Advice for attending a “Big Singing”
If you haven’t been to a large singing before, you may not know that it’s not just a longer version of the weekly singing. It’s a lot of fun, but because it’s structurally based on long-standing traditions, it’s quite different from the informality of a weekly singing, and it can be a little disorienting. Here are a few pointers to help you understand what’s going on.
- Before you get there, be aware that people often dress up for singings. Now, this is California. If you show up in an all-hemp tie-dyed outfit, nobody is going to say anything (although I think people will draw the line if you try to show up naked). But it is a fact that in the South and in many other places, people wear their “Sunday best” to singings. If you feel up to it, consider doing the same.
- It is also a fact that Sacred Harp is part of a Protestant Christian tradition, and for some people these singings are a living part of their religious practice. It is important to respect the religious traditions of which Sacred Harp is a part, even if we do not ourselves belong to those traditions. The singing will commence and conclude with a prayer given by the chaplain. There is also a prayer given before lunch. During the prayer, the class stands in silence while the chaplain speaks.
- A singing has officers, namely a chair, vice-chair, secretary, and sundry others, who run the singing. Attendees always register, and the secretary takes minutes (if you attend such a singing, you are entitled to receive that year’s minutes book upon publication). Most singings maintain the fiction of electing the officers during a business meeting, held in the morning; in reality, last year’s vice-chair is, with rare exceptions, elected chair, and most if not all of the other officers are appointed beforehand. The outgoing chair is the chair until the business meeting is held, however, and it is the outgoing chair who starts things off. The opening song is frequently, but by no means always, “Holy Manna” (59).
- Apart from things like breaks and lunch, there is the business meeting sometime in the morning, and often a memorial lesson (usually just before lunch on the final day of the convention), in which an appointed committee remembers the community’s dead of the past year and the sick and shut-in with a few songs. The “lessons” are of course the songs.
- And then there’s the singing. There is a designated pitcher at any given point in the singing, to whom all will defer, which means you don’t have to volunteer a pitch, ever. When the pitcher is giving the triad, don’t interfere. You are always free to pitch your own tune if you are leading; in that case, let the pitcher know. The pitcher is usually on the front bench of the tenors.
- There are too many people and too much shuffling around to lead by going around in a circle. Instead, an arranging committee (sometimes a lone ’ranger) takes the registration cards of those who have indicated they wish to lead and calls out the names of the leaders. The arranging committee will always call out the name of the leader as well as the person to follow.TIP: If you hear that you are leading next, get prepared with your page number, and if you’re in the middle of a row or in some out-of-the-way spot, position yourself to make it to the center of the square quickly. This avoids wasting valuable singing time. (Also, keep a back-up tune in mind in case the tune you were planning to lead gets called before it’s your turn.)
- When leading at a larger singing, it’s important to put the needs of the group before your personal desire to sing all four verses of “Duane Street.” It’s polite to select a few verses (generally no more than three verses, or two of a longer tune). When it’s your turn to lead, you’re allowed to go to town, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Think of the needs of the class: don’t request verses that aren’t printed in the 1991 edition unless you’re prepared to print copies of the verse for the whole class and distribute them unobtrusively beforehand; don’t lead an anthem at the very end of the day when people are tired, etc., etc. If you’re an inexperienced leader, watch the tenors and let them guide you. They won’t do you wrong.
When leading, always remember to:
- call out your page number loud and clear as you’re walking up (not the tune name)
- stand in the middle of the square
- face the tenors the majority of the time
- beat clearly and steadily, with a motion large enough to be seen but not so large as to
- obscure the rhythm (generally, the forearm, and little else, moves up and down)
- keep the chitchat to a minimum (if somebody calls out “which verses?”, that’s sometimes a hint to get going already)
- tell the class which verses you want and whether you want to repeat, and stick to it (if you say nothing, it’s usually assumed that you want all the verses, unless the prospect is too painful for the class to fathom, in which case it will usually spontaneously sing the odd verses, or the first and last verses)
- At a larger singing, the front bench of each part, and of the tenors in particular, beats time and is responsible for being in tune and on time. The front benches also help guide the leader if the leader seems uncertain, and generally have to stay extra-aware of what’s happening. It’s fun sitting on the front bench, but it’s also a real responsibility—the composition of the front benches can make or break a singing. You don’t need a special pedigree to sit on the front bench, but it is polite to defer to more experienced singers, especially out-of-towners.
- Sacred Harpers are known for their hospitality. Of course, for some people this means putting singers up in their spare bedroom, but hospitality also extends to the singing itself. People who have traveled far to get to the singing are shown extra courtesy; they may be appointed to nicer committees (like the Resolutions Committee) but are not asked to deal with, e.g., clean-up (although they often volunteer!). If there isn’t enough time for everyone to lead, those who have traveled to sing with us get priority. In general, we try to make the out-of-town singers feel like our honored guests — which is what they are.
- Another aspect of hospitality is food. Local singers are asked to contribute to the noontime potluck. There’s many a singer who thinks this means bringing an iceberg salad-in-a-bag from Safeway. The singer who has traveled to other singings knows that homemade baked beans, red velvet cake, pork barbecue, black-eyed peas, corn pudding, boiled greens, brownies, lasagna, grape pie (I am serious), tabbouleh, green beans, chicken, pasta salad with fresh mozzarella, rice pilaf, and innumerable other delicacies are all par for the course — in very large quantities. People do remember the food, and every once in a while a singing gets a Reputation. A skimpy potluck is nobody’s idea of a fun time. Re-think that bag of Fig Newtons.
- You can keep your hot dishes hot and cold dishes cold by wrapping them in newspaper and then in multiple layers of blankets or towels. In Minnesota, they then stick the whole shebang in a cooler. It is really cold in Minnesota, and this method works there, so you know it will work here. It is also nice to label your dish with some kind of identification for the food committee’s convenience, and also indicate whether a dish contains common allergens or hidden meat (e.g. it *looks* vegetarian but in fact the sauce is made of 100% puréed bacon). In recent years Susan has developed glorious food labels that take all the fear out of the potluck eating experience.
- At the end of the singing, there is a concluding song, usually “Parting Hand” (62). After singing the notes, the class usually takes the parting hand by walking around and shaking hands (or exchanging hugs) with fellow singers. This makes it tough on those who do not know the first two verses of “Parting Hand” by heart. I recommend memorizing it, or at least getting familiar enough that you only need to glance at your book a few times. Otherwise you will feel like a dork with your face in the book while people try and shake your hand. The final song is followed immediately by the concluding prayer.
- It is nice to help clean up. At minimum, put away your chair and pick up your potluck dishes and utensils. No one will hound you or scold you if you don’t, but if you leave your Corningware, it is mine.
This may seem like a lot to deal with, but the relative formality of a larger singing is refreshing for its order and its connectedness to the past. At a larger singing, you’ll meet people you don’t often sing with, and because local singing communities overlap at larger singings, you inevitably sing new and unfamiliar songs. If you attend several conventions, you’ll find over time that each singing is like a reunion of distant friends. The composition of each singing convention is unique and temporary, and yet each singing experience taps into a palpable and quite solid larger singing community, a communion of singers if not a communion of saints. Welcome.