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Old-time singing tradition puts novices at ease

Keating 2008 All-California Sacred Harp Convention San Pedro
Keating leads a singing at the 2008 All-California Sacred Harp Convention in San Pedro.
Audio: Keating leads her fiat lux course in a rendition of "Sacred Harp #63 (Coronation)" - first by singing the shape-notes, then by beginning again with the lyrics.
Some people thrive in the spotlight, but for others, performance anxiety can turn karaoke night at the local pub into their own waking nightmare. Alone in the shower they’re the next American Idol, but in front of others, it’s all they can do to stammer out the first line to “My Sharona.” 

For people who love to sing but hate the attention it brings them, a book of songs from 1844, oddly enough, might hold an answer.

“We have a saying in Sacred Harp,” said Patricia Keating, a professor of linguistics whose research in phonetics is focused on linguistic voice quality, “If you hear your neighbor make a mistake, then you aren’t singing loud enough.” 

The “Sacred Harp” that Keating mentioned isn’t an instrument, but rather a singing tradition of sacred choral music based on a collection of 557 religious songs first published as a book in 1844. Keating is presently teaching a Fiat Lux course on Sacred Harp singing, which she and 15 students practice each week.

She calls it “very different from the typical choir-singing experience,” largely because of the singers’ intentions. “The aesthetic is to sing as loud as possible without any subtleties of phrasing or dynamics, to create a wall of sound.”

More than anything, Sacred Harp is fundamentally singing for the sake of singing. No performances. No set lists. Not even a place for an audience to sit and listen. “The Sacred Harp” book arose from an early American tradition of shape-note singing – a simple system of music notation that used four shapes (fa-sol-la-mi) to indicate the location of each note on the musical scale. 

The result was an eminently accessible style that allowed the singer to belt out boisterous, interesting music without the need for previous training. In fact, Keating explained, even if you do have a musical background, “you’ll want to leave some of your classical training at the door.”

She herself is not classically trained in voice. Keating first heard of Sacred Harp during the United States Bicentennial celebrations when vocal groups performed the music of America’s past. Eventually she picked up a copy of “The Sacred Harp,” then searched online for a local group. “It wasn’t long before I was taking on commitments for the group, like hosting one of the local monthly singings in our home and helping to organize the larger annual events.”

Keating even managed to turn it into a family affair: “My husband got hooked as well, and this is a hobby we can do together – we even sing the same voice part, the treble.” Sacred Harp singers sit in four sections facing each other depending on their voice part: treble, alto, tenor or bass.

She explained that her decision to teach a Fiat Lux class was largely based on her desire to get students involved in local singing groups. “I was looking for a way to bring the music to the students and perhaps eventually attract some of them to our community,” said Keating.

Anthony Seeger, distinguished professor of ethnomusicology and faculty director of the UCLA Bluegrass and Old-Time String Band, was delighted that Keating would be teaching her class this fall. “Singing together is a wonderful way to build a feeling of community, and the unusual harmonies and participatory unaccompanied singing in Sacred Harp make it particularly accessible to students in a Fiat Lux seminar,” he said.

Although none of the 15 students enrolled in Keating’s class are music majors, they’re already singing and learning how to lead their classmates. 

Some Sacred Harp songs are familiar, like “Amazing Grace,” but even the unfamiliar songs are relatively easy to pick up: “Not only do we see the shapes printed on the page,” Keating explained, “but a song is first sung through using the names of the shapes instead of the words of the text.” 

Sacred Harp is undergoing something of a revival right now, both through informal groups and through classes and clubs that have sprung up on college campuses. All these activities are contributing to a vibrant Sacred Harp community that stretches all across the U.S., she said. 

In fact, when Keating and her husband travel, they search for local Sacred Harp singings wherever they go. “We know that we’ll be welcome there,” she said.
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