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All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate 2012: 312b Restoration

Shani and James leading no. 312b Restoration from The Sacred Harp (1991 Denson edition), at the eighth annual Golden Gate All-day Singing, 22 April 2012, held at the Potrero Hills Neighborhood House in San Francisco, Calif. and sponsored by Bay Area Sacred Harp.

I like watching more experienced singers help newer singers lead songs, especially when (as in this video) the more experienced singer makes it look like both of them are experienced singers.

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All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate 2012: 215 New Topia

Linda leading no. 400 Sardis from The Sacred Harp (1991 Denson edition), at the eighth annual Golden Gate All-day Singing, 22 April 2012, held at the Potrero Hills Neighborhood House in San Francisco, Calif. and sponsored by Bay Area Sacred Harp.

It’s always a pleasure when Linda leads because she keeps absolutely rock-solid time, as if she has an internal metronome.

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All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate 2012: Sardis

Hal leading no. 400 Sardis from The Sacred Harp (1991 Denson edition), at the eighth annual Golden Gate All-day Singing, 22 April 2012, held at the Potrero Hills Neighborhood House in San Francisco, Calif.

What I like about this is the way Hal beats time so clearly, and communicates so clearly with the class; everyone knows exactly what’s going on.

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All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate All-Day Singing

The eighth annual Golden Gate All-day Singing took place at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco today from 9:30 to 3:30. After a somewhat slow start, I felt it turned into a very strong singing. Admittedly, I was out of the room much of the time working the registration table, and I was recovering from bronchitis which limited the amount of time I could sing. Nevertheless, when I was in the room, the singing sounded very strong to me.

There were a few moments that stand out in my memory:

One of the greatest pleasures for me at an all-day singing or convention is the chance to sit next to some really good singers. Today at the Golden Gate singing, I got to sing next to quite a few good basses. At one point I wound up sitting next to Doug, whom I had never met before, while Phillip was leading no. 268 David’s Lamentation, and it turned into one of those situations where you each spur the other on to sing better than you would normally. We were also very loud, and I felt sorry for Jerry who was sitting right in front of us.

When Jackson was called, he chose to lead no. 400 Struggle On. He led at a very stately tempo, and at first I thought he was taking it too slowly. But it turned out to be exactly right for the mood of the class at that moment, and it also gave time for the harmonies and the meaning of the words to really sink in. I wound up thinking about that tune in a whole new way.

I don’t much like leading songs at conventions and all-day singings because it’s too loud for me standing in the center of the hollow square. But Rebecca needed someone to lead towards the end of the closing session, along about three o’clock. It should have been far too late to lead an anthem; nevertheless, I decided to go against convention and lead no. 236 Easter Anthem, because we had been singing it regularly in the Berkeley practice singing. The fifty or so people who were left by that time gave a rousing, tuneful rendition of the anthem. Sometimes going against conventions works out.

And there was the moment when I was sitting on the front bench of the bass section: I looked up as the leader brought us in on a fuguing tune. The leader had an unusual facial expression — eyes rolled slightly upward, lids slightly lowered, cheeks slack, head tilted slightly back — it was subtle, but I thought I recognized it as the expression that comes at peak experiences, such as moments of religious ecstasy.

Updated 24 April.

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All-day singings & conventions

Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington), day two

Carol and I went to church with my cousin and her daughter, so we missed the morning session. We arrived just in time for dinner-on-the-grounds. The first hour of singing after dinner was very good, though it also tended to be very fast. The class’s energy began to flag a little in the last hour of singing, though the singing was still very good.

One thing I noticed today was that I liked the room in which we were singing. The Keewaydin Clubhouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now owned by VFW Post 5760, has relatively high ceilings for a Sacred Harp singing, and a somewhat longer reverberation time than usual. But you could still hear every voice quite well, and the sound was mellower and less strident than in some rooms. I found the sound to be as good in the back row of the bass section as on the front bench — different, but as good.

Now we have to run to catch our plane. Suffice it to say that the 2012 Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington) will remain in my memory as one of the best singings I’ve attended, for the quality of the singing, the food, and the hospitality.

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All-day singings & conventions

Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington), day one

What constitutes a good Sacred Harp singing? Of course a good singing is one where the class is energetic and sings so well that you feel you’ve transcended the usual petty cares of life and achieved some measure of transcendence. But there are at least two other important criteria for determining how good a singing is.

One of these other two criteria is how good the food is. But this criterion doesn’t really concern the food. Good dinners-on-the-grounds at all-day singings or conventions, or good snacks at local singings, are expressions of hospitality and of caring for each other or for visitors. The other of these two criteria is how well the class welcomes newcomers and strangers. It’s most comfortable for regular singers to spend all their time greeting old friends, and thus ignoring newcomers and visitors. But the best singings are those where newcomers and visitors are made to feel comfortable and a part of the singing community.

Judged by all three of these criteria, the first day of the Pacific Northwest Convention (Washington) was an excellent singing. The class was indeed energetic, and sang so well that there were many of those transcendent moments when you’re carried away by the music and poetry, and lose all sense of self.

The food was excellent. Not only were there the usual high-calorie, stick-to-the-ribs food you expect to see at a singing — meat and potatoes and casseroles and yummy deserts — but a wide variety of vegetarian dishes and side dishes, even including green vegetables (brussels sprouts! kale!). And the dessert table was incredible, with cakes and pies and cookies and lots of chocolate and more. There was enough food there for twice the number of people who came.

The local singers were incredibly welcoming. My partner Carol has just started singing, and Jim, an experienced local signer, immediately made sure Carol sat next to him in the tenor section, and talked with her during the recesses, and was generally friendly and welcoming. In church, we call people like Jim “pew buddies” — a friendly person who sits next to a newcomer during the service and makes sure the newcomer feels welcome and comfortable.

