Singing at home

The virtue of taking time

There are no Sacred Harp performances, no critical audiences, no fussy choir directors or fellow band memebers; Sacred Harp singing is filled with ornamentations like slides that mean you can fudge precise intonation, and enunciation is something we ignore except for the pronunciation of the word “the”; the songs are short and often fast and they go by very quickly. All of this means that it’s really quite easy to ignore one’s singing mistakes; as long as you accent those first and third beats, you can get away with a lot.

Which is one of the reasons I like singing with the Palo Alto practice singing: the Palo Alto singers are willing to take the time to work at a song and get it right. There is no shame in asking for a review of your section’s part, and we’ll all sing the part in question together (which in turn is a great way for the class to get better at sight reading, and to learn other parts). And the Palo Alto singers will sing every verse (and maybe even every repeat) so we all have a chance to get every note right at least once.

Today we worked through no. 372 Rockport. The tenors asked for a review of their part, and we all sang it; then the altos asked for a review of their part as well. I had never really listened to the alto part of Rockport before, and it is one of the odder alto parts I’ve paid attention to.

When we started singing the tune, i realized that I should have asked for a bass review, too. I thought I knew the tune pretty well, but now that I was paying closer attention I realized that I have been fudging some of the notes in measure six. The measure starts out with a typical Sacred-Harp-y dispersed-harmony E minor chord (with the fifth in the bass and tenor, and the root in the treble). But the next chord is not typical, at least from the point of view of the basses: it functions as an A major chord (assuming we sing in Dorian mode), but the basses sing the third, rather than the fifth or the root as we usually do; plus the third of this chord happens to be the raised sixth, a note the basses do not often get; plus we hit the raised sixth on the strong third beat of the measure which means we really shouldn’t fudge it (it’s easier to fudge notes on the weak beats); plus we’re the only part who sings the raised sixth in that chord so there’s no other part we can check ourselves against. To make it even more challenging, we jump from that note up a tritone (the “devil’s interval,” because it sounds so harsh) to G, before coming back to E to begin the seventh measure.

The seventh measure is not particularly challenging — even though we get the raised sixth again, it comes on the weakest fourth beat, and if we’re uncertain we can listen to the trebles who also have that note (assuming they’re going to get it right; a good assumption in Palo Alto, which has very accurate trebles) — yet even so, I realized as we were singing that the sixth measure messed me up enough that I tended to fudge some of the seventh measure, too. And I also realized that I have probably been fudging the sixth and seventh measures of Rockport for some time.

I didn’t get it right this time, but at least I figured out that I was getting it wrong, and I figured out precisely which note was throwing me off, and why. This will make me a more accurate singer, and a better sight reader. This is a benefit of being willing to take the time in a practice singing.

One reply on “The virtue of taking time”

The openness to going over individual parts as a class is one of the reasons I am willing, every few weeks, to drive 60 miles to Olympia, WA to sing.

Comments are closed.