Singing at home

Tempo and tuning

We had about 20 singers show up tonight, more than I would have expected for the day after Christmas. Although some of our regular singers were missing, we had visiting singers from Connecticut and Virginia, and even one or two new singers.

During the first half of the singing, the class kept slowing the tempo down. I’m not quite sure what was going on: I could see that singers were watching the leader, lots of people on the front bench were beating time in synch with the leader, but the class as a whole just kept … slowing … down. On top of that, the class wasn’t staying in tune with itself. This could have been a problem for me, since I’m a singer who’s too easily led astray, but I figured out that the altos were keeping right to the pitch, so I just sang in tune with them.

Tempo and tuning problems got to the point where I decided to say something when my turn to lead came round again. I’m reluctant to say anything to a class; yes, I’ve led a small church choir, but I am most assuredly not a particularly good Sacred Harp singer, let alone someone who could qualify as a singing master. But in this case, it seemed to me that this was a very simple issue: we were not listening to the singers around us as much as we usually do, and by not listening as carefully as usual, we as a class were causing tempi to drag and intonation to waver. So in spite of my misgivings, I said something.

The class did get better after I said something. But I’m not convinced that I had much to do with the improvement. I spoke just after break, and sometimes elevated blood sugar is all it takes to improve singing. Then too, David and Susan showed up at break, and David and Susan are singers who can improve the class by their simple presence. Or it may have been the addition of David’s strong male voice to Rebecca’s strong female voice on the tenor front bench which made the difference. In any case, the singing markedly improved after the break; some minor intonation problems persisted, but we had no more problems with tempo.

I’ve always been fascinated with the socio-musical dynamics of group singing. Anyone who has sung in a choir knows that sometimes the choir sounds great, and sometimes for no apparent reason it doesn’t sound great. With a choir, it’s easy to blame poor performance on, or give credit for good performance to, the choir director. But a Sacred Harp singing has no choir director, and with no choir director you can see how other factors serve to affect performance. Obviously, some of those factors are musical (one good singer in a section can carry that whole section; etc.). But equally important, I think, are the social factors: I’ve known personality conflicts on the tenor front bench to upset an entire singing; on the other hand, the mere arrival of a beloved singer can move a Sacred Harp class from the mundane to the transcendent.

Singing at home

Trumpet singing

Tonight, Carolyn hosted about 18 Bay area singers in her home to sing from the latest issue of The Trumpet, the thrice-yearly online publication of new tunes in the Sacred Harp tradition. We started with the first tune, “Freta”; and with at least a few good sight-readers in every section, the class sounded good, loud and confident. We sang through every tune in order, and then went back to sing through a few of the tunes one more time.

The tune I liked the best was Daniel Read’s “Stafford” with the original alto line restored. The new tune I liked best was “Marcia” by John Bauer and Judy Hauff: it has a nice melody; a pleasing combination of 3/2 time with melisma on the third beat; and the introduction of the IV chord at measure 12 comes at a powerful moment in the lyrics for the first and third verses. And we had great fun singing “Catalina” because the composer, Leland Kusmer, was singing with us; he talked with us about how he couldn’t make up his mind whether the tune should be sung slow or fast; so we sang it both ways, and some of us liked it slow and some liked it fast.

I had read through this issue ahead of time, and I thought I was going to like some of the tunes more than I actually did. “Okolnik” proved very challenging for us to sing, with the alto part being especially uncomfortable; and it wasn’t clear whether to sing a raised sixth or not (we decided that it’s best to sing it without the raised sixth). “Altamont” looked good on paper, but didn’t prove to be as fun to sing as I had hoped. “Zane’s Trace” was fun for us bass singers, but the altos complained that their part didn’t seem right to them. The new words to “Stafford” had nice imagery, but the couplet “I rise each day to see my praise / Race each ascending dove” just didn’t work for me. Of course, it’s never fair to sing through a tune only once — some tunes need time to grow on you. And most of the tunes were plain tunes, but it’s excruciatingly difficult to write a new plain tune that stands out among all the brilliant plain tunes that have already been written.

In the end, every tune in this issue of The Trumpet was worth singing at least once. And I wouldn’t mind singing “Freta,” “Catalina,” and especially “Marcia” again some time.

Singing at home

Antioch (Southern Harmony version)

At yesterday’s singing, we sang no Christmas music — except for one song I brought, “Antioch” from the 1854 edition of the Southern Harmony. William Walker borrowed “Antioch” from Lowell Mason; this is the well-known tune more commonly called “Joy to the World,” and there is no connection with no. 277 Antioch in the Sacred Harp. Here’s a link to a PDF of my newly-typeset version of Walker’s adaptation of Lowell Mason’s Antioch:

Antioch. C.M.

The tune Antioch has complicated roots. Several authorities cite John Wilson’s definitive essays on this topic: “Handel and the Hymn Tune: II, Some Hymn Tune Arrangements” (The Hymn, vol. 37, no. 1, January 1986, p. 31); and “The Evolution of the Tune ‘Antioch'” (The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland Bulletin 166, vol. 11, no. 5, January 1986, pp. 107-114). Paul Westermeyer summarizes Wilson’s arguments as follows:

ANTIOCH is the well-known tune associated with Watts’s text “Joy to the World,” heard yearly with other “Christmas carols.” It appeared in 1836 in No. 3 of Lowell Mason’s booklets, Occasional Psalm and Hymn Tunes. Mason is usually given credit for arranging it from two pieces in Handel’s Messiah, “Glory to God” and “Comfort Ye.” John Wilson, an exacting sleuth in these matters, has shown that the roots and metamorphosis of this tune are considerably more complicated than that. Mason’s role seems to have been “changing four notes of the melody” and “allying it with Watts’ appealing text.” The second half, in spite of the Shaw-Mason antipathy to it, is in a “fuging tune” style where one part follows another imitatively. (Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective [Chicago: GIA Publications, 2005], pp. 297-298.)

