Leading Sacred Harp music

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The Sacred Harp musical tradition is unusual in choral music in that the task of leading it is not delegated to a single expert, but is rotated among participants. A number of customs related to leading can be traced to this democratic, non-specialist tradition.

Choosing the leader[edit]

In a singing convention (that is, a full-scale, usually annual gathering of singers), the forms of parliamentary procedure are adhered to, usually in an informal way that uses little time. The convention is presided over by a chair, and there are committees, resolutions, and so on. Among the committees is an arranging committee, whose task is described in the "Rudiments" section of The Sacred Harp[1] as follows: it "identifies leaders and calls on them to lead, often giving notice to the next leader as well." In modern times, arranging committees distribute the task of leading widely among the singers, so that in all but the largest conventions, everyone who wishes to lead gets a chance; see below for historical practice.

In smaller singings outside the context of conventions, a variety of ways of choosing the leader are found, for instance, rotating through the group in fixed order or spontaneous volunteering ("popcorn"). Leading is not required, but anyone can lead regardless of skill level. The group doesn't typically actually rely on the leader to perform the piece correctly, it being more of a symbolic practice in modern tradition.

The leader's choice of song[edit]

Traditionally, a particular leader's appearance is called a "lesson".[2] The leader chooses the song or songs that will be sung in the lesson. They are chosen from the edition of The Sacred Harp that is being used at the singing. Most often this is either the "Denson edition" or the "Cooper edition" (for discussion of editions, see Sacred Harp). They offer a choice of 557 and 599 songs, respectively. The same basic rules apply for other shape note singings like the Shenandoah Harmony, Christian Harmony, etc.[3]

In a lesson, leaders may be permitted to lead just one song, or sometimes two or three.[4] Sacred Harp scholar Buell Cobb asserts that according to "purist" taste, in a lesson consisting of two songs, both should be major or both minor.[5] A more strictly adhered-to rule is that no song may be called twice in the same day; leaders who mistakenly call a song already sung are told that the song has been "used", and must pick another.

Leaders choose songs for many reasons: personal taste, a sense that the song would fit well with the time of day it is called, a wish to acquaint other singers with a seldom-called song, a connection between a song and a deceased or sick relative, and so on. In older traditional practice, the "lessons" would be actual lessons, typically of a Biblical nature, sometimes relating the poetry/text to current events effecting the group. A set of two or three songs would be chosen having some relation to each other and/or to the topic being discussed. The leader would give a brief explanation of the text he or she wished to emphasize, and what they believed its Biblical meaning was and how it applied to the participants. Examples of this can be heard on Lomax's 1942 field recordings of traditional Sacred Harp singers in Alabama.

To "call" a song, a leader announces its page number in a loud voice, often repeated by others in the crowd for the benefit of those in the back rows, especially if the person calling is perceived to have spoken quietly or the audibility if otherwise doubtful, or if people in the back request the number be repeated. The length of time given to locate the page and prepare to sing is often quite short, especially in fast-paced sings with a large number of leaders to get through. The phrase "on the top" or "on the bottom" is added for songs appearing two to a page. For songs with multiple verses, the leader will typically call out which verses they wish to sing, usually self-limited to two verses with a repeat on the last section, or three verses with no repeat (although more verses will be used if the time limits aren't a problem or if the song is a particularly popular one). When there are numerous leaders and time is getting short, the arranging committee will often verbally request that verses be kept to a minimum. The verses can either be called out when announcing the page number, or after singing through the notes. Alternatively, the leader can simply indicate to the front row which verse they wish to sing next by holding up the appropriate number of fingers as the previous verse comes to an end, or they may indicate that they wish a repeat by circling their fingers in the air.

The method of leading[edit]

The hollow-square seating arrangement for Sacred Harp singing

Sacred Harp singers sit in a hollow square, with rows of seating for each section surrounding a fairly small central open area. The leader stands in this area, facing the tenors.

