I've developed a new recreational activity. As if I needed another one.
I did a little shape note singing at the Morris Dance gathering, as I usually do, but this year something clicked. I'm not sure exactly what it was: I'd been singing a lot that weekend and my ears were used to listening to and picking out harmonies, my voice was a bit tired (and thus a more comfortable bass), I was sitting directly behind an incredibly powerful base. Any one of or all of these things coincided to produce a really amazing experience, and one where I was able to feel the music. It was amazing
I should break in and say that I'm not an incredibly musical person, and music/singing isn't something that I did very much of growing up. I think teaching people (particularly boys) how to listen, how to sing, and how to listen for harmonies is incredibly difficult, and not something--certainly--that I was ever exposed to as a kid.
I played Clarinet in middle school (and was in the 4th grade choir,) and while I was able to do ok, I never developed an instinct for it, I didn't really ever figure out how to listen.
In high school I started doing the dancing (International folk dance, Morris Dance, Contra/etc.) and that worked for me. I could feel the dance, the beat, the music, and I was able to learn the grace and mechanics after a few months. It was amazing, finally to have away to have "an ecstatic experience of the music."
A friend of mine from dancing described shape note singing, as "singing for people who don't dance," because I think in a lot of ways, shape note singing is more like dancing than it is to other musical forms:
- Shape not singing is participatory: like folk dance, it's meant to be done rather than watched. The music is arranged and harmonized in such away that makes it hard to record accurately (the melody is in the middle of the harmonic range rather than on the top,) and it's sung loudly by large groups of people, and singers arrange themselves facing each other so the closer you are to the middle the better you can hear.
- There's a "pulsing" feeling that you can sort of feel in your gut when you're doing it "right."
- The shapes provide a way for people without classical training to understand and participate in singing, in the same way that folk dancers introduce a choreographical short-hand to teach people how to dance without requiring formal training.
- It's totally an ecstatic experience, and I've never left a signing without a little bit of a "singing buzz"
So this being said, this shape note singing thing is incredibly weird for me. Perhaps the weirdest thing I've done to date, which is saying a lot giving the knitting and the Morris dancing.
Shape note music is very definitely in the category of: Spiritual Music from the American Protestant Tradition. The songs are all hymns many signings--the best ones really--have opening/closing/recess prayers and the best places for signings are inevitably churches (high ceilings, limited upholstery).
And here I am, this dweeby Jewish guy, from a family that isn't (historically/traditionally, on either side) particularly religious (ie. theistic) or observant. My own religious/spiritual views range from: "limited" to "existential/queer," and it's not something I loose a lot of sleep/attention over.
I called a song at the last singing, Hallelujah from the '91 Denison (Red) book (forget the number at the moment; it's a popular one). And the leader asked which verses I wanted to sing.
Dude. I haven't a clue.
The verses are neigh on irrelevant for me. In a strange way, what I think of as the ecstatic experience of the music, the "singing buzz," is what a lot of people think of as the "spiritual" aspect of a singing. And for me it has more to do with the "space" and the moment and less to do with G-d. But that's just me.
We sang, at M.N.'s suggestion 1 and 4. But it was a good song, we could have sung 'em all, and I wouldn't have cared one bit.
In any case, the one thing I know for sure is that I want to sing more often.