Shape-note singers host public “singing school”

Madlin Mekelburg

The Shape-note singing student organization hosted a public singing session Saturday to introduce the tradition of shape-note singing to students and the general public. 

Shape-note singing, also known as Sacred Harp singing, dates back to colonial times and involves large groups of people gathering to sing hymns and anthems without any previous rehearsal. The music, featured in “The Sacred Harp” book that most groups use, is written in shape-note symbols where shapes represent each degree of a scale.  

Ben Copenhaver, Shape-note president and mechanical engineering graduate student, said unlike traditional music, the focus of these events is the singers’ interaction with the music rather than the audiences’. 

“The whole idea is that [shape-note singing] is very beginner-friendly,” Copenhaver said. “From its inception, it was a tradition that was geared towards amateurs. Pretty much the only requirement is that [the singers] enjoy doing it.”

The public singing session allowed those in attendance to have their first taste of shape-note singing. The student organization was created 2012.

“This meeting is [like] a singing school,” Copenhaver said. “This is the thing that the whole tradition grew out of. People would go around holding singing schools in frontier towns as a community event to help people learn how to sing.”

Sociology junior Annie Fichtner said she attended the public singing session with no previous experience. 

“I was studying in the Union and I heard some singing,” Fichtner said. “I recognized it from the soundtrack to the movie ‘Cold Mountain.’ I just kind of wandered in, and I’m really glad that I did.”

Despite the varying ranges of experience of those in attendance, Copenhaver said that the most important factor is that everyone enjoys themselves. 

“We don’t rehearse, we don’t perform and we are not a choir,” Copenhaver said. “From the outside, it may sound bad — it probably does — but that’s not what it’s about. You just sing and have fun. That’s what makes it enjoyable.”

J.T. Harechmak, a local shape-note singing enthusiast, said the public singing session was only a sampling of what typically happens at shape-note singing meetings. 

“The point of [shape-note singing] is to go sing with a whole bunch of people,” Harechmak said. “We usually get like 100 people in a room and it’s deafening. It also just feels really great. If I miss a week or two, I’ll really feel it. When you sing at the top of your lungs for two hours with a bunch of people in the same room, your body really resonates.”