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.
I love singing Sacred Harp every week because the music meets my needs for community and celebration of the goodness of life as well mourning its tragedies. Warm regards, Dhyano