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?

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!

Singing at home

Twice as many basses

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.]

Singing at home

Tiny singing

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”;

Singing at home

Beyond local singings

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.

Singing at home

Small singing

Just eight people showed up at today’s Palo Alto singing — we had changed from the fourth Sunday to the first Sunday to accommodate the Healdsburg singers moving their date, and it seems not everyone got the word.

It may have been small, but it was a good singing. I like small singings because often you have more time to work on tunes and get them right. I love it when we go over another section’s part, singing it in unison — it’s a good chance to get to hear and see how another section’s part fits in with your section’s part.

At one point today, we had three basses, one tenor, one treble, and one alto. I thought I’d try to sing with the lone tenor, to better balance the parts. I lasted about three tunes (and didn’t sing any of them very well); I found it very tiring to sing constantly at the very upper limit of my range, especially on tunes where I don’t know the tenor part and was sight-singing. I was very happy to get back to the bass section, and grateful that there are many people can sing those higher parts.

Singing at home

The joy of friendly house singings

I do like friendly house singings, and that’s what we had today.

Today the Palo Alto Sacred Harp singers met in Sue’s house. At the peak, there were fourteen of us singing: six tenors, two trebles, three altos, and two basses. This proved to be a nice balance of voices for the room: the tenors dominated, as they’re supposed to, but you could also hear all the other parts.

I always have a delightful time singing with the Palo Alto crew. Everyone is friendly and relaxed; everyone is willing to go over a part or sing the shapes a second or third time until we really get it right; and we tend to sing more verses and more repeats which I find helps make me a better and more accurate singer. Today, Jeannette and some others chose less familiar tunes, and it was good to work on unfamiliar tunes in such a friendly and supportive atmosphere. We also sang a lot of our favorites, and it was equally good to spend time singing without having to think so much.

Unfortunately, I had to leave early to go back to work, so I didn’t get to stay for the pasta dinner after the singing.

(On a side note, today Paul and I talked briefly about West Gallery music; we’re both interested in Sacred Harp-style music that can include melody insturments. I pointed him to some online sheet music for West Gallery music, and I’ve now added those links to the sidebar. I’ve set one West Gallery tune in four-shape notes, and someday I’ll have to bring this to a Palo Alto singing so Paul and I can sing some West Gallery music!)

Singing at home


We had 15 singers at the Palo Alto local singing today: 4 tenors (2 men and 2 women), 3 trebles (2 men and 1 woman), 5 altos, and 3 basses. It was a nice mix of men and women, and a nice mix between the different parts (the altos weren’t as loud as you might expect, since two of the singers were quite new). Our sound really filled the small wood-lined room in which we sing.

At one point — I think it was right after we sang Mount Desert — someone pointed out the we kept choosing upbeat, joyous songs. I don’t know if it was the mix of the voices we had, or a shared mood, or what — but it was true: we sang 198 Green Street, 193 Huntington, 269 Bear Creek, 99 Gospel Trumpet, each joyful in its own way, so that I felt enveloped by the sound. Or maybe it was just the way we were singing today, for even 39 Detroit and 268 David’s Lamentation and 410 The Dying Californian sounded more joy-filled than I would have thought possible. We sang 122 All Is Well for someone who had died; that tune can be sung so that it’s a sad and mournful song, or it can be sung so that it’s a song of triumph, and today I thought it felt like the latter.

I came out of the singing in a fabulous mood.

Singing at home

Working hard, getting better, having fun

There were only eight of us today, and we were missing several of our key singers to Christmas concerts and other commitments. That meant that Ellen switched from alto to tenor (not a part she usually sings), Arnold was all alone in the treble section, and Sue was all alone in the alto section. On top of that, our regular pitchers were both missing; I asked Arnold if he would like to pitch, but his voice was feeling a little tender, so I wound up pitching most of the session. In short, most of us had to work a little harder than usual.

