Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Shape note singing and the liturgy

I recently conducted an experiment in my work as music director at First Congregational Church of Melrose, Massachusetts, by augmenting my choir with singers from the shape-note singing communities of the Boston area, particularly Norumbega Harmony. As I have mentioned in previous posts, in recent years some musicians in liturgically oriented churches have expressed an interest in shape-note singing. This interest goes hand in hand with a trend toward eclecticism and diversity in church music, and a trend away from a single Eurocentric canon of music. Both as an ethnomusicologist and as a Christian, I have embraced these trends.

(I also believe that these tendencies are related to the growth of so-called "contemporary Christian" music in the liturgy, but that is for another post.)

Bringing together a church choir and shape-note singers presents challenges. There are differences in technique and culture that require translation so that each group of singers understands what the other is doing. Here's an outline of the problems that have to be solved:

  • How do you choose material that singers from both groups can share?
  • Do you sing the shapes? If so, how do you teach singers in the church choir to do it?
  • Do you use piano or organ to accompany, or try to go without instruments as in a singing convention?
  • Are pieces led and pitched by the choir director, or by rotating individuals from the ensemble?

Finding common ground in repertory is easier than it used to be. Since at least the publication of The Hymnal 1982 by the Episcopal Church, denominational hymnals have added many items also found in shape-note books. For our service, we used these three hymn tunes, which are in both The New Century Hymnal and The Sacred Harp:

  • Coronation
  • Martyrdom (in NCH) / Sacred Throne (in SH)
  • The Promised Land
The perennial problem is that hymnals frequently disagree in music and words. The tune "Martyrdom" sets the hymn "Alas, and did my savior bleed" in the NCH. In The Sacred Harp, this hymn is to a different tune; the tune "Martyrdom" is called "Sacred Throne", and sets "Beneath the sacred throne of God." Either is usable, but some rescoring and copying is needed in any case.

"The Promised Land" has a more drastic problem: it is in a minor key in shape-note books, but in a major key (and with dumbed-down harmony parts) in most denominational hymnals. I solved this problem by creating a hybrid arrangement for the shape-note singers: in a major key, but otherwise as close as possible to what is found in The Sacred Harp. That way the church choir and congregation can sing the tune as they know it, and the shape-note singers can sing in parts without too much difficulty.

Shape-note books can also provide material for introits, anthems, and prayer responses. Since the congregation does not sing these items, they need not appear in the denominational hymnal. We used the following pieces for this purpose:
  • Organ prelude: "Dove of Peace," arranged by John Barr in The Organist's Companion, July 2012
  • Introit: "Devotion"
  • Response after Lord's Prayer: "Ragan" 
  • Anthem: my own composition, "All Good Gifts" (currently unpublished, but may appear in print in the future)
  • Offertory: "Sherburne"
  • Benediction: "Parting Hand" 
As for the shapes, I wrote the shape names into copies of "Devotion" and "All Good Gifts" so that my choir could sing the shape names. They still found it difficult; indeed, it takes years of practice to sing the shape names fluently. It's worth the effort!

Did I use the piano or organ? My original ambition had been to use the organ only to summon the congregation at the beginning with an organ prelude. (A strange ambition for an organist!) I wanted to introduce each hymn to the congregation by having the visiting singers sing the tune in shapes first, then have the congregation join in on the first verse. During rehearsal it became clear that this would have been risky, and I decided to dispense with the shapes and to use the organ to introduce and accompany the hymns as on a usual Sunday. Maybe next time. 

(Though I will also point out that into the early 20th century, there are accounts of Southern singing conventions that had someone accompanying on piano. Some of the 78 RPM recordings of shape-note singers made in the 1920s also feature a piano, though this may have been at the request of the record producer rather than the singers.)

