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January 31, 2014

Artisans guild's classes on singing take shape

By Emily F. Popek Assistant Editor
The Daily Star

---- — Starting Monday, area residents can experience the alchemy of an American tradition at a local singing school. 

A school based on the Sacred Harp tunebook will begin Monday at the Catskill Mountain Artisans Guild space in the Margaretville Commons Building, where participants will learn the rudiments of what is sometimes called “shape note” singing. The school will continue throughout the week, ending with a potluck and community sing-along. 

The Margaretville school is the third of its kind to be offered in the area in the past several months, but the tradition of singing schools goes back to the 19th century, and the Sacred Harp songbook is even older. 

Ben Fenton of Fleischmanns, who organized the local singing schools, first heard Sacred Harp singing in the 2003 film “Cold Mountain.” To Fenton, 43, who grew up singing in choirs and taking voice lessons, it was a revelation.

“I thought, ‘That’s amazing stuff; I’ve never heard anything like that before,’” Fenton recalled in a phone conversation on Wednesday. Through the website, Fenton discovered a singing group in Kingston, in Ulster County, and drove down to check it out. As he tells it, he was hooked right away. 

“A lot of people go, and they sing a few times, and forget about it. But I drank the Kool-Aid,” Fenton laughed. “I was sitting in front of YouTube, trying to learn 100 songs in two weeks. I was just obsessed.”

For Fenton, the pull of Sacred Harp singing was multifaceted. Part of it was the unique sound of the music, which has been described as weird, spare, raw, penetrating, haunting, “full-body, shout-it-out singing” (that last from Melissa Block of “All Things Considered”).

“Singing loudly is an integral part,” explained Ben Bath of Red Hook, an ethnomusicologist who teaches the local singing schools. “It’s not overloud, but it’s full singing; strong singing.” 

“It’s got this great push and pull, between the four parts, almost like a chamber music experience,” Fenton explained. “You have this amazing counterpoint, and all the parts get their own chance to shine.”

But if that sounds daunting to anyone without a musical background, it shouldn’t, Fenton explained.

“The rudiments of music in the Sacred Harp songbook demystify music. It pulls back the curtain and makes it so approachable,” Fenton said. “It’s such a different way of teaching music, but, my God, it works! I can’t believe how much I’ve learned about music. It blew my little pea brain away — and this is ... someone who’s sung his whole life.”

At the Kingston group, Fenton met Bath, who has been leading a Sacred Harp group at Bard College for seven years. The two talked about creating a singing group in the Fleischmanns area, but Bath had a better idea. 

“This music was originally spread through these singing schools. So we thought, why don’t we do that and really make this about a community music teaching project?” Bath said by phone on Wednesday. “And I think that’s the best thing to do with this stuff. This music can really build community.”

Todd Pascarella and his wife, Jeanine, are among those who have gotten bit by the Sacred Harp bug. The couple took turns attending singing schools (she in Roxbury, him in Fleischmanns) and now come to Fenton’s bed-and-breakfast in Fleischmanns once a week for a community singing.

“We drag the kids out and everybody gets together and has fun,” Pascarella, 36, said Wednesday.

Pascarella, who is mayor of Fleischmanns and a small-business owner, described the sound of Sacred Harp singing as “old-time pop gospel,” noting that the music’s four-part harmony “is not intricate, it’s not over-the-top; it’s just nice. It adds another layer of sweetness to the music.”

Although Pascarella has a background playing music and singing, he echoed Fenton in insisting that Sacred Harp singing is truly an egalitarian exercise.

“It does take a little bit of effort to get dialed into the system, but it was designed to teach people how to go from knowing nothing to being able to sit around and sing four-part harmony in just a few days,” Pascarella said. 

If that sounds like magic, Ben Bath isn’t going to argue.

“The first time we did the singing school, it was actually, truth be told, astounding to me,” Bath said. “The minute we tried it, it just clicked. There is a certain alchemy to it.”

The singing school will meet from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, culminating with Saturday’s potluck at 5:30. The cost is $35, which includes the Sacred Harp tunebook. To sign up or for more information, contact Fenton at (845) 254-4884 or 

WHY 'SHAPE NOTE' SINGING? The term "shape note" refers to the musical notation used in the Sacred Harp and other tunebooks of the era. Different-shaped note heads were used to correspond to syllables, which in turn correspond to intervals on a scale. Some shape-note singing uses seven shapes, which correspond to the syllables do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti; other systems use only do, re, fa and mi. Each syllable has its own shape, such as a triangle, square or diamond.