Ensemble member Lindsey Dorcus talks about her experience with Shape Notes and the gifts of song that it has brought to her life and how she has used some of the tools learned through these experiences in her vocal work in From the Circle: Remembering the Earth through Folktales.
“From The Circle” is in rehearsal at the Dank Haus. I am outside in the hall with another actor, crouched low over a small music player. We are trying to hear each note and find a “sticking place” for this song in our brains, because if we are going to sing in harmony in from of strangers, this song needs to be very deeply stuck. So we listen and hum along, slowly, slowly beginning to learn our respective parts. Finally, another actor pulls out his guitar, we set a key, and dive into the piece in earnest. And I am so glad to be singing.
I used to sing all the time. As a child I would bop along to whatever was on the radio or whichever tape was on rotation in my music player that week. I would sing until my sister told me to stop, and when she grew tired of my humming I joined choirs, sang in church musicals, and closed my bedroom door while I belted the soundtrack to CATS. I was a bold kid who was able to stay on pitch, so I assumed I was an incredible singer.
However, as I grew older I realized I was a fine singer…but not an incredible one. I met people with jaw-dropping voices, with a true understanding of music, who could consistently and quickly create beautiful sounds. I found my own voice to be inconsistent and fickle, and the shouting joy I had was replaced by the realizations that I had to drill for ages to learn a new song and that there were many, many “wrong” ways to sing. Musical theatre class became a weekly burden and singing in front of people was simply terrifying.
I still sang occasionally in private, but I began to miss singing with other people and the confidence I used to have in my voice. Then in the summer of 2007 I discovered Shape Note Singing. Shape notes are a notation system first introduced in American choral music around 1800, shape notes use triangles, squares, and circles and a simplified solfege system to make four-part harmonies easy to learn. In practice, this means that groups of people of all musical abilities can gather together to create a gorgeous, jubilant wall of sound.
My first shape-note sing was with the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont. I was apprenticing there for the summer, learning all about political puppet theatre and sustainable living. There on the farm people would gather from all over the community in a barn full of paper mache art, sit grouped by vocal range on wooden benches, and sing. Here it did not matter if you were an incredible singer or a lousy one…blended together, every voice sounded beautiful. The sheer power of it sent shivers down my spine, and I sang with passion and power that I hadn’t felt in years: I found that wild joy again.
So when it came time to gather some traditional songs for “From the Circle”, I immediately knew where to look. The Sacred Harp favorite “Idumea” makes an appearance in our show. It has been modified to sound good as a duet, but the atonality and questioning lyrics remain very intact. It still sends shivers down my spine, and every time I sing it I am reminded that when approaching a task with joy, I will always find something incredible.