Singing at home

Trumpet singing, vol. 2, no. 2

We gathered in Carolyn’s living room to sing through the latest issue of The Trumpet. We had a good turnout: 3 trebles, 3 altos, 3 basses,
and half a dozen tenors. And there were enough good sight singers to give every tune a pretty good reading (though we basses needed help once or twice; thank you, Marsha!).

We pretty much all agreed that this was the best issue of The Trumpet yet. The average quality of the tunes was quite high, and a few tunes were very pleasant to sing. I’ll mention just a few of the tunes the I found most fun to sing.

Plain tunes first: I enjoyed singing Laurelton again, a long meter plain tune by Deidra Montgomery (I had sung it once before at the pacific Northwest Convention this past February, led by the composer). It’s a good well-crafted tune that sounds like a contemporary version of a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century tune. Joshua, an plain tune credited to Glenn Keeton and Chris Ballinger, is a very singable tune in the style of the mid-nineteenth century Southern tunesmiths. Gerry Hoffman’s Allegheny is a fun short meter tune with a lovely poem by Philip Doddridge. I’m a sucker for Doddridge, and I liked the interplay between folk-like melody in the tenor, and the bass part.

On to fuguing tunes: Runyan, by Micah Sommer, was a real standout long meter fuguing tune. Each part had some challenging places that were great fun to sing. For example, between measures 11 and 12, the bass section jumps up a major sixth to middle C (the highest note for the basses in the tune); that leap up a sixth is a bit unexpected, and when we didn’t hit it, it sounded terrible and we threw the other parts off; but when we did hit it, we made a lovely major triad with the other parts, which was worth the effort. After the singing, i was talking about this piece with Marsha, who felt it was one of the best tunes in this issue of The Trumpet; but we couldn’t decide whether this tune would sound good to an audience; i.e., was it more singers’ music, or would it also succeed as listener’s music?

Finally, I want to mention the anthem Now I Was Free by Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg. It was a very enjoyable tune to sing; we had enough time at the end of the evening to sing a couple of tunes over again, and the class chose Runyan and Now I Was Free. In the second singing, while I enjoyed the music, I found I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the matching of text to music: when I hear Harriet Tubman’s words I hear joy but I also hear a sharp commentary on a society that could keep people in slavery;* for me, the music in Now I Was Free has more triumph than I hear in Tubman’s words. But to be critical in this way is to pay the tune a high compliment: it is clearly communicating emotion, and the composer has clearly thought about what he’s trying to get across. I may not fully agree with that emotion and thought, but the fact remains that it is a well-constructed tune that communicates something clearly and definitely. We need more composers writing tunes we can talk about this seriously.


* The Tubman quote comes from Sarah H. Bradford’s 1886 book Harriet, the Moses of Her People. The material Bradford puts in before and after the quote seems to support my reading of Tubman’s words:

All these visions proved deceitful: she was more alone than ever; but she had crossed the line; no one could take her now, and she would never call any man “Master” more.

“I looked at my hands,” she said, “to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory ober eberything, de sun came like gold trou de trees, and ober de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.” But then came the bitter drop in the cup of joy. She was alone, and her kindred were in slavery, and not one of them had the courage to dare what she had dared. Unless she made the effort to liberate them she would never see them more, or even know their fate.

Of course Bradford makes her own interpretation of Tubman’s words in her book (e.g., Bradford puts Tubman’s words into the stylized literary Negro dialect of the late nineteenth century); just as I have my own liberation theology interpretation of Tubman’s words; and Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg’s composition is yet another perfectly valid interpretation of Tubman’s words.

Due to demands of my job, this was posted a week and a half late.

Singing at home

Memorial Day singing

We were missing some of our regulars due to the holiday, but there were still better than twenty singers tonight. Most of our singers, say a dozen, were in the tenor section; then there were four trebles, a couple of altos, and three basses. While it can be fun to hear all the parts clearly, I also like singings where the tenors dominate the sound and the other parts merely fill out the tenor line.

