Chris Thorman began singing Sacred Harp 25 years ago with the Palo Alto Sacred Harp singers. He came to sing with us today in honor of the anniversary.
We had eight people show up today for three hours of singing, including two out-of-town singers. We sang some old favorites that weren’t led at the all-day singing (China, Stratfield, etc.). We worked through a few tunes that we did sing at the all-day singing, but where at least some of us weren’t satisfied with the way we sang them yesterday — and we worked on them till we all felt reasonably happy with the outcome. I also introduced three new tunes that I had written, and the singers very graciously worked through them and offered useful comments (I’ll post those here as separate blog posts). And we ate leftovers from the Saturday night social — yum!
All in all, a pleasant way to wind down from the all-day singing.
AFter a month away from singing due to bronchitis and laryngitis, I was finally able to sing again this week. And what better way to get back into singing than with the Palo Alto singers.
The Palo Alto local singing has been getting really good recently. Some of these folks have been singing together for years and years, which means that the singing starts off with an advantage. But mostly it just seems like the singing is going well; every singing group goes through its ups and downs, and the Palo Alto singing seems to be going up at the moment.
What I especially like about the Palo Alto singing is the excellent intonation. When we’re singing, I can often feel the overtones from the good intonation vibrating in my chest and head. Why has our intonation gotten so good? Perhaps it’s because we have been leading tunes at somewhat more moderate tempos; perhaps it’s because we’ve been singing more than just a couple of verses of each tune, which gives us times to get the intonation exactly right. Mostly, though, I think it’s because we’re relaxed and we take the time to listen to each other. Good intonation requires good listening — you can get the rhythm by watching the leader, you can get the melody by looking at the book, but the only way to be in tune is to listen to the other singers.
We had two new singers today, and I don’t know what it felt like to them, but to my ears they both sounded great right from the start. Now both of them have done lots of other kinds of singing, so they were starting from a relatively high level; but it’s also true that it’s much easier to sing if the group you’re singing with is in tune and in rhythm with each other.
Even though I was still struggling a little on the higher notes — my voice hasn’t quite recovered from the bronchitis, I guess — it felt really good to sing today. It’s amazing what eleven good singers can do inside a room with wood walls and ceiling: I got carried away by the waves of sound.
Sue hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house in Mountain View today. There were twelve to fourteen people in Sue’s music room — which just about filled the room — and it was a very good singing indeed. It was especially fun to have an out=of-town singer, JT from Austin, join us.
Of course we sang a lot of Christmas tunes from The Sacred Harp. In addition to those tunes, Paul and I each brought a different version of “Star in the East,” a Christmas tune from William Walker’s Southern Harmony; my version was Walker’s version with an alto part that I wrote, and Paul’s was a complete re-harmonoization of the melody, with a quite challenging and very interesting bass part. I also brought the three-part version of Lowell Mason’s “Antioch” (a.k.a. “Joy to the World”) from the Southern Harmony.
At one point, JT led a 4/4 tune in 4, and someone asked what was the difference in elading a tune in 4 versus leading the same tune in 2. We tried to explain how when you lead a 4/4 tune in 2, the class is going to tend to accent the first and third beats more heavily than if you lead it in 2. Finally JT said, “Let’s just try it.” So we did: JT led the same tune in 2, at the same tempo, and you could hear the much stronger accents on the first and third beats. When we finished, the person who had asked the question said they really understood the difference now. And I was glad we had done the experiment, too — you really notice the difference when you lead a tune in 4, then immediately lead it again in 2.
(I neglected to write up the fourth Sunday singing in September when it happened (a touch of bronchitis put me out of action for a bit), but I’ll post a few quick notes and back-date this to September 22.)
We were invited to sing at the Presbyterian church in Sunnyvale. Several of our regular singers couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts, which was too bad. But one of our regular singers, Marian, is a member of that church, and got some of her friends from the choir to come sing with us. They talked about maybe getting us to sing there regularly.
All in all, another good singing, even if we were a little light on tenors. I always enjoy it when new singers join us — and not surprisingly, since they sing in a church choir, today’s new singers picked it up quickly.
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?
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!