My cousin and her daughter were supposed to come to check out the singing after dinner. I had asked my cousin to text me when they arrived, and I tried to keep an eye out for them so I could welcome them. But I needn’t have bothered, because the local singers took care of everything. My cousin and her daughter were welcomed at the registration table, given loaner books and basic instruction. Susan, one of the local singers, asked them to accompany her into the middle of the hollow square while she led a song. Then at the next recess, I asked strong local singers if my cousin and her daughter could sit next to them during the singing, and although one person did turn me down, the next two I asked were very welcoming.

So I would rate this first day of the convention as one of the best singings I’ve attended: good singing, good food, and very welcoming. Sacred Harp singings aren’t really about how well I as an individual sang or sounded, or how good the music. The best singings are really about selflessness and radical hospitality and community, and out of these things comes the warmth from which good singing can grow.

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All-day singings & conventions Singing at home

All-California Convention, day 2

A quick post, since I had to go straight from the second day of the All-California Convention to work.

The statistics: 211 singers registered over 2 days, 94 people led 179 tunes. Singers came from 15 states, including Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts; one singer came all the way form Poland.

The scene:

Gosia Perycz of Poland and Steve Helwig of Eugene, Oregon, bringing in the alto section on no. 208 “Traveling On,” at the All-California Convention, 15 January 2012, Casa de Flores, San Carlos, California.

Caption corrected — thanks Melissa!

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All-day singings & conventions Singing at home

All-California Convention, day one

A short post on the first day of the All-California Convention — it has to be a short post, because I have to go do some cooking for tomorrow’s dinner-on-the-grounds.

We filled the Casa de Flores in San Carlos; it was standing room only right after lunch. Well over a hundred people were registered today, with singers coming from as far away as Alaska and Poland. Today’s class sounded very good; every section was strong; there were lots of altos, which I always like. Generally a very strong singing.

We haven’t had any rain in the Bay area for months, so the air has been filled with allergens. So I knew my voice wouldn’t last long today, and it didn’t: I had about an hour of good singing. But I got to sit in my favorite place, the back row of the bass section, and I wound up sitting next to David, and I always enjoy sitting next to him; he sings with lots of good ornamentation, and he also sings with abandon. It was a really good hour of singing.

The most powerful moments of the day for me: watching Will and Bess lead a lesson they dedicated to Will’s dad, who died a month ago; assisting a singer who led a song for the very first time at a convention, and knowing from his body language that it was an amazing experience; and singing Billings’s Easter Anthem with Jerry setting a quick tempo that perfectly matched the mood of the class.

Now it is time to bake a pie and prepare a ham for tomorrow’s dinner-on-the-grounds.

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All-day singings & conventions

Macedonia Church Singing, Macedonia, Alabama

We had to drive up from Birmingham, so I arrived about half an hour late to the annual singing at the Macedonia Church in Macedonia, Alabama. Carol dropped me off, and drove off to walk through Cathedral Caverns while I was singing.

From the moment I walked in the door, it was obvious that these people had sung together for a long time — generations, really. You can tell when a group of singers knows each other well; there’s a unity of purpose that comes with long acquaintanceship, and that can only come with lots of time spent singing together.

I wanted to sit in the back of the bass section and mostly listen, but there were only five other basses, so there wasn’t a place for me to hide; I had to sing, though compared to them I was rhythmically sloppy. And they sang faster than I was used to, so I missed some eighth notes here and there. But perhaps that’s the best way to listen: sit in your section, try to keep up with the people next to you, keep your voice down, and listen to how the other sections interact with yours.

As people were called up to lead a lesson (most leaders did two songs in a lesson), I began to realize that there were an awful lot of Iveys and Woottens in this singing. Or to put it another way, I was singing with Sacred Harp aristocracy, so I hoped to sit in the back bench of the tenors and not lead a song; I don’t much like to lead in any case.

But after the morning recess, the basses got me to sit on the front bench for a while, and when the chair asked me to lead a lesson, I said I guessed I would. Not that I led the lesson; the front bench of the tenors led the lesson. The second tune I led took off at such a fast clip that I just waved my hand up and down, and hung on for dear life until the end.

At lunch, I wound up sitting and talking with one of the basses. I said I was surprised that there were so few basses; only about half a dozen of us, when there were a good forty or fifty tenors. (There were perhaps seven altos, and maybe eight trebles.) He said it was a little surprising, and hadn’t always been that way. Then we got to talking about universalism — turns out he’s in the universalist camp, theologically speaking, and is a little disappointed in Rob Bell for not quite going all the way — and that conversation consumed us for the rest of lunch.

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All-day singings & conventions

National Sacred Harp Convention, pt. 2

It seemed to me that there were more younger people on the last day of the National Sacred Harp Convention; today was not quite the sea of gray heads that I saw yesterday. Not that there’s anything wrong with gray hair; that’s now officially my hair color on my driver’s license. But I like it best when there’s a more even distribution of ages.

After the first break, two girls in their early teens stood up together to lead the class. The tenor front bench reminded them to announce the number of the tune they were leading, and once they got the pitch, they started right in. When they had finished, I heard someone from the tenor front bench, and someone else from further back in the tenors, say the same thing in approving voices: Good job.” The girls smiled as they walked out of the hollow square.

Then a middle-aged woman from the altos was called, and she brought an older teenaged girl with her into the hollow square. The girl stood where I couldn’t see her, so I don’t know how well she led, but I do know that she was smiling pretty broadly when the tune was over.

A little later on, a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, was called into the hollow square and invited an older woman to stand there and lead with him. He obviously knew what he was doing. And there you have something of a progression of ages: two young teens who need each other’s support, and an older teenager who didn’t mind having an adult nearby when leading; and then the young adult who is more competent than some of us older adults.