Monday, July 07, 2008

Singing at the Gathering

I started writing this from my dorm cot on the last night of this year’s FGC Gathering, and am finishing it from an apartment in the mountains near Keystone, Colorado. We (Lovely Wife and our two teenage children) drove the 1525 miles or so from Johnstown, PA, to here in one very long and one somewhat less long day. (I had a couple of manic hours where I though I could drive the final 7 hours through the night but a wiser head prevailed and we got a room in Kansas and slept from about 1 to 6 am.) We made it safely and timely, but it was at a cost to my sleep, and I am exhausted. So I've stayed home while the other 18 relatives (of Lovely Wife's family) are out on some kind of hiking adventure and I'm working on some writing projects.

The Gathering on the whole was a very positive and productive experience for me again this year, especially after the first two days when I was also exhausted from a long drive from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. Unlike last year, I did not take the time to post periodically during the week, but I have taken some notes that I hope will help my memory. I’ve decided to make several smaller posts and I’ll start with a report on the singing I did at the Gathering.

The fundamental lesson I learned is that singing is the only remedy for my depression that always works. I have known this for a long time, but haven't acted on it as diligently as I know I need to do. The singing I enjoyed was in three contexts.

For the first time in many years, I participated in the noon-time singing from Rise Up Singing, led this year by one of its co-producers, Annie Patterson. I've gotten a little tired of Rise Up Singing after many years singing from it for so many years, but since it was convenient for me to play with the small group that backed Annie up as she played guitar and led the singing, I gave it a go. The group had persons playing guitar, flute, tin whistle, clarinet, accordion, and violin in addition to my banjo. The instrumentalists were skilled and didn’t overpower the singing as sometimes happens and enhanced the singing experience.

And the singing was good -- high spirited, enthusiastic. The group numbered about a hundred most of the hour each day. For the songs that were easily sung by a group and that lent themselves to harmonies (e.g., This Land is Your Land, There is a Balm in Gilead, Goodnight Irene, Happy Wanderer, etc.) the singing was excellent with energy and joy.

But sometimes someone would select a song that they loved – for example, Thanksgiving Eve by Bob Franke, or Kate Wolf's Give Yourself to Love – that are beautiful songs, but are simply not good for large group singing, and it the energy would fall for a bit. Annie showed great equanimity and skill, however, in leading each one, knowing it was important to the person who chose the song.

The second important singing experience was with the Nightengales (which is how they spell it), a group of Northern and Illinois Yearly Meeting Friends who have been singing together for more than forty years. (I was introduced to them in 1980 and have sung with them often ever since.) We sang one night in a two-story, highly resonant lobby of a building and it was lovely. In recent years, they have sung exclusively a capella (which was not so much the case when I started singing with them), and it worked really well in that room, filling it with harmonies. The only downside was that, in such a large, resonant room, we had to sing slowly which depressed the energy in some of the songs, but overall it was excellent and beautiful. There were lots of tears which, as the Nightingale in Hans Christian Anderson's story tell the Emperor, are "the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart."

Singing with Nightengales these days always carries a particular poignancy as our older singers become disabled or pass away, and many songs carry a particular memory of them. This year, we were mindful of one Friend in particular who we know is dying of ALS and who was not able to attend either NYM or the Gathering.

But as much as I enjoyed these singings, the afternoon shape note singing was the most satisfying singing at the Gathering this year. We were once again given an space outdoors under an overhang, and while it was adequate, it was not as satisfactory an outdoor venue as in the past two years. One difficulty was that it was outside rooms in which various groups were trying to meet, and it was across a short way from a dormitory where some people tried to nap during our afternoon singings. After being informed (politely, but pointedly) that our music was not as appreciated as we thought it might be, we decamped to a log cabin at the other end of campus where we didn't disturb anyone but the bears, birds and rabbits in the surrounding woods.

Each afternoon, we had five or six singers on each part with a particularly large number of altos. The range of experience was mixed, but there was always enough experienced singers on each part. (It not being a workshop, we weren't prepared to provide more than a bare minimum of instruction to new singers.)

I was touched by the number of singers who first learned to sing Sacred Harp in one of the workshops I’ve co-led over the years who came to each afternoon singing (a few of whom who have attended three of them!). I don’t know why I’m surprised that others have come to love this music as much as I do, but it is satisfying to know that I may have had been able to transmit the depth of love and joy I get from singing from the Sacred Harp to others, especially my Quaker Friends with whom I share a bond even more deeply than I do with other singers.

The quality of the singing was generally good, though it varied. Though there was some excellent singing each day, the last day (Friday July 4) was clearly the strongest. Perhaps because it was the last day, we had a larger than normal group of singers, and that larger number, the improved acoustics, and a week's experience of singing together made for a powerful singing. There were several times where I felt it was truly a covered singing.

During the quiet worship we entered after our last song of the day (and of the week), I spoke to one of the parallels I feel between Sacred Harp singing and Quakerism, and that is that the quality of our experiences vary from time to time, but that if we persist we will always get back to that unity that we have been looking for and which we have been promised.

Some parts of our singings during the week were kind of rough -- we just couldn't find the right pitch or tempo, or hear the other parts, and some songs sounded pretty awful. Maybe we were simply tired, or maybe we bit off a little more than we could chew, but whatever the reason, we went through some pretty rough and unsatisfying spots.

I then noted that this same thing happens in meetings for worship. Often we come to meeting with as open a heart as we can manage, but nothing happens; there's no real unity and we leave without any sense of joy or elevation.

The important thing in both cases is that we return and try again. We go on to the next song, maybe choosing a less-challenging one or take a break, but we keep going and soon we're back in the groove and we're singing beautifully and powerfully again.

And with worship the same thing. We keep at it, coming back week after week, doing what we can as individuals to improve -- paying better attention, preparing more thoroughly, centering more deeply -- the worship experience. After some time, usually not too long, we will experience a genuinely covered meeting that will be felt by all.

The important thing in both contexts is that we keep at it and eventually, as we pay more attention to the true leader of our worship and of our singing, we will be brought back into harmony and unity with each other and be witnesses to the power that is over all.

* * * *

I'm glad I attended Gathering this year; I had originally intended to skip Gathering this year and to attend Camp Fasola in Alabama this year for some advanced instruction and learning in the Sacred Harp. But when I learned that Camp Fasola was going to be aimed at adults for only three days and for youth for the rest of the week (a decision I support but wasn't aware of until later), I decided I didn't want to sacrifice Gathering for such a short time of singing. In retrospect, I did the right thing. There was a lot of enthusiasm expressed for another Singing from the Sacred Harp workshop at next year's Gathering, and I'm going to give that serious consideration over the next few weeks.


Linda said...

Welcome back to writing. I'm using my blog to kvetch about the grotty restrooms in JFK while you're writing this lovely stuff...
I'm glad you posted your ministry from the last day of singing. It spoke to my condition with regards to both my meeting community and my singing community.

Liz Opp said...


I was privately hoping that Gathering would give you more "blog fodder," as I like to call it, and I'm glad to see you writing again.

I would add to what you have here that I experience similar ups-and-downs around my Gathering experiences. This year was a bit slow for me; last year was very rich.

But I so often choose to come back to Gathering, again and again, trusting in the "promise" of experiencing unity--and transformation--that you write about so eloquently here, even during such a huge event.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

P.S. For what it's worth, I spell it "Nightingales," but I've seen Friends spell it both ways over time. And I found that evening of singing, too, to be tenderly delightful--one of the highlights of my week.