Sacred Harp

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Shape note singers will meet at Fuller Lodge for two days of singing

By Jennifer Garcia

Sacred Harp singers from Colorado and New Mexico will converge on Fuller Lodge for the 21st Annual Rocky Mountain Shape note Convention from 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sept. 25-26.
Los Alamos resident Claire Singleton will be one of the performers during the two-day singing event. Singleton, originally from Oxford, England, has been a Sacred Harp singer, or shape note singer, for more than 10 years.
Singleton found a group of shape note singers to share her passion for singing with in 2000, when she came to New Mexico on sabbatical. Two years later, she and her family moved here permanently and she joined a group from Albuquerque, who she still sings with.
According to a press release, shape note singing is a tradition that has been around since around 1844.
“Technically our style of singing is “shape note singing” because the musical notation uses note heads in four distinct shapes to aid in sight-reading, but it is often called ‘Sacred Harp’ singing because the books that most singers use today are called ‘The Sacred Harp,’ a press release said, “with the most prominent of these being the 1991 Denson edition. The term ‘sacred harp’ refers to the human voice — that is, the musical instrument you were given at birth.”
“It’s the oldest form of community singing,” Singleton said. “When we sing, we’re not rehearsing. We sing for our own enjoyment.”
The shape note system does not use the seven-note “solfege” system that most people are accustomed to. Instead, the Sacred Harp uses the “old four-note English system: fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa … there’s no need to worry about different keys. The shapes ingeniously indicate the different pitches,” according to the press release.
Singleton said there are two shape note groups in New Mexico: one in Las Cruces and the other in Albuquerque. People who join the groups are not required to try out or to be professional singers.
“All events welcome beginners and newcomers, with no musical experience or religious affiliation required — in fact, the tradition was born from colonial ‘singing schools’ whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing and our methods continue to reflect this goal,” the press release stated.
Singleton said there are 573 hymns in the book from which the groups sing. She said shape note singing is particularly popular in the south and in New England. Shape note singing has also been featured in films, one of which includes
“Cold Mountain.”
“It’s not like choral singing,” Singleton said. “It’s not like anything you’ve ever heard before.”
“It’s old. It’s spirited. It’s hauntingly beautiful … and it’s loud! Come sing for yourself,” a flyer announcing the event said.
The 21st Annual Rocky Mountain Shape Note Convention is free and open to the public.


Jennifer Garcia can be reached at lacommunity@lamonitor.com.