Singing at home

Baseball and Sacred Harp singing

There’s a strong case to be made that singing with a weekly practice singing is like playing on a baseball team. Just as the 160-game baseball season requires strength in the short term and endurance over the long haul, singing full voice for two hours requires strength and singing like that every week requires endurance. And just as it’s a rare ball player who makes it through the whole season, it’s a rare Sacred Harp singer who can show up every week; ball players miss games due to injuries, while Sacred Harp singers miss singings due to jobs, personal responsibilities, travel — and yes, sometimes even due to injuries or hoarseness caused by poor vocal technique.

A baseball team mitigates player turnover by developing a strong bench and a good bullpen. Similarly, each section in a weekly singing can develop plenty of good singers, so that when the inevitable happens and someone can’t show up, you still have enough strong singers to hold down your part.

Singing at home

Up and out of “meh”

After last week’s less than stellar singing, I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about going to the Berkeley weekly singing tonight. But it turned out to be quite a good singing. I suspect it helped that we spent the first hour singing from “other books” — Cooper book, Eclectic Harmony, Norumbega Harmony, etc. Singing from music I haven’t sung before forces me to pay attention to the music, to sing the notes carefully, and not to try to slide by on my (sometimes faulty) memory of tunes.

Some of the more experienced singers left during the break, but despite that I think the singing got better after the break. I believe this is because some of our newer singers have gotten quite good, especially following the Golden Gate All-day Singing.

It was a warm evening, and we had the double doors behind the alto section propped open. Towards the end of the evening, a homeless woman appeared in those doors, and stood there listening to us with obvious pleasure. In one break between songs, she asked, “Is that medieval music?” and we told her, No, it’s American music, mostly from the nineteenth century. She stayed to talk to people after the singing was over; of course she asked a few people for money, but I also heard some singers invite her to come sing with us any Monday night.

Singing at home

Moving beyond “meh”

The adjective that best describes tonight’s weekly singing: “meh.”

Every musical ensemble has its moments when not much seems to go right; moments when tempers may grow short, when small errors reinforce each other, when the best musical intentions can’t seem to effect improvement. Tonight wasn’t the worst musical experience I’ve ever had, not by a long shot. (It was nowhere near as bad, for example, as that Christmas Eve gig where the guitarist showed up late and out of tune after which none of the rest of us could ever get back in tune. Nor was it as bad as the time someone asked me, who sings bass for good reason, to sing high harmony over a tenor voice. Nor was it as bad as the choral concert where the basses were singing three different versions of the bass part, none of which was correct.) But tonight was no better than “meh.”

And tonight’s singing got me thinking about what it is I try to do when things don’t go well musically. Mostly I try to focus on the basics of my own performance. So tonight I focused on Sacred Harp basics — trying to sing every note accurately, trying to follow the leader — and on the basics of singing — breathing, intonation, enunciation, and relaxing the throat, face, and mouth. And I also try to stay patient, which is difficult as I am not a particularly patient person, and this is one of my great musical weaknesses.

I think one of the most challenging aspects of making music with other people is the way it can force one to confront one’s own personal weaknesses. While certainly the whole class was having its problems at tonight’s singing, I had to confront my own personal problems as well: that I was tensing up my throat and mouth and not always breathing from the diaphragm, which caused my intonation to waver and which made me mispronounce words; that I was not fully concentrating on singing the notes; that I am not a patient person.

Being a minister, of course I think there’s a theological aspect to this. Making music with others is an exercise in mindfulness and humility. It is an exercise in getting the self out of the way so that we can experience union with something greater than ourselves.

Singing at home

Nearly perfect

Tonight’s weekly practice singing was nearly perfect:

— We had had a very good all-day singing the day before, and an excellent singing school the day before that, and you could see and hear the quantum leap in leading skills.

— There were only 21 of us, a significantly smaller number of people than we’ve been having recently, but we sounded bigger and warmer and richer (maybe less strident?) than we have in the past several weeks.

— You could tell that the singers were listening to each other; the singing was tuneful and harmonious, and the different sections were communicating with one another.

— Everyone was very supportive of everyone else, and there was no sense of competitiveness; you never had that sense that someone was going to disapprove of you or scold you, and you never had the sense that anyone was trying to show off or sound better than everyone else.

