Singing at home


An out-of-town singer joined us tonight. During the break, a couple of us were chatting with him. He said that he would be in town another week, and hoped to join us again.

“Well, I hope we have a better turnout for you,” I said. Tonight we had only four basses, three altos, three trebles, and perhaps eight tenors.

“Oh, this seems like a fine turnout,” he said. “Our singings are usually smaller than this.”

I always want there to be more singers, because I think everyone should sing from the Sacred Harp. But I forget how lucky we are here in the Bay area: we have a weekly singing where we sometimes get thirty or more singers, plus we have two monthly singings and a twice-monthly singing that get smaller but respectable turnouts. I really have to start seeing the glass as half full.

Singing at home

Musical chairs

Considering it was summer, we had quite a few singers today. Some singers moved around in the first half hour, but when everyone finally settled down, I counted 7 basses, 5 altos, 4 trebles, and a dozen or so tenors. We sounded a little rough in the first half hour — our intonation was wavering, and rhythmically we just weren’t together. But when everyone finally settled down, it turned into a really good singing. The tenors were especially strong: they sang with clarity and precision. I also felt the trebles were exceptionally good: even though there were just four of them, they did just what you want trebles to do, float that counter melody up there over all the other parts.

I’m always interested to see how reshuffling a few signers can turn an ordinary singing into a really good singing.

I thought I had posted this last week, but something happened. So I’m posting it a week late, and backdating it.

New compositions Singing at home

More new compositions

Both Carl and Julian presented new compositions during the Other Book portion of tonight’s singing. Carl’s composition was “Sweet Accord,” which he had presented last month. I liked it last month, and I liked it better this month. It was also interesting to watch him lead the tune because it looked to me as though he went through some of the same things I’ve gone through when leading a new tune for the first time. We singers kept slowing down the tempo, in spite of Carl’s best efforts — the tune is in 6/8 time, but we sang it as though it were 6/4 time (and if Carl hadn’t kept pushing us to go faster, I think we could have slowed it down to 6/2 time). And our singing was a bit too tentative, we weren’t singing in our usual full-voiced way, so some of the harmonies didn’t sound the way I thought they should have done. On top of that, all evening we just weren’t singing in tune with each other.

Afterwards, I told Carl how much I liked “Sweet Accord,” and asked him what he thought of it. He said it didn’t come out sounding quite the way he heard it in his head when he was writing it. (This is something he and I have talked about before — you can write whatever you want, but the singers take it and make of it what they want.) Then I asked him what was different about the way we sang “Sweet Accord.” It was thin, he said, which I thought was a good concise description of what I had been hearing. Of course he mentioned that it was slow, and he also noticed the intonation problems. Marsha happened to overhear us talking, and she said that “Sweet Accord” deserved another hearing; we needed to sing it again, and she hoped Carl would bring it back.

Julian’s new composition, titled “Monterey,” was also quite nice. For whatever reason, I think he got a somewhat better reading of his tune than did Carl. Perhaps his tune was marginally easier to sight-sing, since it had a fair number of arpeggios and ascending or descending segments of scales. I didn’t get a chance to talk with Julian about what he thought about our rendition of his tune, but I’d be interested to know how he thinks we did with it.

I also presented a tune, and the singing did not go particularly well. The tune was, I think, a bit too experimental. I used a pentatonic scale, ostensibly a minor scale, it lacked the third and sixth degrees which made for an ambiguous tonality. That also made for some challenging harmonies. On top of that, some of the individual melodic lines were challenging, with big ranges and odd leaps. It sounded great on the piano, but it was not much fun for people to actually sing.  [Sheet music removed.]

One last point: the final judge of any Sacred Harp tune is the community of singers. We know that some day there will be another revision of the Denson book, and while I hope that revision doesn’t come any time soon, when it does come the songs that get left out will be the songs that we singers don’t sing much. And if any new songs get included, it will be those that the singers themselves choose to sing.

Singing at home

Sounding different

We had some new singers and some visiting singers with us tonight. The sound of the class was quite a bit different. I’m used to a bass section that sounds booming, a tenor section that sounds a little nasal, an alto section with what Stephen Marini has called a “laser-like chest tone,” and a treble section that rides up above the rest of the parts. But tonight the basses sounded nasal, the tenors sounded like they were trying to ride up above the other parts, and the altos sounded booming. Only the trebles sounded like they usually sound. It was disconcerting. This is the problem with local singings in the urban revival — they are small enough, and with an even smaller number of confident singers, that a few new voices can radically alter the sound of the whole class. This is less of a problem with an all-day singing or a convention, where you often find a big enough core of regular singers that they can out-sing the visitors.