Sacred Harp leaders do not use a baton, nor do they use the fairly elaborate motions that symphony and choral conductors use to mark the beat. Instead, a smooth down-and-up motion is preferred, most often made with the open hand. Most lead with one hand, while the other holds the book.[6] Expert leaders may lead without a book, enabling them to use both hands if desired.

The motions of the leading hand reflect the seven "modes of time" as follows. In the common-time modes (2
, 2
), the hand falls on the downbeat and rises on the upbeat. In triple time (3
, 3
) the hand falls part of the way down[7] on the first beat, the rest of the way down on the second, and rises on the third. The modes of compound time 6
and 6
are treated much like common time, with the hand falling in the first half of the measure and rising on the last half.

is likewise normally treated as a binary rhythm, with the hand falling on the first and second beats and rising on the third and fourth. In the original editions of The Sacred Harp, supervised by B. F. White, this was specified as the only way to lead a 4
song.[8] However, today some leaders occasionally adopt a four-beat pattern for leading 4
songs, especially in slow rhythm: the hand moves down, left, right, and up on the four beats.[9]

Each mode of time is associated with a traditional tempo or range of tempi specified in older editions of The Sacred Harp, though this may be modified by regional practice, the presence of affective markings in the score, or the personal preference of the leader; leaders differ in their ability to get the group to adopt an unusual tempo. Cobb suggests that the choice of tempo can be contentious: "As a rule, Sacred Harpers get by with little bickering, but they admit that the question of tempo has been an irritant for several decades."[10]

Leaders often turn the body or gesture with the hand toward a particular section when it makes a musical entrance. This is particularly useful at repeat signs. In a fuging tune, the leader often turns toward each section as it enters.[11]

Leaders normally sing the tenor part while leading, no matter what section they normally occupy; this matches the part of the singers they are directly facing most of the time (although leaders often will turn to face each section as the song goes on, so this is somewhat nominal).[12]

When the leader's turn ("lesson") is over, she simply returns to her seat. Sacred Harp singers do not applaud after songs (although a few voices may be heard pronouncing the traditional "Good." after a particularly satisfying rendition.)

Assistance in leading from the singers[edit]

It is customary for some of the singers to duplicate the motions of the leader's hand, while remaining in their seats. This makes the beat visible to the alto section, to whom the leader's back is turned, and sometimes to other singers as well. This kind of assistance in leading is most often carried out by tenor singers seated on the front bench, who have the best view, and for this reason this spot is often occupied by especially competent singers.[13] The support in leading by front-bench tenors also sometimes serves to keep the group together when the leader is a novice; in fact, songs can be easily performed without any leader standing at all, as is often seen at smaller local sings, or when a poorly coordinated leader gets up to "lead" a song symbolically).[14]

Sources of error[edit]

Sometimes singings experience moments where good ensemble is lost, or even the occasional total breakdown. These normally occur at specific moments:

  • The initiation of a song that begins with a musical upbeat (songs that begin with a rest beat). The Sacred Harp norm is to start singing the moment the leader moves his hand. To give a measure of silent beats, as orchestral or choral conductors often do, is not standard. Beginning leaders often have trouble starting out with an upbeat motion.
  • The leader picks a tempo so unexpected that a beat of two is mistaken for a beat of four, or vice versa. This may occur with leaders who lack the skill of mentally envisioning the tempo before starting.
  • Choice points in the music, notably whether a repeat is to be taken, or which verses to sing. Leaders often announce their intentions verbally in advance.
  • Complex and unfamiliar pieces with fuging sections can throw off singers, especially at smaller singings, causing them to come in at the wrong time.

Style in leading[edit]

The 1991 "Rudiments" discourage flamboyance in leading:

Although leaders may assume considerable discretion in the manner of marking time, modest downward and upward strokes are much to be preferred to "winding", "grabbing", and "snatching" methods.

