Practical Guides to Sacred Harp Singing

By Ginnie Ely and others

[UPDATED] Guide to leading Sacred Harp music by Ginnie Ely
Leading in four beats to the measure by Ginnie Ely
Learning how to sing the notes by Ginnie Ely
How to organize a Sacred Harp convention by Ginnie Ely
Front-bench tenor at Sacred Harp conventions by Ginnie Ely
A plea for participation by Ginnie Ely
Test your knowledge of the Sacred Harp by Ginnie Ely
Arranging Committee Tips by Linton Ballinger

Guide To Leading Music in the Sacred Harp Tradition

By Ginnie Ely (13 March 1995, revised 22 June 2010)

Leading a song in the Sacred Harp tradition means standing in the middle of the hollow square of singers and keeping time to the music so that the singers can stay together as they sing a song of your choosing.

Whether you ever plan to lead or not, keeping time with your hand while you sing in your seat will help you to stay together with the class. This is something you will see the traditional singers doing all the time. It will also help prepare you to lead when you choose to do so.

Keep it simple!

Stand facing the tenor section. This section sings the melody and usually contains the largest number of people. Hold the book in front of you with one hand and lead with your other hand. The motion is a simple "down-up" movement of the forearm, bending at the elbow, and keeping the hand and forearm together as one piece. Refrain from copying the styles of your favorite choral or orchestral conductor. No dynamics or fancy cutoffs are indicated. No wrist action! Do not swing your arm widely or behind you. Extra motion is confusing and makes it harder for the class to find your beat. Keep the motion confined to a space in front of the body and face, between shoulder and hip.

Traditional singers generally hold the arm in one of two ways: they either hold the elbow close to the body and move the forearm and hand as one piece in the "down-up" manner; or they make this same motion with the entire arm extended in front. The latter style makes the "down-up" motion of the forearm and hand higher and more visible to singers in the back rows of larger conventions. Whichever style you choose to use, beat faster tunes with shorter strokes and slower tunes with slightly longer strokes.

For time signatures like 2/2, 4/4, 2/4, 6/4, and 6/8 the custom is to lead two beats to the measure. The arm comes down on the first beat of the measure and then up on the secondary beat. Beat 2/2 twice as slow as 2/4 etc. There is a tradition in certain parts of the country to lead 4/4 with four beats to the measure but I will not cover that style in this guide.

For time signatures like 3/2 and 3/4 there are three beats to the measure. The first beat is down, but only half way down. The second beat is the other half of the "down". The third beat is the up. So you have "down-down-up" on each measure instead of "down-up" described above. Occasionally a leader will be seen using an "out-down-up" pattern but this is just an illusion. The body moves with natural rhythms and sometimes the direction is naturally modified without being intentional. When first learning to beat in three, try to consciously do the "down-down-up" pattern. Beat 3/2 slower then 3/4. When practicing leading in three beats while seated, take the first beat part way down, then pat your book on the second beat, then lift your hand back to the top on the third beat. Practicing in this manner will help prevent you from swinging your hand across on the second beat or pushing it out in front of you on the first beat.

No matter whether you are beating in two or beating in three, the motion of the arm and hand is smooth. The actual beat is somewhere part way down and then part way up on two beats, and the motion for three beats should also be very smooth. The only exception may be when beating a fast 2/4 where the length of each stroke is very short.

With the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp, every tune is shown with a full first measure. Look at the first measure carefully. If the first note sung is on the first beat, then begin leading with a "down" motion. However, if the first beat is a rest and the first sung note is on the second half of the measure, then begin with an "up" motion. There are some singers who beat the rest before starting to sing on the "up" and that is perfectly acceptable. Observe the traditional singers at the singing you are attending and see what they are doing. Do not beat "one measure for nothing" to set the tempo (speed). In this tradition, the singers are used to catching on to your tempo as you go.

Leading a fuging tune:

A tune with the simple structure of a plain tune will nearly lead itself. This is also true for most of the camp meeting tunes. But fugues are a little different. While it is perfectly acceptable to simply stand facing the tenors the whole time and lead "down-up" on a fuging tune, it is more customary to at least nod to the basses on their entrance and also to the tenors, trebles, and altos each in their turn. Indeed, a simple nod of head and arm without moving the feet is often used by many traditional singers. There is a second style whereby the leader takes a step or two toward each part as they sing their entrance to the fugue ("walking the parts"), but to do so gracefully requires a little forethought (and thus possibly a little practice). Be as smooth as possible when moving about the square.

