Singing at home

Lots of new singers, and creeping pitches

It was Memorial Day, and as you’d expect, the turnout at the Berkeley weekly singing was light. One of tonight’s singers was Asa, who started singing Sacred Harp with Neely Bruce at Wesleyan, and who is presently working on a multimedia performance that will incorporate Sacred Harp singing. Asa brought some of the Polish, Danis, and American artists who are working with him on this multimedia performance to experience Sacred Harp singing first hand. We had so few of our regular singers, our singing was a little raggedy at times, our intonation was off at times, and I felt that we were not singing at our best for these visitors. But our visitors were more interested in Sacred Harp singing as a community-based practice rooted in the local landscape, and from that perspective we were at our best tonight: singers were friendly and supportive to each other, with none of the eye-rolling and judgmental attitudes that can creep into Sacred Harp singing (or into any choral singing, for that matter). I think all our visitors had fun and felt welcomed, and that’s more important than almost anything else.*

I did notice one oddity in tonight’s singing. Eric was pitching the second half of the singing; he tends to pitch tunes a little high, which is very much in the Berkeley tradition; but more than once, it seemed to me that the class raised his pitch by a half tone or more once we started singing. This was odd because typically when singers go off pitch, we go down in pitch, not up; we go down because it’s generally easier to sing a little lower than a little higher. But tonight we would sing the notes, Eric would stop us and drop the pitch down about a half step, and then as soon as we started singing we’d go right back up to where we were before. Eric said afterwards he wished he had corrected the pitches down a whole step or more — then maybe we would have crept up a half step to a reasonable pitch! In any case, it was an oddity that I’d never heard in a Sacred Harp singing before: pitches creeping up, instead of down.


* Of course, the most important thing in Sacred Harp singing, for some of us, is the sacred dimension of the singing. But I would argue that the communal aspects of singing help us to understand what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God, which theologian Bernard Loomer says corresponds to what some people think of as the web of life: that is, the deep and sacred understanding that we are all connected; not a sparrow falls to the ground but that God is aware of it; the lion and the lamb will lie down together; and it is incumbent upon us in our sacred communities to act as if we are indeed all connected. Thus it is not enough merely to sing in tune with each other; we should also strive to be spiritually in tune with each other. [/sermon]