I’m still feeling under the weather, so I left at the break.

Reading list

Ruth Crawford Seeger and Sacred Harp singing style

I’ve been down and out with the flu since May 17: even if I had had the energy to go to a singing, I have had no voice. But I have been reading a lot, out of boredom, and I happened to reread Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “Music Preface” for Alan and John Lomax’s Our Singing Country. Seeger, a brilliant composer in her own right, mother of Mike and Peggy Seeger and stepmother of Pete Seeger, spent several years transcribing American folk songs from field recordings. In the process, she became something of an expert in traditional performance practice of American folk singers.

“No one who has studied these or similar recordings [Seeger writes in her “Music Preface”] can deny that the song and its singing are indissolubly connected — that the character of a song depends to a great extent on the manner of its singing.” Therefore, Seeger offers suggestions on how to sing American folk songs. And many of her suggestions sound like the advice we hear on how to sing Sacred Harp tunes. Here are some examples of what I mean:

1. Do not hesitate to sing because you think your voice is “not good” — i.e., has not been “trained.” These songs are better sung in the manner of the natural than the trained (bel canto) voice. Do not try to “smooth out” your voice. If it is reedy or nasal, so much the better….

3. Do not sing “with expression,” or make an effort to dramatize. Maintain a level of more or less the same degree of loudness or softness from beginning to end of the song.

4. Do not slow down at the ends of phrases, stanzas, or songs. Frequent, stereotyped ritardandos are rarely heard in the singing of these songs.

5. Do not heistate to keep time with your foot. Unless otherwise indicated, sing with a fairly strong accent….

15. Do not “sing down” to the songs. Theirs is an old tradition, dignified by hundreds of thousands of singers over long periods of time.

I had read Seeger’s suggestions for singing folk songs long before I began singing Sacred Harp tunes; and because of her suggestions, I persist in thinking of Sacred Harp music from the perspective of traditional American folk musical practice — because Sacred Harp performance practice feels very similar to traditional American folk song performance practice, and it feels quite distinct from performance practices in the classical, jazz, or popular music traditions. And this close similarity in performance practice is why I persist in categorizing Sacred Harp as folk or traditional music, and why I think of those of us who sing Sacred Harp outside of traditional contexts as urban revivalists.

Written 25 May, backdated to 21 May.

Singing at home

Baseball and Sacred Harp singing

There’s a strong case to be made that singing with a weekly practice singing is like playing on a baseball team. Just as the 160-game baseball season requires strength in the short term and endurance over the long haul, singing full voice for two hours requires strength and singing like that every week requires endurance. And just as it’s a rare ball player who makes it through the whole season, it’s a rare Sacred Harp singer who can show up every week; ball players miss games due to injuries, while Sacred Harp singers miss singings due to jobs, personal responsibilities, travel — and yes, sometimes even due to injuries or hoarseness caused by poor vocal technique.

A baseball team mitigates player turnover by developing a strong bench and a good bullpen. Similarly, each section in a weekly singing can develop plenty of good singers, so that when the inevitable happens and someone can’t show up, you still have enough strong singers to hold down your part.

Singing at home

Wood walls, and more verses

Two things worth noting from today’s Palo Alto singing:

First, today’s class sounded really good. There were just ten of us — two tenors, two trebles, three altos, and three basses — but we took full advantage of the strengths of the room to create a big warm sound. The room we sing in is relatively small (about 16 feet square); the walls and ceiling are mostly wood with a couple of big windows; the floor is hard vinyl. The hard surfaces, square shape, and low ceiling mean you can hear everyone clearly; all that wood means that you get a nice warm sound. wish I had had an audio recorder, because we gave some nice readings of some of the tunes.

Second, after the singing Peter and I were talking about how many verses you should sing of a given tune. Both of us prefer to sing more verses, rather than less. If there are up to four verses, Peter said he prefers to sing them all; that would tend to be my preference. Peter and I both agreed that singing more verses can be better for newer singers; an additional verse or two can give a new singer time to get it right. From my point of view, why stop singing after just a verse or two? why not sing another verse or two, and take the time to enjoy the tune?

