Other local singings

San Francisco Sacred Harp goes monthly

This just in:

As promised, San Francisco Sacred Harp is moving to monthly, our first meeting is February 20.

Sunday, February 20, 2011
1:30 to 4:30
St Aidan’s Episcopal Church
101 Gold Mine Drive (x Diamond Heights Boulevard)
San Francisco, CA 94131

Public transportation: BART to Glen Park BART, 52 MUNI bus to the church.
For driving directions and additional public transportation see:
Parking in the Safeway parking lot is allowed.

Info: Julian Damashek at juliandamashek AT gmail DOT com

Hooray for Julian and Carolyn Deacy for getting San Francisco Sacred Harp up and running again after the loss of the long-term venue on Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco. It’s exciting that it’s going to be monthly now instead of quarterly. (Alas, I won’t be able to go, since I work on Sunday afternoons.)

Other events

“Awake, My Soul”

City Church of San Francisco sponsored a showing of the Sacred Harp documentary “Awake My Soul” this evening (they showed the one-hour cut, not the full four-hour documentary). A good number of Bay Area Sacred Harp singers showed up. Matt and Erica Hinton were both present, and Matt Hinton answered questions from the audience after the film. One of our local singers asked Matt Hinton why the documentary focused on the big conventions, and Hinton gave several answers:– first, from a film maker’s point of view, local singings don’t film particularly well; then too, the sound produced by a big singing simply sounds better.

But the most interesting reason from my point of view is simply that Georgia, where the Hintons live and did much of the filming, is in the heartland of Sacred Harp singing where there is a convention within driving distance nearly every week of the year. He said that for those of us who live outside this heartland, a convention is a big deal that only we only get to experience a few times a year; thus for us, the local or practice singing looms large in importance. This is another way in which Sacred Harp singing of the urban revival outside the South winds up being a substantially different experience than traditional singing.

Singing at home


I counted four, or maybe five, newcomers this evening. We had what was for us a good turnout tonight: six or seven in the bass section, a dozen or more in the tenor section, six or seven trebles, and five altos. As usual, Hal and a couple of other experienced singers made a point of greeting all the newcomers, and giving them a quick explanation of how Sacred Harp singing works.

I am always interested to watch the path of newcomers. How did they find out about Sacred Harp singing? How did they find out about our local singing? What does it feel like to them when they come to an actual singing — does it live up to their expectations, or not? How do we welcome them, and how do we teach them enough so that they can have some fun right from the beginning? And how long do they stick around?

One of the newcomers came to sit in the bass section, and we made sure to tell him that if he sat in the front row, he could listen to more experienced singers sitting behind him, and beside him. Hal was in the front, and checked in to make sure the newcomer knew what was going on.

Singing at home

Raised sixths, and postmodern rootlessness

The first part of this week’s singing was the monthly “Other Book” singing, a time to sing from the Cooper book, Norumbega Harmony, Eclectic Harmony, etc. In the spirit of openness that has marked the Berkeley singings over the past several weeks, I saw a willingness of all singers to experiment, and of more experienced singers to do a little more teaching for the rest of us.

One subject came up that has been passionately discussed many times by singers of the urban revival. Towards the end of the “Other Book” singing, I asked us to sing Lebanon by William Billings, no. 2 in Norumbega Harmony. I had been playing through it at home, and noticed that if you try to raise the sixth, as is common Sacred Harp practice for songs in a minor key, at one point you get part of a diminished chord. So I was curious as to how we would sing the song. Unfortunately, since we don’t really know the song, we sang a fair number of wrong notes (I know I sang plenty of wrong notes), so I couldn’t be sure: did the experienced singers raise the sixth, or not?

Singing at home

Openness to experimentation

It was a light turnout tonight, with three trebles, three altos, four or five tenors, and six or seven basses (a few singers changed from one section to another in the course of the evening).

We continued our experiment of having each singer pitch their own song, if they chose to do so, in order to continue to build our skills as singers. Pitching tended to be quite low — although I don’t have a particularly good ear, based on notes I could not sing I’d estimate that one song was pitched a good fifth below notated pitch. Yet in spite of the generally low pitches, there were no negative comments — everyone continued to be very supportive. I was aware that this openness to learning and making mistakes gave me more confidence as a singer. I kept working on the same problems I’ve been working on for the past year — breath support, rhythmic accuracy, and intonation — yet I felt a freedom to focus more than usual on my own problems without worrying about what others thought, and wound up making particularly good progress on breath support.

In keeping with this new sense of experimentation, one of the newer women singers decided to join the bass section. During the break, I mentioned that is was great to have a woman in the section, and asked how it went for her; she said the tenor section, where she had been singing, was just too high for her voice, and this felt better; and I didn’t ask why she chose to join the bass section rather than the alto section. The treble section got shaken up a little, too:– During the break, one of the basses went to sing with the trebles, the first time in a while that a man has sat in that section. And one of the regular altos sat with the trebles; later she said she was able to do so in part because the pitches were so low.

A youngish man wandered into the singing about halfway through, and sat in the tenor section. He was welcomed and coached throughout by a couple of experienced singers. I talked with him briefly after the singing was over, and he said that he lived across the street, had heard the singing, and decided to come over and check it out. But I got the impression that he felt he was in over his head, and I have my doubts as to whether he’ll be back.

Singing at home

Nasal consonants

Attendance has been off a little bit as we head into summer. Some of the regulars were missing from the bass section this week, but a newcomer, an experienced Sacred Harp singer who has just moved to the area, sang strongly enough that the absence of some regulars was less noticeable.

Tenor Will and alto Marsha apparently got into a conversation during the break, about how to pronounce certain words. When Will’s turn came to lead, he invited us to sing words ending in a vowel followed by a nasal consonant (m, n, ng, etc.), such that we started sounding the nasal consonant midway through that note. This sounds complicated, and some of us didn’t quite understand Will at first. He demonstrated: “Instead of singing ‘hoooooome’, sing ‘hooommmme’.” (I got what he meant pretty quickly because I had once had a singing teacher correct me when I emphasized those nasal consonants; but that’s the way I had learned to sing from listening to records by bluegrass signers like Lester Flatt, and old-time country signers like Hank Williams.) Will’s idea was a good one: when we sang that way, it sounded much better. There’s a quality that harmonies take on when sung with nasals that you just don’t get when you try to sing only those pure choir-y Italian vowels.