well.


The bass section struggled a little tonight, especially after the break. I know I was feeling out of sorts: I couldn’t stay focused, and managed to miss too many notes even on songs that I knew well. My intonation was off. I struggled to produce a good sound; by the end of the night, my abdominal muscles were tired from all the extra effort I somehow had to put in to singing.

The worst moment for us came when James stood up to lead Rose of Sharon, a tune I love and know reasonably well. I sat next to Jeremy, someone with whom I always enjoy singing, and who knows Rose of Sharon better than I do.

I figured we would do fine, even though by that time there were only three basses left (plus Terry, who decided to visit with us tonight, just so she could better hear what some of the bass parts sound like). But we didn’t do well. In spite of James’s excellent leading, we flubbed entrances; we missed what seemed like half the notes; and we didn’t even sound very good when we sang correctly. I felt bad that we had let James and the other sections down (and because Terry didn’t really get a chance to hear one of the nicer bass parts in the Sacred Harp). When it was all over, Jeremy and I just looked at each other, and smiled, and shook our heads: we’ll just have to do better next time.

Other events

At the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse

The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in downtown Berkeley had one of its open houses this afternoon, and invited us Sacred Harp singers to give a demonstration and workshop.

We started with a half hour demonstration in the lobby at two o’clock. It was a little noisy, with people coming and going, and a children’s instrument-making workshop over in the corner. But once David and Susan got us organized into a hollow square, and invited passers-by to come join us, and handed out loaner books for them to sing from, and explained a little bit about what it is we do — once we got the preliminaries out of the way and began singing, we quickly overwhelmed any ambient noise. We had some good experienced singers in each section, too, and it turned out to be a really good singing.

Later in the afternoon, after all the Sacred Harp singing was over, I got to talking to a woman who had heard us singing in the lobby. She said, “Did you meet that guy from Trinidad? No? Well’s he’s not only a musician, but he’s also a very spiritual man, involved with — ” and here she mentioned something about which I knew nothing ” — and when he walked by and heard you singing, he said, Whoa, that’s powerful.” She told him that he should stay and sing, but he had something else to do, and didn’t want to get drawn in; because if he had gotten drawn in, he would have gotten deeply drawn in. Of course, most of the power he felt was from the music itself, but we were in good voice today.

After singing in the lobby for half an hour, David and Susan led us all upstairs for the workshop and demonstration. David gave a nice concise introduction to Sacred Harp singing, covering both the technical side of it, and talking a little about the power of the music itself. We had a good number of singers: five basses, including one newcomer who had a fine voice and kept right up with the rest of us; five altos, including two newcomers, one of whom first sang Sacred Harp at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in 1974; six or seven trebles, including one woman who had just gotten back from singing with Larry Gordon’s Village Harmony chorus where she sang some Sacred Harp songs, and a couple of other newcomers; and eight or nine tenors, with four newcomers. Every section was strong, and the singing stayed at that high level we had reached while singing in the lobby.

One peculiar thing I noticed: We were singing in a fairly small room, and the five of us basses had our backs up against a freestanding whiteboard. When we got singing, that white board acted as a resonator behind us, giving a little additional amplification. It was a weird but not unpleasant feeling to feel that resonant board vibrating a few inches from my back.

We sang for about an hour, and then it was time to go. Those of us who are regular singers talked to the newcomers and encouraged them to come sing with us in Berkeley or San Francisco. And then as we packed up the loaner books and got ready to go, we looked at each other and said, That was a pretty good singing, wasn’t it?

Singing at home

How to be a noodge

We had another good turnout at the Berkeley weekly singing, including a big alto section — I think I counted seven altos at one point — half a dozen trebles, nearly a dozen tenors, and only five basses.

I’ve been noticing over the past month that the singing has been getting louder and louder. Louder is not necessarily a bad thing; as a former punk rocker, I like loud. But I’ve been noticing that as the class as a whole gets louder, I drive myself to get louder, and several times I’ve driven my voice beyond the volume at which I can stay in tune and sound musical. When I lowered my own volume, so that I was singing in tune again and sounding more musical, I began to hear that other singers were driving their voices too hard as well. As a class, our intonation was wavering, and we weren’t really sounding our best.

The thing is, once you get into this pattern of singing louder and louder, it’s really hard to pull back. If you’re singing in a choir and you start singing too loud, the choir director will correct you — often an unpleasant and embarrassing process, even if your choir director is nice about it. If you’re singing in a small ensemble and you start singing too loud, you criticize each other, and remind each other to keep it down — also an unpleasant process, the kind of thing that can lead to ensembles breaking up.

Singing at home

Small type

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.

Other events

Singing school this fall in the Bay area

There will be a Bay area singing school this fall, on three Sundays — Sept. 11, 25, and Oct. 9 — from 1-2 p.m., followed immediately by the regular Peninsula/South Bay twice-monthly singing. I’ve put an announcement up on this Web site here — and there’s a PDF of the flyer available here.

Please tell all your friends and relations and co-workers to join us at this singing school!

