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A square of voices, shape-note group grows

About 30 students, faculty members and Providence residents gathered in the Steinert Choral Room last Thursday.

The singers sat in a square — one voice part on each side —  facing each other, with the song leader standing in the middle. They had no audience but themselves as they filled the room with hearty a cappella renditions of traditional Christian spirituals.

"Sweet is the day of sacred rest / No mortal cares shall seize my breast / O may my heart in tune be found / Like David's harp of solemn sound," the group sang, as Assistant Professor of Music Kiri Miller led the warm-up.

During the school year, a group congregates every Thursday evening for Sacred Harp singings, which are also known as shape-note singings. The music uses a special notation with notes of different shapes. Miller leads Brown's chapter, which she created when she arrived at Brown three years ago.

Miller first learned about Sacred Harp while at a "hippie" high school in Vermont, she said. She later went on to make it the topic of her graduate thesis and of her book "Traveling Home," which was published last year.

Shape-note singing started in the United States in 1798 as a way to help people read music, Miller said. Instead of following the shape of traditional musical notes, the head of each note is a different shape depending on its pitch — making it easier for singers to sight-read the music.

Sacred Harp refers to both the human voice and the main tunebook used by groups today. "The texts are really beautiful, archaic Christian poetry," Miller said, referring to the songs' lyrics.

Unlike traditional music groups, Sacred Harp does not have any rehearsals or concerts. Every singing is a unique event. Some singers attend every event, but others only come once. Sacred Harp has shaped its music and its format around the idea of being accessible and welcoming to anyone.

Though students participating in Sacred Harp can earn half a course credit, Miller estimates that only around five people actually register each semester.
While the unusual musical group is not yet well-known, "I definitely see it growing," Miller said, adding that she has observed more college students participating across the nation.

The unique American tradition has resurfaced in more mainstream ways, compelling some to pick up Sacred Harp tunebooks.

"I first heard of Sacred Harp when I saw the movie ‘Cold Mountain,'" said Marianna Faircloth '10, a returning singer.

The powerful sound that just a few Sacred Harp singers can create may come as a surprise to other vocalists.

"People are encouraged to sing with their full voice," Miller said.

The atmosphere at singings is laid back and relaxed, Miller said. "No one is there saying, ‘You're not singing the right note,'" Miller said. The singers themselves take turns leading songs.

"The music itself is wonderful," Faircloth said. "It's unlike anything else."

"We sing for each other," said Lynne deBenedette, a senior lecturer in Slavic languages and a long-time Sacred Harp enthusiast.

The strong sense of community is also one of Sacred Harp's main appeals. "I think I got really hooked when I went to one of the conventions last semester," Faircloth said.

After an hour, the singers took a brief break to eat cookies and chat  with each other.
"It's like no singing that I've ever done before," said newcomer Emily Walsh '13 as she enjoyed a snack. "There's no practicing. There's no thinking. You just come
and do it."


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