Shape Note Singing: Is It Good For Your Health?
April 26, 2010
At the weekend, I had my first exposure to shape note singing (also known as "sacred harp singing") -- an American a cappella singing tradition which took off in the mid-19th century in the church tradition.
The all-day Bay Area shape note singing convention drew about 100 people to a small church hall in downtown Berkeley.
The thing about this music is that it's so ardent and powerful that regardless of whether you pay attention to the churchy lyrics or not, you cannot help but get sucked in by the fervor and sheer volume of the singing.
For the entire six hours of music-making (combined with a bit of eating and socializing) we all sang at the very tops of our lungs. As is typical of this style of music, every song was sung at a bracing fortissimo. You have to have good support for your voice or you will seriously blow out your pipes.
This happened to my friend Greg, a shape note singing aficionado, who has an amazing voice (one of the finest in the room) but hasn't quite learned to practice his art from his diaphragm. Greg cheerfully admits to losing his voice after every shape note singing event he attends. He's got a bit of a cough and I've basically lost my voice entirely. I sound huskier than Carla Bruni. My excuse? I went into the convention with a bad cold. The experience of singing this music made me so euphoric that I belted my way through the day despite a sore throat and low energy. And now I'm paying the price! It was worth it though.