Front-Bench Tenor At Sacred Harp Conventions

By Ginnie Ely (April 1996)

These words of wisdom are based on traditional Sacred Harp convention practice and are meant as a guideline to persons such as unsuspecting Yankees who may appear at a Southern convention and be unaware of the customs. Or for the small and young Northern convention who find themselves struggling with how to keep the class together while encouraging many inexperienced leaders to try their hand and many new people to come right on in and participate. These guidelines apply to conventions only, although you may choose to run your local singings in a similar manner.

The front row in the Tenor section (also known as the front-bench) is usually occupied at a convention by experienced singers who know how to help keep the class together by assisting the leader in several ways. Therefore when choosing a seat at a convention, sit on the front-bench only if you are willing to perform your share of the tasks. It is also often the custom to trade off with other experienced singers so that no one becomes too tired and everyone gets a turn who wants one.

The front-bench people help to keep the flow of the convention smooth. As leaders are called, it is part of their job to listen for the page number to be called and facilitate getting that page number to everyone else. The front-bench also encourages the inexperienced leader to face the Tenor section and listen for the key note to be sounded before beginning.

Usually the person who sounds the key note that sets the pitch for each tune sits on the front-bench. This may be the front-bench of the Tenor section but it may also be the front-bench of any of the other sections as well. When a leader comes to the center and gives their page number, the person keying will sound the key note by singing the Bass note or tonic, then one or more optional chord tones, but always ending on the opening note of the Tenor part. If the tune starts on an unusual note, the keying person may sound that note as well. It is helpful if the whole class will find and sing the note on which their parts begin so that the leader can tell when everyone is ready.

One of the tasks of the front-bench Tenor is to keep the beat. They help the leader begin the song and continue a consistent beat throughout in order to help keep the class together. This is especially helpful to the Alto section who must watch the back view of each leader, and also the further ends of the Bass and Treble sections who also see mostly the back view of the leader. To help with this task, the members of the other front-benches (Treble, Alto, Bass) may also keep the beat.

There are many styles and levels of confidence amongst leaders. With a very confident and experienced leader, the front-bench has very little to do except keep the beat and relax and enjoy the song. With a less confident leader, the front-bench Tenor must help with the leading without taking away any of the joy of the experience from the person doing the leading.

Tasks performed by the front-bench:

A word to everyone: if you are consistent about stopping the hand between verses and beating through on a repeat, it is very much easier for the front-bench and the class to sing the tune the way you want it. (See my Guide To Leading Music in the Sacred Harp Tradition" for further information on leading.)

Ginnie Ely (

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