If you choose to practice walking the parts, pick a simple fugue like 40 (LENOX) or 155 (NORTHFIELD). The first portion is led facing forward like a plain tune. Then, as you bring "up" your arm on the last beat of the plain tune section, turn toward the basses on the last half of that "up" motion so that you are facing them in time for the first "down" beat of the fugue where they come in. Repeat this process as you bring in each part; that is, turn and step slightly in advance so that you are facing the new direction just a shade early so that your arm will come down in time to bring in the new part. Your voice does not sing early, only your body prepares a little early. The result is a smooth flow, both in your leading style and in the singing of the tune. Watch how an experienced leader does it at your next convention.

Indicating a repeat:

Many tunes have repeat dots and bars, especially the fuging tunes and the camp meeting tunes. In general it is customary to sing the repeat when singing the notes and then on the last verse of the words. The singers will know whether you want them to repeat or not by the way you lead. If you want them to repeat, continue beating "down-up" without stopping and without extra gestures. (No circling of the hand is necessary.) If you want them to not repeat, stop beating and hold your hand still on the last measure. Always stop beating (but leave your hand ready to begin again) after singing the notes and between each verse. With fuging tunes, you might nod and smile toward the basses (or whatever part starts the repeat) during the last measure before the repeat so they are warned.

Getting started at a convention:

When you are called to lead, move quickly to the center of the square. Announce loudly the page number of the tune you want them to sing. Also announce to the front row tenors (and anyone else who may be listening) which verses you want if the tune has more than one, and whether they are to repeat if the tune has repeat dots and bars. Say something like "Sing the notes and verses 1 and 3, repeat on the notes and last verse." (At conventions keep the number of verses low so that a greater number of leaders can have their turn at leading.) Be sure you are heard and repeat the page number if necessary.

Usually someone in the front row of the tenor section will be setting the pitch (sounding the starting note) for each song. The pitch will be given as the fa (major) or la (minor) of the key for this tune. Wait for the pitch to be sounded. If you want to set the pitch yourself, either tell the designated "keyer" as you arrive in the center of the square, or give your pitch quickly so there is no confusion. Most leaders let the home town designated "keyer" set the pitch for them.

Be sure the majority of the class has heard the pitch. It is helpful if you sing the note yourself so that it is clear to everyone; and then listen while they sing the starting pitch for each of their parts. Catch the eye of the front row tenors so that you and they can begin together. If you plan on using an unusual tempo, say something to the front row tenors before you start so they will pay attention and help keep the class with you.

The first time or two that you lead before a larger convention, choose tunes you know well so that you are not struggling to read all the notes and words while trying to work your arm. And do not choose the longer more complicated anthems. I highly recommend that you try out your leading style with your smaller local group before you launch your career before a large convention. It is true that the whole class will help you the first time you lead; but you will feel more comfortable if you have at least tried it a few times at home first.

There are some regional differences concerning tempo. Some tunes are sung faster in Northern Alabama than in Southern Mississippi, etc. Each leader brings his or her own preference for the way they want their song to be sung. When it is your turn, remember that this is your song and that you set the tempo for the way you like to hear it. Decide what that tempo is beforehand. If the resulting tempo is not what you intended, check first with yourself to see if you were clear with the way you led. Begin beating with confidence and the class will come along with you. Begin beating with hesitancy and the tune will drag or the class will simply take off and sing it their way without you.

Leading a Birdseye or Hold:

A Birdseye or Hold is a marking in the music that indicates a hold or extension of the time that a particular note is sung. How you lead it will depend on whether the note to be held is on the first beat of the measure or on the secondary beat. If the held note is on the first beat of the measure (34, GOSPEL POOL), stop the motion of the hand so the singers will hold and slowly let the hand drop during the last part of the hold so that it will be ready to come "up" on the secondary beat when you are ready. If the note is on the secondary beat (566, HEBRON), bring "up" the hand and hold it still for the remainder of the measure, then continue beating "down-up" as you usually would. The exact length of time you should hold a Birdseye is up to you and to whatever the custom is for the particular tune.

Leading tunes that change time signature or tempo:

Some tunes have a change in time signature within the piece. With some anthems there are several. How you lead a time signature change will depend on what the changes are. With some tunes, the tempo remains consistent (value for the quarter note between 3/4 and 4/4) and the arm speed continues the same per beat. With some, the leading arm speed is changed.

In every case, complete each measure as it is written. Don't cut short the measure that precedes the change. A good example is 455 (SOAR AWAY). Finish the last full measure of 3/4 before you launch into the (sometimes but not always faster) 4/4 section. Beat "down-down-up" "down-up" and the singers will come in on the "up" of the first measure of the fugue.

There is no hard and fast rule that tells you which tunes require a change in tempo between one section and another. At each singing you attend, take notes when an experienced singer leads a song with a tempo change and watch how they lead the transition between sections.

Ginnie Ely (

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