STATE COLLEGE - Maybe you sing in the shower, or when your favorite tune comes on the car radio.
But have you ever joined a group of people to sing - and sing loudly - just for the fun of it?
That's just what goes on in the Sacred Harp singing tradition, which has a following in the Juniata Valley.
Julianne Hagarty, a student at Penn State University, sings during a Sacred Harp gathering Oct. 24 at the University Mennonite Church in State College.
Sentinel photo by MICAIAH WISE BILGER
Hal Kunkel leads a group of singers in a hymn from ‘The Sacred Harp’ book Oct. 24 at the University Mennonite Church in State College.
Sentinel photo by
MICAIAH WISE BILGER
Left —Sopranos and altos face two sides of a square during a four-part a cappella singing meeting in October at the University Mennonite Church in State College.
Sacred Harp music began in the early 19th century as an American music movement based on hymnals published under the same name. The a cappella, four-part harmony of Sacred Harp is written using notes in the shapes of a triangle, circle, square and diamond.
Itinerant early American tunesmiths and singing masters use the four-note system to teach sight reading to people without much musical training, according to an introductory pamphlet about Sacred Harp.
Today, groups like the one in State College use "The Sacred Harp," a standardized hymnal published by a company of the same name.
The term "Sacred Harp" comes from a biblical reference to the human vocal chords, said Hal Kunkel, the area group's founder. Sacred Harp has been sung continuously for 200 years and has a strong following in the South, Kunkel said.
He started the Centre County singing group in 2007 after connecting with fellow Sacred Harp enthusiast B.C. Condon-Gill from Ferguson Valley.
The group does not perform, and it's not a choir, Kunkel said. Beginner musicians, musicians and non-musicians are welcome to participate, he said.
The rich, old-style hymn sings attract a diverse age group at the State College meetings, which is unusual considering the modern division of church generations over hymns and modern praise music.
"It's a cool mix of people, from car mechanics to PhDs and students," said Tim Culbertson, of Reedsville, who travels to State College twice a month with a dedicated group of singers from Mifflin County.
The twice-a-month sings are similar to a Quaker meeting in the seating arrangements: Singers sit in a square facing each other with a leader in the middle. The music, however, is quite opposite of the quietness typical of Quaker services.
Until your ear gets used to the sound, the loudly sung hymns sound just a bit cacophonic. But it doesn't take long before the power of the strong, earthy tones meld into a stunning harmony.
"The Sacred Harp" includes songs written by familiar writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Some song names are reminiscent of pioneer days, when the hymns were first sung - "Ye Heedless Ones," "Arabacoochee," "Sacred Mount" and "Northfield."
Even the temperance societies are represented in the songbook with a lively tune that welcomes drunkards from the streets to come in and repent.
Each hymn begins with a practice round when one singer sounds the pitch, followed by the group singing their parts in "la la la"s or "fa sol la"s. The second time through the groups sing the verses.
Unlike the "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti" system that most singers learn today, the Sacred Harp method uses an old four-note English system: "fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa." Each of the sounds is characterized with a shape: Fa is a triangle, sol - circle, la - square and mi - diamond.
The notes also are organized a bit differently, with each of the four singing parts typically written on its own staff. And tenors, often both men and women, sing the harmony on the third line.
Penn State student Julianne Hagarty said she enjoys Sacred Harp because the focus is on singing loud rather than well.
"After being stuck in the office all day, this is a great way to sing out all your frustrations," Hagarty said, smiling. "I always go home excited (after Sacred Harp). It's hard to sleep."
Kevin Sims, a young professional musician from Millheim, called the group a great, non-professional venue for singing harmony.
"There are not too many amateur music outlets like this," Sims said. "It's amateur, but the music is still complex and beautiful. It still sounds good."
The group meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Mondays of every month at the University Mennonite Church, 1606 Norma St., State College.