Sunday, December 18, 2011

Carol Singing School

Ever since we started leading congregational singing at Ashland First I have wanted to have a "singing school." Singing schools were a regular feature of American Protestant churches in the 19C. The idea was to improve the quality of a congregation's singing and sell the self-published songbooks of  the many itinerant singing masters.

A few of these songbooks became famous, notably The Sacred Harp (1844). This songbook used a system of notation that used shapes to represent the relative intervals of notes. These were then sung in the "Fa So, La" scale. It sounds complicated, but the underlying idea was that regular people could learn to sing hymns in three and four part harmony.

The fact that there are "Sacred Harp" and "Shape Note" singing groups still in existence suggests they were on to something. If you go to a one of these "sings" you will notice that the singers are not arranged like a choir; instead they sit in a hollow square formation with each section facing the middle. There is no audience, only congregation. These sings often take place over a whole day with the singers breaking for dinner on the grounds. You can get a sense of this tradition from the trailer to the amazing documentary Awake My Soul.

Sacred harp singing is now divorced from regular Sunday worship as the hymnody is  no longer sung in services. I wanted to reconnect the idea of the congregation singing in harmony with  the hollow square, the singing school and food!

Christmas seemed like the perfect time to introduce this experiment. This Sunday we held our first Carol Singing School. We had about 25 adults stay after church for a pot luck lunch and then Libby (my wife and personal choir director) led us through Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and (by special request) Angels We have Heard on High. We will be singing these carols next weekend -- it will be interesting to see if we can hear any harmonies coming from the congregation.
The participants expressed their enjoyment so I think we can say that the Easter Singing School will be coming our way before too long.


There has been plenty of singing already this Advent. Here is the congregation singing Come Thou Long Expected Jesus on December 4. The thumping noise is my right foot and the awesome fiddling is thanks to Mary Kettering (no one used microphones).

Merry Christmas!