2012 New Haven Singing

I went to a fabulous all day Sacred Harp singing in New Haven Connecticut last weekend. It was great. Thoughts:

Size and Space

This wasn't a huge singing. There plenty of singings in the Northeast that have higher attendance, but that doesn't matter, there was something nice about getting to sing with the people assembled.

It helped that the room was great for singing, and it was the perfect size for the crowd. Sacred Harp singers are often big folklore geeks or big music geeks, but I think deep down, we're all really huge room geeks. Because a room that just sounds and feels good, makes all the difference in the world.

Note to self: Go to more awesome regional singings in great rooms in the future.


It was a pleasantly warm spring day, and with 80 or so people in a room, it got warm, and while this did subtract something from the comfort level, it also sets the mood somehow, and changes the tone of the day. Also, when the air is a bit more humid (but it only needs to be a bit,) and it's not as drafty and cold, its easier to keep your voice warmed up. The end result: I (or one) will sing better between April and September.

My Voice Part

In an unusual move for me, I spent 3 out of 4 sessions singing Tenor. While I don't have a "super bass" voice, I'm defiantly on bass side of baritone. In Sacred Harp, theoretically everyone can sing tenor, and it's fun to mix things up a bit and songs sound different in different parts. I am also finding that having a sense of another part makes it possible to have a more rich sense of the music. Highly recommended.

Also, every time I sing tenor it takes me 25 minutes to remember (or remind my body) how to do it, so it was particularly nice to have a good long spell of singing to both figure out how to sing the part but also to get more comfortable with it.

My local singing community has been a bit bereft of basses lately, so I haven't had much opportunity to actually sing tenor as much as I might like recently, so it was a particularly good change of pace.

Song Selection

I had something of an epiphany about leading and choosing your song at a singing.

While choosing a song that you like and enjoy hearing is obviously a part of the processes, I think song choice is more about choosing the right song for the moment, and figuring out what will sound best next, given the previous few songs.

I used to obsess a great deal about what song I would lead, and study it (at least some) before the singing even began. This weekend, I came with a few songs that I'd been thinking about but changed at the last moment when I thought that the song I had picked out wouldn't fit very well.

Sing the Shapes

I wrote a bit about sacred harp singing for a few months about a year ago, when I was really starting to get into it, and then I mostly stopped. I've had a few singing related experiences recently that I think are worth recounting, even if they're a bit disjointed. So I'll just hop in and hope that it adds up to something in the end. Also, if you're not familiar with Sacred Harp Singing, I'm sorry if there isn't a lot of sub tittling. Thanks for reading!

I was hanging out with R.F. and we were flipping through my copy of the sacred harp, and he was trying to get how the relative pitching thing works (having more formal experience singing with choirs and what not, and a sense of pitch that's way more closely tied to a piano than mine.) and he said something like "so this one would start 'here?'" I think it was 300, and I have no clue how "right," I was or what inspired this, but his pitch was about a step and a half (I think,) high, and so I gave something that was more or less where I thought the song was supposed to sit. We sang through a little bit of it, and it seemed to work.

I've never really had a lot of interest in being able to offer pitches to a class of Sacred Harp singers, beyond the very selfish ability to lead signings without needing to make sure that someone who can offer keys in attendance.

I'm working on memorizing the book--strategically, of course-- as I can. This makes signings more fun because you can look at people, while singing rather than having your nose in a book the whole time. While there aren't songs that I can safely leave the book closed for the shapes, I know the tunes (mostly bass parts) and words to most of the common ones (e.g. 178, 155, 89, 312b, 355, 300, 146, 148, 153, 112, 422, 209, 189, 186,) save a few middle verses that are sung rarely. I don't think of my memory as being particularly good for this kind of information, but it's nice to have reality prove you wrong.

One of the things that made Sacred Harp "click" for me when I really started to get into it was that I had the good sense to sing bass. My voice is pretty low, so this seems to fit, and I think staying in one section for a long time helped solidity my sense of the music.

Since March/April, or thereabouts, I've started singing tenor (the lead/melody) a bit. It's a stretch for my voice, and I'm slightly more prone to loosing track of the key when singing higher notes (a not uncommon problem,) but it's good for my brain, and I think it makes me a better singer and leader. I've mostly done this at local singings, and smaller signings when there are enough basses, or for a few songs at a bigger singing when the mood strikes.

I'm thinking of doing this more often, and at more singings, as part of an effort to become a better singer.

I think it's easy (at least for me) particularly in accounts like this to focus on the singing, the technical aspects of the music, and the texts used. And all of these components contribute to what makes singing so great: its a gestalt experience, but I think its easy to gloss over the best part of being a singer. Which is, of course, all the other singers.

