U.Va. Shape-Note Singing Apprentices Keep Folk Music Traditions Alive

Squares. Triangles. Circles. The shapes jump off the page at you, but it's not a geometry lesson. Rather, it's sheet music for a folk tradition called "shape-note singing."

University of Virginia employees Diane Ober and John Alexander, who are married, have been refining their skills in this art through an apprenticeship as part of the Virginia Folklife program, an offering of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Ober, a training specialist in University Human Resources, said the program attracted them because "we wanted to have a more intentional way of increasing our skills and knowledge. This seemed like a great way to do that." Additionally, she said, they thought the program would help bring more attention to the art form and attract further interest.

The nine-month apprenticeship program – currently supporting its ninth class of students – pairs masters of various types of cultural traditions in Virginia, ranging from music to the crafts, food and work-related traditions, with aspiring practitioners from all over the state, said John Lohman, the program's director.

The apprenticeship program offers an honorarium to the master artist and a smaller fund for the apprentice to cover the costs of gas and travel. Major support for the folklife program comes form a federal grant.

Shape-note singing, an active living tradition found in the South, the Northeast U.S. and even internationally in places like France and Ireland, gets its name from the fact that each note is transcribed with a shape; triangles indicate a "fa," circles a "sol," squares a "la," diamonds a "mi" and rectangles a "la." This method originates from the Southern tradition in which many people didn’t know how to read music.

Most older shape note songs have roots in church, with notes set to religious poems or vice versa. The hymn "Amazing Grace," for example, began in the shape note tradition. While many shape note songs are religious in subject matter, the form is not religiously affiliated, but rather a kind of gospel music that does not proselytize, Lohman said.

The act of shape-note singing is primarily a communal, not a performative, experience. Ober noted that the full-volume singing in a large group setting brings a kind of energy to the room that feels very powerful.

Alexander, the associate director of SHANTI (Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives) at U.Va., agreed that like religious worship, this art form can make a group of people feel like something more. "Almost all of us feel it religiously, but we're very eclectic in terms of our religion, and so a lot of people in our group are here for the music, not for the lyrics," he said.

Of the notation method, Alexander said, "It speeds up your ability to read. I actually don't read music, but I can read the shapes. I'm the classic test case for something like this. What the shapes do is they tell you what the intervals are between the notes, but you pitch relative to the range of voices who are in the room."

Notations in the book provide guidelines for the parts, but singers dynamically change the key to match the abilities and balance of the voices of the group.

Lohman conceived of a folklife apprenticeship program 10 years ago when he joined the University, said Robert Vaughan, director of the Virginia Foundation for Humanities. Prospective apprentices apply with their proposed master or masters and create a program of study. Between eight and 10 pairings are accepted each year, Lohman said. Their progress is tracked over the course of the apprenticeship, and then they present or perform some of their work at a fall showcase.

Apprentices are generally not novices, but artists hoping to refine their craft. That was the case with Ober and Alexander, who began singing together 12 years ago – first traveling to group sings in the Berryville and Richmond areas, then about 10 years ago launching their own group, the Rivanna River Sacred Harp, which now regularly boasts about 30 people at monthly sings. Ober and Alexander met their future mentors, married couple Kelly Macklin and John del Re, about seven years ago, and have since expanded their trips to group sings up and down the East Coast.

Macklin and del Re have 25 years of experience singing and leading shape-note singing. Ober and Alexander say their teaching has helped learn how to pitch, lead and organize their group activities more effectively, while Macklin noted that the experience of teaching has helped sharpen the focus of the masters as well.

During a group sing, Macklin said the group sits in a square, facing center, with parts arranged on each side. A session begins when someone stands up in the middle and calls a song from the minute books. First, the group sings through the songs by syllables, helping the leader beat the time, then sings with words. "We take a pitch out of the air and everybody grabs on to a note from that pitch," Macklin said.

Once the song has finished, the next person who has requested to lead will call a new song.

Alexander said the communal art form is easy to pick up because it is "designed to be accessible. You don't have to understand the theory in order to be able to get it. People are compelled by the sound, by hearing and feeling and making the harmony."

Lohman said he values this apprenticeship because it "speaks to a tradition deeply rooted in the Shenandoah Valley, an area we need to do more work in."

Shape-note singing incorporates many rituals and traditions. In addition to monthly group sings, many enthusiasts travel to an annual one- or two-day sing that brings together hundreds of people from the surrounding region. Alexander said that all-day sings involve a morning prayer to invoke blessings on the day, the saying of grace before a large communal potluck meal, a memorial lesson and song to remember the sick, the shut-in and those who have passed away since the last annual sing, and a prayer to close.

Macklin said one of the nicer parts of the folk form is the traditions, which ensure that "we can go to a singing anywhere in the country, know what to expect and be welcomed. It’s been a really wonderful pastime for our family."

Lohman lauded the impact of the folklife program on its participants. "Our program is very personal. For most participants, it's extremely meaningful. These are people who are often not used to being recognized."

Many partnerships have resulted in lifelong connections between the masters and apprentices. CDs of past apprenticeship performances through the folklife program are available at the U.Va. Bookstore under the title "A Crooked Road."

Lohman noted the importance of fostering the folklife tradition in a university setting and in Virginia, where funding for traditional arts is dwindling.

"Folk and traditional culture is often overlooked in academic and educational settings, and yet it really is vibrant," he said. "As a consequence, it really expands the kind of work we try to do here in the humanities and brings in new audiences and different performers."

Lohman noted the centrality of folk traditions to overall quality of life, identity and connection to family and place. "For the participants, it's not just something that's a hobby, it's something that's at the very heart often of why they get up in the morning."

Macklin and del Re hope to publish in June a new shape-note songbook, "The Shenandoah Harmony," which compiles tunes from the Shenandoah Valley. Then, shape-note singers like Alexander and Ober will be singing songs written in central Virginia in the early 19th century (such as the one posted above) that have not been heard in almost two hundred years.

— By Kate Colwell

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Assistant Director of Media Relations Office of University Communications