But working hard is not necessarily a bad thing. Several times, we reviewed different parts separately, which gave all of us a chance to brush up on our sightsinging skills, and sing a part we ordinarily wouldn’t sing.

As for me, earlier this year I had promised myself that I wasn’t going to learn how to pitch; I don’t need that kind of pressure for something that’s supposed to be a hobby. But I didn’t mind pitching for the Palo Alto singers; we are a forgiving and friendly bunch, and no one would get cranky if I struggled a little.

And it was hard work at times: you have to listen hard to the other singers, hear how high the high voices can go that day, and how low the low voices can go, and pitch the tunes somewhere in the middle. I have a pretty good idea of where many of the often-sung tunes should be pitched, but today’s class of singers was singing lower than usual; and I tended to overcompensate by pitching the tunes too low, and then when we sang the notes I could hear it was too low and I would have to bring it up a major second. But everyone was very forgiving, and Arnold and Ellen both were both there to help me out when I got into difficulties.

At the end of today’s Palo Alto singing, someone said, “I like it when we have to review the different parts; I learn the music much better.” I couldn’t agree more: that’s the whole point of a practice singing, to work on singing, and get better at it. And when you get better at it, it’s much more fun.

Singing at home

The virtue of taking time

There are no Sacred Harp performances, no critical audiences, no fussy choir directors or fellow band memebers; Sacred Harp singing is filled with ornamentations like slides that mean you can fudge precise intonation, and enunciation is something we ignore except for the pronunciation of the word “the”; the songs are short and often fast and they go by very quickly. All of this means that it’s really quite easy to ignore one’s singing mistakes; as long as you accent those first and third beats, you can get away with a lot.

Which is one of the reasons I like singing with the Palo Alto practice singing: the Palo Alto singers are willing to take the time to work at a song and get it right. There is no shame in asking for a review of your section’s part, and we’ll all sing the part in question together (which in turn is a great way for the class to get better at sight reading, and to learn other parts). And the Palo Alto singers will sing every verse (and maybe even every repeat) so we all have a chance to get every note right at least once.

Today we worked through no. 372 Rockport. The tenors asked for a review of their part, and we all sang it; then the altos asked for a review of their part as well. I had never really listened to the alto part of Rockport before, and it is one of the odder alto parts I’ve paid attention to.

When we started singing the tune, i realized that I should have asked for a bass review, too. I thought I knew the tune pretty well, but now that I was paying closer attention I realized that I have been fudging some of the notes in measure six. The measure starts out with a typical Sacred-Harp-y dispersed-harmony E minor chord (with the fifth in the bass and tenor, and the root in the treble). But the next chord is not typical, at least from the point of view of the basses: it functions as an A major chord (assuming we sing in Dorian mode), but the basses sing the third, rather than the fifth or the root as we usually do; plus the third of this chord happens to be the raised sixth, a note the basses do not often get; plus we hit the raised sixth on the strong third beat of the measure which means we really shouldn’t fudge it (it’s easier to fudge notes on the weak beats); plus we’re the only part who sings the raised sixth in that chord so there’s no other part we can check ourselves against. To make it even more challenging, we jump from that note up a tritone (the “devil’s interval,” because it sounds so harsh) to G, before coming back to E to begin the seventh measure.

The seventh measure is not particularly challenging — even though we get the raised sixth again, it comes on the weakest fourth beat, and if we’re uncertain we can listen to the trebles who also have that note (assuming they’re going to get it right; a good assumption in Palo Alto, which has very accurate trebles) — yet even so, I realized as we were singing that the sixth measure messed me up enough that I tended to fudge some of the seventh measure, too. And I also realized that I have probably been fudging the sixth and seventh measures of Rockport for some time.

I didn’t get it right this time, but at least I figured out that I was getting it wrong, and I figured out precisely which note was throwing me off, and why. This will make me a more accurate singer, and a better sight reader. This is a benefit of being willing to take the time in a practice singing.