Of course, every practice singing has its own way of doing things. Many practice singings prefer to sing fewer verses, so the class can cover more songs in a given time, and there’s a lot to be said for that approach. But a strong case can also be made for singing all the verses of each tune: the class may get through fewer tunes, but they will know those tunes better. Peter pointed out that there exist practice singings, which are dominated by traditional Sacred Harp singers, where the class sings every verse of a tune; so there is precedent in the tradition for either approach.

As is true of so many things in Sacred Harp singing, there’s not one right way of doing things. And I think we’re lucky in the Bay area to have both approaches available: the Berkeley weekly singing moves through lots of tunes with only a few verses; the Palo Alto singing likes to sing lots of verses. I feel I’m a better singer because I can take advantage of both approaches. But I think I do prefer doing a couple more verses, taking a little more time to enjoy singing each tune.

Singing at home


Don Brenneis found a great late eighteenth century tune titled “Friendship,” shared it with me, and we both wanted to bring it to Sacred Harp singing somehow. In its original form, as published in The American Musical Miscellany in 1798, there were only two parts: the melody and a bass part. I set about writing a treble and alto part with very mixed success, when I discovered that William Walker had done a setting of the tune in his 1860 tunebook The Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist: Intended as an Appendix to the Southern Harmony (published by G. G. Evans, Philadelphia).

The Walker setting appears quite simple at first. Each of the parts makes melodic sense on its own, and all the parts seem to come together sensibly. But closer examination reveals some challenging chords: at the beginning of the third and second-to-last measures there’s a major third over a minor second, and the third beat of the fifth measure has a major second over a major second over a major sixth.

The class gave a good reading of the tune, and those crunchy chords sounded great in context. This one is definitely worth singing again, and it would be fun to work on it with a small ensemble to get those strange chords sounding exactly right.


Singing at home

Up and out of “meh”

After last week’s less than stellar singing, I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about going to the Berkeley weekly singing tonight. But it turned out to be quite a good singing. I suspect it helped that we spent the first hour singing from “other books” — Cooper book, Eclectic Harmony, Norumbega Harmony, etc. Singing from music I haven’t sung before forces me to pay attention to the music, to sing the notes carefully, and not to try to slide by on my (sometimes faulty) memory of tunes.

Some of the more experienced singers left during the break, but despite that I think the singing got better after the break. I believe this is because some of our newer singers have gotten quite good, especially following the Golden Gate All-day Singing.

It was a warm evening, and we had the double doors behind the alto section propped open. Towards the end of the evening, a homeless woman appeared in those doors, and stood there listening to us with obvious pleasure. In one break between songs, she asked, “Is that medieval music?” and we told her, No, it’s American music, mostly from the nineteenth century. She stayed to talk to people after the singing was over; of course she asked a few people for money, but I also heard some singers invite her to come sing with us any Monday night.

Other events

Learners’ group in Los Angeles

Laura Boyd Russell, who sings Sacred Harp in Los Angeles, sent me an interesting note in response to a recent post, and attendant comments, on Sacred Harp singing schools. I asked Laura if I could post the entire note here, and she graciously gave me permission to do so. Here’s her note:

Greetings, Dan,

Your recent blog entries concerning retaining the interest of new-to-Sacred Harp singers, learner groups, and singing schools have been particularly of interest to Rick and me. We thought you might be interested in what we’ve found to work in Los Angeles in a small way.

As you’ve noted, frequently visitors attend one or two singings and never return. Over several years we noticed this too. We thought it might be a help to have a “bridge” between introductory-level singing and full-out participation. As a result, we started a Sacred Harp Learners Group in spring 1999. Since then, Rick and I have been hosting Learners Group one Saturday a month from 4 to 6 at our home. (In L.A., many regular local Sacred Harp singings are hosted in private homes also).