In my years on the fringes of the folk music scene, I was firmly indoctrinated with the notion that when you are a new or visiting musician, you hang back and listen to how the locals do it before you let loose — and even then, you don’t let loose until you’ve been around a while. Folk music is rooted in specific places, and that’s a big part of its beauty: so mountain dulcimer players in Galax, Virginia, sound completely different from players a hundred miles away in Tennessee; and the way you play for contra dances in New England doesn’t sound a thing like Texas square dance bands.

But one of the things I’ve noticed in the urban revival of Sacred Harp singing is a certain lack of sensitivity to emerging regional variations. It’s pretty obvious that Chicago Sacred Harp singers sound different from Boston singers, and Western Massachusetts singers sound still different again. What’s less obvious is what the absolute standard for urban revival singers should be. I’ve had urban revival singers tell me that they aim to sound like traditional Southern singers — but which Southern tradition? Hoboken-style singing from southeastern Georgia? Or the Wiregrass singers from Alabama? Or should one aim to sound like the Lomax field recordings of the Lookout Mountain Convention? Or like vintage recordings of the Denson Quartet?

Coming from a folk music background, I assume that folk music traditions are always changing and evolving, and therefore there is no Platonic ideal of Sacred Harp singing to which we should all aspire. I also assume that over time, regional variations will evolve, if they’re left to evolve and not subjected to homogenization. Coming from a folk music background, when I go into a Sacred Harp community that is not my own, I do a lot more listening than singing to start off. I want to know if these singers use ornaments or not, what kind of sound my section is producing, whether they shade various notes of the scale up or down a little bit, and so on. Not that I’m trying to “blend,” as the choral directors tell you to do — but I am trying to sing their way to the extent that I’m able.

What I have to learn is that Sacred Harp is not folk music. The urban revival of Sacred Harp is just that: a revival, with no long and definite local traditions. Since there aren’t real local traditions, there’s no expectation that we should be respectful of local traditions, except of course when you’re visiting a traditional Southern singing. All this is true, but this also means that we’re not going to see much evolution of local traditions in the urban revival; we’ll always be the poor imitations, instead of the real thing.

Singing at home


There’s some kind of cold going around the Bay area. I’ve mostly avoided it, but I have been feeling run-down and congested for the past week. Today I was feeling run-down enough that I almost didn’t go to the weekly singing.

Because of the holiday, there weren’t a lot of singers — a dozen or so instead of the usual score or more, and only three singers in the bass section, one of whom was more congested than I was. Then one of the basses went to the tenor section. When there’s only one other person in the section, I find I have to really focus: no dropping out for a minute because my concentration flagged; no passing over the notes I’m too lazy to read the music carefully. And I have to make sure I sing carefully so I don’t blow my voice out before the end; which when I’m congested means breathing well and not tightening up when the congestion interferes with the singing.

At the end of the evening, I felt really good. The New Age folks talk about how singing is “healing,” meaning I think some sort of existential or spiritual healing. Some folks meditate and concentrate on their breath; some do yoga and pranayama breathing exercises; these and other spiritual practices involve breathing carefully and deeply. Aside from any purported spiritual effects, breathing deeply is also physically healing: you pump up your blood oxygen levels, and yes it can loosen congestion in your lungs.

So at the end of tonight’s singing, I felt energized and upbeat. No mysterious spiritual force at work here — that’s simply what often happens when you do a lot of deep breathing.

Singing at home


At the break, I turned to chat with a new singer who had joined the basses. As usual, I asked him what brought him to sing Sacred Harp.

“Well, I really like to sing Maori music,” he said.

“Maori?” I said. I wasn’t sure that’s what he said, and didn’t see the connection.

“Maori, you know, from New Zealand,” he said. He explained that he couldn’t find anywhere in the Bay area to sing Maori music, and a friend had suggested that maybe Sacred Harp would be a possible substitute.

I’ve heard of people coming to Sacred Harp singing from Renaissance music, bluegrass, punk rock, folk music — but never before from Maori singing.

Singing at home

Hooking new singers

Quite a few people came into the singing late tonight, mostly people I didn’t recognize, and most of them sat in the tenor section as is recommended for new singers. But I didn’t realize how many of them there were until I stood up to lead a song: we had four tenor benches set up with three to four people sitting in each bench; call it fourteen tenors. I looked at them with surprise and said, “Boy, there are a lot of you.” Plus we had two new singers out of half a dozen in the alto section, and our usual half a dozen basses and four or five trebles: somewhere close to thirty people total.

We had good strong singers in each section, so it was a good singing, and at least the newcomers got to hear what Sacred Harp singing sounds like. But how many of them will come back? In the urban revival of Sacred Harp, we often call our local singings “practice singings,” but you have to know the basics of how to sing Sacred Harp music before you can practice. In Berkeley, we have a monthly learner’s group, which is fabulous, but that only happens once a month. I don’t think we are particularly good at hooking new people who have little or no singing experience — most of our experienced singers in the urban revival either knew how to read music, or were pretty darned good musicians, before they ever showed up at one of our singings. Yes, there are exceptions — and my sense of those people is that they have a greater than ordinary innate ability, and a strong will.

