Singing at home

Wood walls, and more verses

Two things worth noting from today’s Palo Alto singing:

First, today’s class sounded really good. There were just ten of us — two tenors, two trebles, three altos, and three basses — but we took full advantage of the strengths of the room to create a big warm sound. The room we sing in is relatively small (about 16 feet square); the walls and ceiling are mostly wood with a couple of big windows; the floor is hard vinyl. The hard surfaces, square shape, and low ceiling mean you can hear everyone clearly; all that wood means that you get a nice warm sound. wish I had had an audio recorder, because we gave some nice readings of some of the tunes.

Second, after the singing Peter and I were talking about how many verses you should sing of a given tune. Both of us prefer to sing more verses, rather than less. If there are up to four verses, Peter said he prefers to sing them all; that would tend to be my preference. Peter and I both agreed that singing more verses can be better for newer singers; an additional verse or two can give a new singer time to get it right. From my point of view, why stop singing after just a verse or two? why not sing another verse or two, and take the time to enjoy the tune?

Of course, every practice singing has its own way of doing things. Many practice singings prefer to sing fewer verses, so the class can cover more songs in a given time, and there’s a lot to be said for that approach. But a strong case can also be made for singing all the verses of each tune: the class may get through fewer tunes, but they will know those tunes better. Peter pointed out that there exist practice singings, which are dominated by traditional Sacred Harp singers, where the class sings every verse of a tune; so there is precedent in the tradition for either approach.

As is true of so many things in Sacred Harp singing, there’s not one right way of doing things. And I think we’re lucky in the Bay area to have both approaches available: the Berkeley weekly singing moves through lots of tunes with only a few verses; the Palo Alto singing likes to sing lots of verses. I feel I’m a better singer because I can take advantage of both approaches. But I think I do prefer doing a couple more verses, taking a little more time to enjoy singing each tune.

Singing at home


Don Brenneis found a great late eighteenth century tune titled “Friendship,” shared it with me, and we both wanted to bring it to Sacred Harp singing somehow. In its original form, as published in The American Musical Miscellany in 1798, there were only two parts: the melody and a bass part. I set about writing a treble and alto part with very mixed success, when I discovered that William Walker had done a setting of the tune in his 1860 tunebook The Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist: Intended as an Appendix to the Southern Harmony (published by G. G. Evans, Philadelphia).

The Walker setting appears quite simple at first. Each of the parts makes melodic sense on its own, and all the parts seem to come together sensibly. But closer examination reveals some challenging chords: at the beginning of the third and second-to-last measures there’s a major third over a minor second, and the third beat of the fifth measure has a major second over a major second over a major sixth.

The class gave a good reading of the tune, and those crunchy chords sounded great in context. This one is definitely worth singing again, and it would be fun to work on it with a small ensemble to get those strange chords sounding exactly right.


Singing at home

Easter singing

The regular second Sunday Palo Alto singing fell on Easter this year. Even though some of our regular singers had Easter commitments, ten of us showed up to sing: two tenors, one treble, three altos, and four basses. Yet again, there were more men than women: seven men to three women (the three women were all altos this time). While it is nice to have the treble and tenor parts sung in two octaves, I have to say that I also like the sound with just men singing treble and tenor; the harmonies aren’t as rich, but I like the overall lower pitch, and the way the treble, tenor, and bass lines are close together and even crossing one another.

Since it was Easter, of course we sang no. 236, Billings’s Easter Anthem. Last month we had sung the notes and the words to the Easter Anthem, and that practice paid off this month; we gave a very nice reading of the tune. We also wound up singing several other tunes by Billings: no. 479 Chester, no. 66 Jordan, no. 291 Majesty, and no. 269 Bear Creek. It is always a pleasure to sing Billings; his are generally very singable, and very satisfying to sing.

Singing at home

Fourth Sunday

I’m on vacation this week, and so for once was able to attend the fourth Sunday Palo Alto singing. Ellen hosted the singing in her house, and seven of us showed up to sing: two tenors, a treble, two altos, and two basses. It was very pleasant, with all the benefits of a small singing: we could go over an individual part if we needed to; we could repeat a final section of a song if we wanted to, whether or not it was marked as a repeat; and we could take the time to chat. And we sounded great: everyone was obviously listening closely to the other singers (something that’s actually easier to do in a small singing), with the result that we sang in tune with solid rhythm, and you could even make out all the words.

