I have been in choirs all my life, starting in a children’s choir back in Germany. In German choirs, at least the ones I was in, each section practices separately, and after everyone has memorized their part, the sections are put together. Therefore, sight singing is never necessary, and I had never heard of it before I came to the US. My inability to sight sing got me into trouble from then on, but I loved choir singing too much to just give it up. Thru the years I’ve been in various church choirs, but always had to make sure I stood next to someone who knew how to sight sing really well, so I could copy their notes.
A lot of times, I had to enter the alto part into a music program at home in order to learn it, which was very time consuming.
Luckily, a member of the last church choir I was in introduced me to sacred harp. The shapes were the solution to my problem.
They really do work!! Just give it some time, and you will be able to sing any song in shape note notation.
Being a part of the sacred harp community also makes moving less traumatic: Wherever you go, you can look up local singings and make new friends. And the songs they sing will be the same, no matter where you go, so there is one thing in life that doesn’t change, and that is very comforting.
I came across Shape Note singing in college when I was trying a lot of new things. I was drawn to the music because of the kindness of the people who were singing it.
I sang in the alto section because that’s where I’ve always sung, unable to hit the high notes with any volume or control. I remember my understanding of music was turned on its head when our fearless leader bent down from the center, looked me in the eye and said “You have a very pretty voice Chelsea – now sing LOUD.” Gone were the ideas of blending with the group and my cultivation of a low falsetto. I remember the first time my chest voice was strong enough to reach a higher note in “Hallelujah” and then, occasionally, in “Africa.” It was transcendent and powerful and empowering and impossible to sing softly without straining the voice. I haven’t really seriously looked back.
Shape note singing has been a journey for me. Each year I realize I have learned more. I have gone from being terrified of all of the new songs at a convention and just trying to catch a note here or there as it flew by to knowing songs well enough to start HEARING and FEELING the poetry and understanding more deeply the other parts. I love shape note music for the community and because, unlike in other choruses, we bring the energy every time, not just at the performance.
The more I sing the words, the more grounded I become in prayer about eternity, love and forgiveness. I do not believe in every idea we sing, but I do appreciate meditating on the poetry and thinking about the ideas the songs bring up and the community members who are always ready to bring it into context. I am not religious, but I do pray and now prayer feels most full and profound when I can pray with my voice.
It is no wonder to me that I have married the tenor man who I met as I cast my voice into the hallowed square and met his eyes week after week.
Ian Smiley enjoyed an experience of transcendence in community making music when he sang with a children’s choir performing for a great crowd at a concert in Leeds, England when he was 17 years old. At the time and later he thought “that would be even better if the folks in the crowd were with us in making the music which is filling our bodies.”
This thought characterizes an attitude that Ian has had about community and music making since then and Ian has focused on that desired joining of community and music making found in the traditions of singing from The Sacred Harp and other shape-note music since then.
With this song in his heart Ian has founded local singings or assumed leaderships responsibilities in singings where he has lived since he first went to college. Never much of a scholar or a performer of the music Ian has shared his passion a practitioner of the style. He learns by going to as many singings as he reasonably can, or singing at home, or at one time even by sitting on the old tractor up in a hayfield singing through The Sacred Harp and reading bits of the Rudiments of that book. If asked, Ian is always happy to explain he usually finds a key for a song, and how he marks time for a song.
Some day Ian would like to go to Camp Fasola or organize the gathering of a similar institution for the New England region. Among other things, Ian would like to learn how to confidently lead songs where there is that tricky transition between slow marked time and a quicker tempo for a fugue part. “Greenwich” 183 is one of those songs.
There are so many friends for Ian to think for their companionship in this journey with shape-note singing, but before all others he would like to think his mother, Susan Smiley. She first came upon a group of singers gathered on a church lawn in Middlebury, VT there for a local singing when Ian was a tiny tot. He has been around the singing since then, singing at home with his father and sisters. His family actively participated in local singings for years during Ian’s childhood. Ian would also like to thank Larry Gordon and Patty Cuyler, directors of Village and Northern Harmony for their tutelage in vocal music. Since singing with those performance singing groups Ian has found so many friends in the wide community of local singings from The Sacred Harp. Dan Hertzler and Laura Timmerman were there during an amazing summer of singing in 2003. Ian met and started singing with Tom Malone and Joanna Lampert in 2004 while in company with Debby Moody. After years of searching, Ian met the love of his life, Chelsea Smiley, at a local singing in Burlington, VT. There are so many friends in this community of shape-note singing. Ian extends his love and gratitude to all of them.