My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody. Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.
"What is most moving about "Awake, My Soul", however, is the singers themselves who wear their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to the songs they sing. These singers are surprisingly articulate, deeply thoughtful and often very funny individuals who are passionate about Sacred Harp singing."--From "Awake my Soul," a documentary about Sacred Harp (shape note) singing.
When it comes to interesting historical bits and pieces, I am normally first in line to learn about it. But I must have been hiding behind the barn, smokin' a corn silk cigarette, when someone was telling about shape note singing, one of America's oldest forms of Christian music.
I first heard of it on our Diocesan web page, on our Bishop's biography. Then I discovered a pathology colleague of mine is also a practitioner of that musical art. For some odd reason, I kinda went, "Oh, ok," and never followed up on it. That is kind of unusual for me--generally, when I discover something I don't know, I want to know more immediately. But as I tell the story, I think I know why it didn't register.
What I have discovered from watching the trailer above and viewing a few YouTube tracks, is this is one of those things where, "Ya gotta do it to 'get' it." I am absolutely convinced I need to attend one of these. But what seems interesting on first glance, is I can sense potential overlaps with same kind of experiences I have with Taizé.
I've blogged many times about how when the weather starts to get good enough to sit outside in the evenings, I often sit by my chiminea and listen to Taizé podcasts from the Taizé community in France and sing along and simply "be in the middle of it," in a virtual sense. I've also blogged about how much I enjoy the Taizé services we do once a month at Trinity-Kirksville. The "live" version always has a wonderful spiritual intensity for me that the "virtual" version approaches, but never quite reaches.
What I've learned from my Taizé experiences is there is this wonderful detachment from "self" in the singing of certain forms of music that speak to our souls. That quote above about the Sacred Harp singers "wearing their hearts on their sleeves as they sing" tells me that the people who participate in this kind of singing also experience some form of detaching from self and attaching to God in the practice.
What is particularly interesting to me is that, like Taizé, the experience is designed so that no one person becomes the permanently designated "leader." In Taizé, the service is set up so that the voices, the people contribute but are not the "centerpiece" of the service; the light and candles become the centerpiece. In Sacred Harp singing, people take turns being the "leader," because really, the "centerpiece" of the experience is the center of the "hollow square" or "singing square." It's common to let a newcomer or visitor occupy the center, alongside the "leader," rather than out to the side, like an "audience." As my pathologist friend remarked, "Even the most skeptical among us believe the space (in the center) has healing powers."
But what is most fascinating to me in Sacred Harp is how, unlike "performance" music, the main purpose of the group appears to be to "sing to each other," and simply be in the middle of "what it becomes." When singing a piece, the four sets of voices--soprano, alto, tenor, bass--are absorbed in their part, which, in itself could function as a "stand-alone" piece. (Incidentally, the four parts in Handel's "Messiah" are set up in much the same way for several pieces.) The shape notes aid in sight reading, even if the person doesn't do conventional music reading well. The pieces don't appear to be "learned" in the conventional sense; it appears to me the major way to teach a newcomer is to plop them in with the others and basically start following them.
Also, unlike "performance" music, it all seems upside down about what voices "carry" the piece. What pieces I've listened to on YouTube, it seems the tenor voices tend to carry the piece, and the sopranos float in and out like an angelic presence. When one is used to hearing sopranos carrying a "church music" piece, this is a huge flip-flop (and honestly, for me, as a person who mostly is in the tenor range, kind of exciting!)
As I listen to the various YouTubes of this kind of singing, what I really come away with is that each get-together of shape note singers, is, in its own way, Eucharistic. Every singing of any particular song in the hymnbook is similar, yet unique. Styles and improvisations vary by region and community, although the book (like our Book of Common Prayer) is standardized.
But like the Eucharist, the real meat, the real truth of the experience is not in any of these things; it is in the "now" of it. "Now" and "as it has been in the past," touch noses. "Now" and "not yet" coexist in the same space. It is not the same without each individual singer, but no one person is indispensable in the process; it will happen with or without that one person, but without that one person, it won't be the same. The "sacrament," as it were, is the representation of Christ in the form of the unique song created at that moment. Just as we reach with our individual hands for the bread and wine that is both "us" and "bigger than us," to place in our bodies through our mouth, in all forms of "holy singing," we reach out with our individual voices to take in a song through our ears that is both "us" and "bigger than us."
Which makes me wonder...as we track back to the Psalms, is this what the Psalmist meant about awakening our souls through song? That, although we might memorize our holy songs alone, and practice our holy songs alone, ultimately, their power lies in singing them with others. We become bigger than ourselves through the act of singing.
What is it about the sung voice that unlocks a different dimension in our interactions with God and with the world?
I think about how singing has a neurology all its own. It removes stammers from stutterers, opens new pathways to stroke victims, unlocks bits of memory in people with dementia. It is as if singing comes from a deeper place within us--a place where we hear the harmony in the universe. What would happen in our prayer lives if we could connect our neurons to our souls in that way on a regular basis? More importantly, what would it unlock in our desires to seek and serve Christ? I suppose the answer is, "start singing, and find out."