Sacred Singing in New Haven

There’s radical hospitality, then there’s the Sacred Harp community.

If you were walking by Connecticut Hall on Yale’s Old Campus on the third Sunday in April, you would just assume the four-part in sync chorus you heard was an elite Yale choir. You would never imagine that it is actually a “come-as-you-are,” hodgepodge group of individuals sitting around the perimeter of a room sight-reading sacred hymns. 

Every year on the third Sunday in April, Professor Ian Quinn of Yale School of Music and the Yale-New Haven Sacred Harp community, which Ian started, hosts a day-long sing, most of which is improvised. “The only thing that is planned is that there is an arranging committee,” Ian said. The arranging committee coordinates who leads the singing when. 

This year, the third Sunday in April happened to be Easter, and I found myself not in a church, but rather sitting in a room with over 60 people singing music as one. And I must admit, it was just as sacred as a church nave. I was invited by some members of the Young Adult Episcopalians group in the South Central Region, some of whom participate in the New Haven Sacred Harp community. 

Ian Quinn

Ian started this community in 2010 after his sabbatical in the Bay Area where he was first introduced to and fell in love with Sacred Harp Singing. “[Sacred Harp Singing] welcomes all to sing in harmony and lead songs,” said Ian. “Usually music departments are focused on classical music, but [Sacred Harp Music] is the only music I want to make, it is the most beautiful thing in the world.” 

This was the tenth year this community gathered. They gather in Connecticut Hall on Yale’s Old Campus, the oldest building on Yale’s campus. The room is set up in a box facing inward with 3-4 rows each and on each wall, there are signs marking alto, bass, tenor, and treble. One person stands in the middle to lead the group, first singing the shape notes that correspond to the solfège syllables – that’s the Fa, Sol, La, and Mi notes, think Sound of Music’s “doe a deer, a female deer” song—then once through with the lyrics. This is designed to help newcomers and seasoned singers to become familiar with the song first before diving into the lyrics. 

Throughout the song, the leader and others move their hands up and down to keep time and to set the tempo for the song – although it does look a bit like a sacred dance itself. After the song is done, the representative from the arranging committee immediately calls the next person and who is on deck, and the leaders tag in and out. It is fast-paced but not too much you feel lost. 

There is only one song book: The Sacred Harp 1991 Edition. Each song in the song book is either an anthem or a hymn, and has a corresponding biblical verse. And although the music is religious, the singers come from all types of backgrounds. Some are Yale students, some are Episcopalians, some are Atheists, some are members of the community, and on the third Sunday in April, most are from around the country. 

“[With Sacred Harp Singing] you can get to be with people you care about and with strangers and make music,” said John Klaess, a 7-year member of the community. “There are no barriers to enter and it always feels great.” No barriers are right. While I was observing the group, a couple walked in who heard the music while on their walk around the campus. A member from the community greeted them, explained what was going on, and walked them through the song book. After only about 5 minutes, that couple was sitting in the alto section singing along. 

John Klaess

There is something powerful about spending Easter Sunday in a community that is made up of harmonized strangers and friends. To celebrate our faith’s most holy day in place where all are welcome, encouraged to participate, have an opportunity to lead, and harmonize are one, felt a bit like the kingdom of heaven. 

Mountain Desert, # 474 in the Sacred Harp Hymn book

If you are interested in learning more about Sacred Harp Singing, I encourage you to read more on the website: https://fasola.org . Or, if you are in the Greater New Haven Area, or are up for a drive, the Yale-New Haven Sacred Harp Regular Singing website here: https://ynhrs.yale.edu.

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