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Archive for March, 2011

This coming weekend, March 12 and 13, is the annual Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention (“wmshc”) to be held in Northampton, Mass.

Some of you may notice that periodically there are references to Sacred Harp and/or Shape Note music or lyrics in my posts.

I first heard of Shape Note singing many years ago from a friend back in Kent, Ohio. When I moved to Western Mass in 2000, I saw a sign about shape note singing. It made a vague impression, but I was too new to the area and too busy with other things to pay it much heed, so it went into the hopper for later retrieval.

After seeing the movie “Cold Mountain,” I was finally ready to find out more and to commit to learning how to sing the music whose sound struck something old and deep in me.

Fortunately, there is a weekly Sacred Harp sing just 15 minutes from my house. Had this been a monthly sing, I have no doubt that I would never have been able to learn it. (My training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique also helped me tremendously and ties for the reason I was able to stick with the music).

This is a video I return to on occasion when I want to hear a really fine example of Shape Note/Sacred Harp music. There is much to recommend it: the boy’s consistent leading (ie, the boy’s got rhythm and he knows how to use it), his ability to connect with the different harmonic sections by turning his body and gaze, his lack of self-consciousness.

On a more personal note, this is one of the first songs I ever led and it continues to speak to me and to resonate within me. Its lyrics are an example of one of the many ways that Sacred Harp music beckons and pulls at my being in spite of its solidly Christian roots. The words speak of a passion for something in the afterlife which I experience on a regular basis as a craving in the here and now.

Another note: you will rarely, if ever, hear applause after a Sacred Harp song (more on that below), but I think this unusually large group of singers could not contain their pleasure and appreciation for so young and excellent a song leader.

I know that there might be questions: What is Shape Note music? What is Sacred Harp music? Are they the same? Why do you sometimes capitalize Shape Note, sometimes not? Why is this boy in the middle of the singers? Is this a choir? Why is everyone raising and lowering their hands? What are the sounds they are all making before they sing the words?

For me, the most important things I’ve learned are the following (keep in mind that I know far less than many of the people who sing shape note music):

“Shape Note” can refer to both a type of musical notation as well as a style of singing. The Sacred Harp, on the other hand, is a hymnal and it uses 4 (fa-sol-la-mi) of 7 possible shapes. There are other hymnals with 7 shapes (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti) and you may find the shapes in secular music as well.

Although I don’t usually see this word used to describe it, Sacred Harp is a perfect example of congregational music. Congregational music is sung by the congregation, not by the choir. It is for the people to sing, regardless of ability, vocal quality, sense of rhythm. I have heard it referred to as “communal” music, and this is just another way of saying that it is not sung by the choir. It also tells you something of its history.

Its congregational nature is also why Sacred Harp music is not sung as performance. That is not to say that you won’t hear it performed, but that is not its purpose. Again, by the people, for the people.

Calling Sacred Harp music “congregational” might lead to the impression that it is only sung in church and by church folk. While this was traditionally the case, it is not so nowadays for many people, yours truly included.

If this piques your interest and the sound leaves you craving more, check out the Convention in Noho this weekend. Better yet, find a regular sing close to where you live and keep coming back.

I’m fettered and chained up in clay,

I struggle and pant to be free

I long to be soaring away,

My God and my Savior to see.

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On the last Friday in May 2010, I was able to accompany and photograph Hartsbrook’s 8th Grade students during their final Agricultural Arts class.

It is customary for each Hartsbrook class to begin a study of Beekeeping with Nicki Robb in the fall of the 8th Grade year.

Beekeeping is a complex art, combining ancient farming techniques and the science of keen observation with a deep understanding of what is natural to the bee. The beekeeper must become a steward of nature in order to reap the benefits of the hive in the form of that most sensuous and mysterious of substances, honey.

The weather on this particular day was the best of the week, not as hot as it had been earlier, but sunny with a slight breeze. The beginning of beekeeping class found the 14 students donning their bee-proof Tyvec suits. After this somewhat elaborate ritual, they followed Ms. Robb to the hives at the back of the campus. The 8th Graders were instructed to be as still and quiet as possible and to approach the hives only from the back in order to avoid interfering with the flight path of the bees. In groups of 3 or 4, the students carefully removed the cinder block weights from the tops of the boxes. Having been taught to listen to the sound of the bees’ humming in order to assess the mood of the hive, the teenagers were transformed from chatty and excited to quiet almost immediately. Next, they carefully pried up the frames to observe the combs: to see if there was honey, to observe its color and quality, and to notice if any chains had been created. After their observations were complete, the frames and boxes were put back in reverse order. A final “bee check” with a brush was performed on each student and the space-age suits were stripped off with happiness and relief.

Having never been near a living hive of honeybees, I was in a state of awe for the 45 minutes or so that we spent there. Time was suspended in the sunshine and whispering breeze of the morning. The frames oozed with a liquid, golden light. I was never afraid of being stung, but rather soothed by the hum and buzz all around us. Nicki stood in front of the boxes and I was astonished at the hundreds of bees flying halo-like around her, to and from the hives, both as if none of us existed, but also as if they were there simply for our pleasure and beholding.

After I removed my own bee suit, I spent some time in the Great Room looking over the class’ final work displays—the material “honey” of 8 years of a Hartsbrook education.

I spent about an hour paging through Main Lesson books, poring over poems about the animals of Africa, reading about the properties of light and atmosphere, drinking in the splendor and colors of dozens of watercolor paintings, and admiring the wooden toys and handmade dolls. I was amazed at the material declaration of knowledge and beauty and at the incredible amount of industry that went in to each child’s work. It is more than I can contain in my mind at once even now.

When I ventured back to join the class, they were gathered in the shade of a huge tree, listening dreamily to Ms. Robb. Once her lecture was complete, Nicki asked the group which of Hartsbrook’s resident farm animals they would most like to visit for the remainder of the time. The resounding answer was, to my surprise, “THE GOATS!” The 8th Graders rarely, if ever, have a chance to visit the animals during the school day and this was obviously a final gift from their teacher.

In the presence of the goats and our resident donkey, Francesca, the class was transformed from a group of sophisticated teenagers into young children again. I watched as their hearts lightened. Tenderness and joy overtook them as they fed, petted, and played with the goats and Francesca.

Hartsbrook’s 8th Grade Class of 2010 had an educational path that was forged by not one, but three, different Class Teachers. This provided them with unusual and unforeseen challenges but also opportunities for flexibility and growth. Ultimately, the situation allowed the class to become intensely bonded to one another and to have a strong spirit of perseverance in the face of external pressures. I thought about this during my final time together with them. This class did become a hive unto itself, as any of its teachers could tell you.

The day was certainly blessed and I knew it was a gift to be in their presence as a group for the last time. While I overreach to apply metaphors, I still have this wish for them: May your days forever ooze with golden honey as you fly from the geometry and industry of your Hartsbrook hive and venture into whatever awaits you.

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