Sunday Morning With Pete

I spent Sunday morning with Pete Seeger thanks to YouTube and the good folks of the San Francisco Folk Music Club circa 1980. As a performer and organizer dedicated to spreading the joy of community singing, I was thrilled to find this shaky, green-tinted gem in the form of a 12-part YouTube video series titled, “Pete Seeger: Workshop on Song Leading.” It was recorded shortly after Pete’s historic sing-along demonstration concert at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., so he was brimming with that Seeger enthusiasm for teaching others how to teach others to raise the roof in song. The concert in Cambridge was recorded on Folkways and released as a double album, and then later as a double CD. If you are interested at all in the fine art of songleading, start there. In fact, watch this series of YouTube videos, get the recording and you’ve completed your freshman year of songleading. The rest of the degree is a lifetime of sitting in circles or standing before audiences practicing what you’ve learned so far.

As I was watching the video I was reminded of the difference between being a performer who includes a lot of audience singing, and being a song leader who facilitates community sings. One usually will inspire the other. Pete spent much of his performing life leading audiences in song. This usually involves one performer with a sound system and an audience pointed toward a stage. Community sings, on the other hand, are not usually performer driven and they put the emphasis on several song leaders (professional or not) sitting in a circle taking turns. The tricks and tools offered up in Pete’s workshop (and concert) can easily apply to both scenarios. In fact, I find it helpful to have at least one experienced musician in your community sing to help hold melodies and rhythms together if they start to fall apart. I encourage you to check out the 1980 video, but just in case you don’t have time, allow me to share some of my thoughts and feelings about what Pete had to say about being an effective song leader.

Pete begins by reminding his small living room audience that singing together used to be common practice in cultures all over the world. This could be why the response I’ve been getting to these community sings have been so amazing. Maybe we are just re-connecting to something that is very natural to who we are as humans. It seems we’ve allowed it to get away from us. Pete Seeger was an astounding performer so it’s no surprise that he would spend time talking about the importance of programming the set. That is picking the right songs and doing them in the right order, specifically for the audience gathered that day. This includes singing a variety of song types: happy, sad, slow, fast, angry, off-beat etc… This also involves changing up rhythms as well as keys and pitches. But how do you do that in a democratic singing circle? That’s where the leader comes in. Even though I pride my sings on their democratic nature, I will jump in if I feel the mood needs changing. Too many slow, fast or complicated songs in a row can be a bummer so I have no problem doing one song to change the mood and then getting back to the circle.

He demonstrates great teaching techniques like lining out a song (“Golden Valley”) or saying the lines before you sing them (“On Top Of Old Smokey”). He makes these techniques look easy, but they require practice. Especially songs like “If I Had A Hammer” which doesn’t have as much space between the lines and requires some fast talk to get the word clues out. He also talks about the importance of sticking with the song even if it isn’t going well at first. It might take a little extra repetition for audiences to get it. The payoff is often great!

Pete spends a lot of time in the video talking about finding the right key or pitch for the song. I assumed he would suggest picking the key that would sit comfortably with most singers. Wrong. He encourages song leaders to challenge the audience with high keys, allowing them to sing out and force harmony. Brilliant. I’ve been successful starting in a low key and moving it up and up as we repeat the song. This can add a great energy to the performance. I also love how Pete was intentionally working on saying less and singing more. Sometimes song leaders can get a bit too “teachy.” I agree. Sometimes you do, of course, have to teach the chorus. I would sing it up to tempo first, plant it in their heads, and then break it down if necessary.

Pete spends the rest of the workshop talking about rhythm, especially rhythm variety. Learning songs from different cultures and traditions is an excellent way to explore this concept. Rhythm variety even allows you to play several songs in a row in the same key, something performers often try to avoid.

Here are a few more nuggets of song leading wisdom I picked up from my Sunday morning with Pete. Let this serve as a kind of summary:

  • Build your repertoire. The more songs you have to choose from, the better
  • Vary the mood. Different tempos and emotional subject matter will keep the presentation going.
  • Give them a break. Playing an occasional instrumental or solo song will allow your audience to rest the vocal chords.
  • Not all songs need harmony. Respect the tradition (but don’t be afraid to innovate).
  • Sing more talk less. Enough said.
  • Small rooms work best. People sing better when they are crowded together.
  • Love what you’re singing. Just notice the difference between when Pete is lecturing and when Pete is singing. He becomes a different person.

Youth Traditional Song Weekend Update

Here’s an update to the information from my last blog about the Youth Trad Song Weekend. One of the organizers, Nicole Singer wrote:

[The Weekend] will be held at Camp Becket-Chimney Corners YMCA in Becket, MA on the weekend of January 9-11, 2015. Registration is open and we now have waiting lists for attendance (but please sign up for the waiting lists – the youth waiting list is especially short for those under the age of 50!). For more information, visit the Youth Trad Song website, check us out on Facebook, and join our mailing list. We’d love to see you there!

Youth Trad Song Weekend is supported in part by the New Leaders, Good Leaders fund of the Country Dance and Song Society, the New York-Pinewoods Folk Music Society, the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston, NEFFA, the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, and generous donations from the folk song community.

Happy singing, and don’t forget to keep us updated on your community sing!

About Matt Watroba

Many of you will know Matt from his radio work both locally in Detroit, Michigan, and nationally through and as the founding host of The Sing Out! Radio Magazine. Some may also know him as a performer. He has performed throughout the country, both as a solo, and with his musical partner Robert Jones. But Matt considers himself, first and foremost, a community singer and song leader. He has spread the joy of singing together on concert stages, at festivals, in educational settings and in workshops for more than 25 years. For the past several years, he has taught community singing and performance at the Swanannoa Gathering in North Carolina during its Traditional Song Week. And he is also a regular contributor to Sing Out! magazine.

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