A more detailed discussion of the origins of the tune, with several examples, may be found in The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York: Church Publishing, 1994), pp. 99-101. This last source quotes Wilson regarding Mason’s treatment of the third verse of Watts’s text:

[Mason] also gave a short alternative ending for Watts’s rather curious third verse, now usually omitted, where the last line “far as the curse is found” hardly merited fugal festivity.

It’s hard to sing this short alternative ending; we tried, but pretty much blew it. Rebecca noted that we should have tried singing it on the notes before trying it with the words; if you try to sing this, that might be a good idea.

Mason’s tune first appeared the year after the first edition of the Southern Harmony. However, in the 1854 edition, William Walker included Antioch as no. 316, and credits the tune to Mason’s 1848 collection Carmina Sacra. Walker dropped the alto part to conform with his preference for three-part tunes, and slightly simplified the bass part by dropping a sustained E below low C in measures 9-12. Aside from that, Walker used Mason’s tune without modification, including adopting Mason’s heavy bar lines to show breaks between lines of the poetry. For comparison, here’s an image of Antioch as it was printed in Carmina Sacra:

A quick note about the text: It is part of Watts’s metrical paraphrase of Psalm 98, which Watts identified with the coming of the messiah. Thus, even though most people identify this text with Christmas, the topic really has no more to do with Christmas than does Handel’s Messiah — which is to say, nothing. But most of us don’t care about that — it’s now traditionally associated with Christmas, and we like it that way.

Singing at home

As good as it gets

Tonight’s singing was one of the best we’ve had in a long time. We had four or five newcomers, and were a little short on tenors, and even so we sounded fabulous. And it was one of those singings where it kept getting better; it didn’t reach a peak and then fall off. At 9:23 p.m., a few minutes before our ending time, one of our trebles stood up to lead 163b China, which we know well and which is one of those tunes that can reach amazing heights of emotion that begins in measure 9 and peaks in measure 12 with the words “Jesus” and “souls.”

We finished singing China at 9:26 p.m. It was Erika’s turn. She paused for a moment, and said, “Wouldn’t that be a good one to end on?” But Hal pointed out that we had another four minutes, and some others of us said, Don’t let’s stop now. But Erika said, “I’m exhausted,” and passed. Honestly, I was tired too, and was glad I wasn’t going to have to lead, but I also wasn’t ready to stop singing. Then the rest of the altos passed, and the first two basses passed; bringing it to Jeremy, who stood up and said, “Let’s sing 347.” This really was a perfect choice: it’s a tune we know well, and the poetry lends itself to closing a singing.

And just as we had been singing very well indeed all evening, we sang 347 “Christian’s Farewell” very well indeed. I was glad Jeremy led it: I needed something to bring me back down off the peak China had left me on, just as the last four measures of China bring you back down from the peak in measure 12.


This evening, I especially noticed that our intonation was better than it’s ever been. Even when we’re singing our best, we in the Berkeley singing have had a tendency to tune ourselves a little too sweetly.

Singing at home

Holiday singing

The San Francisco monthly singing was small this month. I know two of our regulars were singing in Christmas gigs, and probably several more had other holiday-time commitments, so we were down to about ten singers, two of whom were brand new. At one point, we had four in the bass section, and one singer in each of the other three sections. I like bass-heavy singings anyway, and since the tenor, treble, and alto were good strong singers, I thought it was a very nice sound indeed.

Erica and Hal brought copies of The Christmas Harp, a collection of shape notes tunes with Christmas-themed poetry, edited by Karen Willard. We sang quite a few songs from The Christmas Harp, and while it was challenging to sight-read so many tunes, it was worth it. We made a stab at singing Billing’s Shiloh, a tune which I absolutely love; but it is a challenging tune, and except for the first verse the words are printed at the bottom of the page, not with the notes; so we only sang the one verse. However, Karen Willard also paired Billings’s words to Shiloh with a charming plain tune by Billings, Jamaica; thus we at least got to sing most of Billings’s poetry for Shiloh.

All in all, a very enjoyable singing.

Singing at home

Yet another “Star in the East”

The Christmas tune “Star in the East” appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony as a three-part tune. It’s a great tune, and in the last decade, it has been reprinted as a four-part tune in Norumbega Harmony and The Christmas Harp. Now here’s yet another “Star in the East”; I wrote the alto part for this one, trying to retain as much as possible the incredibly spare harmony of the original while also making the alto part reasonably enjoyable to sing:

Star in the East.

We sang this at today’s San Francisco monthly singing, and it sounded fine.

Singing at home

The great leader

You hear about it again and again: how a great leader can stand in the middle of the hollow square, inspire a class, and get them to sing better than they ordinarily sing. David did that tonight. We were not singing at our best — not that we were bad; I’ve almost never heard the Berkeley weekly singing be actively bad; but we were drifting in and out of tune, and we kept slowing down the tempo of tunes, and we just sounded a little harsher than usual. But David lifted us up and got us to sing beautifully.

I am always amazed at how much a good leader can do with so little at her or his disposal. The conventions of Sacred Harp singing limit the leader to the following: choosing a tune that suits the class at that moment; setting a tempo that fits the tune and the energy level of the class; singing one part of the song; and communicating their feelings about the song using their body language. Unlike a choir director, the Sacred Harp leader cannot run through the song more than once; cannot talk to the singers about what she or he is trying to achieve; cannot ask a single section to rehearse their part separately; and so on. Yet in spite of the restrictions, a good leader can lift a class up out of their limitations into some kind of transcendence.