It’s hard to describe this without sounding trite: I felt a sense of joy, a sense of warmth and connectedness with fellow human beings, a sense of being a part of something larger than myself. Perhaps one could use an old-fashioned way of speaking, and say that we were singing for God and not for ourselves; or (if that’s not your theology) one could say that we were singing for something larger and better than our individual selves.

Other events

Singing school in Berkeley with Cassie Allen

Today Bay Area Sacred Harp sponsored a singing school led by singing master Cassie Allen, a fifth generation Sacred Harp singer originally from Alabama. 61 people attended all or part of the singing school, which was held in All Saints Chapel in Berkeley, our usual Monday evening singing space. And although I was working the registration table for much of the class, I was able to hear almost everything from where I sat.

At the beginning of the singing school, Cassie Allen gave an overview of the history of Sacred Harp singing, from its roots in Colonial New England, through the development of four-shape notes and the publication of the first tune book titled The Scared Harp, right up to the present day. She emphasized that this is a living tradition of singing. She also reminded the class that this is a form of sacred song, and the religious aspect is very important to many traditional singers (as is true for some of us who are not traditional singers).

Then she gave discussed and demonstrated some of the core material in the “Rudiments of Music” section of The Sacred Harp, including: note shape and pitches; major and minor scales; accenting the first and third beats; and the modes of time. She spent a good amount of time demonstrating how to lead all the different time signatures.

The people in the class were of many different ability levels, from those who have been singing for decades, to those who started singing months or weeks ago. I was impressed that Cassie Allen was able to keep the interest of the long-time singers, while not leaving the brand-new singers in the dust.

Talking with some brand-new singers after the singing school, I also realized that three hours is not nearly enough time to cover all the material that a new singer needs to know in order to feel truly confident. A week-long singing school like Camp Fasola is an obvious way for new singers to get an intensive introduction to the rudiments, but not everyone can travel to Alabama for a week of singing. Here in the Bay Area, we have a Learner’s Group that meets for a half an hour every month, and we sponsor a singing school about once a year, but it takes us perhaps two years to provide as much formal instruction as in a week as Camp Fasola. Not that I’m advocating for more singing schools in the Bay Area; we don’t have enough volunteers to provide much more in the way of formal instruction. But it is worth remembering that any time we can offer a singing school, we should do so.

Singing at home

A short singing for me

I’m getting over an upper respiratory infection that’s been going around the Bay area; I’m no longer contagious, but I only lasted 40 minutes at tonight’s singing. We had a mere 25 singers — after having more than thirty singers for the past size weeks, 25 seems like a small group — 8 tenors, 3 trebles, 6 altos, and 8 basses. The basses sounded fantastic; not only did we have several of our more experienced basses tonight, the newer basses have begun to sound good. I arrived somewhat late, so I got to sit on the back bench, which is where I prefer to be, surrounded by a big bass sound. However, I did not get to sit at the alto end of the bass bench, which was too bad because the altos sounded particularly good this evening.

When my turn to lead came around, I chose no. 291 Majesty, by William Billings. I led it at a fairly stately pace, at about sixty half notes per minute; I’ve come to prefer Billings sung at this slower pace, which is more in line with the performance practice he calls for in the introductions to his tunebooks. The Berkeley singing prefers to sing faster, and the class kept pushing my tempo, which was fine with me; it’s better to feel that a tune is accelerating slightly, than to feel that a tune is dragging. Alas, while I was in the hollow square I noticed that some of our intonation issues have returned, and I have to admit it was nice returning to the back bench of the bass section where the intonation was somewhat more stable.

Even though the remains of the upper respiratory infection gave me a couple of low bass notes I don’t usually have, by the time the break rolled around I was done for the evening.

Singing at home

Forty once again

Once again this evening, we had 40 singers. We were missing a number of our regular singers, but we had some visitors: the cast of a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” came to sing with us, as they are going to include some shape note singing in their performance. I don’t quite understand how shape note singing fits in with “The Crucible” — the play is about the Salem with trials, and shape note singing would be an anachronism — nevertheless it was good to have the cast sing with us; and some of them were really excellent singers.