Being a "community guy," I think it might be easy for me to wax poetic about how great sacred harp singings are--and they are--but I think there's something deeper and specific about singing communities that make them more accepting, more engaged, more inclusive than other communities (dancing, writing, professional,) that I've been involved in

Maybe it's that singing is a more transcendent experience that the focal points of other communities to begin with so people are willing to connect a bit more. Maybe the fact that singings are sometimes (often?) held in people's homes is a factor. Maybe the extreme inclusiveness combined with the somewhat substantial learning curve creates the right environment to foster a strong and self selecting community. Perhaps all of the travel to all day singings and conventions, combined with the effort to arrange socials, unifies the community.

I'm not sure, but I've met a bunch of great people singing, and people with whom I share more than just sufficient common interest in a shared activity. I'm not sure every singing community is like this, but the conversations and connections I've had with other singers have been depthy, interesting, and have expanded beyond singing.

Distance from the Divine

When I talk about Sacred Harp singing with my friends from college, they all look at me like I'm crazy. "Right, I go sing 18th century hymns set to music in the 19th century (and later,) with my hippie and queer friends in quasi-archaic harmonies. It's a blast!" This isn't my tradition, both in the sense that I don't come from a sacred harp singing family, and in the sense that I come from a particularly unobservant Jewish family.

There's something about Sacred Harp, that I think is hard to describe. Everyone comes to it for different worlds, and there are a lot of people who grew up with it and/or identify as Christian in the community. While I think most people who sing Sacred Harp find it a deeply fulfilling experience, for many its as much about the shared experience, the guttural experience of the chords, and the "sacred/special space" as it is about the texts. This is something that I think is pretty difficult to explain to someone who hasn't felt a singing.

I mentioned a while ago my interest in writing hymns in the tradition of the sacred harp, and I don't have anything to present to you yet, or even some example of what I'm playing with, as I haven't actually constructed anything. I do have the following observation.

The texts and aesthetics of the Sacred Harp is encapsulated with what I think is probably a not very contemporary view of the divine. In my reading, the texts display a relationship to the divine that is distant and detached. I might even say reserved and tentative. The speakers in the text are not individuals but more collectively constituted persons--this fits well with the way the music is sung--and the speakers generally do not interact with or speak to the divinity directly, except possibly to give thanks or appreciation. Like the harmonies themselves, the texts are spare and stark; indeed I suspect their simplicity makes the tunes easier to sing (words are almost always easier to sing than shapes,) while being very careful to not distract from the tunes.

As I said, this isn't my tradition, at all, in addition to the structural constraints of the form (common meter, for the most part,) I think the stylistic constraints present the larger challenge. I'm trying to figure out how to write text that isn't cloyingly spiritual, and that fits my own worldview (such as it is,) but that also respects this kind of spiritual aesthetic, for lack of a better term. I've been reading up on various religious phenomena, contemplative orders, and the Religious Society of Friends. Because it seems appropriate.

As is, I think always the case, minimalism is always a lot harder than it looks. I'll keep you all posted!

shaped notes

I think that I seem to have acquired a new hobby.

I've known about shape note sining for years and years. The Weavers did a few songs on some albums that I remember from when I was a kid. [1] And Cordelia's Dad (with Tim Erickson) came through town when I was kid and they sang a few Shape Note songs. [2] And the Morris Dancing gathering I attend has a lot of singing and a number of really awesome singers (many of whom, I think, read this blog, so hi folks.) It's been around.

I've always been intimidated by it.

I don't come from a singing background. I made the valiant effort to be musical as a kid: I washed out of choir in fourth grade; I played clarinet in middle school but it lost its wonder about half way through (though I still have a clarinet, I don't really play); [3] I've done some very ad hoc harmony singing with Morris Dancers and elsewhere, but my memory for lyrics is bad and while that's a bunch of fun and I don't think of that as a "hobby," or as the kind of thing one really does except when one happens around other singers. And the whole "book thing," about Sacred Harp singing always confused me.

And then, I had a series of pretty great experiences. I sang at the Morris Ale and had a great time, a couple or (three?) years in a row, and this year, I think something clicked. I got to sit behind a really strong bass and suddenly I could hear "it." The harmonies made sense. The book was helpful, but I stopped worrying about getting every note right, and had fun in the moment, and somehow I was able to sing better, or something. So I kept doing it. I went to a local singing right before I moved, and I've been to four local signings and since I moved out east, and then I went to a singing convention in New York City, and sang for a whole day.

And it rocked. I'm still clearly a beginner, but I'm starting to be able to see patterns in the music, and learn the words and tunes, figure out the rhythms and all that. And given that I've failed at doing the musical thing so much before, it's so interesting to me that I get it about something musical. That I can have fun and contribute to something that's kind of awesome to be a part of: both of the tradition, and of the really intense and awesome moments created during singings.