The teachers at a major singing school for Sacred Harp, Camp Fasola, likewise urge their students not to engage in flamboyant leading (see External Links, below). The prohibition on flamboyant leading evidently has a very long history; the 1869 edition of The Sacred Harp recommended that in leading "all affectation be banished".[11]

Such prohibitions have never been entirely successful, and actual singings in fact involve a great variety of less-discreet leading styles. These include dramatic hand motions, two-handed leading (that is, from memory without the book),[15] and various forms of whole-body movement. Strolling around the central area is not uncommon, particularly when the leader is bringing in the various entrances of a fuging tune from each section in succession.[16]

It is also frequent to see two, or sometimes three, six or (rarely) more leaders get up to lead a song together. This can be an experienced person giving moral support to an inexperienced or shy person, friends, or people doubling up to all get a turn at the center (where the sound is said to be the best in the room) when time is running out and there are many leaders not called yet. The arranging committee will sometimes go around and ask people if they don't mind pairing up with others to facilitate this. Other instances might be to give the people who spent the afternoon working on dinner or other projects a chance to lead and let the singers show appreciation to them.


Although the privilege of leading is currently extended by and large to anyone who wishes to lead, this was not always so. Around the turn of the 20th century, leading was normally assigned to a small group of experienced singers.[17] This earlier practice explains the traditional terminology whereby a turn of leading is called a "lesson" and the group of singers a "class." Earlier leaders, being experts who wielded authority, would have been in a position actually to instruct the group, as respected senior leaders will sometimes do even today. The tradition is descended from the original singing school masters who would literally stand in front of the singers and instruct them in singing; for this reason singings are still called "singing schools" in some regions. In these places they carried on the tradition of having a teacher get up and lead a "lesson" even after the singing master had long ago moved on.

Leading by women[edit]

Earlier leading differed from the present day in that women were not allowed to serve. According to the web site of the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association,[18] the extension of leading to women took place gradually, through the generation that followed the introduction of new editions early in the twentieth century, hence roughly in the historical period when women in America won the right to vote.


  1. ^ 1991 "Denson" edition, p. 25
  2. ^ Cobb, p. 10
  3. ^ Source: http://resources.texasfasola.org/tunecomparisonindex.html
  4. ^ 1991 rudiments, p. 25
  5. ^ Cobb, p. 11
  6. ^ The use of a music stand would be extremely unusual; Miller (2004; 277).
  7. ^ "Near horizontal", according to the 1991 "Rudiments", p. 16
  8. ^ Cobb, p. 48
  9. ^ Cobb, p. 48, indicates that the regions that favor four-beat leading for 4
    songs are "Mississippi and a few areas of north Alabama and north Georgia."
  10. ^ Cobb, p. 49. For discussion of tempo variation and its story, see Cobb, p. 49-51.
  11. ^ a b Cobb, p. 12
  12. ^ Singing tenor is recommended for leaders by (for instance) singing masters David Ivey and Jeff Sheppard, teaching at Camp Fasola ([1])
  13. ^ Cobb, p. 143
  14. ^ See, for instance, Carlton (2003, 51), who relates his own experience as a novice leader.
  15. ^ Cobb, p. 13
  16. ^ Cobb, p. 12.
  17. ^ Cobb, p. 142. Miller (2002, 162) reprints the full list of leaders for 1880 meeting of the Chattahoochee Musical Convention; they number 20 in total, hence only five per day.
  18. ^ "fasola.org"; the specific page is [2].


  • Carlton, David (2003) "To the Land I Am Bound: A Journey Into Sacred Harp," Southern Cultures 9: 49-66.
  • Cobb, Buell E. (1978) The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition. Carrollton, Georgia: Sacred Harp Publishing Company.
  • Miller, Kiri, ed. (2002) The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook. Carrollton, Georgia: The Sacred Harp Museum.
  • Miller, Kiri (2004) "First Sing the Notes": Oral and Written Traditions in Sacred Harp Transmission. American Music 22:475-501.

External links[edit]