At the end of the evening’s singing, Alex, Jackson, and I were standing around after replacing the pews to their original places. We all agreed that it had been a really good singing. I’d describe it as loud, exuberant, and generally tuneful (and perhaps this means we have finally overcome the intonation problems we’ve been having). I came away with renewed energy, and with my ears ringing.

Singing at home

Forty four

Jeremy sat back down in the bass section after leading no. 547 Granville, and whispered to me, “Boy, we sound good today.” We did sound good; there were a lot of us; more precisely, when I counted I discovered that there were forty four of us: 19 tenors, 8 trebles, 7 altos, and 10 basses. And though there were quite a few new singers, there were lots of experienced singers, too.

I had never heard that many singers in All Saints Chapel. It can feel a little cavernous when there are fewer than 20 singers in that space; we sit way back in one end of the long cruciform building, and between that and the high peaked ceiling, it can feel as though the building is swallowing most of the sound. (This may be why we sometimes over-sing, pushing our voices to the point where we sing out of tune.) But with 44 people, it sounded very good indeed: it was loud, but not overwhelming; and there was just enough echo and reverberation to fill out the sound in a very satisfying manner.

I hope this upwards attendance trend continues. Having large numbers of people does mean that each person gets to lead fewer songs (which, though it does bother others, is quite fine with me personally). But having large numbers of people also means that newcomers are supported by many more experienced singers, and that newcomers don’t feel as exposed if they make mistakes. Since one of the most important functions of a local singing is to help newcomers to learn how to sing, I would love to have us averaging 50 singers a week.

Singing at home

That big bass sound

Another night of large attendance: just before the break I counted 32 singers total, with 17 in the tenor section, 7 altos, 5 basses, and 4 trebles. Of the 31 singers present, about half were new singers: we handed out 16 loaner books, only one of which went to an experienced singer who had forgotten their own book.

Even with all the new singers, the class sounded very good again this week. I especially liked the bass section tonight. The five of us who were present tend to come pretty regularly, and we have come to some tacit agreements on the way we’ll sound, e.g., on fuguing entrances we hit the first and third beats pretty hard, and we pretty much know who’s going to take which choice notes. Above all, we stay very much in tune with each other except for some minor ornamentation (and David does most of the ornamentation).

Because we know each other pretty well, and because we are so good about staying in tune, we sometimes achieve the bass sound I like best. I don’t quite know how to describe that sound. It’s big and warm and it supports all the higher voices, but that doesn’t really say what it sounds like. In some ways it’s similar to a certain kind of mountain dulcimer — I played mountain dulcimer pretty seriously for about ten years, and sometimes I would tune one of the drones down to the D below middle C, and it would produce a deep, insistent, buzzing, nasal sound — that’s kind of like the bass sound I prefer in a Sacred Harp singing.

Even though I can’t adequately describe the sound, I can tell you what it feels like to be in the middle of that sound. Tonight it felt like I was in the middle of this wave of sound that every once in a while lifted up into the upper notes of our range, then sank back down into the lowest notes, wave on wave of sound that carried me inexorably along, an ocean of sound. This is why I love singing bass (not that I have a choice; my voice is only capable of singing bass); I simply don’t get that same feeling from higher voices.

Singing at home

An evolving sound

When we were driving home after tonight’s singing, Carol, Will, and I all commented on how large the singing was. I counted 34 singers just before the break (14 tenors, 7 trebles, 7 altos, and 6 basses); and even though many of the newer singers left after the break, a few of our more experienced singers arrived, which meant we still had 25 singers after the break. Carol said that it was nice for new singers like herself, since it is easier to follow along with that many people. Will said that he had been to all-day singings that were smaller than that.

And tonight’s class sounded as good as a good, small all-day singing. Will and I got into a discussion of why tonight’s class sounded so good: singers were accenting appropriately, tempos were a bit quicker and didn’t slow down during a tune, intonation was good, etc. And we talked a little about the evolving sound of the Berkeley weekly singing. I pointed out that over the past year, we lost the majority of the founders of the Berkeley weekly singing — they have moved away, or have taken on other commitments — and with that loss, I have felt that the singing has been somewhat musically adrift. Tonight, for the first time in quite a while, I felt like we had gotten back to the Berkeley sound. Will has been singing in Berkeley longer than have I, and he thought that I might be right.