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.