I have to think that any viable Sacred Harp community in the urban revival either has to plan for at least one serious singing school each year, or has to gather the bulk of its singers from from other communities of experienced musicians. It’s no accident that many of the urban revival Sacred Harp communities are affiliated with a university, sometimes with a for-credit course in Sacred Harp singing like the Sacred Harp class at Brown University that funnels singers into the Providence, R.I., local singing — or are close to a community of musicians, like Norumbega Harmony which sponsors an annual singing school at the New England Folk Festival. (Or check out this event for music educators.)

I’ll be curious to see how many of tonight’s new singers return, and how long they stick with it. I hope they all come back — it would be great fun to sing with 30 people each week, instead of a score or two dozen.

Singing at home

High energy

Almost from the beginning, tonight’s singing had a lot of energy. We had exhilarating singing for about forty-five minutes: a loud bright sound, true intonation, and faster than normal tempi — in fact, a couple of times the class seemed to speed up the lesson and the leader had to work to keep up; once, the leader stopped us and reminded the class to pay attention to the leader.

Why was the singing so good? Perhaps because some of the singers who came down for the Golden Gate stayed for tonight’s singing, including a particularly strong bass and a particularly strong alto. Now plenty of our local singers are good, strong singers; but when you’re singing with 20 or so people, just a couple of strong new voices can add something exciting. And there is something about going back to your regular practice singing after a good all-day singing or a convention: the excitement of singing with a large group can stay with you for some time.

After that first forty-five minutes, our energy began to flag a little. We mostly had had bright, high-energy songs. I felt myself getting a little tired; our intonation wasn’t quite as true; and I was relieved when we had a tune that didn’t take quite as much energy on my part. We recovered after break — not surprisingly, we took a longer break than usual — and the singing got strong again in the second half, although for me it never quite hit that transcendent level we reached early on. Perhaps if we had interjected a few more slow or somber tunes among the high-energy tunes we could have maintained our energy for longer; though that seems like overkill for a two-hour practice singing.

Singing at home

No. 479, Chester, with the original words

Today is the day before April 19 — and April 19 (as is well know by every schoolchild in Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts) is the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington, the battle that began the Revolutionary War. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and April 19 was a big holiday for us as kids: we got to go see the parade, and watch the reenactment of the battle (the Red Coats always lose), and wander around town with our friends.

So I could not resist leading Chester, no. 479, by William Billings, with the original words probably written by Billings. The first verse appears in his 1770 tune book The New England Psalm-Singer:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

The other four verses appear in full in his 1778 book The Singing Master’s Assistant:

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

I assume that these last four verses were written after the 1770 book, for these verses mention events that had not yet happened in 1770, but were very much in people’s minds in 1778.

Tonight, we sang the first and fourth of the original verses. Tonight’s class gave a powerful and stirring rendition of this glorious tune — perhaps because these words are more fun to sing than the perfectly fine poetry that’s in the book, for these words were written to match the tune. And in case you want to try this yourself, here’s a PDF of the tune with the four of the original five verses:

Chester. L.M. With original words.

Singing at home

No. 334

I’ve been working through some of the mid-nineteenth century tunes in The Sacred Harp, and a couple of weeks ago came across no. 334, “O Come Away.” Temperance songs were a small but important category of mid-nineteenth century hymns, and the words to “O Come Away” are typical of the category:

We welcome you!
Ye who with taste perverted
Have seized the cup and drank it up —
We welcome you here!
Come join us in our holy aim,
The poor besotted to reclaim,
The broken heart to cheer again,
O come, sign the pledge!

Personally, I have a fondness for temperance songs, partly because earlier generations of both sides of my family were temperance people, and partly because in my work I’ve seen the ugly side of alcoholism. But I know I’m a minority — most of the people I sing with haven’t much interest in these hymns, nor in the tunes that accompany them.

Tonight, a man walked into All Saints Chapel while we were singing, and started talking loudly. He wasn’t the usual crazy street person you see in Berzerkely; he was clean and well-shaven. But he was obviously wasted — a strong smell of alcohol on his breath, and by the look of him, probably some other intoxicants in his bloodstream — he was pretty much out of his head. He had locked himself out of his apartment building nearby, and we managed to get him home. Not long after he had gone, my turn came to lead a song, and I chose no. 334, which I led as a sort of prayer for that man — in hopes that he could find a way to live his life that wouldn’t involve that level of intoxication ever again.

When the singing was over, and I was walking to my car, I had to walk past the building where he lived. There was an ambulance and a firetruck out front, their red lights flashing in the night. I hoped that they weren’t there to pick up that man — but he was so wasted that I can’t help but wonder if he was why there were in front of that particular building.