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Singing school in Berkeley with Cassie Allen

Today Bay Area Sacred Harp sponsored a singing school led by singing master Cassie Allen, a fifth generation Sacred Harp singer originally from Alabama. 61 people attended all or part of the singing school, which was held in All Saints Chapel in Berkeley, our usual Monday evening singing space. And although I was working the registration table for much of the class, I was able to hear almost everything from where I sat.

At the beginning of the singing school, Cassie Allen gave an overview of the history of Sacred Harp singing, from its roots in Colonial New England, through the development of four-shape notes and the publication of the first tune book titled The Scared Harp, right up to the present day. She emphasized that this is a living tradition of singing. She also reminded the class that this is a form of sacred song, and the religious aspect is very important to many traditional singers (as is true for some of us who are not traditional singers).

Then she gave discussed and demonstrated some of the core material in the “Rudiments of Music” section of The Sacred Harp, including: note shape and pitches; major and minor scales; accenting the first and third beats; and the modes of time. She spent a good amount of time demonstrating how to lead all the different time signatures.

The people in the class were of many different ability levels, from those who have been singing for decades, to those who started singing months or weeks ago. I was impressed that Cassie Allen was able to keep the interest of the long-time singers, while not leaving the brand-new singers in the dust.

Talking with some brand-new singers after the singing school, I also realized that three hours is not nearly enough time to cover all the material that a new singer needs to know in order to feel truly confident. A week-long singing school like Camp Fasola is an obvious way for new singers to get an intensive introduction to the rudiments, but not everyone can travel to Alabama for a week of singing. Here in the Bay Area, we have a Learner’s Group that meets for a half an hour every month, and we sponsor a singing school about once a year, but it takes us perhaps two years to provide as much formal instruction as in a week as Camp Fasola. Not that I’m advocating for more singing schools in the Bay Area; we don’t have enough volunteers to provide much more in the way of formal instruction. But it is worth remembering that any time we can offer a singing school, we should do so.

7 replies on “Singing school in Berkeley with Cassie Allen”

And yet, you CAN learn to sing shape notes in our group. I am living proof, as are many others. And while it did take a while, I was a confident beginner at around six months, probably.

When I started, I could not sight read at all (I could read music on a rudimentary level) there was no singing school (our first formal singing school was held two years after I started) and no learners’ group. I learned just by attending singings, listening to recordings, and talking to other singers. I started leading songs early on, because I was encouraged to, so even though I was nervous and shy, I figured, well, that’s how it’s done! Back then, our group was smaller and no one regularly “passed” so I just got up and lead (with huge help from the tenor bench) because that’s how it worked.

I love that there is more instruction now, but having learned by the “immersion” method, with very little formal instruction, I don’t necessarily see singing school or Camp Fasola (I would love to attend someday) as necessary for learning to sing shape notes.

Inder, you’re absolutely correct — it is possible to learn just from attending singings. Here in the Bay Area, we’re very lucky that we have a weekly practice singing we can attend. When I was learning to sing, I was an hour from the nearest practice singing, and it only took place once a month. I did not make much progress singing only once a month. But yes, the weekly singing in Berkeley, and some monthly singings on top of that, makes a big difference.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard from people who knew nothing about reading music. These were people who didn’t know the difference between an eighth note and a whole note, didn’t know what a time signature is, etc. I believe these folks might benefit if we regularly went over the Rudiments in a structured learning environment.

In our modern setting, a singing school is usually less about mastering the rudiments and more about formally sharing aspects of the tradition that might not come across in our regular singings or beginners may not have thought about before. I thought Cassie did a very very fine job of speaking to the legacy of older generations of singers and raising the bar for our group in terms of singing with accent, leading gracefully, learning tenor parts, etc.

But I do wish we could find the resources for more old-style singing schools, with more intense musical instruction happening over a longer period of time. I couldn’t make it to any of your palo alto singing schools, but it seems like that’s more how you conceived it?

I feel fortunate to have been able to attend (twice!) a five-day-long, three hours a day singing school held as a workshop at an annual Quaker gathering. Attending the first one made a big difference in my ability to participate in sings comfortably. (Since I discovered sacred harp, I’ve not lived anywhere with a weekly sing, which I think would help in terms of confidence and comfort.)

Kenneth — Good to hear from you, and long time no see!

Wouldn’t that be delightful — fifteen hours of Sacred Harp singing school spread out over five days sounds about perfect.

I’m trying not to be envious.

Literally, the only thing I knew about musical notation when I started singing was that the higher the note was printed on the staff, the higher the pitch. I’m not particularly gifted by ear, either, and it takes a lot of work to learn new songs. I had been singing a few months when we had the first singing school for our local group, and I did appreciate the experience and learn from it. I’ve also attended the Sacred Harp workshop four times at Friends General Conference Gathering that Kenneth mentioned (there’s also an afternoon sing each day, so that’s an extra two hours a day- just in case you want to join us next year in Colorado). I appreciate those more formal learning experiences, but I have learned more from local singings and conventions.

Linda — I wish my denomination were cool enough to have a Sacred Harp workshop at our annual General Assembly.

And I think you’re right about the importance of practice singings, reinforced by the occasional singing school. “Learning by doing” is really good way of learning.

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