odes, and anthems dating back to Colonial times. We sight-read
using the shape note system as a music-reading aid.
Please forward this message to any singing friends who might be
please visit the Convention web site at:http://fasola.org/sf/convention/
For more information on Sacred Harp, visit the national web site at:http://fasola.org/
(See flyer at Web address above for maps to go with these directions.)
Casa de Flores, 737 Walnut Street, San Carlos
From San Francisco: Allow 30 min. Hwy 101 South. Go about 20 miles to
Holly Street exit...
From Berkeley/Oakland: Allow 45 min. Take I-880 to San Mateo bridge
(Route 92), to Hwy 101 South. 3 miles to Holly Street...
From South Bay: Allow 20 min. Hwy 101 North to Holly St. exit...
...from Holly Street exit: Exit West on Holly Street, toward the
hills. Go about 1 mile, crossing under overhead railroad tracks and
into downtown area. Turn left on Walnut, 2.5 blocks to #737. Park in
lots on either side, or on the street.
About Sacred Harp Singing
The origins of this uniquely American music predate our nation. The
base material in the form of hymns and folk tunes floated over the
Atlantic with the early settlers. Here they were transformed into 3
and 4 part songs, to be sung a cappella, with each part miraculously
melodious. This new music was spread to a musically illiterate
population via singing schools and itinerant singing masters who were
often the composers of the songs.
The harmonies achieved by these untrained early American composers
were so rich and delightful as to border on the sinful. In fact, that
was exactly the opinion of the trained choirmasters who followed and
essentially exterminated this native music in the Northeast and
Midwest where it had become established. In the deep South, however,
it found a more enduring home.
Either because of its "illegitimate harmonies" or because of its "folk
theology," shape note music has seldom found its way into church
services. It is sung in homes and gatherings and conventions, but
rarely "performed." Everyone who comes to this music eventually
becomes part of it. Speaking of musical experience, none is necessary
to join us at the convention in January. All parts will be strongly
supported and you will be carried by the wave of music surrounding
you. The curious are welcome to listen, but be warned that this music
Strange, haunting notes -- the rough, wild sounds of the frontier.
-- Nashville Tennessean
Sacred Harp is distinctly American music a sound all its own once it
grabs hold, it doesn't let go.
-- Wall Street Journal
One of the oldest, purest, musical traditions in the country.
-- Los Angeles Times
Heady, stirring, potent stuff indeed.
-- Boston Globe
The joy in the voices was so strong I could feel it in my chest as I
-- Bergen County (NJ) Record
BACKGROUND MATERIAL ABOUT SACRED HARP & SHAPE NOTE SINGING
The following background material has been adapted
from several flyers and other printed materials
published by various Bay Area singing groups.
WHAT IS SACRED HARP SINGING?
Sacred Harp is a particular kind of SHAPE NOTE SINGING, sometimes also
called FASOLA singing. It's called Sacred Harp singing because the name of
the hymnal used by most Shape Note singers nationally is called The Sacred
Harp, first published in 1844, and still in print today. The term "The
Sacred Harp" is a poetic metaphor for the human voice: your voice is your
WHAT IS SHAPE NOTE MUSIC?
Shape Note music is four-part a cappella music designed to be sung by men
and women in six parts (men and women sing both tenor and treble (soprano)
Shape Note music looks on the page exactly like regular SATB choral music,
except it has one additional feature: the note heads, instead of all being
oval-shaped as they are in modern choral music, appear in four different
shapes, with each note shape indicating a pitch in the simplified solfege
scale "fa so la fa so la mi fa".
The shaped note heads are a sight reading aid that was developed hundreds
of years ago to teach beginners to sing. The system works so well that
there are thousands of people who can sight read any Shape Note music
instantly, yet have no knowledge of key signature and note names: the
shaped note heads tell them everything they need to know about note
function. Even singers trained to read choral music quickly find that the
shapes help them sight read better: the shapes strongly reinforce basic
sight-reading techniques such as pitch memory, interval recognition, and
recognition of note functions such as tonic, dominant, and subdominant.
[If you don't know what that last sentence means, don't panic! The beauty
of shape notes is that you get those benefits by simply learning the names
of four simple printed shapes; you don't have to know any music theory.]
WHAT GOES ON AT A SACRED HARP SINGING?
Quite apart from the mechanical aspects of the music as described above,
there is a rich cultural tradition surrounding Sacred Harp music and its
practice. The most important aspects of this tradition are: inclusiveness,
democratic style, and singing for pleasure rather than performance.
Even in the American South, where the Sacred Harp roots are strongest, this
music is almost never sung as part church services. Rather, it is sung at
special social events, such as singing schools or all-day singings. Though
much of the music is religious in nature, and it does have deep religious
significance for many who were raised in its tradition, Sacred Harp
singings are not religious events. They are always open to everyone. Many
prominent and devoted Sacred Harp singers profess the Jewish or Buddhist
faith, or are agnostic or atheist. It is the love of singing that unites
Sacred Harp singers into an intentional national community.
The Sacred Harp community is almost defiantly inclusive. Everyone is
warmly welcomed regardless of experience, skill, or quality of their voice.
In fact, any type, quality, or range of voice can find a comfortable and
important place within its harmonies. The resulting sound is hauntingly
beautiful; it is completely unlike the sound of a trained choir. The music
is powerful, rich with ringing overtones and quartal harmonies. It makes
every molecule in your body vibrate with joy.
The Sacred Harp hymnal was originally published in 1844, but the tradition
it represents dates to colonial times. It is passionate, spirited music
that takes us back to the days when singing four-part a capella hymns and
anthems was a favorite American pastime.
Sacred Harp music is traditionally sung in a "hollow square," with each
voice part facing the center. The song leader stands in the center, beating
out the rhythm and delighting in the unearthly blending of sound.