And if you’re an experienced singer, please come if you possibly can and support the singing school. I’ll even provide lunch as an added inducement for you to come (just give me a week’s notice).

Singing at home


An out-of-town singer joined us tonight. During the break, a couple of us were chatting with him. He said that he would be in town another week, and hoped to join us again.

“Well, I hope we have a better turnout for you,” I said. Tonight we had only four basses, three altos, three trebles, and perhaps eight tenors.

“Oh, this seems like a fine turnout,” he said. “Our singings are usually smaller than this.”

I always want there to be more singers, because I think everyone should sing from the Sacred Harp. But I forget how lucky we are here in the Bay area: we have a weekly singing where we sometimes get thirty or more singers, plus we have two monthly singings and a twice-monthly singing that get smaller but respectable turnouts. I really have to start seeing the glass as half full.

Singing at home

Musical chairs

Considering it was summer, we had quite a few singers today. Some singers moved around in the first half hour, but when everyone finally settled down, I counted 7 basses, 5 altos, 4 trebles, and a dozen or so tenors. We sounded a little rough in the first half hour — our intonation was wavering, and rhythmically we just weren’t together. But when everyone finally settled down, it turned into a really good singing. The tenors were especially strong: they sang with clarity and precision. I also felt the trebles were exceptionally good: even though there were just four of them, they did just what you want trebles to do, float that counter melody up there over all the other parts.

I’m always interested to see how reshuffling a few signers can turn an ordinary singing into a really good singing.

I thought I had posted this last week, but something happened. So I’m posting it a week late, and backdating it.

Singing at home

“Madrid” by Billings

Recently, I’ve been reading a bit in William Billings’s The Suffolk Harmony. I got interested in The Suffolk Harmony because Billings uses quite a few texts by the eighteenth century theologian James Relly — Relly is not an obvious choice because he held to the doctrine of universal salvation, something that was not aligned with the typical theological stance of the people who were writing and singing music for and in the late eighteenth century singing schools.

Theology aside, I’m finding that some of the tunes are really quite enjoyable. Tonight during our monthly Other Book singing in Berkeley, I presented my transcription of “Madrid” by Billings. The singers seemed to like it pretty well. It was relatively easy to sightread, and it was great fun to sing — at least it was great fun for me to sing the bass part, although the other parts seemed to enjoy singing the tune as well.

Madrid, by William Billings.

N.B.: I did careful proofreading, and while I believe there are no typographical errors, I would appreciate hearing from you if you find an error in transcription.

New compositions Singing at home

More new compositions

Both Carl and Julian presented new compositions during the Other Book portion of tonight’s singing. Carl’s composition was “Sweet Accord,” which he had presented last month. I liked it last month, and I liked it better this month. It was also interesting to watch him lead the tune because it looked to me as though he went through some of the same things I’ve gone through when leading a new tune for the first time. We singers kept slowing down the tempo, in spite of Carl’s best efforts — the tune is in 6/8 time, but we sang it as though it were 6/4 time (and if Carl hadn’t kept pushing us to go faster, I think we could have slowed it down to 6/2 time). And our singing was a bit too tentative, we weren’t singing in our usual full-voiced way, so some of the harmonies didn’t sound the way I thought they should have done. On top of that, all evening we just weren’t singing in tune with each other.

Afterwards, I told Carl how much I liked “Sweet Accord,” and asked him what he thought of it. He said it didn’t come out sounding quite the way he heard it in his head when he was writing it. (This is something he and I have talked about before — you can write whatever you want, but the singers take it and make of it what they want.) Then I asked him what was different about the way we sang “Sweet Accord.” It was thin, he said, which I thought was a good concise description of what I had been hearing. Of course he mentioned that it was slow, and he also noticed the intonation problems. Marsha happened to overhear us talking, and she said that “Sweet Accord” deserved another hearing; we needed to sing it again, and she hoped Carl would bring it back.

Julian’s new composition, titled “Monterey,” was also quite nice. For whatever reason, I think he got a somewhat better reading of his tune than did Carl. Perhaps his tune was marginally easier to sight-sing, since it had a fair number of arpeggios and ascending or descending segments of scales. I didn’t get a chance to talk with Julian about what he thought about our rendition of his tune, but I’d be interested to know how he thinks we did with it.

I also presented a tune, and the singing did not go particularly well. The tune was, I think, a bit too experimental. I used a pentatonic scale, ostensibly a minor scale, it lacked the third and sixth degrees which made for an ambiguous tonality. That also made for some challenging harmonies. On top of that, some of the individual melodic lines were challenging, with big ranges and odd leaps. It sounded great on the piano, but it was not much fun for people to actually sing.  [Sheet music removed.]

One last point: the final judge of any Sacred Harp tune is the community of singers. We know that some day there will be another revision of the Denson book, and while I hope that revision doesn’t come any time soon, when it does come the songs that get left out will be the songs that we singers don’t sing much. And if any new songs get included, it will be those that the singers themselves choose to sing.