Singing at home

Film crew

A couple of students from Ex’pression College for the Digital Arts asked for permission to come film the weekly singing at Berkeley. During the break tonight, they came in and set up their camera and microphones. A few singers left after the break: we had perhaps 25 singers before the break, and perhaps 16-18 singers after the break.

We started singing again, and the students started filming. Even though there were a lot of strong singers in the class, we did not sing particularly well. We did not sing badly, and we got most of the notes right, but there was no real drive to our singing. The singing even sounded all right (some of the time), but it just didn’t feel as good as yesterday’s singing in Palo Alto.

At the end of the singing, the students packed up their camera and microphones. We broke down the hollow square and arranged the chairs and pews the way the church usually has them set up. Carl and I were about the last people out of the building. “I hope the film students got what they wanted,” I said.

Carl said yes, he hoped so too.

“It wasn’t our best singing,” I said. I was thinking that it wasn’t as uplifting as yesterday’s singing, and I was thinking about sometimes the singing never really gets off the ground, even when there are a lot of good singers in the class.

“It wasn’t our worst, either,” he said.

“That’s true,” I said. And I got to thinking: We singers know that our weekly singing is not a performance, and when people come to listen to us, we drive that home by handing them a book and asking them to sing with us. I had wanted to do that to the film students, hand them a book and invite them to sing; but I didn’t. But I wonder: Did the film students get it? Did they get that the singing was just for us? Or was their experience of our singing colored by the dominant mode of doing music in our culture, that of listening to a performance? Did they judge it as a performance, or were they able to judge it as Carl and I did?

Singing at home

Thirty at a local singing

The second session of the fall singing school segued right into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto/South Bay singing. At the start of the regular singing, I counted about thirty singers, of whom perhaps half were new, or relatively new, singers; the rest of the singers were regulars from the Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco local singings.

There were seven of us in the bass section, of whom three were brand new singers (although all three had other extensive singing experience). From the beginning I felt that we were singing well together. The singing school that preceded the regular singing had ended with our singing master telling us about accent, and I think perhaps we picked up on that.

One of the first tunes we sang was a fuguing tune, and the basses all came in strongly, accenting the first and third beats; this energized us, and I think helped us to sing better, to sing above what you might assume was our average level of competence. With such a strong, big bass section, I couldn’t resist: I got up to lead 268 “David’s Lamentation,” and the basses performed admirably; as did the rest of the class.

And it wasn’t just the bass section: the whole class sang quite well. Part of that, of course, was because we had 30 singers. When there are six or seven people in each section, you have enough people to support each other and cover over mistakes in intonation, rhythm, articulation, and so on. It’s often easier to sing well in a larger group.

But it was more than just size. After the break, a fair number of people who had been at the singing school left — two hours is a lot of singing, and some people were ready to head home — and we dropped down to about twenty singers. But among those twenty singers were some fine singers: Julian, Terry, Carolyn, Linda, and Mary in the tenors, Arnold and Terry in the trebles, Kendall and the woman whose name I’m blanking on in the altos, Carl and Peter in the basses. In that third hour, we had some of the best singing of the day. It does take time to get used to the mix of a given class, and perhaps we finally got used to each other. Or it could have been the spirit of the class, or (as Quakers might have it) a Spirit-led class.

Whatever the cause, it was a good strong singing.

Other events Singing at home

Singing school, part 2

We had the second session of the fall singing school today. Julian Damashek was our singing master this time, and his session was quite different from, but equally good as, the first session taught by Marsha Genensky.

Julian taught a quite traditional singing school: much of what he taught was material that can be found in the “Rudiments of Music” section at the beginning of the 1991 Sacred Harp. He focused on tune, time, and accent. He began with tune, or getting the notes right, and went over the fa, sol, la system of shape notes, and how that makes it easy to sing the tune. While this was review for some of the new singers, there were a fair number of new singers who had not been able to attend the first session of the singing school and for whom this was new information.

He then went on to talk about time, and led the class in beating time for both double time and triple time tunes. He asked the singers to stop worrying about the tune for just a moment, and concentrate on beating time (even if they got a few notes wrong). So we all beat time together for a 4/4 tune, a 2/4 tune, a 3/4 tune, and a 6/4 tune.

By this time, the hour allotted for the singing school was almost over, and Julian just touched on accent. He told the class that in Sacred Harp singing, you accent the first and third beats in a 4/4 tune, and in a 3/4 tune you accent the first beat and, to a lesser extent, the third beat.

