Singing at home

In harmony

All our out-of-town singers had to catch early flights this year, so it was just us Palo Alto folks at the fourth Sunday singing: Jeannette singing treble, Ann and Phil on the tenor bench, Peter and I singing bass, and Terry singing alto. As much as I like the volume and excitement and bustle of an all-day singing, it was really nice to settle down and sing for nearly three hours with five other voices that I know well.

We started out by working through no. 240 Christian Song. We all felt that we could have done better singing this tune at yesterday’s all-day singing, so we took the time to sing through each part separately. I love singing through each part, one by one, and then putting all the parts together; I particularly enjoyed seeing what Jeremiah Ingalls did with each part, and with the interplay between the parts, in this tune. (My only disappointment was with the alto part; mm. 5-6 were boring, and overall it didn’t live up to the other parts.)

After that, we just sang as usual. I particularly enjoyed singing no. 113 The Prodigal Son; I think it’s one of those tunes that does better in small groups than in large groups. But all the tunes we sang today were enjoyable. Yesterday’s all-day singing had been a little disappointing for me; the intonation problems that have sometimes plagued us in the Bay Area crept into the all-day singing (this was quite noticeable in the three hours of video I shot at yesterday’s singing). But at today’s singing, we listened closely to each other, and stayed in tune. I particularly like it when a class of Sacred Harp singers is so in tune with each other that you can hear harmonic overtones, which vibrate through your whole body even at low volumes, and more than once today we got some overtones going.

I came out of today’s singing feeling fabulous — and thinking about how maybe it would be fun sometime to sing Sacred Harp in a smaller ensemble. I mean, wouldn’t it have been great to have been a part of the Denson Quartet?

All-day singings & conventions

Palo Alto All-day Singing

A quick post on the Palo Alto All-day Singing before I head off to the Saturday night social. We had 57 singers, and we sang 93 tunes. Carol and I were in charge of the kitchen this year, my new favorite all-day singing job. I for got to take any photos, but Carol remembered. Here are some of her photos of people lining up for dinner:




Singing at home

Who’s beside you, who’s behind you

Will is visiting from Kalamazoo, and because we were a little short on basses, he came and sang bass for a while. He is one of those singers that I enjoy sitting next to. It’s not just his musical ability, it’s not just that he’s a good singer — he’s also a nice easygoing person who’s not competitive and not trying to prove anything; and he’s someone who obviously feels the meaning of the music (however he filters it through his own belief system) and expresses that meaning through his voice and presence.

After the break, Will went to sit in the back row of the tenor section. And while we already had a strong tenor section during the first half, I noticed that Will seemed to make the tenors sound even a little bit better. In the urban revival of Sacred Harp, we are taught that the best singers always try to sit on the front bench, because that’s where the action is; but having strong singers in the back row can help those of us who are merely average sing above our general level of competence. (Indeed, in other choral groups I’ve sung with, I always try to figure out who the best bass singer is, then sing right next to him, or in front of him, so I’ll sing better).

This made me think about the really excellent singers I’ve known who have consistently sat in the back: Natalia, who used to sit in the back row of the treble section of the Berkeley weekly singing and helped make that section sound sweet and powerful; Susan and Marsha, who tend to sit in the back row of the alto section of the Berkeley weekly singing, and make a good alto section even better; Ken who sat in the back row of the trebles in the Newton, massachusetts, monthly singing, always seeming to improve what was already a strong and melodious treble section; Mark, whom I’ve often seen sitting the the back of the Berkeley weekly singing and various all-day singings and conventions; etc., etc.

(I should add that while I prefer to sit in the back row of the bass section, it has nothing to do with thinking myself to be one of those good singers — I like to sit in the back row because I’m a pretty big guy, and I can spread out in the back row without worrying if I’m going to trip or kick a leader, or elbow the singer next to me, or generally feel claustrophobic.)

Singing at home

Good singer

The altos at today’s second Sunday Palo Alto singing were sounding particularly good today, and I finally commented on the fact. Marion said with due modesty that I couldn’t mean her, because she sings rather softly. Yes, I said, but you have what must be perfect pitch, and you’re an all-around excellent singer.

We Sacred Harp singers of the urban revival sometimes fall prey to the mistaken thought that in order to be a good singer you must be loud. But good singing cannot be equated with loud singing. One of the best Sacred Harp singers I have sung with is not very loud (at least, not by Sacred Harp standards, although I’ve heard her perform other kinds of music and be able to reach the furthest seats in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco without the assistance of amplification). She may not be loud by Sacred Harp standards, but I’ve sung next to her, and she is a fabulous singer: perfect intonation, discrete use of subtle ornamentation, wonderful enunciation, amazing breath control, a superb sense of rhythm and a sense of how to manifest the rhythms of both text and tune, a deep sense of the tradition, and generally a very high level of musicianship. She is also a careful listener, and she is one of those singers who can make all those around her sing better — I know that when I sat next to her, I became a much better singer. So loudness is not all that important. Sacred Harp singing is a combination of tradition, text, tune, and community, all in service of realizing something larger than ourselves.

In any case, Marion is another one of those singers I like to sit near — she may not be loud, but I know she was making me a better singer today. I want to be more like her!