Can’t do a Thing if You Ain’t Got That Sing
Sing is an institution at The Putney School. Originally held Friday nights, Sing now occurs every Thursday morning in lieu of assembly. For 35 minutes, nearly everyone is present and, well, on the same page. There is power in singing the same songs together. There is joy. There is release. Sing is good.
But, this being an educational institution, Sing is not free of politics, opinions, history, and sometimes outright rebellion. When Music Director James Wallace appeared two years ago, Sing had somehow devolved into a bone of contention within the Putney community. Whether the subject matter of the songs, the location (Sing was held for the first 68 years in Barnes Assembly Hall, and since 2003 in Calder Hall of the Michael S. Currier Center), the manner in which songs were taught, or the mandatory attendance aspect, everybody had an opinion about something. It had become very much a “third rail,” as has periodically been the case throughout the history of Sing. It was time for a change.
James did not wring his hands and blanch at the challenge. Wading in with much courage and apparent confidence, James formed the Sing Committee in April of 2009 and began cataloging everything there was to know about Sing. He sorted the songbook by country of origin and type of music, making a tally list of these things. A group of volunteers, both students and adults, attended meetings to pour over these statistics and compare them to Putney’s population, asking such questions as, “Why, as a secular school, do we sing so many Christian hymns?” and “Where are all the Korean and Chinese songs?”
The committee also explored locations. The corpus of The Putney School’s community had long ago outgrown Barnes Assembly Hall, but Calder Hall felt like it was dwarfing the experience, rather than cradling it. Also, Calder Hall is tuned for music projected from the stage to the audience. In Sing, we’re in the audience position. So we attempted singing in the art gallery space one Thursday. It was interesting, but still not right. We faced the back of Calder Hall. Still not right. We turned to the glass doors overlooking the Connecticut River Valley and Mt. Monadnock. This was better. We put the orchestra shells behind us to form the cradle. Okay, that was overkill. But facing the beautiful view was the right place, allowing the sound to bounce from the mostly glass wall back to our ears.
But what of the Sing book? After much study, the committee realized that old Christian hymns were tailor made for large groups of unprofessional singers who want to be uplifted by joining their voices. Research was done into foreign language songs that would work in our group. Titles were added. Songs we rarely or never sang were pruned. This process took the better part of a year.
By last summer the Sing book had been reorganized into 108 songs in six categories: Rounds & Canons, Folk Songs, Sea Songs & Shanties, Madrigals & Part Songs, Hymns, Chorales, & Sacred Choruses, and World Cultures. James found or created correct copies of all of the songs, rejiggered others to be easier to follow, and organized the whole shebang into a 151-page book, which was then laid out and printed with a hard cover to commemorate our 75th anniversary. No more pages falling out of flimsy binders. This alone would have been cause for great celebration.
But the icing on the cake is iSing, an in-house web tool that has recordings and sheet music for each song. For multi-part songs there are recordings of each group’s part, so one can practice the hard parts any place a laptop computer can pick up a signal on campus, which is just about everywhere. James, once again, was the mastermind and driving force of iSing.
It doesn’t end there. James now offers an optional Sing in Barnes Assembly hall every Tuesday night from 6:45 to 7:15, right between dinner and study hours/evening arts activities. This is creating a core group of singers who know the songs well. It’s already made a difference in how good we sound on Thursdays.
Perhaps because of this huge effort, there was little grousing when James gave us all range tests to see where we should sit (bass, tenor, alto, soprano), then firmly suggested we sit there. Somebody had listened to us. Somebody had acted to make a change. Somebody led us from the third rail back to the platform and got us on the train. Sing is a work in progress and always will be. We’re grateful as can be for James, the “somebody” who made Sing work in a new location with songs that make sense to us. Thank you, James.