Two high points of the singing for me: First, when we sang no. 472 Akin, the altos asked for an alto review; I had never really paid much attention to Akin’s alto part before, and I found that it’s really quite lovely; I especially enjoyed the long run in measures 9-13 that ranges from A below middle C to high C. The second high point was singing no. 345 I’m on My Journey Home; it’s one of those tunes that sounds better in a small singing, where you can really hear the spare harmonies.

We were supposed to end at five. At ten after five, Peter happened to glance at his watch and then told us the time. Even though it was past time to stop, we kept singing for another five minutes — we were having too much fun to stop.

Singing at home

Singing the notes

Easter will fall on the second Sunday of the month this year, which means there is a Palo Alto singing scheduled for that day. So at today’s singing, I asked if we could sing through no. 236, William Billings’ Easter Anthem, to practice for Easter Sunday. Will suggested that we try singing the notes. I had never done that, and I didn’t want to impose on the rest of the singers by taking up that much time. Will, in his gentle way, further suggested that we might learn something by singing the notes. The other singers seemed game, so that’s what we did: we sang through the notes, and then sang the words.

It worked, too: when we sang the words, we sounded better. In fact, even though there were just ten of us, with two first-time singers and one relatively new singer, we sounded pretty good. Singing the notes really does work. And it occurs to me that often I think a practice singing should follow the same rules as an all-day singing or a convention: never sing the notes on an anthem, never sing through the individual parts, etc. But a practice singing is supposed to be for practice, so we can learn to sing better: singing the notes on an anthem now and again might just make us better singers.

Singing at home

All men, for a moment

At the beginning of today’s Palo Alto singing, there were no women. Terry can sing alto (in range!), so he held down the alto bench; Arnold sang tenor; Will and Phil held down the tenor bench; and Neal and I sang bass.

I have heard that old recording of the Denson Quartet, an all-male Sacred Harp ensemble. But I have never experienced being part of an all-male singing. It was a little disconcerting at first, with the alto part often sounding higher than all the other parts, but I found myself liking the sound.

Two women came later and sang treble, and of course it was nice to have them there. An all-male Sacred Harp singing is fun as a novelty, but I do prefer having both men’s and women’s voices for a fuller sound.

But Terry had to hold down the alto bench all by himself for the whole two hours.

Singing at home

Thirty at a local singing

The second session of the fall singing school segued right into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto/South Bay singing. At the start of the regular singing, I counted about thirty singers, of whom perhaps half were new, or relatively new, singers; the rest of the singers were regulars from the Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco local singings.

There were seven of us in the bass section, of whom three were brand new singers (although all three had other extensive singing experience). From the beginning I felt that we were singing well together. The singing school that preceded the regular singing had ended with our singing master telling us about accent, and I think perhaps we picked up on that.

One of the first tunes we sang was a fuguing tune, and the basses all came in strongly, accenting the first and third beats; this energized us, and I think helped us to sing better, to sing above what you might assume was our average level of competence. With such a strong, big bass section, I couldn’t resist: I got up to lead 268 “David’s Lamentation,” and the basses performed admirably; as did the rest of the class.

And it wasn’t just the bass section: the whole class sang quite well. Part of that, of course, was because we had 30 singers. When there are six or seven people in each section, you have enough people to support each other and cover over mistakes in intonation, rhythm, articulation, and so on. It’s often easier to sing well in a larger group.

But it was more than just size. After the break, a fair number of people who had been at the singing school left — two hours is a lot of singing, and some people were ready to head home — and we dropped down to about twenty singers. But among those twenty singers were some fine singers: Julian, Terry, Carolyn, Linda, and Mary in the tenors, Arnold and Terry in the trebles, Kendall and the woman whose name I’m blanking on in the altos, Carl and Peter in the basses. In that third hour, we had some of the best singing of the day. It does take time to get used to the mix of a given class, and perhaps we finally got used to each other. Or it could have been the spirit of the class, or (as Quakers might have it) a Spirit-led class.

Whatever the cause, it was a good strong singing.

