Bloomington Sacred Harp

Shape note singing in and around Bloomington, Indiana

Local Paper Features Bloomington Sacred Harp Singing

The following article is posted in full with permission from The Herald-Times. The photos have been added by Aaron.

Oct 21, 2018) Music lovers can shape their weekend around a shape note singing event that’s become a tradition in Bloomington.

Shape note singing also goes by “sacred harp” — referring to the human body (like a harp) as an instrument. Developed in North America from 1770 to the mid 1800s as a way for teachers to instruct students how to read music and sing, it shared a comeback with the revival of folk singing in the 1960s.

Reading music can be difficult, and scores can be exceedingly complicated. Sight singing — picking up a piece of sheet music and immediately trying to grasp the tune, rhythm, key and tempo — is even harder. And for singers, it can be daunting.

“It’s harder to find a note with your voice than with an instrument,” said John Hoerr (pronounced “Hair”), principal software engineer at Indiana University and shape note singer and leader/teacher. Enter shape note singing: This genre uses just a few symbols, like triangles and circles, to denote intervals (the distance between two notes).

William (Bill) Shetter

Bloomington’s shape note singers began mostly with people from music, ethnomusicology or folklore backgrounds, but over the years a broader range of personalities has joined. Bloomington resident William Shetter, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday, organized the first all-day singing event in Bloomington in 2004.

As membership expanded, Hoerr said, two distinct subgroups formed: “One travels to research other groups, while the other stays local.” In early America, most of the participants were music teachers in the Northeast or the South, but today shape note singing is spreading throughout the world.

“I’m dying to go to Ireland (for shape note singing),” he said.

Bloomington’s group uses a four-shape system as well as relative pitch. “People who have perfect pitch (can determine exactly the pitch of any note just by hearing it) — this drives them crazy.”

John Hoerr with shape note singers at the Indiana State Fair

But that’s all right with Hoerr; he explained that the entire point of shape note singing is coming together to enjoy making harmony as a cohesive, friendly group. He stressed that there are no rehearsals or performances or separate seats for an audience, a concept that may sound strange to performers.

“We don’t (usually) sing for a congregation, he said. “We sing for each other.”

And they sing for each other loudly and with verve. In fact the instructions in the tune book encourage full voice and straight (no vibrato) tones.

“In 2010, I was the only person on a part,” he said, the group having starting off small. “We’ve gone from five to 20 in just these eight years.”

The shape note tradition includes all-day singing meetings, usually once a year. The practice endures today, as these song gatherings provide a chance for local vocalists to meet singers from afar, sharing stories, songs and friendship.

Bloomington will offer the 15th Annual All-Day Sacred Harp Singing 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Fairview United Methodist Church. A traditional potluck dinner will be included, and they’ll sing from the 1991 revision of “The Sacred Harp” by B.F. White and E. King.

Aaron Jones

Loaner song books will be available, and participants may make donations to help cover expenses. Local singers are encouraged to bring a dish to share, since a major part of shape note tradition is eating a delicious meal together.

“I first learned about shape note singing when I was in college. And I suppose, like a lot of academic types, I thought I understood and appreciated it through the recordings I heard and by singing it with classically trained singers,” said Aaron Jones, a musician who also works in IT at IU’s Eppley Institute.

Having become involved with the “real thing” only two years ago, he admits his vast error.

“There is just no way to intellectually experience this music,” he said. It would be like claiming you understood some form of traditional dance, without ever participating in a real dance!”

Barb Lund

“I am the group’s chief nag,” said Barb Lund, shape note singer and local potter. Explaining that members come from all kinds of religions — or no religion — and many ethnicities, she said, “Shape note singing is the only thing I proselytize.” Their number one rule, she said, is that no talk of politics or religion shall occur at meetings. “We have farmers, and we have academicians,” she said. “And we all get along. We are lessons in grace.”

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