Other events

Easter eggs and singing

At last this year I was able to go to Chris and Carolyn’s annual Ukranian Easter egg making workshop and Sacred Harp singing in San Francisco. Seven of us made Ukranian Easter eggs…

…and after that, five of us were able to stay long enough to do some singing; and yes, of course we sang no. 236, the Easter Anthem.

Photo by Carol S.

Other local singings

A new local singing?

Four of us made the journey up to Healdsburg tonight to attend what seems to be the start of a new local singing. And the word “Journey” is an apt description of our trip: accidents, construction, and a winter storm with high winds and lots of rain backed up traffic around the Bay area; it took me two hours to get from San Mateo to Berkeley, so I was over an hour late picking up Carl, Gretchen, and Elizabeth; which meant we arrived in Healdsburg an hour late.

We walked in to the Felta School House in Healdsburg a little more than an hour late, and we were pleased to see that Terry, another regular with the Berkeley weekly singing, was already there. By this time, I had been driving for three hours, and I was ready to sing. The local singers were taking a break — they had already been singing for an hour — but they were all willing to start singing again.

Two things quickly became apparent. First, the Felta School House is a wonderful place in which to sing. The wood floors and wood walls made for a warm, resonant sound; the old-fashioned slate blackboards provided some additional brightness, and the ten-foot high ceilings kept the space from being too bright and too loud. Second, the local singers included some fine voices; if they keep it up, they could become a really fine local singing. We even sang the Easter Anthem — something of a challenge considering how many newcomers there were — and the class sounded very good indeed.

Singing at home

Forty four

Jeremy sat back down in the bass section after leading no. 547 Granville, and whispered to me, “Boy, we sound good today.” We did sound good; there were a lot of us; more precisely, when I counted I discovered that there were forty four of us: 19 tenors, 8 trebles, 7 altos, and 10 basses. And though there were quite a few new singers, there were lots of experienced singers, too.

I had never heard that many singers in All Saints Chapel. It can feel a little cavernous when there are fewer than 20 singers in that space; we sit way back in one end of the long cruciform building, and between that and the high peaked ceiling, it can feel as though the building is swallowing most of the sound. (This may be why we sometimes over-sing, pushing our voices to the point where we sing out of tune.) But with 44 people, it sounded very good indeed: it was loud, but not overwhelming; and there was just enough echo and reverberation to fill out the sound in a very satisfying manner.

I hope this upwards attendance trend continues. Having large numbers of people does mean that each person gets to lead fewer songs (which, though it does bother others, is quite fine with me personally). But having large numbers of people also means that newcomers are supported by many more experienced singers, and that newcomers don’t feel as exposed if they make mistakes. Since one of the most important functions of a local singing is to help newcomers to learn how to sing, I would love to have us averaging 50 singers a week.

Singing at home

Fourth Sunday

I’m on vacation this week, and so for once was able to attend the fourth Sunday Palo Alto singing. Ellen hosted the singing in her house, and seven of us showed up to sing: two tenors, a treble, two altos, and two basses. It was very pleasant, with all the benefits of a small singing: we could go over an individual part if we needed to; we could repeat a final section of a song if we wanted to, whether or not it was marked as a repeat; and we could take the time to chat. And we sounded great: everyone was obviously listening closely to the other singers (something that’s actually easier to do in a small singing), with the result that we sang in tune with solid rhythm, and you could even make out all the words.

Two high points of the singing for me: First, when we sang no. 472 Akin, the altos asked for an alto review; I had never really paid much attention to Akin’s alto part before, and I found that it’s really quite lovely; I especially enjoyed the long run in measures 9-13 that ranges from A below middle C to high C. The second high point was singing no. 345 I’m on My Journey Home; it’s one of those tunes that sounds better in a small singing, where you can really hear the spare harmonies.

We were supposed to end at five. At ten after five, Peter happened to glance at his watch and then told us the time. Even though it was past time to stop, we kept singing for another five minutes — we were having too much fun to stop.

Singing at home

That big bass sound

Another night of large attendance: just before the break I counted 32 singers total, with 17 in the tenor section, 7 altos, 5 basses, and 4 trebles. Of the 31 singers present, about half were new singers: we handed out 16 loaner books, only one of which went to an experienced singer who had forgotten their own book.

