Area singers find meaningful sounds in shapesPaul Waterman might not recommend sitting in a church pew for exercise — unless you want to join him for a session of shape-note singing.
By: Thomas Vaughn, Budgeteer News Writer
Paul Waterman might not recommend sitting in a church pew for exercise — unless you want to join him for a session of shape-note singing.
Last week, Waterman and about 100 fellow singers took their seats in Duluth’s Friends Meeting House at 1802 E. First St. For close to four hours, they pitched their vocal sound around notes composed of four different shapes — triangles, squares, ovals and diamonds.
“This is my third event,” said Waterman, who has sung in choirs and musicals for many years. “It’s so much fun to sing this stuff. The harmonies have a timelessness to them. This is special, something really unique. It’s not a performance. We sit and face each other and are singing for each other and to the glory of God.”
Waterman’s initial invitation came from his friend, Leslie Williamson White, co-chair of the singing event.
“This music is a very old, lively, passionate type of music,” she said. “The words are very archaic, but they can really get into your soul.”
Shape-note singing started during the late 18th century in New England. A form of communal prayer, many of the songs focus on “the coffin, earth and winding sheet,” according to the event handout.
Recently, composers have written modern shape-note songs following a national resurgence of interest in the art form. When people gather to sing, the event itself is called a “singing.”
John Bankson is a newcomer, not formally taught in music. He said learning to read the music is a challenge, but the sense of camaraderie among singers makes it enjoyable.
“You can hear the tunes and everyone else is singing along and you can sing along with them. Everyone has a voice. You use it to the best of your ability. I love the sound that comes out of the four-part harmonies in a small room like this. The harmonies are rough and ragged, but beautiful.”
Nan Stubenvoll is also new to the shape-note scene, joining this summer after being invited to a practice session at the meeting house.
“Within a half-hour I bought the book and started trying to learn how to do it,” said Stubenvoll, who said she spends time learning the words to the songs because some songs have fast tempos. “People are very supportive and help me learn. It reminds me of being in a band again.”
Stubenvoll said that the spirituality and cultural significance of the songs keeps her motivated to sing.
“These songs are historical. But here we are, singing them — and continuing to find meaning in them. They’re prayers put to music. I think they would appeal to a wide variety of audiences and people from a variety of religious backgrounds.”
Co-chair Bonnie Ambrosi has been singing for two years. She said it became an instant passion after she attended a workshop.
“The singing is a wonderful thing,” she said. “When people hear it, they’re amazed.”
Ambrosi said that the while the meeting house is the current headquarters for local singing activities, the group is not a Quaker organization. Anyone may participate in the singings held on the first Sunday of each month at the meeting house from 2-4 p.m.