How did we incorporate the performance rituals of the singing convention? Obviously, our church service was different from a convention; it had a program set in advance by one leader (me) and was rehearsed in advance (one hour before the service). But I did try to incorporate some aspects of a convention:
  • I allowed shape-note singers to set the pitch for some items sung without instrumental accompaniment.
  • For the benediction, we used the traditional closing song, "Parting Hand," and invited the congregation to shake hands with each other. Most of them did!
  • Instead of an organ postlude, I invited the visiting shape-note singers to have a "mini-convention" by selecting several songs and leading them themselves.
The response from the congregation to this experiment was positive, and I plan to make this a regular feature of the liturgical calendar.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A keyboardist copes with a broken arm

Toe straps are dangerous! About a month ago, I had an accident on my bicycle. As I approached an intersection, a car sped into the intersection and forced me to stop suddenly. I took my left foot out of the toe strap to put my left foot down, but I was balanced the wrong way and I fell to the right. As I was going down, I knew not to put my hands out to catch myself, but I landed the wrong way on my arm and broke my radial bone near the elbow joint (an injury which, ironically, usually results from putting the hands down while falling).

As a bicyclist, I never attempted anything I considered reckless, such as weaving through city traffic or racing down a mountainside. Yet even a low-speed fall from a seated position can cause a significant injury. Here's some information on radial head fractures. The important text is at the bottom: "Even the simplest of fractures will probably result in some loss of extension in the elbow. Regardless of the type of fracture or the treatment used, physical therapy will be needed before resuming full activities." For a musician, these are scary words indeed.

After about a month, I can say that I seem to have avoided a career-ending injury. I have been able to reestablish motion in my elbow and wrist joints. I can now perform all of the motions necessary for playing the piano and organ, though not as fluidly as before. I will be working hard to rebuild my technique from scratch. The lingering issue is strength in the muscles. It is still hard to open the hand completely and to play octaves or large chords. Sometimes I can't make all the notes in a chord sound together, and it's hard to give the little finger enough strength for bravura playing on the piano. (On the organ, these motions are less often necessary.) Like a baseball pitcher, I have to use a heating pad before I play and ice afterward. But I can play, for which I am grateful.

At first I just assumed that I would have to hire someone to substitute for me in my church music job for several weeks. But the congregation has encouraged me to continue to serve them as best as I can, even if I can't do everything I normally would.

  • Some repertory can be performed without the right hand, using just the left hand and pedals. My first week back, with my right arm still in a sling, I played the Prelude in C major from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, in this manner, and I finished the service with an arrangement of Jeremiah Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary. (This is actually a good exercise for an able-bodied organist, too.)
  • A digital organ with MIDI capability can be "played" using a computer or MIDI sequencer. I accompanied hymns for several weeks using the setup pictured: a laptop connected to the organ using a USB-to-MIDI interface. I sequenced the hymns in Finale at my desk using only the left hand (first on a keyboard to give the pitch, then using Caps Lock and the number keys on my computer to give the durations). There are some tricks to making this technique work. You can't just copy the notes out of the hymnal verbatim; you must add ties and rests to mimic what a competent organist actually plays when reading from a hymnal.
  • Some solos and anthems are published with recorded accompaniment. I put CDs into my laptop and connected the audio output to the organ's auxiliary audio input. (This required some adapters, since the organ's inputs are dual 1/4" mono jacks, and the computer has a stereo 1/8" headphone jack.) As we found out during rehearsal, singing from a recording is harder than singing with live accompaniment, especially when the recording has many changes in tempo.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jeremiah Ingalls Memorial Singing

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Jeremiah Ingalls Singing in Newbury, Vermont, for the first time in several years. This singing is the brainchild of Tom Malone, a Vermont native now on the faculty of the music education program at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Newbury is now a small place off the beaten track, but like many small places, it has its historical importance if you know where to look. It was one of the first settlements in Vermont, and the First Congregational Church in Newbury is the second oldest church in Vermont. (The oldest is Old First Church in Bennington.) This singing is now held in the parish hall of First Congregational, after starting out in a hall directly on the town green.

Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838) was one of the many composers and compilers of tune books who plied their trade in the early years of the American republic. He is most remembered today for his publication The Christian Harmony (1805) which, though not published in the recently invented shape-note system, is now considered a key publication in the development of shape-note hymnody during the first half of the 19th century. Tom Malone has overseen a republication of Ingalls's collection in four-shape notation in order to make it more accessible to singers already schooled in music from shape-note collections such as The Sacred Harp. The Newbury singing is the only public event featuring music from Ingalls's collection.


(This book should not be confused with the better known 1866 Christian Harmony by William Walker, which is still the basis of several traditions of convention singing in the South.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Recital for Beethoven Society

I accompanied soprano Vicky Schubert at the monthly concert of the Beethoven Society of Melrose in a program of French music:

  • "Chanson d'amour," Gabriel Fauré
  • "Aurore," Fauré
  • "En prière," Fauré
  • "Sérénade," Charles Gounod
  • "Je t'aime," Oscar Straus

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Shape-note singing and complementary medicine, part 3

Part 3 of a series. See part 1 and part 2.

Other ways in which shape-note music is an "alternative choral music":

Lack of a concept of blend. People who hear shape-note singing for the first time probably react first to the raucous sound, when compared to "classical" choral singing. Some shape-note singers indeed sing very loudly, but it is a misconception to think of the difference just as more volume. The timbre of a shape-note singing group is more complex because it is deliberately unblended. Individual voices can often be heard in the mix, in part because each voice has its own signature of upper partials.

Again making a comparison with the organ, it is a bit like drawing all of the 8' stops at the same time, so that principals, flutes, and reeds all sound together. The result is loud, but not in the same way that a plenum of 8', 4', and 2' principals is loud. Rather, the loudness comes from the simultaneous sounding of different timbres that do not blend together into a single whole. (The tradeoff is less clarity of sound than the usual practice of using a single collection of 8', 4', and 2' stops, plus mixtures.)

Here is what the hymn tune ST. THOMAS (found in The Sacred Harp but also in most mainline hymnals) sounds like with this treatment. I am playing it on a Rodgers digital organ with the following registration:

  • Great: Principal 8, Trompette 8, Rohrflöte 8
  • Choir: Spitzgeigen 8, Holzgedeckt 8, Cromorne 8
  • Swell: Geigen Principal 8, Bourdon 8, Hautbois 8, Trompette 8
  • Pedal: Principal 8, Gedeckt 8, Trompette 8
  • Choir to Great, Swell to Great, Great to Pedal





How do you decide what pitch to start at? The culture of Western art music has gradually evolved a practice in which pitches notated on paper are supposed to correspond to specific physical pitches. Though there is disagreement on exactly what the reference pitch is, setting the pitch A4 to 440 cycles per second is widely adopted in the United States.

In shape-note music, there is no external reference pitch, and each song is pitched according to the needs of the moment (how high the song is notated, what kinds of singers are present, what time of day it is, and so forth). In theory, a cappella choral singing can also adopt this attitude toward pitch, but in practice I have found that choral directors almost always tune their choirs to a tuning fork or a keyboard. If singers struggle with a certain choral work, why not just stop, say "Let's start again with C a little higher," sound the note, and give it a try? First make sure that none of your singers have perfect pitch, though!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shape-note singing and complementary medicine, part 2

(Part 2 of a series. See part 1.)

Other ways in which shape-note singing is an "alternative choral music":

Independence of parts. In most pieces within the shape-note tradition, the three or four voice parts are independent melodies. Each line is interesting by itself, and it may not be constrained by the other lines. For example, it's possible to have a a piece where each vocal part simultaneously reaches the top of its tessitura, or one where the parts cross freely. The resulting polyphonic texture has a constant fluctuation of intensity, even if the piece is sung at the same volume throughout.

In Supply Belcher's 1794 composition An Anthem of Praise (not originally a shape-note publication, but now found in the modern shape-note collection The Norumbega Harmony) there is a passage where the treble and tenor parts sing the same melody as a canon at the unison. It is marked "duetto" in Belcher's original score, and it may have been intended for two soloists.