Singing at home

“By the Waters of Babylon”

This past Sunday was the tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. A round often attributed to William Billings, “By the Waters of Babylon,” seemed like a good tune to sing for that anniversary: healing, and appropriate. I adapted it somewhat for us Sacred Harp singers: placed it in the key of C minor; changed a few notes in the treble line (m. 11) to keep the trebles more in the range to which they’re accustomed, and to provide some forward momentum (rounds can feel pretty static) and make it feel more like a fuguing tune; lowered the bass part an octave from the original (mm. 9-12) to provide a lower foundation (again, more like a fuguing tune) and to set off the treble part in mm. 11-12; and finally added choice notes in the tenor line (mm. 5-8, 17-20) so that the altos could feel more comfortable singing the tenor line.

Purists will be horrified at these changes, but editors of tune books regularly changed tunes, altered parts, etc., so I feel it is within the bounds of the tradition. If you want the original round, take the tenor line mm. 1-12 and drop the lower choice notes in mm. 5-8. And while this tune is attributed to Billings, it probably originated as a Hebrew round, so it has already been modified by the folk process. (N.B.: The sheet music should read “attributed to William Billings”.)

I presented this at the Palo Alto singing on September 11, the tenth anniversary. The fifty-plus singers there sang it beautifully — all credit to them, and to whomever wrote the original tune. One or two people asked about it, so I’ll post a PDF of the tune here:

By the Waters of Babylon.

One final note: the tenth anniversary of 9/1 hit me harder than I expected, and I wound up being unable to sing while I was leading this.

Update 6 November 2012:

More on the origins of the tune: Since I wrote the initial post I have been able to do more research. The tune does not appear anywhere in The Complete Works of William Billings, so it is not by Billings. Don Maclean’s 1971 recording “American Pie” incorrectly attributes the tune to Billings, and many later misattributions seem to stem from this misattribution. So where does the tune come from?

The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion by LindaJo H. McKim (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 177) attributes what is essentially the same tune to “traditional Jewish melody.” Similarly, Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship by John D. Witvliet, Martin Tel, and Joyce Borger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2012, p. 899) also attributes it: “traditional Jewish melody.” Other sources simply attribute the tune to “Traditional.”

A version of the tune appeared in print as early as 1786 in The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes, on p. 105. A scan of this book is available as a public domain download from the International Music Score Library Project; here’s the relevant portion of the book:

As you can see, the first three parts of the canon are very similar to the tune I presented to the Palo Alto group. However, there are differences in the tune and the way the words fit to the tune (more melisma in the Hayes version), and there is also a fourth part to the canon. Were I to do this again, I would work from the Hayes version, since it was a tune that could have been known to the early American tunesmiths.

However, just because the tune appears in Hayes does not mean it was composed by Hayes; he could well have collected it from another source, including from a traditional Jewish source. Until I find research done by ethnomusicologists or music historians, I feel it’s best to attribute this tune to “Traditional” or “Anonymous”; or if one uses the Philip Hayes version, the attribution would be something like: “Philip Hayes’ The Muses Delight (1786).”

Singing at home

54 people at a local singing

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing. The tempo of the songs picked up, and at times some of the new singers got a little lost, but from where I sat in the back of the bass section, everyone I could see was enjoying themselves, and enjoying the music.

It was a very good singing. Even though the newer singers may have felt a little unsure, they sounded good — we all sounded good. I was sitting between two new basses, and it was clear they thought they weren’t singing very well — but they were actually singing quite well. They were listening to me and the other experienced basses, and getting most of the notes right from the start; by the time a third or fourth verse came around, they were both singing well indeed. They both had good strong bass voices, it’s always a pleasure to sing with people who know how to listen and respond to the singers around them, and I really enjoyed singing with both of them.

We took a break after an hour of the regular singing — and after an hour of singing school for most of us as well, which meant a total of two hours of singing. People were very social and very chatty during break; you could feel the good energy in the group. People were also pretty hungry, and lots of sandwiches and watermelon was eaten. A number of the new singers, but I counted 29 singers who reassembled after the break, which is still a good number of singers for a local singing. In fact, it sounded better after the break. The room we were in was a little small for 54 singers, and 29 singers filled the space with sound quite nicely.

All in all, one of the nicer local singings I have attended — and I am very grateful to the regular singers of the Palo Alto local singing who allowed us to piggyback the singing school onto their regular singing.