The United Kingdom Sacred Harp Convention
Friday, September 14. I made it to England! London Luton Airport. Wizz Air, a cheap carrier, of course. I learned a new American slang word when a friend from the United States laughed at the airline’s name when he first heard it. While I land alone I am met at the airport by possibly the furthest traveler to the UK Sacred Harp Convention, who has just arrived after his twenty-hour journey from Oregon.
Winnersh is so pretty. The singing venue is within walking distance of our inn, but we can also hop on the train and get off on the next stop. I look around—compact houses, small train station, trees, brisk air, sunny day. All this feels so relaxing to me, like this place was scaled for comfortable living, not for a race like the overgrown and crowded cities I had just left.
I enter the convention venue. Am I dreaming? Where am I? So many of these people I saw in the United States. Others I meet for the first time. Alabama! Really? Texas? These are the places where I would usually go to listen and learn! And now I can hear these voices on my home continent, and will soon in my home country!
I sing alto and really enjoy the accent I hear. I try to sit closer to the basses as I am delighted with the sound coming from their direction. I just spotted Dan Brittain! And Mike Hinton, who later got up to lead his uncle Howard Denson’s “Homeward Bound” (p. 373)—what else could one do with such genes?
I can sense the air of friendship and kindness present at all Sacred Harp singing events. I feel so good seeing people I know and watching them find their way around the room, showing interest in others, strolling outside on the grass… Jesse sets his recorder up in the corner; Lauren displays her hand made jewelry. I am so warmly touched to see that she painted the Polish Sacred Harp Convention logo on her earrings and pendants—A moment later and one of her pendants is around my neck!
During the break for dinner, I discover Edwin’s amazing baked salmon. I usually don’t come back for seconds, but this time I had to make an exception! There is so much food that there was still a huge variety when I arrived at the tables even though I was one of the last people in line. Wow! I realize that I am getting stressed about what is going to happen next week in Warsaw, wondering whether we could ever assemble so much food ourselves!
I can’t stay stressed for too long though, with so many friends and smiles all around. Michael Walker shares his “know-how” with me during dinner on the ground. And as we leave, David Ivey gives me some final instructions for the upcoming week: “Get some sleep, kid!” he says with a kind grin. This is my favorite comment!
A memorable part of the singing was the celebration lesson. A counterpart to the conventional memorial lesson held on Sunday, on Saturday the singers express gratitude for all the blessings of the previous year. The committee read a list of joyful occasions like birthdays, promotions, retirement, travel, and many other exciting events that singers wanted to celebrate.
I can’t find the words to express how splendid this convention was. Thank you to all the officers, especially Michael Walker and his two right-hands: Steve Fletcher and Martin Williams.
Still in high spirits after the UK Convention I landed in Gdansk, Poland. I was thrilled to finally be a host rather than a guest! I felt so glad that after all of the generosity I experienced abroad I could return the favor in some small way.
The guests were terrific. They showed up in a great number from far and near. Camp Fasola was held at Wichrowe Wzgórza, a beautiful retreat center overlooking a lake in the town of Chmielno. The venue owners were helpful and accommodating, and they even seemed to like the singing! I was delighted to welcome our fantastic teachers. Our gratitude to David Ivey for making the Camp happen could never be too great. I deeply hope he will be back soon with his wonder-team! The camp was perfectly tailored to our needs; teachers brought both academic and practical approaches, and taught with the sincere desire to help all of us, regardless of what level we were at. Most of all, there was lots, lots, and lots of music!
One of the lessons I enjoyed the most was given by Tim Eriksen. He told us that for him, the heart of the music was rhythm. We sang a scale repeating the first three notes twice: “fa sol la, fa sol la, fa sol la fa sol la mi fa”—and the accent appeared naturally. Now, he said, try to imagine, while you sing, that everyone else’s voices are also coming out through your own mouth. What a feeling! It gave me an intense experience of truly singing together. The pulse was there, the harmony was there… I think everybody should try it.
Another excellent lesson I attended was David Ivey’s class on the “Ungreatest Hits.” He identified the songs that were sung the least during the past years and chose some of his favorite compositions for us to try—I couldn’t believe that “Infinite Delight” (p. 562) or “Kingwood” (p. 266) were among the least picked!
Other vivid memories include one Polish singer being deeply impressed by Dan Brittain: “He opened the book maybe three times during the whole singing!” Dan was one of the stars of the camp. He wrote a song, “Chmielno,” especially for this occasion. He shared with us was that his song “Novakoski” (p. 481) was initially meant to be sung as “Greenwich” (p. 183) is, with the first part slow and the second part fast. We all enjoyed singing it that way.
I sincerely appreciated the selection of topics for the camp, particularly the hints about how to organize and conduct a singing, the tips on arranging by Jesse, and the keying class by David. I regret that I wasn’t able to make it to all the classes I wanted to; I hope yet to hear Chris Brown discuss the English origins of Sacred Harp lyrics.
I have many fond recollections of our few days at camp: Sadhbh’s crazy invitation to swim at 6 am, or the Kashubian folk show when campers happily joined in, even to the extent of taking snuff, resulting in sneezing for the next fifteen minutes. A particularly memorable moment was when the Kashubian speaker mentioned that the Kashubs were oppressed for some time and couldn’t use their language, but finally achieved the freedom to do so—at that point the listeners spontaneously applauded. For me this spoke volumes about the people who were there. Even though their ages ranged from eighteen to eighty and they came from countries as varied as the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland—I reflected on this variety and wondered where else one could gather people so different yet so bonded as Sacred Harp singers.
The last lesson of the camp was Karen Ivey’s. And yes, we cooked! We also learned how to wrap up food so it doesn’t get cold and how to pack it so it would take up the least possible space. She told us about making 20 dishes for a singing! I was a little worried since we were hosting this food expert in Warsaw in two days, and half of the Polish singers were still at the camp! “You know Gosia,” she told me, “when there are not too many cooks, it is okay to cater.” A sigh of relief welled up inside me, evoked by these kind words of support from a true dinner on the grounds authority. Luckily, as it turned out, we didn’t really have to cater at all.
The First Poland Sacred Harp Convention
Our convention exceeded my wildest dreams. It is hard to put it into words.
Some people told me later that these two days were of true significance to them—and I felt exactly the same. It was wonderful to be able to host the people who were so important to us at the various stages of development of our singing group in Poland. Our first teachers, Tim Eriksen and Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg were there, along with others who came later, including Allison Schofield, Michael Walker, and Steve Helwig. We had a room full of people we adore and look up to, who also happen to be our very dear friends—it was wonderful! We did not have an established and well-known singing to offer to our guests—this was the first event of its kind in Warsaw, organized by a handful of people in a foreign country. We never expected such an outcome, such a sound, so many guests. We are infinitely grateful to all of you who traveled to be with us or supported us in any way! We were so well taken care of. We even received a gift of thirty loaner books from Joe Beasley Memorial Foundation, and the Sacred Harp Publishing Company subsidized the cost of shipping the books to Europe.
We also remembered those who wanted to be with us but couldn’t—one of them being Magda Zapędowska-Eriksen, who was the first person that I know of to sing Sacred Harp in Poland. I am sure in the long singing life ahead of us, we will meet again sooner or later!
Finally, memories associated with two specific songs will stay with me for a very long time. David Ivey standing up, asking “Has anyone lead 86 yet?”—and the view of people springing up from their chairs after singing the notes to “Hallelujah” (p. 146), our closing song, to hug. Thank you dear friends! Please come back soon!