14 April, 2009

Things I've never done before, week 3

Remember how I said I would be blogging a lot this week? You probably thought that was a joke, didn't you? Boy, you must feel like an IDIOT right about now.

Truly, though, I am going to be quite busy for the next three days, what with finals, study groups, and working at the temple twice (not because of my exceedingly great righteousness, but rather due to an unforeseen scheduling snafu). Anyway, I will be completely preoccupied with things I have done before, which is why I'm getting my goal out of the way early this week. Tonight was a really cool opportunity to do something I have not done before, though had it not been for this goal, I probably wouldn't have gone. Fact: I'm glad I did. Thank you, Preach My Gospel. And thank you, Gordon Rees. Though I doubt he'll ever see this.

Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I went to a Shape Note Singing group. What is that, do you ask? Basically, it's singing out of a hymnal from the 1600s (like the Puritans used) which consists of four-part a capella harmonies that are sung unfathomably loud.

Here is more information if my summary wasn't enough:
An NPR (woooo) piece about its history and preservation efforts.
What looks to be one of the preservation efforts.
The first hit for "sacred harp singing" on google.

Here is what this shiz sounds like:

I know, right? No, seriously. You MUST click on one of these links and listen to this stuff. It's INSANITY. My friend (G.R.) has been going to this singing group for a while now and earlier this week he posted information about the group, which meets once a month, on his facebook status. It happens to meet two blocks from our house, at the local Episcopalian church, which is nice and convenient. I decided that if I had a sufficiently productive day today, my reward to myself would be satisfying my curiosity by showing up to the group after I had dinner with one of my girlfriends. My plan was to sneak in the back and keep a low profile. My further plan was to listen and see what was so great about Sacred Harp Singing that kept people coming back.

There were a few problem with the realization of my goal, namely:

1. Apparently, no one goes to listen to Sacred Harp Singing. I noticed this when I arrived and entered the room. There was no audience. The only person there who wasn't singing was ten months old.
2. Related to this, it is impossible to keep a low profile, both due to the participatory nature of the music and the fact that everyone sits in a circle. There was no back row to sit in. There wasn't even any space to sit outside the circle. I walked into the chapel and sat down in the first chair I saw, between the Catholic-style baptistery and the door. I was a very conspicuous fire hazard. I was also an hour late. Additionally, I stuck out like a sore thumb, because I was not singing.

For the first twenty minutes or so I sat and listened to the music and tried not to feel self-conscious. I liked it. If this kind of music sounds cool on the internet, that's nothing to what it sounds like live. It was really, really cool. I don't understand how they get it to sound like that. Probably has something to do with acoustics that would be way over my head, so after a while I stopped trying to figure it out and just enjoyed it. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love people-watching, and so I also amused myself by craning my neck around and checking out what kind of folks (because they are for sure "folks" rather than plain old "people") attend something like this. There was about an even split between women and men, with the same age range for both genders (my age to early fifties), and everyone looked very "non-denominational." I don't know how else to explain it.

Maybe what I mean by that is the folks there looked like the sort of people who weren't out to impress anyone. Does that make sense? Everyone was singing incredibly loud and some were stomping their feet or conducting to themselves with their hands. Some were doing both. The only person who looked even remotely self-conscious was this one girl who looked about nineteen. She was fidgeting and sang the way one does when one doesn't want to make it obvious one is singing. Little pursed lips, singing out of the corner of her mouth. And she kept looking down and to the side as if she were ashamed. If we had been in some sort of environment like an LDS ward choir, she would have fit right in. But because she was the only one who acted self-conscious, she stood out. How about that?

At one point, it came my turn to pick a song, because they apparently go in a big circle with each person picking a song in succession. Don't ask me why but it seemed very Quaker. Anyway, someone asked me to pick something, and I was so embarrassed I just blushed and said, "Oh, I don't know anything." To which an older man who appeared to be one of the guys in charge quipped, "Oh, and you think we do?" See what I mean? Good people.

Anyway, the group took a 15-minute break and by the time it was over I decided that an important part of trying something new is making a good-faith effort to fit in instead of sitting in the corner and taking notes like a creeper. So I sat down in the alto section even though I am usually a soprano, because there was a girl who was willing to share a book with me.

Quick tangent: I cannot sing. Well, I am capable of singing, but I am not confident in my singing abilities the way I am confident in my ability to, say, learn a language, or extract a favor from a customer service representative over the phone. The only reason I developed any singing ability is because of my mom. Directly. One, she sang to me a lot when I was little. Two, she made me participate in school choir until sixth grade, when I rebelled. However, by then I had unfortunately garnered a reputation as a singer in my ward, I was asked to give special musical numbers in sacrament meeting fairly often throughout my teen years. I think I would have started refusing to do them eventually, had I not noticed that singing in sacrament meeting was a remarkably effective way to get my mom to come to church. And that was that. I sing to dogs and kids, and I sing in the car, and that is as far as I am willing to let that little light shine.

Anyway, I was nervous about singing alto because I am not so great at reading music, but luckily the girl with whom I was sharing a book was also new, and very nice, and made me feel better. Nevertheless, I tried my best, and I will say that I was no worse than anyone else there. Or perhaps I was, but everyone was singing too loud to notice. The lyrics to the songs in the hymnal are beautiful. They were particularly meaningful to me because I love the Early Modern English period. It occurred to me as I was sitting there that had I done this right, I probably could have weaseled some extra credit out of Dr. Chapman had I gone sometime during the semester. Alas, it is now too late.

I would say this has been the most interesting new thing I have tried so far. Not as educational as going to a pawn shop, nor as delicious as homemade pasta, but by far the most fun. Once I stopped being self-conscious. Perhaps that is the point. Something tells me the puritans weren't socially sophisticated enough to be self-conscious about singing. They just did it to worship God. Which is surely something that requires preserving. A sense of making joyful noises unto God without giving a damn about what you sound like. One more thing: the word "alleluia" was written on the south wall of that Episcopalian chapel. I can't imagine anyone being embarrassed and shouting "alleluia" at the same time. That's one of several reasons why it's my favorite word.

1 comment:

Gordon said...

1. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

2. The "older man who appeared to be one of the guys in charge" was Steve Jardine. Best guy in the world.

3. Your last paragraph reminded me of 32t, Corinth:

Jesus, and shall it ever be,
A mortal man ashamed of Thee?
Ashamed of Thee whom angels praise,
Whose glories shine through endless days.

Ashamed of Jesus! just as soon
Let midnight be ashamed of noon;
’Tis midnight with my soul till He,
Bright morning star, bids darkness flee.

Ashamed of Jesus, sooner far
Let evening blush to own a star;
He sheds the beams of light divine
O’er this benighted soul of mine.

Ashamed of Jesus, that dear Friend
On whom my hopes of heav’n depend!
No, when I blush, be this my shame,
That I no more revere His name.

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