Spivey Hall hosts shape-note singing school

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Curt Yeomans


So, here is a little bit of trivia for all of the music buffs out there. What sounds are represented by musical notes that are shaped like triangles, circles, squares or diamonds?

Here is a hint: Take the song "Do-Re-Mi" from "The Sound of Music," and drop "Do," "Re," and "Ti." What is left are the four sounds that correspond with the odd-shaped musical notes.

Well, if anyone guessed triangles are for "Fa," circles equal "Sol," squares represent "La," and diamonds signify "Mi," then they would be correct.

Just over a dozen "students," some of whom are choir singers, and others, music teachers, spent Friday participating in a class on how to do Sacred Harp/shape-note singing, at Clayton State University's Spivey Hall. Class instructor, Richard DeLong, the executive secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, which produces a book of shape-note songs, said the singing style is one of the oldest in the United States.

"The Southern people have been preserving this way of singing since the early 1800's," said DeLong. "Families have passed it down to their children, who in turn, passed it down to their children, and it's lived on through the generations that way."

The shape-note experience will continue today at Spivey Hall with a large, group, shape-note-singing session, and potluck luncheon, from 10 a.m., to 4 p.m. Spivey Hall Education Manager Catherine Striplin said approximately 60 shape-note singers, from throughout the Southeast, are expected to participate in what can be described as a large, group jam session.

"It's a big community meeting of shape-note singers, who come together, with a covered dish, and they sing some songs together," Striplin said. "Then, they break for lunch, and go out into the lobby to eat, and it's just fried chicken and casserole all the way."

Shape-note singing gets its name from the musical notes, DeLong said, because of the fact that they are in different shapes attached to staffs, instead of the more commonly known traditional musical notes that are just ovals hanging from staffs.

The songs that are sung using shape notes are hymnal-type songs, according to DeLong, but he added that the style pre-dates gospel music by as much as 100 years. He said the shapes date back to the 1790's, when a music book, called, "The Easy Instructor" was published. The shapes were designed to give people a visual connection to a sound, so it would be easier for them to know what notes to sing, he added. "The shapes are what made it easy," DeLong said.

Striplin said that when the shape-note singers converge on Spivey Hall today, they will be arranged in four boxes, in a checkerboard pattern on the concert hall's stage. She said, with that many people together at one time, "it's just about the power of your voice. It's a strong wall of sound."

But, it was not as easy as flipping on a light switch for the people who participated in the class, on Friday. Rome resident, Sam Simon, a music teacher at Cartersville-based Excel Christian Academy, said he was having to get used to a whole new way of reading sheet music, during the class.

"It is a little different, but it's fun," Simon said. "It's just a different way of doing it. It takes a little bit of getting used to, because you're trying to remember which syllable goes with which shape."

The music had its fans, though, and not just because it was a different way of singing a song. "It's emotional, but never sentimental," said Clayton State Adjunct Professor of Music Daniel Pyle, a class participant.

"It has a depth, and meaning to it, because their experiences in life were not all television, and movies, and fluffy pillows, and 'Oh no, the water heater is broken tonight,'" said class participant, Oreta Taylor.

"It's more 'Do we have enough food to get through the winter?'" Pyle added.