The Berkeley singing owns perhaps a dozen loaner books. Ten minutes after the regular singing began, we had already loaned out all the loaner books, and people were sharing books with their neighbors. We did have one visiting singer from Michigan, and maybe one of our regular singers forgot to bring their own book; even so, I’d guess that we had fourteen new singers. Of these new singers, I’d guess that ten were brand new and had never been to the Berkeley singing before. Even though we were missing some of our regular singers, just before the break there were more than 30 singers: 7 or so altos, 4 trebles, 12 or more tenors, and 8 basses. (I thought I counted 33 singers, but from where I was sitting it was hard to see everyone.)
Many of the newcomers came for the singing school, which was led by Will Fitzgerald, and which began a half an hour before the regular singing. I was still surprised at the number of newcomers, and I’m not entirely clear why there were so many tonight.
We had enough strong singers that each section sounded good. In fact, the class sounded very good indeed. Partly this was because most of the songs people led were quite familiar to the regular singers, and not all that challenging; you could tell that the regular singers chose songs that the other regulars would know well. Leaders also tended to maintain a moderate or slow tempo; sometimes the Berkeley singing has a tendency to sing at a breakneck tempo, which is great fun but difficult for newcomers.
In short, I thought this would have been a good singing for new singers: a singing school to start off, strong singers in every section, sensitive leaders that made sure that newcomers would be able to sing along. I asked my partner Carol, who has just started singing with us, what she thought. She thought tonight was pretty good, but she asked why we didn’t have something for beginners every week. She reminded me of the way the contradance groups in the Boston area structure their weekly dances: the first half hour of every dance consists of instruction, and dances led at a slow speed, all specifically for beginners; as the evening progresses, the dances get faster and more difficult. Beginners come early, and drop out as the dances get too hard for them; the experienced hardcore dancers (the ones who have little interest in teaching new dancers) arrive late so they don’t have to deal with the stumbling new dancers.
Carol wondered why the Berkeley singing couldn’t do the same thing. Her suggestion has merit. But I suspect that it would be difficult to implement: contradances have a single caller who decides which dances to lead; Sacred Harp singings rotate leaders, and it could be difficult to get everyone on board with the idea that the first half hour of a singing should be easy tunes led slowly. The other possibility would be to designate the half hour before every singing as a time for learning; experienced singers who like to mentor new singers would show up, while the singers who only want to sing and lead fast and difficult tunes could arrive late.
Have other local singings tried to set aside a time for beginners at every singing? Would this idea even work? I just don’t know. But I do know that we’re losing too many of our visitors and new singers — the ones who come once or twice, then never return — and that bothers me.