All-day singings & conventions

Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington), day one

What constitutes a good Sacred Harp singing? Of course a good singing is one where the class is energetic and sings so well that you feel you’ve transcended the usual petty cares of life and achieved some measure of transcendence. But there are at least two other important criteria for determining how good a singing is.

One of these other two criteria is how good the food is. But this criterion doesn’t really concern the food. Good dinners-on-the-grounds at all-day singings or conventions, or good snacks at local singings, are expressions of hospitality and of caring for each other or for visitors. The other of these two criteria is how well the class welcomes newcomers and strangers. It’s most comfortable for regular singers to spend all their time greeting old friends, and thus ignoring newcomers and visitors. But the best singings are those where newcomers and visitors are made to feel comfortable and a part of the singing community.

Judged by all three of these criteria, the first day of the Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington) was an excellent singing. The class was indeed energetic, and sang so well that there were many of those transcendent moments when you’re carried away by the music and poetry, and lose all sense of self.

The food was excellent. Not only were there the usual high-calorie, stick-to-the-ribs food you expect to see at a singing — meat and potatoes and casseroles and yummy deserts — but a wide variety of vegetarian dishes and side dishes, even including green vegetables (brussels sprouts! kale!). And the dessert table was incredible, with cakes and pies and cookies and lots of chocolate and more. There was enough food there for twice the number of people who came.

The local singers were incredibly welcoming. My partner Carol has just started singing, and Jim, an experienced local signer, immediately made sure Carol sat next to him in the tenor section, and talked with her during the recesses, and was generally friendly and welcoming. In church, we call people like Jim “pew buddies” — a friendly person who sits next to a newcomer during the service and makes sure the newcomer feels welcome and comfortable.

My cousin and her daughter were supposed to come to check out the singing after dinner. I had asked my cousin to text me when they arrived, and I tried to keep an eye out for them so I could welcome them. But I needn’t have bothered, because the local singers took care of everything. My cousin and her daughter were welcomed at the registration table, given loaner books and basic instruction. Susan, one of the local singers, asked them to accompany her into the middle of the hollow square while she led a song. Then at the next recess, I asked strong local singers if my cousin and her daughter could sit next to them during the singing, and although one person did turn me down, the next two I asked were very welcoming.

So I would rate this first day of the convention as one of the best singings I’ve attended: good singing, good food, and very welcoming. Sacred Harp singings aren’t really about how well I as an individual sang or sounded, or how good the music. The best singings are really about selflessness and radical hospitality and community, and out of these things comes the warmth from which good singing can grow.