Today at the second Sunday Palo Alto singing (which took place on a first Sunday, which I’ll explain in a minute), we had two tenors, two trebles, one alto, and four basses. This, to my ear, is an almost perfectly balanced proportion of voices. As William Billings said in his essay “To the several Teachers of Music” in The Singing Master’s Assistant, Lesson XIII:
“ONE very essential thing in Music, is to have the parts properly proportioned; and here I think we ought to take a grateful notice, that the Author of Harmony has so curiously constructed our Organs, that there are about three or four deep voices suitable for the Bass to one for the upper parts, which is about the proportion required in the laws of Harmony….” (The Complete Works of William Billings vol. II, ed. Hans Nathan [Boston: American Musicological Society / Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1977], p. 18)
That’s not far from the proportion that we had in today’s class, and we sounded wonderful. Billings is right: the laws of harmony are such that a group of singers sounds its best with a big bass section. In Western harmony, the bass grounds all the other voices, and big bass sound — “majestic,” Billings calls it — makes every other voice sound better. And yes, as a bass who loves to sing bass, I am biased — but try it sometime, have twice as many basses as any other part, or three times as many, and see how good you sound.
And why was the second Sunday singing on the first Sunday? We’ll be singing at the San Francisco Free Folk Festival next week, supporting Terry and Peter in their Sacred Harp workshop.
[Posted a week late, due to heavy work commitments.]
The Memorial Day holiday weekend meant we had just five singers at the fourth Sunday singing in Palo Alto: three basses, one tenor, and one treble. That was too many basses, so I said I would sing tenor with the caveat that I couldn’t sing any tunes with particularly high notes. Terry was pitching for us, and with me singing tenor he had a bit of a challenge balancing my inability to sing very high against the lower limit of the basses and the other tenor. But though we had to skip a few tunes that we would have liked to sing, and though we missed the altos, and though I was occasionally unable to sing the very high notes, we did pretty well.
In fact, I had a lot of fun at this singing. When you’re singing with just a few voices, you really get to hear the other parts; and since I was singing a part that was unfamiliar to me, on some of the tunes it felt like I was hearing them for the first time.
This singing also proved to be a good workout for me; the Bay Psalm Book of 1689 warns us against “squeaking above, or grumbling below” (and indeed it is easy to hear both problems among Sacred Harp singers today). I had to work on not squeaking. When you sing Sacred Harp at the upper end of your range, there is a natural tendency to sing notes a little flat, and there’s also a natural tendency to let the quality of your voice degenerate into either a loud piercing tone or what I can only describe as a hooting tone. So I worked hard to hit the high notes right on pitch, and to keep the tone or timbre of my voice consistent all the way from the lower notes up through the highest notes. This meant I had to listen even more carefully than usual to the other singers to make sure I was in tune, and it meant I had to pay a great deal of attention to my breathing so I could maintain a consistent tone. In large part I succeeded in not “squeaking”;
We had an even dozen singers at the second Sunday Palo Alto singing today: three basses, two altos, two trebles, and the rest tenors. It was a nice mix of voices, and I thought the singing was pretty good; some of us were hampered, however, by extraordinarily thick pollen; I think both Arnold and I got it the worst, but I heard some scratchiness in some other voices as well.
After the singing, Lindy, who is charing next year’s Golden Gate singing, told us that she has started an online survey to find out more about what people want and need for singing. What was more important than the survey, though, was that she has been getting around to the three regular Bay Area singings, and the local singing in Healdsburg. The Bay Area Sacred Harp singing scene has always felt fragmented to me, and it’s nice that the incoming chair of the biggest Bay Area all-day singing is making such an effort to reach out to singers throughout the Bay Area.
I’m not sure why the Bay Area Sacred Harp scene feels fragmented. At first glance, you’d think we should be quite unified: several of us make an effort to get to all the local singings as often as we can, and most of us get to all-day singings whenever we can. But it does feel fragmented. Partly it’s because of the geography and the traffic — getting from the Peninsula to the East Bay, and from the East Bay to San Francisco, means crossing the bay on one of a few heavily traveled roads.
My guess is that another part of the reason we’re so fragmented is that we don’t have enough all-day singings. The distance from Healdsburg to Palo Alto is the same as the distance from Boston to Northhampton. In the area around Boston and Northhampton in any given year, you’ll find half a dozen all-day singings and at least one convention or maybe two. In the Bay Area, by contrast, we have just two all-day singings, and a convention only once every three years. Conventions and all-day singings build enthusiasm; they draw in new singers; they make existing singers sing better; but most of all they draw people together.
I do have to admit that my judgment may be clouded on this topic. Because of my job, I can rarely travel to other regions to go to all-day singings and conventions. I would love to see three or four smaller all-day singings in addition to the Golden Gate All-Day singing — plus an annual Bay Area Convention. And no, that’s not too ambitious — I know from my time singing in the Boston area that it’s well within the realm of possibility.