As the year comes to an end I’ve been reflecting on the experience of starting a regular Sacred Harp singing here in Edmonton (a lovely Canadian city of about a million people, an 8-hour drive north of the Montana border). During the school year we’ve been singing every week on the University of Alberta campus for about 16 months now, with the occasional summer or holiday singing held at our house. We get between five and eleven singers a week, including me and my husband James. (Three years ago James had never heard of Sacred Harp, and I count myself very lucky that he’s learned to love it and is willing to hold down the bass part on his own when necessary.) I can be certain of the attendance numbers because I only have one case of loaner tunebooks, and we have yet to run out. Three locals have been sufficiently smitten that they have bought tunebooks of their own, and I try to pick up one or two more whenever I’m at a convention in the U.S.
The curious thing about starting a singing in northwestern Canada is that virtually nobody has *any* past acquaintance with shape-note singing. I could tell them that we “sing the notes” from right to left and then reverse direction for the words and I don’t think anybody would be the wiser. I try to convey a sense of typical vocal timbre for the different parts (inasmuch as there is such a thing) by example and through the judicious use of recordings, but when you get right down to it I have one of those piercing upper-octave tenor voices and my ability to mimic Sacred Harp alto or bass sounds is very limited. (Of course I mostly just encourage singers to sing out nice and loud in “their own” voices — but those with past singing experience or formal vocal training have a number of voices to choose from, and they seek additional instruction.)
One day Phill Wisor (of the Western Massachusetts crowd) turned up out of the blue, to my surprise and delight, and hearing that male tenor sound was just a revelation for my regular singers….Having another experienced singer there also reminded me of all the little ways in which this group is not very traditional, despite my own best efforts: for example, we don’t stand to lead (it’s all I can do to occasionally get people to beat time in their seats) and it’s tough getting people to choose their own tunes. When I persuade them to choose tunes at random they typically ask me “Is this one any good?” — which means “Will I like it?” I’ve found that I can predict the answer to this question with a high degree of accuracy, but I try to just say “Let’s find out!” Still, I must confess that at times I suggest that the singer flip to another page (when a tune would be very challenging for our group to sight-sing or when it has a range that would be very hard on the available singers). I want these singers to keep coming back, and so I want their experience to be satisfying and not unduly frustrating on technical grounds. I want to build up a core repertoire so that they aren’t always sight-singing, and yet I also want them to explore the book, choose their own songs, and take responsibility for leading them. I want to plunge right into singing without too much emphasis on hitting all the right notes, but at times it seems essential to go over the parts one at a time. I’m sure others have encountered these same issues in “blank slate” regions like this one.
I recently accepted a faculty appointment in the music department at Brown University, so James and I will be moving to Providence this summer. This is wonderful news in many ways. It will be great to be back in an active singing area (and an area from which I can fly to Southern singings for under $600). The department will expect me to create a for-credit Sacred Harp “ensemble” — though of course this will not be a performing group, and drop-in participants will be very welcome at any time. I know there are already some committed singers on campus, not to mention in the surrounding community and the greater New England region. It’ll be a very different experience from Edmonton. But I’ll be sad to leave the little group of singers here, and I’m already thinking about what I can do to ensure that they’ll keep it up after I’m gone. Maybe I can convince a few to fly to Seattle for the Pacific Northwest Convention in February (sure to be an inspirational experience), or persuade someone in particular to be the keeper-of-the-loaner-books. Last year it seemed necessary to cancel the singing if I had to be out of town; this year James fetches the books from my office and the singing proceeds without me, although I hear that keying the songs is a very tricky matter. (I guess that’s another skill to try to inculcate in the next six months — but I’m happy to report that as far as I know nobody has been tempted to turn to the piano for help!) Mostly I hope that this group will continue to meet in some capacity, even if it’s more for social time than singing. As is usually the case, the singing has brought together people who would normally never meet and talk — which is the best result I could have hoped for, I think.
Happy holidays and best wishes for the new year –
(Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)
Now I have nearly finished my first academic year on the Brown faculty; my Sacred Harp class has at least 20 students and community members in attendance every week, and can easily run without me if I have to be out of town for a conference or some other commitment. I love being able to count on a critical mass of singers every week, and they sound great. But I miss the tiny Edmonton group, and I’m sad that it could not persist in my absence — though I’m also delighted to report that at least two of my regular singers there have now moved away from Edmonton and are singing in their new home regions.
Members of the Sacred Harp diaspora continue their meandering routes, travelers all.
Kiri Miller is an assistant professor of music at Brown University and the author of the new book Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism.