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.
In Sacred Harp local singings, there isn’t a set way of bringing this sort of thing up. I saw it happen this summer at the National Sacred Harp Convention: the first day of singing was apparently pretty chaotic, and so at the beginning of the second day of singing an experienced and well-respected singer got up and reminded everyone to watch the leader closely; and that second day turned into a good day of singing.
Now I’m not an experienced Sacred Harp singer, and it is not my place to stand up and tell our local singing what to do; I’m there to learn. But this has been going on for a while, and no one was saying anything, and in my work life I often have to take on the role of being the noodge and pointing out when course corrections are needed. So when my turn to lead finally came around and I stood up to lead 209 “Evening Shade,” I said that I thought we had been singing a little too loudly, to the point where it wasn’t sounding so good, so I asked if we could hold back a little bit on what is basically a low-key song, and not turn singing into an arms race. To say that I felt like the turd in the punch bowl would not be putting it too strongly. And the class was very kind and toned it down a little to humor me.
But this raises an interesting question: What is the mechanism in a local singing to make course corrections should they be needed? The ideal of Sacred Harp singing is that it’s very much an egalitarian tradition, in which there is no place for singing masters or choir directors (let alone a noodge like me). In practice, however, quite a few local singings in the urban revival have a strong leader who can and do make those course corrections — Norumbega Harmony actually has someone they call a singing master, and other local singings have leaders who may not be called singing masters but who function as such. I know less about the traditional Southern singings, but my sense is that there, too, you can find strong singers who function as a de facto leader. It strikes me that there is something of a conflict between our ideals and our actual practice. What do you think?