I wish there were better words to describe all this. The appeal of driving hundreds of miles to go sit in a room with a hundred or two hundred of people you don't really know, and sing these very "rustic" 19th century protestant hymns, and have it be both a very spiritual experience, and somehow that it not be a very religious experience.

The NYC singing that I went to--on Rosh Hashanah--had the opening Prayer in Hebrew. And the Sacred Harp tradition is intentionally very ecumenical, within of course the various American Protestant communities of the 19th century. I'm very strongly of the opinion that the appeal of this whole thing is this really hard to describe thing that happens in the moment. The sense of community, the ecstatic experience of the music, the nifty thing, when you feel the harmonies in your chest and the pulse of the rhythm in your whole body. Like that's really nifty, and special and totally worth while.

I also feel a certain failure as a writer because I'm totally unable to communicate this in a way that I think borders on being sufficient. So I think I'll stop trying for the moment, and hopefully I'll sing with some of you soon.


[1]The songs were 209 (evening shade) and 155 (Northfield, which is among the most popular/familiar songs in the book and begins with the line "How Long Dear Savior").
[2]335 (Return Again,) is the one on the recording, and it gasp has an Cello/something doing the Bass part on the recording.
[3]Mostly, I think because clarinet is such an awkward instrument for folk music-type things, particularly when my ability to transpose music on the fly is slim to none.

Fa Sol La

I've developed a new recreational activity. As if I needed another one.

I did a little shape note singing at the Morris Dance gathering, as I usually do, but this year something clicked. I'm not sure exactly what it was: I'd been singing a lot that weekend and my ears were used to listening to and picking out harmonies, my voice was a bit tired (and thus a more comfortable bass), I was sitting directly behind an incredibly powerful base. Any one of or all of these things coincided to produce a really amazing experience, and one where I was able to feel the music. It was amazing

I should break in and say that I'm not an incredibly musical person, and music/singing isn't something that I did very much of growing up. I think teaching people (particularly boys) how to listen, how to sing, and how to listen for harmonies is incredibly difficult, and not something--certainly--that I was ever exposed to as a kid.

I played Clarinet in middle school (and was in the 4th grade choir,) and while I was able to do ok, I never developed an instinct for it, I didn't really ever figure out how to listen.

In high school I started doing the dancing (International folk dance, Morris Dance, Contra/etc.) and that worked for me. I could feel the dance, the beat, the music, and I was able to learn the grace and mechanics after a few months. It was amazing, finally to have away to have "an ecstatic experience of the music."

A friend of mine from dancing described shape note singing, as "singing for people who don't dance," because I think in a lot of ways, shape note singing is more like dancing than it is to other musical forms:

  • Shape not singing is participatory: like folk dance, it's meant to be done rather than watched. The music is arranged and harmonized in such away that makes it hard to record accurately (the melody is in the middle of the harmonic range rather than on the top,) and it's sung loudly by large groups of people, and singers arrange themselves facing each other so the closer you are to the middle the better you can hear.
  • There's a "pulsing" feeling that you can sort of feel in your gut when you're doing it "right."
  • The shapes provide a way for people without classical training to understand and participate in singing, in the same way that folk dancers introduce a choreographical short-hand to teach people how to dance without requiring formal training.
  • It's totally an ecstatic experience, and I've never left a signing without a little bit of a "singing buzz"

So this being said, this shape note singing thing is incredibly weird for me. Perhaps the weirdest thing I've done to date, which is saying a lot giving the knitting and the Morris dancing.

Shape note music is very definitely in the category of: Spiritual Music from the American Protestant Tradition. The songs are all hymns many signings--the best ones really--have opening/closing/recess prayers and the best places for signings are inevitably churches (high ceilings, limited upholstery).

And here I am, this dweeby Jewish guy, from a family that isn't (historically/traditionally, on either side) particularly religious (ie. theistic) or observant. My own religious/spiritual views range from: "limited" to "existential/queer," and it's not something I loose a lot of sleep/attention over.

I called a song at the last singing, Hallelujah from the '91 Denison (Red) book (forget the number at the moment; it's a popular one). And the leader asked which verses I wanted to sing.

Dude. I haven't a clue.

The verses are neigh on irrelevant for me. In a strange way, what I think of as the ecstatic experience of the music, the "singing buzz," is what a lot of people think of as the "spiritual" aspect of a singing. And for me it has more to do with the "space" and the moment and less to do with G-d. But that's just me.

We sang, at M.N.'s suggestion 1 and 4. But it was a good song, we could have sung 'em all, and I wouldn't have cared one bit.

In any case, the one thing I know for sure is that I want to sing more often.