This independence of lines is characteristic of European choral music of the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 19th century it was old-fashioned, which was why the European-trained American musicians of the era disdained it so much. But from the standpoint of today, there is much to disdain in 19th century choral music, which often sacrifices the integrity of the line to create rich vertical harmonies. While these harmonies can sound ravishing to the passive audience, it is alienating to the individual singer to become merely a speck of paint on a large canvas. And the only way to make such chordal writing interesting is for a conductor to impose changes in volume, much like an organist pumping the swell pedal (or, worse, the crescendo pedal) back and forth. This is very easy to overdo. Shape-note singing introduces us to a different aesthetic, at once more participatory and less sentimental.

The early American and shape-note repertories have their own delights, but they also can be a good stepping stone to the works of Tallis, Byrd, and Palestrina, for church choirs accustomed to singing chordal SATB music. Getting inside this repertory requires first unlearning a chordal, homophonic, expressive approach to part-writing, and then learning a linear, polyphonic, architectural approach.

Doubling of parts. In shape-note singing as practiced today, men and women sing both the tenor and treble parts, doubling the part at the octave as needed. In the Belcher example above, for example, a modern shape-note singing class would (ideally) have equally matched sections on each part, with each section containing both men and women. This is another practice that goes against common-practice European music because of its fundamental rule against parallel octaves.

But looked at another way, is it much different when an organist selects both 8' and 4' stops to accompany a hymn? The hymn melody is heard both at concert pitch and an octave higher, but the ear does not hear two different parts in parallel. Rather, the ear hears a single melody with more intensity and richness. Likewise, a vocal part doubled at the octave in a polyphonic texture can achieve this quality.

And from a practical standpoint, the ability to change octaves when necessary is a boon to the singer with a limited vocal range, who otherwise would not be able to participate in choral music.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Shape-note singing and complementary medicine (part 1)

Since September of 2011, I have been serving in my first permanent position as a church music director for the First Congregational Church of Melrose, Massachusetts. This is a new chapter in my career, but it draws upon my earlier experiences.

In my earlier studies as an ethnomusicologist, I did field research with shape-note singers, then with choral singers. The former, partly because of their outsider status rooted in rural Southern culture, are a more typical subject matter for ethnomusicologists and folklorists than the latter.

Now I find myself employed at a small suburban church within a historically liberal denomination most associated with New England and the Midwest. In this setting, do I look toward the outsiders, the shape-note singers, for models? Or do I look toward the choral singing that is favored at university schools of music?

I look toward both, and I am finding that I am not the only one to do so.

Sometimes I think of shape-note singing as an "alternative choral music," in the same way that chiropractic care is an "alternative medicine." And just as some physicians are becoming more open to so-called "alternative" care (thereby redefining what the "mainstream" is), likewise many church musicians have been influenced by shape-note singers. The shape-note singing community, like chiropractic, keeps alive memories of past persecution by the establishment. But the reality today is more nuanced than these histories would indicate. Just as some now refer to alternative therapies as "complementary medicine," enriching but not replacing allopathic medicine, likewise I value shape-note singing as "complementary choral singing" that forces us to confront many fundamental questions about how to make music.

How are the singers arranged? Choral directors disagree on where singers of each part should be placed (or even if the parts should be scrambled throughout the group). Shape-note singing offers a radical alternative: seat each part together, but facing inward in a square toward the center. In the center of the square, all four parts are heard with equal intensity. This strategy is not possible in most churches, which have a designated space in the front or the back for the choir to sit. But if your singers are well rehearsed, why not try scattering some of them around the perimeter of the space? Someday I may try this in the hexagonal sanctuary at First Congregational.

(Photo: A rare overhead view of a Sacred Harp singing convention, taken at the New England Sacred Harp Convention in Byfield, Massachusetts, in 2009.)

Who is the leader? Mainstream choral singing, like other ensemble work in the Western art music tradition, assumes that one person is the leader and the others are followers. Shape-note singing has leaders, too, but the position of leader rotates among as many people who are willing to take the role. (In the above photo, there are actually two leaders in the center of the square, an unusual occurrence.)

(Part 1 of a series to be continued.)