Hitting The Right Note

Hitting The Right Note

Old-time singing school this weekend in Springdale



The Northwest Arkansas Sacred Harp Singers will hold an old-time gospel singing school from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Shiloh Meeting Hall in downtown Springdale.

Sacred Harp is a method of a capella shape-note singing, following in the tradition brought to the United States from England. The tradition traveled west with the settlers to the Ozark Mountains, said Susan Young, outreach coordinator for the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale. The tradition was probably popular among the Primitive Baptists, who populated the area.

“Sacred Harp singing is full of history and tradition that dates back to the 1700s,” said Syd Caldwell, a member of the Singers. “In the songbooks we use, each note on the musical scale is represented by a different geometric shape. In the old days, this was an easy way to teach folks how to read music.”

The Sacred Harp, 1991 Revision proclaims itself “the best collection of sacred songs, hymns, odes and anthems ever offered to the singing public for general use.”

The Sacred Harp songbook was first published in 1844 in Georgia by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King.


The hallmark of Sacred Harp singing are the four, simple, easy-to-remember shape notes. Most other traditions today use seven.

Fa is presented on a staff with the shape of a triangle, like a flag, Stanley Smith explained in a previous story. Sol is a circle like the sun. La is a square, formed by putting two Ls together, and Mi is a diamond.

“Ladies never have trouble learning Mi,” Smith joked. “It’s ‘Mi want diamonds.’

“You don’t have to be a music scholar.”

“You learn to sing by shape notes,” said Robert Vaughn, who came from Oak Flat, Texas, to lead a previous singing school. “With the (primary) shapes, you can see where you’re going. The round shapes of regular notes most people have to translate.”

As the Sacred Harp tradition gained enthusiasts, singing schools came to rural towns and churches. “One or two weeks in the area, and they turned out singers,” Vaughn said. “Then they could go into the community and teach other folks to sing.”

“It was a blessing for anybody as opposed to having to go somewhere to learn,” Smith added. “You could look at the notes and do it yourself.”

Although Vaughn was the leader of the 2015 singing school, he was joined by other teachers Dan Brittain of Harrison and Smith of Ozark, Ala., who both came just to sing.

“Sacred Harp is different than church choirs and quartets,” Vaughn continued.

Singers sit in a square, facing each other, with different parts — tenor, bass, alto and treble — assigned to individual sides. The leader stands in the middle, facing the tenor section.

Those who don’t know where their voices fit are encouraged to sit in the tenor section. “It’s informal,” Brittain said. “Just come on in and take a spot.

“No one is going to tell you what to do,” he continued with a joke for those newcomers lost in the unfamiliar notes.

The lessons of this local singing school started with class members singing the scales. Through this, they learned the intervals between the notes were the same. “The difference is the same every time,” Vaughn said.

“You can practice singing the scales while you are driving around in your car,” Brittain said.


The lessons moved on to concepts like key, pitch and timing — perhaps a bit much for those starting out and unfamiliar with reading music. But all skill levels are eligible.

The Shiloh Sacred Harp Singers greeted everyone personally — some friends from previous events and others who had been participating in Sacred Harp “for about 10 minutes,” one participant noted.

“Some are spiritual, and some are not,” added Bonnie Woods of Fayetteville.

“We want to be sure you feel welcome,” Brittain said — even poor singers.

“Find someone to sit next to — someone who knows what they’re doing. You’ll get it,” Smith added.

“Pitch is relative,” said Woods, an accomplished vocalist. “You have to rethink it — it’s a good brain exercise. But you don’t have to worry about it. The voices just seem to blend.”

“If you make a mistake, someone covers you up,” said Andrew Albers of Valley Springs. “You don’t have the pressure of performing for an audience …”

… Because there is none.

“It’s not set up for an audience. It’s just set up for singing,” Vaughn said. “We are singing to each other and to God. It makes a beautiful choir.”

When a group of Sacred Harp singers open their mouths, they sing loudly, they admit. “We’re not trying to outdo the others,” Vaughn said. “But you want to sing out where people can hear you and you can hear yourselves.”

“In Sacred Harp singing, loud is usually good and louder is better,” reads a FAQ document provided by Vaughn. “This is partly because of the music’s origins as a true folk music, sung by ordinary people for pleasure and worship, and partly because loud singing provides more catharsis, more instant gratification, more visceral pleasure, than controlled singing.”

“I enjoy it because I can open my mouth and sing out, proclaiming my faith to God,” said Chris Nicholson, who came to the singing from Galveston Island in Texas. “It’s a grand song as it comes from my mouth and travels along my body to roll out the toes. It’s wonderful to be able to make that sound to praise God.”

(A version of this story written by Laurinda Joenks originally appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after a previous singing school.)



Sacred Harp Singers

Singing School

WHEN — 6:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 25


Old-Fashioned Singing Convention

WHEN — 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Oct. 26 with a potluck dinner at noon

WHERE — Shiloh Meeting Hall in downtown Springdale

COST — Free

INFO — Shiloh Museum at 750-8165

Categories: Music