Mastering Sacred Harp

Please note that this is a post from 2015, we are not currently meeting at the Adobe Chapel

[2015] Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Time to head to the Adobe Chapel in Old Town for our weekly gathering to sing Sacred Harp music, 4-part a capella early American spiritual songs. This now-reviving musical tradition has been my passion for more than a decade, and I’ve worked hard to master its intricacies.

Arranging the chapel’s chairs into 4 rows facing each other, we form a “hollow square.” Tenors (the melody carriers) face altos, and, to their right, trebles face basses. A large turnout will fill the rows, but sometimes there’s only one singer on each part–and sometimes one of us has to switch voices so all parts can be heard. No matter how many have come, however, we’ll sing and enjoy ourselves.

Opening our oblong burgundy songbooks first published in 1844 (the current edition came out in 1991), someone calls out a song number or one of the evocative tune names (Babylon Is Fallen, Arbacoochee, The Grieved Soul, Confidence, King of Peace…). The song leader (or sometimes a “pitcher”) vocalizes through a few notes in search of the best pitch. Then we’re off, singing our parts using shape names (FA, SOL, LA, MI) to sound out the tune. The intoxicating vibrations of musical harmony fill the room.

Along with thousands of people all across California, America, and the world, we are carrying on a tradition that dates back to colonial New England. Itinerant music teachers traveled from town to town to conduct singing schools, carrying collections of songs, including many they had written themselves. When a “beautiful music” movement favoring European musical styles drove Sacred Harp out of New England, it found a new and lasting home in the south. Once this musical tradition was expected to die out, but the popularity of Sacred Harp music has grown and spread in recent decades. Sacred Harp singing is vigorous and loud; the harmonies are unusual. Some call the sound primitive, while others call it hauntingly beautiful. Singers call it addictive.

Sacred Harp singing can be a challenge even for someone like me, a lifelong enthusiastic choral singer. Its harmonies are complex, more “horizontal” than “vertical” as in much traditional choral music. The melody appears in the third, tenor line, rather than in the usual soprano line found on the top. Yet each part seems to have its own melody, and the various parts weave in and out, especially in the “fuguing” tunes where each part enters separately. There is often a wide vocal range within each part, with large or unusual interval “jumps.”

It’s easy to feel lost when beginning Sacred Harp singing. While it does help to sing the tune on shapes first, I found I couldn’t enunciate the FAs, SOLs, and LAs fast enough. I’d fall behind and lose my place, unable to figure out where my part was or to rejoin the song. Singing the lyrics next felt more familiar but required multitasking: how could you follow the complexities of the tune while reading and singing the words at the same time? It’s also important to watch the leader, who sets the tempo with arm movements, while indicating entrances for each part and signaling repeats. Longtime singer Jerry Schreiber often tells first-timers, “You need one eye for the music, one eye for the words – and one eye for the leader.” Everyone laughs. Experienced singers always seem to have an encouraging word for those making their first tentative efforts.

In the early days, I’d request one of the few songs I could sing confidently, but I couldn’t lead it. I’d muddle through songs I didn’t know, sometimes failing to find the pitch, missing an interval jump, or losing my place. Most embarrassing was failing to notice a repeat and continuing merrily along, wondering why I sounded so odd and out of sync. I’d often leave feeling tired and discouraged, my voice strained and ragged, but the spiritually rich, poetic lyrics and exhilarating experience of singing in harmony kept drawing me back. I loved being part of this group and this tradition. Would I ever be able to carry my part, though, without having another strong singer nearby?

Week by week, I learned and remembered more lyrics. Little by little, more tunes became embedded in my brain. I bought colored sticky flags to mark songs I had trouble with and ran through problematic notes or phrases at home on the piano. I listened to Sacred Harp CDs often, especially whenever I was out driving.

Gradually, instead of being disappointed if we didn’t sing the most familiar songs, or annoyed when someone chose a difficult song, I began to enjoy tackling new ones. I’d hear an intriguing but unfamiliar song on a CD and request it myself. I now feel that I can almost always carry my part, alone if necessary. Over the years, I’ve “deposited” a huge repertoire of songs in my brain, and I can sight-read much better than I used to. This has happened through sheer persistence; I go to sing every week. It’s a self-rewarding system; the more you go, the more you absorb, the more confident you feel, and the more competent you become.

It helps that Sacred Harp singers are so friendly and encouraging, always eager to share their love of and enthusiasm for this musical tradition. I haven’t mastered Sacred Harp singing yet, but I’ve come a long way. Now I enjoy welcoming new singers, encouraging them and reassuring them: “Don’t worry, making mistakes is no problem, we’ve all ‘been there’! Come back next week, and you’ll be amazed at how much you remember and how quickly you learn!”

– Judy Getrich