Category Archives: Articles

March Newsletter Extra Edition: Two Programs

March brings us two great programs, both of which are highlighted in the extra edition of our March newsletter.

The Seattle Chapter is sponsoring Rodney Gehrke, organist, at Gethsemane Lutheran Church on March 22. For details, see the accompanying article written by Tacoma AGO member Una Hwang, organist at Gethsemane Lutheran.

Emphasizing our role in choral music, the Tacoma Chapter is sponsoring a workshop with choral director Brian Galante on March 16. For details, see the accompanying article written by Tacoma Chapter Subdean Sheila Bristow.

There is still time to put in your request for a specific choral work to be included in the workshop. Go to this URL and make your request!

February Program: The Sensational Sound of Shape Note Music

Eric Rutherford is from West Virginia, and grew up with shape-note singing in his native Appalachia. He also added academic credentials to his expertise, recently completing a DMA at the University of Washington with a dissertation focused on bringing shape note singing into the choral classroom.

Eric Rutherford discusses shape note singing

Eric shared this expertise with the Tacoma Chapter of the American Guild of Organists at the February meeting, with a talk on the history and practice of shape note singing followed by audience participation. Tacoma AGO member Nancy Ferree-Clark introduced him, having worked with him at Federal Way United Methodist Church.

Tacoma AGO member Nancy Ferree-Clark introduces Eric Rutherford at the February meeting in the Ness Family Chapel at Pacific Lutheran University

The shape note tradition is alive and well, with numerous local gatherings and all-day singings, including the Pacific Northwest. The point of singing this music is exactly that–singing. The music is for the performer and not for the audience. Nobody is worried about how they sound–they’re just enjoying the singing.

There are characteristics that are common in the shape note style:

  • Dispersed harmony, favoring 4ths and 5ths
  • Doubling of parts; bass is usually male voices, but the other 3 parts are doubled with men and women
  • Shaped notes and fasola syllables
  • Dynamic and rhythmic intensity – “forte is good, fortissimo is better”
  • Unaccompanied

Brief History of Music in the Early Colonies

  • The original European settlers carried their music traditions across the ocean. Psalm singing tradition in the Puritan faith included lining out the melody, but the traditional tunes had become corrupted with time. There was no time in the constant struggle to survive for formal music education, so most people were musically illiterate.
  • Singing schools began to arise in New England, mostly manifested by travelling self-educated music teachers in the American entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Many of the well known early American composers were also singing school teachers, including William Billings and Lowell Mason. Much of their music is preserved in the Sacred harp Hymnal and others from the time.
  • Singing school teachers needed to improve musical literacy quickly, and shaped note heads was not new, but proved to be a good way to improve sight reading.
  • The generally accepted shaped note method was developed by John Connelly in the 1790s, but Smith and Little beat him to the publisher with a teaching manual called The Easy Instructor
  • There were numerous shape systems, but the most common was based on fa sol la fa sol la mi fa rather than do re mi.

The Sacred Harp was one of about 37 tune books published between 1789 – 1855, but it was the most popular. There are four types of music in Sacred Harp:

  • Folk hymns
  • Fuging tunes
  • Anthems (usually much longer)
  • Original Compositions

Shape note performance practice:

  • Vocal style is often cutting, clear, and piercing, with the nasal passage used as the primary resonator.
  • Singing formation is often the “hollow square” with 4 groups facing each other, not necessarily grouped by gender.
  • The melody, in general, is in the tenor.
  • Leadership is egalitarian, and all are welcome to participate.
  • The conductor can be anyone in the group.

The tradition is still strong. New literature is being written, but local groups are honoring the traditions that are centuries old.

The program was very well received by the audience, with strong participation. Tacoma AGO board member Satya Jaech commented: “Even though I’d heard shape note singing before, I knew little about it. Eric’s presentation was clear and organized, and it included just enough information to assimilate in the time allotted. It was also interesting to sing some of the shape note hymns/songs, although I can’t imagine having the voice to sing these pieces for 6 hours straight!”

The two handouts from the meeting are reproduced below:



SEATTLE MARCH AGO MEETING with Rodney Gehrke at Gethsemane Lutheran CHurch

The March meeting of the Seattle chapter of the AGO will feature a recital at 4 pm on Sunday March 22 by Rodney Gehrke  playing the two manual Fritts organ Op 6 at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle. This is the organ built by Mr Fritts in 1987 following his first study tour of old organs in Europe.  It is a remarkably colorful instrument, and the church has fine acoustics. The concert is part of the church’s recently established concert series Music at 9th and Stewart.  

Mr Gehrke is recently retired as Director of Music at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, and Organist and Choir Director at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El.  He has a special affinity for the music of J. S. Bach. In observance of the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach in 1985,  Mr Gehrke played the complete organ works of Bach in twelve recitals.  He loves to share his passion for Bach and early music at every opportunity here and abroad.  Mr Gehrke’s program is a generous one that will show off the wonderful variety of the colors of the Fritts organ in music for which is was conceived—that of Buxtehude, Weckmann, Scheidt, Krebs, and, of course on the day after his birthday, J. S. Bach.  

There will be a reception following the recital hosted by the Seattle chapter and the church.   Admission is by suggested donation, and free parking is available on the street and in the Aspira parking garage adjacent to the church (accessible from Stewart St or Howell St via the alley adjacent to the church).  Please use only one of the ample unreserved parking spaces in the garage; you will be ticketed if you park in a reserved space! We are grateful to the church and to the chapter for sponsoring parking for this event. The church is also easily accessible by bus from Tacoma (take the 590/594 from Lakewood or Tacoma Dome with free parking to 9th and Howell, one block from the church).  By car, take I-5 exit 166 to Olive Way. The church is located at 911 Stewart St, at the corner with 9th Ave.  We hope to see you there with our Seattle colleagues in March!

March Program: Developing Choral Sound

Our March meeting will be a choral workshop led by Dr. Brian Galante, “Developing choral sound through literature-based warm ups”. This is an excellent opportunity to sing together and learn how to use an effective teaching tool in working with choirs. If you have choral literature programmed for this spring and would like to suggest it for the workshop, please submit your ideas by clicking on the link in the calendar description on the website. And do invite your choral colleagues to join us!

Dr. Galante is the Chair of Pacific Lutheran University’s Department Music, as well as Associate Director of Choral Studies and the University Chorale Conductor. His areas of teaching expertise are conducting, choral music education, and voice science and pedagogy. Brian is also very active in the American Choral Directors Association, presently serving as President of the Northwest Region. His personal website includes information on his choral compositions.

Learn about Shape Note Singing

Join us on February 17, 2020, at 7:00 PM in the Ness Family Chapel at Pacific Lutheran University for our February program on shape note singing.

Shape note singing evolved in England in the 18th century and became popular in early America, both in sacred and secular settings.

Star in the East, an example of shape note notation

Eric Rutherford, Director of Music at Federal Way United Methodist Church, recently completed a dissertation on shape note singing. He will present a synopsis of the history and theory of this notation. During the last half of the program, the audience will gain practical experience in reading and singing from shape note manuscript.

Choral music is part of our mission, and we focus on choral music several times a year. This program is a great opportunity to invite guests who might be interested in membership. Feel free to invite your choir!