I can’t sing. There are those who say, “Everybody can sing!,” and I hold myself as the prime counterexample. I cannot match pitch; I cannot produce reliable intervals; the concept of a scale is difficult; octave equivalence is still a new concept for me; I cannot keep tempo; I cannot process more than basic rhythms; I drift through keys as dandelion fuzz on a spring breeze. As far as I know, there is no song style that does not have some form of these elements. I cannot sing solo, I cannot sing with anybody. Gregorian chant is right out, as is rap. Singing is, by definition, music, and if there is a way that you could meaningfully call my attempts “music,” I am not aware of it. Professor Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances, gives a very broad definition of music as “Sound ordered by time,” and my attempts at singing defy both time and order.

The Universe therefore contrived to make sure I married a music major for whom singing is a central part of life. Over the nigh twenty years we have been married – and even when we were dating before than – she has attempted to help me improve my singing. We have explored various reasons why I have my understanding of music – such as it is – in hopes of finding something that can correct it. The best we can come up with is that I never noticed that pitch was something that needed to be copied – just the words. It doesn’t really help me, though; knowing that I lack a skill does not magically give me the skill. (I have, however, learned a great deal of music theory through this effort; the quote “One need not have the ability in order to understand the theory” from Patricia C. Wrede’s book Magician’s Ward certainly applies here.)

This, of course, does not stop me from trying. Much to the tortured ears of those who would try to listen to me.

This is why I enjoy singing rounds. Specifically, singing rounds in a group of friends that does not judge me on my lack of singing ability. I do so in the vain hope that it will bring my singing ability to the “barely competent” level; I am not sure how effective that has been. Lest you think that rounds are boring, however, know that the rounds that we sing are more involved than anything presented in elementary school, which is likely the last time most readers of this attempted a round. Round singing has a long history, dating back at least eight hundred years, and rounds have been written on just about every subject and in every style. Since the only chance I have of learning these rounds is through sheet music – I cannot learn by ear; see my issues above – and since many of the rounds we sing did not have sheet music (or such sheet music proved very difficult to find), I turned it into a project to collect and produce sheet music for as many of these rounds as I could. I have been researching and digging and poking and prodding, and have now amassed a very large rounds sheet-music library, both from published and unpublished sources.

This brings me to a project that I have been helping with:  Teaching Rounds. Over the past several years, a few of the singers have been participating in producing recording specifically geared toward teaching various rounds. You can find those recordings at the link below. Take note: I am neither the instigator nor the curator of this page, but a contributor to this effort.

You will, of course, not hear my voice on these recordings; I know my limitations, and we would have to be in dire straits for me to be a teacher of any sort of singing. My contribution is in the technology department – I am the sound engineer, sound editor, and to some extent librarian/researcher for this effort. I have the microphones and mixer boards and cables and what-nots for recording, and the computer know-how to not only do basic sound editing but also produce sheet music, pulled from my library, for the singers. Even though my voice is not present, you will hear some delightful rounds, and may learn a thing or two. I encourage you to check it out. (I strongly recommend Es ist ein Ros and Perfect Light; they are gorgeous rounds.) More rounds will be posted as we continue this effort (and get permissions to do so, for those rounds not in the public domain).

Of course, as I mentioned above, I have both this large library of rounds and a reasonable knowledge of music theory.  I have not secured the various permissions needed to publish that library here, but I can present the few rounds that have resulted from my application of that music theory knowledge (meaning, I wrote these myself).

Shadow Striking on the Wall

This round grew out of one that proved to be very difficult to track down.  The rounds group had the words, but nobody knew who composed it or even what the melody was.  Investigation into the rounds provided no information, either; the most likely composers denied having written such a round, and the internet provided no clues.  I could not even find any information on the text.  As such, the words dropped of the list of known rounds.  But I liked the imagery in the text, so I took it on myself to compose a new melody for the words.  It has three parts, and starts inspired by the Christmas song Orientus Partibus, but quickly departs.

In Tribute to Morris L Clothier

The text to this round is taken from the inscription on the wall in the Clothier Belltower at Swarthmore College, where the rounds group often meets to sing.  It was frequently joked that the words should be set to music, but nobody had done so.  I sat down one day at lunch and quickly put together the basic outline of the melody, and after a few cycles of editing it was complete.  The alternate text was written so that I could introduce the round without showing my hand that I had set the inscription to music.  That little surprise failed when I passed out the wrong set of sheet music.  The round has six parts, and it sounds best when most of those parts are full.

Dark Brown is the River

The text to the round is taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  As far as I know, this work is now in the public domain.  This is a fairly simple round, but the text is taken from one of my favorite poems from that collection.

The Land of Nod

The text to the round is adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  As far as I know, this work is now in the public domain.  This is not a simple round:  the harmonic progression used made the voice leading in the melody interesting.  However, my wife had commented at one point how much she loves Neapolitan sixth chords, so I wrote a round with one in it.  This round is a personal favorite (and other people have reacted favorably as well), so infinite monkeys and blind squirrels here.  Curious music indeed!

Federal Law

This is a non-serious round, with text taken from the back of a can of Off!, although I have seen the same text on other products.  As a statement of fact, I do not believe it can be copyrighted.  This was written mostly because my son came across a round based on the text on a can of V-8 vegetable juice and picked up the nearest can of some other product, found random text on it, and challenged me to write a round with that text.