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The role of the front bench tenors in Sacred Harp Singing

by Ian West


One of the distinctive aspects of Sacred Harp singing is its egalitarianism; unlike many other forms of music, there is no hierarchy of leaders who decide what pieces should be sung or how. Anyone attending a singing is allowed, indeed encouraged, to get up into the centre of the square to lead a song of their choice, deciding on the tempo and the verses and any repeats to be sung. Inexperienced singers are able to do this because the whole class shares the responsibility for singing the piece as the leader wishes. However, particular responsibilities rest with those who are sitting in the front row of the tenors.

It is the tradition that the leader standing in the square faces the tenors, unless they need to turn around to bring in other parts in a fuging piece, and so the front bench tenors have an important role in communication between the leader and the rest of the class. When a leader gets into the square and calls a piece, the front bench tenors can see if a large number of singers in the other parts are not ready to start for some reason, for example because they didn’t hear the number, and can suggest that the leader pauses.

The pitcher may be someone on the front bench of the tenors but, if not, the front bench tenors should maintain good eye contact with them if there is a possibility a piece needs to be halted after the notes have been sung to adjust the pitch. The leader may give instructions about the verses to be sung at the start, or they may indicate the number of the next verse to be sung using their fingers, but in either case, the front bench tenors can repeat this instruction just before the verse starts, by holding the appropriate number of fingers up so the rest of the class can see. Similarly with repeats – a leader may signal their intentions just by nodding to the front bench tenors, who should then signal this subtly to the other parts.

Everyone at a singing is encouraged to beat time along with the leader, partly for their own benefit but also to help others around them keep in time, especially those whose view of the leader may be obstructed. This is particularly important for the front bench tenors, who should watch the leader carefully and ensure that they are beating the tempo the leader wants and not one which the class thinks appropriate for the piece! By beating time carefully and correctly, they can provide reassurance and support to an inexperienced leader, who may forget if a piece starts on an up-beat or get confused in the course of the piece. In seeking to correct an error, the front bench tenors should do so discretely, to avoid embarrassing the leader.

From the above, it should be clear that the singers who occupy this key position need to be experienced, aware of their responsibilities and of the pitfalls which may befall novice leaders, and also able to sing confidently without their noses stuck permanently in their books. That doesn’t mean that less experienced singers should be discouraged from sitting on the front bench of the tenors – the sound in the front row of any of the parts is uniquely thrilling, the joy of which should not be restricted to a chosen few.

However, it is important to maintain a balance so that there at least some experienced singers in this key position. It is also incumbent on everyone on the front benches of all the parts to offer other singers the opportunity to sit on the front, and not to occupy their prime seats for the whole singing if others wish to take their place.

Ian West

Se also: Front-Bench Tenor At Sacred Harp Conventions by Ginnie Ely (http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/ely/frontbench.html)


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