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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.

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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….