Friends General Conference

Nurturing faith and Quaker practice

Singing from the Sacred Harp

Workshop Number: 
Paul Landskroener, Gerald Skerbitz
Who may register?: 
Open to All (adult & high school)
Experiential Activities: 
part time-attenders welcome
half gathering attenders welcome
First half (Monday-Wednesday)
Second half (Wednesday/Thursday-Friday)

The Sacred Harp is a vigorous, four-part, a capella hymn singing tradition that many Friends find to be a powerful spiritual practice. New singers will learn and experienced singers will grow in their appreciation of the Sacred Harp. Emphasis will be given to connecting the Sacred Harp to Quaker practice.

Workshop Description

The Sacred Harp is a living American tradition of four-part a capella hymn singing. Begun in New England more than 200 years ago, the tradition took root in the southern United States and has been sung continuously ever since. Sacred Harp singing now occurs regularly in many communities outside of the South and is experiencing a rejuvenation and renaissance across North America and, recently, in Europe and Australia. The tradition is characterized by its full-voiced vigor, democratic participatory ethic, unique harmonies and system of musical notation, eclectic religious imagery, and strong sense of historic continuity and community.

The Sacred Harp is also the name given to the most popular collection of songs of “shape note” songs where the notation of music is printed on a standard musical staff but in four shapes (triangle, oval, square, and diamond) instead of the more common oval. The Sacred Harp which we will sing from was first published in 1844 and most recently revised in 1991. It contains more than 500 songs expressing a wide range of musical styles, poetic imagery, and theological perspectives, although the texts are predominantly evangelical Protestant Christian in flavor and orientation. While a number of different books carry the name “The Sacred Harp”, this workshop will use the most popular and widely available 1991 revision published by the Sacred Harp Publishing Company.

This is a participatory workshop open to new, beginning, and experienced singers alike. The only requirement is that you love to sing. We are patient teachers and will, with the help of the entire class, help you to learn to sing from the Sacred Harp with confidence and joy.

There will be brief periods of silent worship to begin and end each session, but most of the workshop – and worship –  will take the form of singing. While we will have worship-sharing each day, there will be relatively little time for individual, personal expression as compared to other workshops. Nearly all the activities will be done with the entire group.

 a. Expectations & objectives. The principal objectives of the workshop are:

  • New singers will learn the rudiments of Sacred Harp singing and its traditions;
  • Experienced singers will grow in their skill and appreciation of the tradition;
  • All singers will be led to deeper understanding of how Sacred Harp singing fits into and deepens their lives as Friends.

 The co-leaders' expectations are

  • New singers will be willing to learn a new form of singing;
  • Experienced singers will help new singers learn and be patient as they do;
  • Everyone will sing;
  • All  will help make the workshop a spiritual learning experience for everyone.

b.  Specific areas or topics. Early in the week, we will cover the rudiments of shape-note singing: the names of the shapes; the major and minor scales; how to sing the shapes; how to beat time and lead a song; how to sing vigorously and with an open heart; etc. As the week progresses, there will be less explicit instruction and more learning by singing. The leader will take care to progress to more complex or difficult songs at a pace that will be comfortable for all singers, especially newer ones.

c.  Rough outline. This is a participatory workshop that will be devoted primarily to singing.

Woven throughout the week and the singing will be very brief presentations about the Sacred Harp tradition and practices. This will help Friends place the tradition into its historical, religious, sociological, and musicological contexts. This information is helpful to help deepen participant’s appreciation of the singing but is of secondary importance and will not predominate the workshop. This is not an academic workshop.

Each day, we will have worship-sharing during which time Friends can ponder and share with others how Sacred Harp singing (and music in general) has affected their spiritual lives and lives as Quakers. On the second-to-last day, in keeping with the tradition, we will hold a “memorial lesson” to remember Friends and family who have died, are shut-in, or are otherwise in need of prayer. We will also emphasize how the Sacred Harp tradition complements Friends' ways in building strong, open, and incusive community.

Leader Experience

Carol, Gerry, and Paul have co-led this workshop in six previous FGC Gatherings and in many other Friends' gatherings in the upper midwest, as well as to non-Friends groups.