There is a group that sings in the Lawrenceville School’s Edith Chapel that looks and sounds like a regular church choir at first glance. A traditional church choir sings four-part hymns and anthems, and so does the Lawrenceville group.
That is where the similarities end.
The group singing at Edith Chapel—Shape Note Princeton—practices Sacred Harp singing. Sacred Harp is associated with “shape note singing” because instead of traditional musical notations, singers use shapes to help with sight reading. They use four shapes—fa, sol, la and mi—in place of notes. When gathering, they first sing the notes by name, and then sing the same song with the words. The note names of fa, sol and la repeat as they go up the scale, ending with a half-step named mi.
It sounds more complicated than it is.
Unlike many choirs that form rows and face an audience when singing, Sacred Harp singers form a “hollow square” shape—one voice part represents each side of the square, with everyone facing one another. They do not have a separate seating area for audiences, and although visitors may sit where they want, they are also encouraged to participate.
Sacred Harp singers point out they are not recreating or reenacting concerts—instead, they set out to keep the musical tradition alive.
The name “Sacred Harp” stems from “The Sacred Harp,” the red, oblong book used by most singers. It was first published in 1844. The most recent volume, published in 1991, has more than 500 songs in it. According to fasola.org, the term “refers to the human voice—that is, the musical instrument you were given at birth.” The group also uses “the beige book,” entitled, “The Shenandoah Harmony.” There is overlap between the two volumes. Plus, new songs are always being written.
Shape Note Princeton, which was founded seven years ago, meets on the third Sunday of every month from 12:30 to 3:15 in the afternoon. Merry Martin, a Lawrence resident, is the newest member of the group. She remembers seeing the movie Cold Mountain and being drawn to the singing style in a scene that takes place in a church. It turns out, it was Sacred Harp. “They were singing ‘Going Home.’ It caught my interest,” she said. “As a musician, I put it in my memory bank. When I saw an article about [Sacred Harp], I decided to sit down and sight read.”
Rachel Speer, one of the Shape Note Princeton regulars, describes Scared Harp singers as a “decentralized group. We all take turns choosing songs,” she said. “The process is democratic. Someone decides what to sing, they set the key, and how fast [as determined by their hand motions], which verses you want to sing and whether or not you want to sing the repeats.” In other words, they have no leader, and there is no standard key for each song. They sing to eliminate “squeaking and grumping,” so that everyone is comfortable while singing, said Leon Pulsinelle, a member and Titusville resident.
It can be confusing at first, though, said Martin. “They have all of the notes, but some notes repeat names,” she said. “Marilyn [Riley] came to my house and showed me how it is done.”
Riley, also from Lawrence, notes the people who have the hardest time with this type of singing “know do, re, mi and have perfect pitch. We don’t sing at concert pitch. We sing at pitch of convenience,” she said.
Martin added that the words don’t always line up with the notes on the staff. Sight reading is difficult, and it can be hard to read the music even after you’ve become familiar with the tune. It’s almost easier to memorize a piece, she said.
Riley, a 64-year-old retired state Department of Health public information officer, had similar thoughts when she first discovered Sacred Harp singing in the ’70s. She lived in Michigan at the time, and while there, a friend invited her to try it out. It was fun, she said, and the music was intriguing, but she found it challenging and dropped it after a couple of sessions.
Six years ago, though, she wanted to get involved with an activity or two after her daughter, Julia Seidenstein, left for college. Interestingly enough, Seidenstein sings with shape note groups in Washington, D.C., where she currently lives, and joins Shape Note Princeton for sessions when she’s home.
“For some reason, Sacred Harp singing popped into my head,” she said. “A quick internet search revealed that singing group met monthly a mile from my house. I liked the group, still liked the music and now had more time to devote to it.”
Aside from playing the violin for a couple of years in grade school, Riley didn’t have much musical training prior to joining Shape Note Princeton. Repetition, she said, has been the best way for her to learn. She often sings along with online videos of other groups’ performances.
“The shape notes are designed to help when you don’t read music, but I still felt lost for awhile,” she said. “Fortunately, the group was very welcoming and uncritical, so I just kepy plugging away at it every month.”
There is no audition process. Everyone is welcome to join. On Sept. 17, the day before their next local gathering, Shape Note Princeton will join area singers in New York City for an all-day sing expected to draw about 100 people. Regular monthly sessions draw between five and 20 people. Details about the event are online at nycsacredharp.org.
The group periodically meets in members’ homes for singing and extended fellowship in the form of a meal. Last month, 12 people gathered at one member’s Princeton home, including Nancy Mandel, who traveled from New York City, and Dee Michel who was visiting from Massachusetts, where he has been singing with the Northampton Sacred Harp group since 1980.
Sacred Harp is an intergenerational group. Some have been participating in Sacred Harp groups for decades—some, like Riley, have been familiar with the art for decades, while others, such as Alex DiDonato from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, are in their 20s and are new to both the form and the group.
DiDonato has been attending since January. “In high school, I knew singing. I could sight read,” he said. After hearing a Philadelphia-based band called Without You do Sacred Harp singing, he decided to give it a try. In recent years, he had been performing with some contemporary Christian bands.
“I find this [Sacred Harp music] to be richer in content,” he said. “It is all voices, no instruments. They face each other. It is different from regular church singing. I was blown away by the lyrics and content.”
Sacred Harp music includes a lot of songs about loss and grief, as well as praise. “The songs provide for the whole spectrum of emotions. They don’t shy away from topics that are hard.” There are a lot of songs dealing with death, Mandel said.
Speer added that one of her favorite parts of the all-day sings are the memorial lessons. “It is a time to remember and sing for those who can’t be there because they are sick, or have died within the past year, or are tending to shut-ins,” she said. “It can be weird or off-putting at first. They read a list of names. That feels like the heart of what it means to be part of a community. We know each other, and care for each other. When my dad died, I heard his name for a year and had people hug me and ask how we are doing. It gave me a focus for our grief.”
Last year, Oliver Kindig-Stokes, 22 and a member of the group, died in a car crash. The community remembers him at events.
“When we as a community lose someone, singing is a safe place, a specialized place. We open up to what is important in our lives,” Speer said.
Though Sacred Harp singing has roots in the Protestant tradition, the group leaves religion and politics at the door. There is no preaching at the events. Some feel the singing is “a sincere form of worship, others come for the community, which they keep separate from religion,” Speer said. There is no “litmus test” to join. Members do not need to be of a certain faith or any faith. All are welcome.
Shape Note Princeton meets the third Sunday of each month at The Lawrenceville School’s Edith Chapel. Their next gathering will be from 12:30 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. on Sept. 18. For more information, call (609) 896-8094 or (609) 730-8271 or visit their website.