Teaching from the “Rudiments of Music” is really important, and really difficult. Having sat through some mediocre singing schools on the “Rudiments of Music,” I can tell you that when the singing master is not perfectly focussed and organized and is less than warm and entertaining, a singing school on the “Rudiments” feels like a waste of time. Julian was focussed, organized, warm, and entertaining, and I enjoyed every minute of his teaching.

Due to heavy work schedule, posted 4 days late.

Singing at home


We have an informal agreement in the Berkeley singing: if you want to pitch your own song, or if you want to try pitching, we will all be supportive and will be kind to you as you learn how to pitch. Of course it is in the best interests of all of us to have as many people as possible who are adept at pitching songs. But it is also a reflection of our identity as a singing: we like to think of ourselves as friendly and welcoming, and supportive of ongoing learning.

As a result, quite a few singers have, at various times, worked on pitching their own songs. (Even I have done it, when I have had to lead a call-back song and the regular pitcher was not back yet.) But some singers work at it more than the rest of us. Joanne, for example, has been pitching her own songs for a while now, and she is getting pretty good at it.

Tonight, Joanne called #472 “Akin,” a tune which has to be pitched somewhat low to accommodate tenors who have to sing a high G sung in mm. 4 and 12-13 — but as a bass I can tell you that sometimes the tune gets pitched so low that we basses can’t get much volume on the low G we have to sing in m. 5. It’s one of those tunes that is difficult to get exactly right.

Joanne got it exactly right. We basses could sing that low G so that you could actually hear us. The tenors hit their high notes. And the rest of the class sounded fabulous. When the tune was over, we were all smiling.

I love that we are willing to support each other, and I love it when that support and hard work pays off so nicely.

Singing at home

“By the Waters of Babylon”

This past Sunday was the tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. A round often attributed to William Billings, “By the Waters of Babylon,” seemed like a good tune to sing for that anniversary: healing, and appropriate. I adapted it somewhat for us Sacred Harp singers: placed it in the key of C minor; changed a few notes in the treble line (m. 11) to keep the trebles more in the range to which they’re accustomed, and to provide some forward momentum (rounds can feel pretty static) and make it feel more like a fuguing tune; lowered the bass part an octave from the original (mm. 9-12) to provide a lower foundation (again, more like a fuguing tune) and to set off the treble part in mm. 11-12; and finally added choice notes in the tenor line (mm. 5-8, 17-20) so that the altos could feel more comfortable singing the tenor line.

Purists will be horrified at these changes, but editors of tune books regularly changed tunes, altered parts, etc., so I feel it is within the bounds of the tradition. If you want the original round, take the tenor line mm. 1-12 and drop the lower choice notes in mm. 5-8. And while this tune is attributed to Billings, it probably originated as a Hebrew round, so it has already been modified by the folk process. (N.B.: The sheet music should read “attributed to William Billings”.)

I presented this at the Palo Alto singing on September 11, the tenth anniversary. The fifty-plus singers there sang it beautifully — all credit to them, and to whomever wrote the original tune. One or two people asked about it, so I’ll post a PDF of the tune here:

By the Waters of Babylon.

One final note: the tenth anniversary of 9/1 hit me harder than I expected, and I wound up being unable to sing while I was leading this.

Update 6 November 2012:

More on the origins of the tune: Since I wrote the initial post I have been able to do more research. The tune does not appear anywhere in The Complete Works of William Billings, so it is not by Billings. Don Maclean’s 1971 recording “American Pie” incorrectly attributes the tune to Billings, and many later misattributions seem to stem from this misattribution. So where does the tune come from?

The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion by LindaJo H. McKim (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 177) attributes what is essentially the same tune to “traditional Jewish melody.” Similarly, Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship by John D. Witvliet, Martin Tel, and Joyce Borger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2012, p. 899) also attributes it: “traditional Jewish melody.” Other sources simply attribute the tune to “Traditional.”

A version of the tune appeared in print as early as 1786 in The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes, on p. 105. A scan of this book is available as a public domain download from the International Music Score Library Project; here’s the relevant portion of the book:

As you can see, the first three parts of the canon are very similar to the tune I presented to the Palo Alto group. However, there are differences in the tune and the way the words fit to the tune (more melisma in the Hayes version), and there is also a fourth part to the canon. Were I to do this again, I would work from the Hayes version, since it was a tune that could have been known to the early American tunesmiths.

However, just because the tune appears in Hayes does not mean it was composed by Hayes; he could well have collected it from another source, including from a traditional Jewish source. Until I find research done by ethnomusicologists or music historians, I feel it’s best to attribute this tune to “Traditional” or “Anonymous”; or if one uses the Philip Hayes version, the attribution would be something like: “Philip Hayes’ The Muses Delight (1786).”

