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A Guide to Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Conventions for Beginners or;
How to Avoid Sticking Out at your First All-Day Singing

DRESS: Let's start at the beginning, before you even leave your home. Unlike at traditional Southern all-day singings where dressiness is the rule, there will be a broad spectrum of dress styles present, so much you might choose to wear will enable you to blend in. Some men will turn up in suitcoats or sports coats, and ties, or polo shirts and slacks, or t-shirts (not recommended) and jeans. Some women will wear jeans (not recommended), or slacks, or skirts of varying degrees of "dressiness." Some will be wearing their regular church outfit including hat. Just don't turn up in beachwear or your grungy clean-out-the-basement outfit and you'll blend right in.

POT-LUCK CONTRIBUTION: If you live close enough that you'll be able to commute to the singing from your home, then you should consider bringing a contribution to the Dinner-On-The-Grounds potluck at noon.
     The dish or dishes you choose should be ample enough to feed at least 8-10 and, at the Pacific NW Singings (whether in Washington or in Oregon) for example, cooks are asked to contribute two or three sorts of dishes (each of which serves 8-10): either an entree and dessert, or an entree and salad, or an entree and vegetable. If you know that the singing you're attending will have any southerners present, consider making one of your dishes a meat dish. Do remember all the public health warnings you've ever heard about how to avoid food poisoning at picnics and large potlucks, i.e. avoid cross-contamination when preparing poultry or meat products, don't let stuff sit at the wrong temperature, etc.
     The food should be able to travel well and you should not expect to be able to reheat it at the singing site (some places have no kitchens at all). Be sure your dishes are labelled with your name, and don't forget to provide serving utensils, nor to collect them at the end of the day!
     Wrapping your dishes with several layers of newspaper and then two to four blankets is a proven method of keeping cold stuff cold or hot stuff hot for hours. Boxes or laundry baskets make convenient carrying containers. You will arrive at the singing site and plunk your food containers on the floor beneath the serving tables. When the class breaks for the noon meal, quickly pull your dishes out of their carrying boxes and place them on the table. There are usually blank labels provided at the serving tables that you can grab and fill out for each of your dishes to describe what you've brought. You can print some out in advance if you like.

WHERE TO SIT: The temptation is to sit either in the back row of your voice part, or in the front row. Either choice is really not the one for you, the beginner. The reason for avoiding the back row is that you need to have voices singing your part on all sides of you: front, back, left, and right. The reason for avoiding the front row is more complex, and is well covered by Miss Grace Notes. [See her advice column, the article on the "Front Bench".]
     So pick a chair right smack in the middle of your section. Put your book and a goodie bag containing lozenges, kleenex, small notebook & pencil (for recording the high points of the day for later fond reminiscing) onto the chosen chair and then go back and register at the front table and hang up your coat.

AGREE TO LEAD A SONG: Just about every non-Southern all-day singing uses registration cards and name tags. Pick out a chair first, then return to the registration table and fill out a name tag for yourself and a registration card. You will want to put your name, and the city you're from on the name tag, then plaster it on your clothing (another consideration when pondering what to wear).
     When filling out the registration card, please do agree to lead a song. It will be the high point of the day for you, as well as terrifying. The sound is best in the center of the square and you owe yourself the experience at least once in your life. By agreeing to lead a song, you are assured of getting to hear that sound.
     Prepare in advance a list of 10 or so songs that you know how to sing. As the all-day singing progresses, keep track of whether any of the ones on your list are picked by other leaders and when that happens cross them off your list. Songs are never repeated at all-day singings (except for small children just learning to lead). Please don't put any anthems on your list; this is something you're not ready to do yet even if you've sung anthems such as ROSE OF SHARON at your local singing before and know your part to it.
     The arranging committee calls out two leaders at a time: the one to enter the square immediately, and the one to follow. When you hear your name called for the first time, as the one "to follow," get up from your seat and move to a corner of the room. Go over the song from your list that you'll lead. Pick which verses you want and whether you want the class to repeat on the last verse it sings.
     When it's finally your turn in the center and your name is called again, enter the square promptly, calling out the page number of your choice, remembering to add "top" or "bottom" if there are two songs on that page. Face the tenors and speak softly to the main front row tenor and confess your need of help in leading. Loudly announce your verse and repeat choices, then nod to the front row tenors that you're ready. Raise your arm as the class gets its notes and begin copying the movements of the front row tenors. You should face the tenors throughout the song.
     When your song is finished, try to manage to squeak out a "thank you" and return to your seat.

MISCELLANEOUS ADVICE: During the day, keep track of songs that are new to you that were so wonderful you want to go home and learn them. For this purpose you've put a small notebook and pencil in your goodie bag, which you keep tucked underneath your chair.
     There will be a Memorial Lesson at some point during the day if it's a one-day singing, and usually on the second day if it's a two-day singing. Two sorts of lists are prepared for this approximately 10-15 minute long time. At the start of the singing the Chair will mention these lists and where they are being kept. List one is for those singers who have died in the year since this all-day singing last met. Many northern singers will also put close family members on this list, even if they weren't singers. Putting national or international figures on this list, however, even though deeply mourned, is not appropriate unless they were also involved in Sacred Harp. List two is strictly for singers who, due to illness or infirmity, were unable to attend the all-day singing. During the Memorial Lesson songs will be specially selected and sung in memory of and as encouragement to the people whose names appear on the two lists. You will find this part of the singing day to have more and more meaning for you as your experience with Sacred Harp deepens.
     Don't indulge in singing anything not printed on the page in front of you (except for the well-recognized practices in minor songs and ignoring accidentals almost everywhere and the natural ornamentations). Although it is pleasurable and might be permitted to create our own harmonies at our local neighborhood singings, all-day singings and conventions are not the place for this. Also don't sing a part different from the section you are sitting in. If you want to sing treble, for example, and you're in the alto section, then go find a chair in the treble section, even if it is only for one song.
     A habit that many new singers have is that of standing up while singing, rather than remaining seated. It is an urban myth that standing enhances the sound of the singing, or improves one's own singing production very substantially. And if very many people leave their seats to stand, the sound of the class as a whole really does degrade. If you simply can't remain in your seat any longer, then wait for a break if you can (they happen every hour) and move to the back of the room, or volunteer to staff the beverage table. If you can't wait for a break, then be as unobtrusive as possible and get up as soon as the present song has ended.
     Do try to contain your enthusiasm and joy, and don't break out in talk or exclamations as soon as a song has ended. Conversation, loud joy, and visiting should be saved for the breaks and the dinner hour.
     Drink lots and lots of water a couple hours before the singing begins, and then drink as much as possible during the day. Keep lozenges handy to moisten your mouth and throat while actually singing. At many non-Southern singings, keeping a water bottle or large cup at your seat is allowed -- just don't spill it! It is amazing how much moisture your body will lose through exhaling as you sing.
     If you spot an experienced competent leader in the center of the square, then simply stop singing and watch. It is important for you as a beginner to observe good leaders so you can begin to learn how to do it yourself. Also, if you find yourself sitting next to a marvelous traditional singer, then by all means devote at least one ear at all times to what they are doing -- and take notes in your notebook. You'll find lovely embellishments, slight differences in the way a part is sung, sometimes a change in the harmony, pronounciation of words worth noting, little tempo changes that add a wonderful richness and texture, etc. Then be sure and introduce yourself at the break and strike up a conversation.
     Whenever a song is called to which you know the words by heart, and you know your part, lift your head and look around as you sing. You'll find another dimension layering itself onto your experience of the song.


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