Month: March 2012

Fa So La!

I spent this afternoon sitting in a square looking at triangles, circles, rectangles and diamonds and learning how to do this:

It is called Sacred Harp (or ‘Shape Note’) singing and it’s a traditional form of four part harmony singing from America. I won’t tell you anything about its history or about how to do it because I don’t know enough about either things, but the link above and this piece from the Guardian do a good job of explaining it. I can tell you about my experience though. Here’s what is amazing about Sacred Harp music, in my opinion:

  •  It sounds incredible. The youtube videos can’t really do the sound justice. Last year I spent half an hour in a bigger group in Belfast just listening to it. Imagine being in a house made of music. That’s what it’s like. All the singers sit facing one another in a square and everyone’s part is equal, and LOUD. It’s quite something to sit inside and listen to. But you don’t have to just listen…
  • It’s accessible. I can’t read music. I used to be able to but that was a long time ago. I always wanted to be a part of choirs but I was always too shy to put myself forward, especially knowing that I wouldn’t be able to follow the music apart from a vague sense of whether the note would be going up or down. The basics of shape note singing are pretty simple though so you can take part in it really quickly. There are things that are tricky but there are also things that are easy. I felt like a part of what was happening almost immediately even though I was sitting opposite people who were able to read the notes, follow the words, do the hand-wavy thing (more about that later) and put the emphasis on the right bit at the right time all at once.
  • It’s difficult. There’s a lot to learn! But somehow that seems exciting rather than intimidating when you know that every time you come you will be genuinely participating rather than making a mess of things over and over until one day you get it right. Of course, there is also room to make a mess of things. Luckily, if you’re in a house made of loud music the messing up isn’t so noticeable. There is a Big Book of Sacred Harp which has all the tunes in it and there are loads of songs and it means that sometimes there are nice slow ones that will make you feel like a proper singer. There are also some quite bonkers tunes where you can only sit and stare as the little shapes go whizzing past your eyes.
  • It’s egalitarian. The person who stands in the middle of the house made of music and leads a tune can be anyone from the group of singers. People take it in turns to start a tune and they get to decide which verses you will sing and how it will go if there are options to repeat a bit or whatever. They help everyone out with the wavy hand thing which is just another way to keep time, and which I haven’t mastered yet. I think I find this hard because when I’m beating time on the steering wheel in the car it’s always on the second beat in the bar. I’m sure there is a word for this but since I am musically clueless I don’t know what it is, but it makes acknowledging the first beat a bit difficult for me. But I’m digressing. Sacred Harp singing is traditional music, it is taught to children who grow up with it and teach it to their children. Everyone gets to participate. There is no lead singer and none of the four parts are any louder than the others (the shape notes really help you to keep your place when you’re trying to sing with 3 other harmonies in your ear).
  • It’s ideal for shy people. You are encouraged to sing loudly but that’s OK because everyone is singing loudly. At my loudest I couldn’t be as loud as the guy next to me so I was really able to sing as loud as I would on my own without feeling self conscious at all (and when I’m on my own I’m still a wee bit self conscious because we live in a terraced house, I know the neighbours can hear me singing, God help them). Aldo, the man teaching us to sing, said that there was a tradition at conferences where the last song they’d sing would be ‘The Parting Hand’ and everyone would walk around saying their goodbyes as they sang. Frankly, I prefer to not to think about that possibility but I figure I could always nip out to the loo if anyone decided that this would be a good idea.

And those are my thoughts for today about Shape Note singing. It was very good fun and the tunes were really beautiful and I really want to go back and do it again. If you are in N Ireland and fancy having a go there is a group which meets on Tuesday nights to learn how to do it and there will be a day of singing in October. There is a Facebook group you can join for more information, or you can ask me about it and I’ll put you in touch with Barton who runs the group.

Edit: I just found this video of ‘The Parting Hand’ and actually it’s such a nice tune that I might have to brave the hand shaking shenanigans. I could always practise being sociable in advance…

Michael Stipe and Me

The room that I most often write in is the spare room. It used to be the junk room but now, in addition to all the junk, it has a bed, so it is officially the ‘spare’ room. I have a small desk in there in front of the window and it has an wonderful view of a ruined 6th century church and round tower and beyond that, the hills which were said to have inspired Narnia. But the curtains have to be closed most of the time because the sun shines right in your face, so, mostly, I have the wonderful view of a pair of threadbare purple  curtains. That, and Michael Stipe.


Michael Stipe is allowed at my writing desk because we have an understanding. He will not look me in the eye and distract me from what I’m writing, when I’m not tweeting, and I will let his spirit infuse the junk/spare room with whatever it is that transforms it into the place where I am most able to write the story I’m attempting to write. Michael Stipe is my muse.

Michael Stipe has been my muse since 1992 when I first saw this:

I was 17 and I thought he was called Michael Stripe for probably about a month, providing no end of amusement for my sister who later taped over my copy of REM MTV Unplugged with an episode of Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook with Ainsley Harriott. We didn’t get along too well in those days.

I knew I wanted to be like Michael Stipe from the first time I saw that performance. He was just so weirdly brilliant and beautiful. I wondered if there’d been a time when he was just simply weird. You don’t get to be brilliant without loads of practise and being a singer requires doing the practise in front of people. So imagine if you’re *just* a weird kid, not yet brilliant, and the thing that will make you uniquely brilliant and beautiful will mean that you have to practise yourself being your(weird)self in front of other people. I didn’t/don’t need to imagine that. I am still a weird kid trying to practise the incredible stunt of not listening to the real or imagined voices that think weirdness is something to be overcome at all costs.

Michael Stipe really helps.

What helps you?