The O-town Scene

March 07, 2014

The O-town Scene - Oneonta, NY

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A8 A8 8 O-Town Scene March 6, 2014 By Emily F. Popek On a cold February night in Margaret- ville, a group of area residents gathered to loudly, forcefully and joyfully bring a 170-year-old tradition to life. A small group of singers and a slightly smaller group of onlookers met in the Catskill Mountain Artisans Guild com- munity space in the Commons Building to celebrate the conclusion of a week-long singing school with a little food, a little wine and a lot of singing. Sitting in an open square of folding chairs, the singing school pupils belted out songs of death, salvation and the grace of God. The music soared shakily out the door and down the stairs, rising and swelling in concert with the rhythmic beating of the singers' arms as they counted out the time. Organized by Ben Fenton of Fleis- chmanns and taught by Ben Bath of Red Hook, the singing school introduced partici- pants to "The Sacred Harp," a hefty, no-frills book of songs from the 19th century and earlier, written for four singing parts. Open it up, and you'll see, mixed in with the usual round note heads, triangular, diamond- shaped and square notes. But whatever you do, don't call this "shape note singing." Ben Bath won't stand for it. "'Shape note' is a totally invented term," said Bath, an ethnomusicologist and Bard College graduate who has been leading a Sacred Harp singing group on campus for about seven years. "You can call it 'fasola' singing; you can call them 'patent notes,' but the term 'shape note' is total BS." OK. So they're not called shape notes. But why are they ... shaped like that? "The shapes refer to the syllable that you're supposed to sing," Bath explained. "It's an older version of the 'do, re, mi' system that we all learn, but it just uses fa, so and la." As intimidating as all the funny-looking notes might seem, the system is actually designed to make reading music easier, not harder. And the Margaretville singing school is proof that it works. "The tune books have a section called 'Rudiments,'" Bath explained, "which are a sort of all-in-one textbook of learning how to read music. And it turns out, lo and behold, they actually work." Bath saw the magic happen for the first time last year, when he and Ben Fenton hosted their first singing school, in Roxbury. "It was actually astounding to me," Bath confessed. "There is a certain alchemy to it; the minute we tried it, it just clicked. All the technology is there." "It blew my little pea brain away," Fenton said. "It's such a different way of teaching music but, my God, it works!" And yet, until the local singing school got underway, this tried-and-true method had largely been sitting on the shelf for the past 50 or so years. "Back in the day, itinerant teachers would come around and do these two-week-long singing schools," Fenton explained. "But it really kind of died out in the 1950s and 60s. When we did the first (singing school), it got picked up by somebody involved in the Fasola community" — which is what the "don't call them shape notes" people call themselves — "and suddenly there was this national conversation online about this little singing school in Roxbury. It was unbeliev- able." Todd Pascarella of Fleischmanns didn't know anything about a national controversy when he first heard about singing school. He just knew that his friend, Ben Fenton, had this cool idea. "My wife was into it, so I stayed home and watched the kids while she went to singing school, and she had a great time," explained Pascarella, who is the mayor of Fleischmanns and president of a local en- ergy company. When Fenton held a second singing school in Fleischmanns, "it was my turn," Pascarella said. And since then, the couple has been hooked. "We've both been singing almost every week at the River Run in Fleischmanns with Ben," Pascarella said. "We drag the kids out and everybody gets together and has fun." What's so fun about it? The best way to understand the pull of Sacred Harp singing, Pascarella says, is to experience it first- hand. "You have to come check it out to really understand it. It's hard to describe the sound, but it's kind of like old-time pop gos- pel," explained Pascarella, who has played in several bands, including a bluegrass group. "The harmony singing — it's not intricate, it's not over-the-top, but it's just nice. It adds another layer of sweetness to the music or, in some songs, a layer of darkness." For some people, the pull of this time- worn music is immediate. But sometimes it has to grow on you. "We are friend with Ben (Fenton), and he basically browbeat us into trying (Sacred Harp singing) because he was starting the school, and he actually wanted us to cover it," explained Julia Reischel, who with her wife, Lissa Harris, runs the Watershed Post news website out of New Kingston. "I was a total skeptic." But at a potluck to celebrate the end of singing school, Reischel had her "aha" moment. Standing in the sanctuary of a Fleischmanns church with her 5-year-old daughter, Reischel was awestruck by the power of the singing emanating from the floor below. "There was rumbling noise from the base- ment," Reischel recalled. "It's really loud, shaking the whole church, from beneath us. It was like standing next to an organ; or like being inside of a large fish or a whale." That, Reischel said, was the moment she got hooked. "I would find myself coming home from singing and wanting to do more of it, in this kind of peevish way," she explained. "It gets its hooks into you." And as much as she enjoys the "ratchety, jerky" sound of the music, which she com- pared to "an old-timey car jolting," there's something else there, too, that speaks to her. "I do it definitely, at least partially, for 'Cold Mountain,' Singing School Grants 'Sacred Harp' New Life

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