Where Should I Sit?
Sacred Harp songs are divided into four parts: treble, alto, tenor, and
bass. Depending on inclinations of temperament, timbre or necessity, women
and men sing together on both the treble and tenor parts with women usually
singing one octave above the men on the tenor line, and the men singing one
octave below the women on the treble line. *The melody is in the tenor
line* rather than in the treble or soprano line as in modern arrangements.
Move around the different parts and see what feels comfortable to you.
Leading a Song
Leading is egalitarian at Sacred Harp singings. Each song is led by a
different person. Newcomers are welcome to try their hand at leading. Just
face the tenor section and follow the hand motions of the front row and you
will be fine.
What Are The Shapes For?
Music in the Sacred Harp is written in standard notation, except that the
notes appear in four different shapes. These shapes represent a solfege
system devised by itinerant tunesmiths and singing masters in the early
19th century to teach people to sight sing quickly. The solfege system most
people are familiar with has seven syllables, one for each note of the
scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, [do], but the same scale in the Sacred
Harp's four-syllable system repeats the fa-so-la sequence: fa, sol, la, fa,
sol, la, mi, [fa]. Why? Well, it's much easier to remember 4 note names
than seven, so you can learn to sight sing faster -- you'll start catching
on after as few as one or two afternoons of singing.
Singing the Notes
Before singing a song from the Sacred Harp, we "sing the shapes" -- that
is, sing the notes using the Fa Sol La syllables. We go through it once or
twice to learn our parts before tackling the words. This can seem strange
to a newcomer, but just jump right in and sing "Fa" or "La" if you are
worried; you are bound to be right at least 25% of the time! If you already
can sight sing, the shapes can seem unnecessary. But many of us --
including some with extensive musical backgrounds -- have found that the
shapes provide an excellent aid to sight singing.
Not a Choir
The singing style of many Sacred Harp singers is full bore, guts on the
floor singing. They leave to others the delicate phrasing, the gentle
modulation of dynamics and tone. Exposure to Sacred Harpers in full wail
can be an ear ringing experience. The music is not intended to be examined
critically; it is music to be experienced. Sacred Harp singing is not a
performance sport; it is a participatory experience. Singers sing for each
other, not for an audience. The inward-facing, hollow square seating
arrangement reinforces this.
The music of the Sacred Harp had its origins in New England in the late
18th and early 19th centuries, and moved southward from there. By the
1820's and '30's the tradition had pretty much died in the North (with the
appearance of the misnamed "better music movement"), but has remained a
living tradition in much of the rural south. Recent years have seen a
revival outside of the south, particularly in folk music circles.
All-Day Singings & Conventions
The primary way to experience the Sacred Harp phenomenon is at an all-day
singing. These traditional events have been part of Southern life for over
150 years and date back earlier still to colonial times when itinerant
singing masters traveled the byways of America holding day-long and
sometimes week-long singing schools. Farmers and townspeople would gather
from miles around. The nominal purpose was to learn to sing, but the
social aspect of the gatherings and the sheer pleasure of making music were
the largest attractions. A convention is a periodic gathering of singers
from a geographical region (county, state, or even the whole country). It
often consists of two or more all-day singings and sometimes a Sacred Harp
singing school taught in the traditional manner.
Today many singers meet in small loosely organized groups that sing monthly or
bi-monthly in singers' living rooms or other scheduled locations, generally with
a crowd of 15 to 25 at any given event. The same Sacred Harp sense of fellowship
and democratic style persists. For some singers, these monthly events are the
primary focus of their Sacred Harp singing. For others, monthly singings are
mainly a way to keep in practice between trips to state and local conventions.
Whatever your motivation, regular singings are an excellent way to learn about
and enjoy music from the Sacred Harp.
About The Sacred Harp
The Sacred Harp (1844) is one of hundreds of Shape Note hymnals that was
published in the 19th Century. It is the only Shape Note book to have
survived in continuous publication and is used by the majority of Shape
Note singers in the United States today. It contains over 550 songs,
including the favorite New Britain, which is better known as Amazing Grace.
The term "sacred harp" is a poetic reference to the human voice. Each time
we open our mouths to sing, we're playing our sacred harp.
About Shape Note Notation
The shape note system has been used to teach Americans to read music for
twelve generations. On the printed page, shape note music looks exactly
like modern choral music except that the individual musical notes are
shaped like triangles, ovals, squares and diamonds corresponding to the
syllables Fa, Sol, La and Mi.
Before a shape note song is sung, the group sings once through the entire
song, with singers on each part interpreting the shapes to quickly learn
the tune. Then, the song is sung again with its verses.
Regular Monthly Sacred Harp Singing groups in the Bay Area
There are five active Sacred Harp singing groups in the Bay Area. These
groups meet weekly, bi-monthly, or quarterly to sing traditional songs
from The Sacred Harp.
- Palo Alto (since 1976)
- East Bay (since 1978?)
- Santa Cruz (since 1990?)
- San Francisco (since 1993)
- Sacramento (since 1994)
- UC Berkeley (since 2004)
For further information about any of these groups, visit:http://fasola.org/bayarea/
Sacred Harp Singing on public Television and Radio
Anyone who has seen Bill Moyers' *Amazing Grace* documentary is familiar
with Sacred Harp singing. This still-popular tune has its origins in Shape
Note music, and the first half-hour of the *Amazing Grace* special is
devoted to this history.
Radio shows about Sacred Harp have appeared on NPR and other public radio
networks on numerous occasions. Here is a good story, with audio, from
Minnesota Public Radio:http://news.mpr.org/features/199612/01_smiths_shapenote/
Here is a recent Time Magazine article:http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1704683,00.html