Reluctant Wife Survives Sacred Harp Singing Workshop
Ok, I´m thinking, love makes you do the craziest things – but singing? Me? And singing hymns??
Not to mention singing in a group of total strangers, considering that normally I only set foot in a church out of purely cultural interest. I sigh quietly and steal a glance look at my other (way more vocally talented) half. There is a gleam in his eye that I see only on rare occasions, like when I put a freshly-baked slice of homemade pumpkin pie in front of him. I take a deep breath and recall with embarrassment all the times my mom reflexively turned up the volume on the radio whenever I decided to sing along.
“Oh well”, I keep thinking, “how bad can this be?” I know from videos that shapenote singers sing with such passion and volume that nobody will notice if I just sit there and move my lips. Fake it ’til you make it. And once I´ve made it through the day, my darling husband will at last be morally obligated to take that tango class with me that he has refused for so long. If I´m making a total fool out of myself, he might as well move his two left feet for me, right?
Anyway, we’ve arrived at an inconspicuous community hall in a suburb of Frankfurt. As we enter the room, I hear enthusiastic English voices and inhale the comforting smell of fresh coffee and cake from across the hall. The best husband in the world is grinning from ear to ear. Then I notice
several people smiling the same way. Two of them welcome us and hand us and hymnals. We park
our water bottles in one corner and sit.
Then it begins. Some folks get up from their chairs and walk up to the middle of the room. Hubby is on the edge of his seat with anticipation. I suddenly remember that at times you have to let go of the things you love the most, so I whisper “go and join ´em.” Wooosh, he´s gone. I´m on my own now. Without any warning, I get hit by a tsunami a few moments later. The sound of basses, tenors, altos, and trebles rolls around me like a force of nature. I shiver. I get goosebumps, my heart skips a beat, and my insides are vibrating. It is at this moment I realize that I can either flee in terror or stay glued to my chair, transfixed by something entirely new. I stay put and get sucked into the vortex of emotions that fill the room.
Now I understand why this is a religious experience for some people, transcending denominational boundaries. Those not shy about experiencing strong emotions simply feel compelled to sing along. Let´s face it. This stuff is not for sissies. This is like hard rock at its best – at least for this little German wife, dragged here almost against her will. Suddenly there´s silence as our instructor, brought here from America especially for this workshop, starts the lesson. He teaches us newbies – a handful of fairly shy and overwhelmed Germans – the basics of Sacred Harp singing, starting with the shapes. I learn that a triangle is FA. Hmm, it kinda looks like an “A”. The round thingy that looks like a little sun – in Spanish “sol” – is SOL. Even in senior moments I can remember
that a rectangle is LA without help. For the last shape, the teacher has a great hook: diamonds are for MI.
So we practice our fa-sol-las, up and down and back and forth. The nice British lady sitting next to me tells me that I am a tenor, from what she could judge by hearing my voice. She shows me which one of the staff lines is mine. Wow. Wait a minute. This ain´t rocket science. This is fun. And my first hymns work out pretty well. I hardly even realize that my quivering, squeaky voice gets stronger and more confident with each hymn. At some point I notice that I sing my little heart out. Nobody gives me funny looks, turns away in disgust, or turns up the volume on the radio. Au contraire, I get lots of praise and encouragement from my fellow singers and feel like I’m among old friends.
The absolute highlight of the day: I´m asked to step into the middle of the group with my other half. He´s going to lead a hymn and chooses one of his favorites. Now there´s a wall of sound all around us. We are bathed in it; basses, tenors, altos and trebles each coming at us from a side of the hollow square in which we stand. Wow. This is it. This is the real deal. And now, singing passionately, I´m part of it. Today I´ve become a shapenote singer. And next time I´ll gladly let my husband tag along.