Singing at home

Slow fire

We had a good turnout at the Berkeley local singing tonight. Even though several of our regular singers who had attended yesterday’s singing school in Palo Alto didn’t show up tonight in Berkeley, we still had 8 altos, 5 trebles, 8 tenors, and 3 basses.

And the energy tonight was palpable. Perhaps it was because Carl rearranged the location of the hollow square slightly, so that the altos were up against a wall as they used to be. Perhaps it was because we had one or more excellent singers, section leaders as it were, in every section. Perhaps it was because we had a particularly loud and tuneful tenor section. Perhaps the stars were correctly aligned, perhaps the moon was in the right place in the sky. But right from the first song, we were rocking.

And it kept getting better. Will was visiting us from Kalamazoo, and in the first half to he singing he asked Greg to lead 285t “Arnold.” Greg is one of those people who can really get a class to sing. The energy of the class was up, and people had been leading songs at faster tempi than usual. But Greg led “Arnold” at a slow, strongly rhythmic pace. I’ve heard some traditional musicians call that kind of pace “slow fire” — a slow tempo, yes, but one where every note increases the power and urgency of the tune. It was one of those amazing experiences you have every once in a while when you’re singing: the class comes together as one unified whole, and you go out of yourself, you’re no longer an individual singer, you’re part of something larger than yourself.

After that, we were nearly invincible. People stood up to lead tunes at a faster-than-normal tempo, fast enough that normally we would start dropping notes or start singing out of tune — but tonight we didn’t. The tenors stayed loud, and kept the rest of us loud — but unlike the past several singings where when we got loud we drifted out of tune, that mostly didn’t happen tonight. And the energy stayed up.

Finally someone pointed out that it was nearly 9:30, time to stop. “I think we should just keep going,” I said, “we’re rockin tonight.” “A singing all-nighter!” joked Anna. But we stopped. Carl stood up to lead the last song, 39t “Detroit.” And we all left, smiling and laughing.

Singing at home

54 people at a local singing

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing. The tempo of the songs picked up, and at times some of the new singers got a little lost, but from where I sat in the back of the bass section, everyone I could see was enjoying themselves, and enjoying the music.

It was a very good singing. Even though the newer singers may have felt a little unsure, they sounded good — we all sounded good. I was sitting between two new basses, and it was clear they thought they weren’t singing very well — but they were actually singing quite well. They were listening to me and the other experienced basses, and getting most of the notes right from the start; by the time a third or fourth verse came around, they were both singing well indeed. They both had good strong bass voices, it’s always a pleasure to sing with people who know how to listen and respond to the singers around them, and I really enjoyed singing with both of them.

We took a break after an hour of the regular singing — and after an hour of singing school for most of us as well, which meant a total of two hours of singing. People were very social and very chatty during break; you could feel the good energy in the group. People were also pretty hungry, and lots of sandwiches and watermelon was eaten. A number of the new singers, but I counted 29 singers who reassembled after the break, which is still a good number of singers for a local singing. In fact, it sounded better after the break. The room we were in was a little small for 54 singers, and 29 singers filled the space with sound quite nicely.

All in all, one of the nicer local singings I have attended — and I am very grateful to the regular singers of the Palo Alto local singing who allowed us to piggyback the singing school onto their regular singing.

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….

New compositions Singing at home

Something old, something new

Tonight’s class was smaller than usual, presumably because of the holiday, and had more than the usual proportion of new or relatively new singers. Of the four trebles, one was relatively new (so 25% new); of the four altos, two were fairly new (50%); of the four basses, one was fairly new (25%); and of the half dozen tenors, there was one new singer, two experienced singers, and several newer singers. Yet for the most part the class sounded really quite good. Rebecca did have to remind us again tonight to not sing too loud (and yes, i got sucked into singing too loud yet again); but for the most part, it felt like all the sections were very attentive to the other singers in their sections, and to the class as a whole.

I like the way experienced singers in our weekly singing support the new singers. Experienced singers often make a point of sitting behind new singers, or of putting a new singer in between two experienced singers; that way the new singers can hear what’s going on. Of course since Sacred Harp is partly an oral tradition, this is what has to happen if newcomers are going to learn. But I have sung with other practice singings that are not nearly so welcoming and friendly to new singers. So I feel we go beyond the basic requirements of the tradition.


For the Other Book singing, I presented a revision of a plain tune that I presented a few months ago at the San Francisco monthly singing. Last week, I had picked up this plain tune and immediately noticed one fairly egregious mistake I had made. I corrected that, went through the rest of the tune, and saw several places that could be tightened up. [Sheet music removed.]