Even with all the new singers, the class sounded very good again this week. I especially liked the bass section tonight. The five of us who were present tend to come pretty regularly, and we have come to some tacit agreements on the way we’ll sound, e.g., on fuguing entrances we hit the first and third beats pretty hard, and we pretty much know who’s going to take which choice notes. Above all, we stay very much in tune with each other except for some minor ornamentation (and David does most of the ornamentation).

Because we know each other pretty well, and because we are so good about staying in tune, we sometimes achieve the bass sound I like best. I don’t quite know how to describe that sound. It’s big and warm and it supports all the higher voices, but that doesn’t really say what it sounds like. In some ways it’s similar to a certain kind of mountain dulcimer — I played mountain dulcimer pretty seriously for about ten years, and sometimes I would tune one of the drones down to the D below middle C, and it would produce a deep, insistent, buzzing, nasal sound — that’s kind of like the bass sound I prefer in a Sacred Harp singing.

Even though I can’t adequately describe the sound, I can tell you what it feels like to be in the middle of that sound. Tonight it felt like I was in the middle of this wave of sound that every once in a while lifted up into the upper notes of our range, then sank back down into the lowest notes, wave on wave of sound that carried me inexorably along, an ocean of sound. This is why I love singing bass (not that I have a choice; my voice is only capable of singing bass); I simply don’t get that same feeling from higher voices.

Singing at home

An evolving sound

When we were driving home after tonight’s singing, Carol, Will, and I all commented on how large the singing was. I counted 34 singers just before the break (14 tenors, 7 trebles, 7 altos, and 6 basses); and even though many of the newer singers left after the break, a few of our more experienced singers arrived, which meant we still had 25 singers after the break. Carol said that it was nice for new singers like herself, since it is easier to follow along with that many people. Will said that he had been to all-day singings that were smaller than that.

And tonight’s class sounded as good as a good, small all-day singing. Will and I got into a discussion of why tonight’s class sounded so good: singers were accenting appropriately, tempos were a bit quicker and didn’t slow down during a tune, intonation was good, etc. And we talked a little about the evolving sound of the Berkeley weekly singing. I pointed out that over the past year, we lost the majority of the founders of the Berkeley weekly singing — they have moved away, or have taken on other commitments — and with that loss, I have felt that the singing has been somewhat musically adrift. Tonight, for the first time in quite a while, I felt like we had gotten back to the Berkeley sound. Will has been singing in Berkeley longer than have I, and he thought that I might be right.

Singing at home

Singing the notes

Easter will fall on the second Sunday of the month this year, which means there is a Palo Alto singing scheduled for that day. So at today’s singing, I asked if we could sing through no. 236, William Billings’ Easter Anthem, to practice for Easter Sunday. Will suggested that we try singing the notes. I had never done that, and I didn’t want to impose on the rest of the singers by taking up that much time. Will, in his gentle way, further suggested that we might learn something by singing the notes. The other singers seemed game, so that’s what we did: we sang through the notes, and then sang the words.

It worked, too: when we sang the words, we sounded better. In fact, even though there were just ten of us, with two first-time singers and one relatively new singer, we sounded pretty good. Singing the notes really does work. And it occurs to me that often I think a practice singing should follow the same rules as an all-day singing or a convention: never sing the notes on an anthem, never sing through the individual parts, etc. But a practice singing is supposed to be for practice, so we can learn to sing better: singing the notes on an anthem now and again might just make us better singers.

Singing at home

Remembering a singer

At tonight’s Other Book Singing, I presented Prospect Hill, and dedicated it to Dominic Zeigler, the singer who died suddenly in January at age 23. By coincidence, Dominic’s parents had come to the singing. The class gave a good sensitive reading of the tune.

More moving for me was the moment when Carl stood up just before the break to lead the tune that Dominic led at the last Golden Gate All-Day Singing, 448 “The Grieved Soul.” Carl invited Dominic’s parents to stand in the center of the hollow square with him, and we all sang to them. Standing in the hollow square can be a healing experience, and I hope they found it so; in any case, the class sang very well indeed, and it was a moving tribute to a singer.

Caroline had made it to the memorial service for Dominic. She brought the booklet of songs and poems from that service, including some of Dominic’s own poems and some of his favorite songs, and she passed it around during the break.

I’m glad we all had the time this evening to remember a nice man, and a good singer.