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.

Singing at home

It’s different

We had eleven singers at this afternoon’s second Sunday Palo Alto practice singing. Of those eleven, one was singing Sacred Harp for the very first time, two had only come two or three times before, and three had been singing less than a year; in other words, half the class had been singing for less than a year.

It was a very pleasant singing. The three brand-new singers listened hard and sang when they could. There were three long-time Palo Alto singers who can hold a singing together no matter what: Terry, who can sing any part; Phil, who can sight read anything and who can pitch songs so that everyone sounds their best; and Peter, who can anchor the all-important bass part (for my money, the basses are more important than the tenors, because they keep the rhythm and provide the root of the harmony). The rest of us were in the middle somewhere: the three who have been singing less than a year are all pretty good singers by this point, and the other two of us are reasonably competent.

As we were singing, I couldn’t help noticing how different a practice singing is from an all-day singing or a convention. It’s so obvious how exciting and exuberant an all-day singing or convention can be that I almost don’t have to mention it: anyone who attended one knows how you can get picked up and carried away by the waves of sound. But a good local singing has its own quieter charms: I like the way you can really hear the individual quality of the best singers, and hear the way the best singers sing to and with each other. A good practice singing is also a supportive community where you can work on things like reading the notes with greater precision, hearing how your part interacts with each of the other parts, and using your voice to support other singers.

All this points up a big difference between traditional Southern singers and those of us in the northern/western urban revival. Traditional singers can learn to sing Sacred Harp from family and friends; they can also go to an all-day singing or convention nearly every weekend to hear some of the best singers. We revival singers learn to sing Sacred Harp in our practice singings, and many of us might attend only one or two all-day singings a year.

Because of this last point, some singers in the urban revival try to make every practice singing into a mini-all-day-singing. I think we would be better off recognizing that a practice singing is different from an all-day singing: a practice singing should sound great but should emphasize learning and becoming a better singer (i.e., practice singings are like rehearsals). And then on the other hand, we need more all-day singings in the urban revival: we need more venues where we can really show off our skills (i.e., all-day singings are like gigs).

Singing at home

Like a singing school

Nine of us showed up this afternoon for a three-hour post-all-day-singing singing: one treble, two tenors, four basses, and three altos. Even though eight of us had been at the all-day singing yesterday, today’s class sang well.

We spent some time working on a number of tunes, such as no. 372 Rockport: we sang through the notes twice until we really got every note right, then sang the words. Jeff said that he had been told that this was one of the more difficult tunes in the 1991 Denson book; singing it as well as we did made us feel like we had accomplished something.

We also worked through no. 292 Behold the Savior, a tune composed by Paine Denson in 1935. This is another challenging tune where we sang the notes twice, and I can’t say that we got all the notes right every time, but I think we got every note right at least once. We talked a little about the syncopated bass line in mm. 16-18, and how that must have been influenced by 1930s jazz.

Another tune we worked through pretty carefully was no. 320 Funeral Anthem. Getting the pitches right is relatively easy on this tune, but getting all the changes of time signature is more challenging. Again, we sang through it twice, both notes and words, and by the second time through it sounded smooth and natural — the way Billings intended it, I think, mimicking the rhythms of natural speech.

We challenged ourselves as a class. It’s fairly easy to fudge when you’re singing Sacred Harp: sing loud, throw in some slides and other ornamentation, sing fast, and you can cover up imprecise intonation. But we didn’t let ourselves fudge anything. And it was fun taking it slow and getting it right. At the end, Sue said that this had been like a singing school. She’s right. I now feel much more confident with several difficult tunes.

At the end of the singing, I talked briefly with Linda about the differences between the Berkeley weekly singing and the Palo Alto singing. I said I thought that in the Berkeley weekly singing, we tend to emphasize learning how to lead, especially learning how to beat time so that you communicate well with the class; while in Palo Alto, we tend to emphasize getting pitch, rhythm, and even enunciation right. Whatever the specific differences might be, Linda agreed that these two practice singings do have a different feel to them.

Oh, and we had root beer floats and yummy sweet oat bar for snack.

Singing at home


The singers of the second Sunday Palo Alto singing allowed me to present a couple of new tunes today. Here’s the first one:

Sunnyvale. 7s.

This proved to be a little challenging to sight-sing, which I had expected. Although the melody lines of each part are pretty straightforward, the tempo changes and tied notes complicate matters. I know I made several mistakes. But by the end of the four verses we sang, we got pretty good. This was fun to sing, and worth singing again.

Other local singings

New Hundred Forty-eighth

The second of two tunes I presented at today’s second Sunday Palo Alto singing:

New Hundred Forty-eighth.

The class sang this tune well, even though it’s challenging to sight-sing — there are lots of notes to sing, and each part does a few unexpected things. Not only that, but the tune should go pretty quickly (quarter note equals 120-144 b.p.m.). So we sang through the shapes twice, and by the last time, the class gave a very nice reading. I felt this tune would be worth singing again: after a few repetitions, a class could get the tempo up even more, which would be a lot of fun.

Notes: Peter asked about the unusual metric indication; the “D” means “doubled.” Melody inspired by Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer.”

Other local singings

In which I talk about the Palo Alto singing, and then digress at length

Ellen hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house; her living room makes a very nice singing room. We wound up with thirteen singers: just two tenors and two trebles, four altos, and five basses. As much as I prefer the lower voices, we really were heavy on the basses and altos, and it could have been awkward. But it wasn’t awkward: the singers listened to each other, and responded to what they heard other singers doing. I suspect we were also aware that we had four relatively new singers, and it felt to me as though we were all making sure the newer singers could hear what was going on around them.

And now it’s time for a long digression: