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.