Shape notes are exactly what they sound like. They’re music notes with different shapes on the note head to make it easier for singers to find the range they should be singing in.
This past week and next, the North Georgia School of Gospel Music will hold its annual event to preserve that type of singing in a Southern-gospel-convention-style way.
“We teach the ‘do re mis’ of music theory,” said Stephen Butler, director of the school. “They learn in a two-week time period more than they would learn probably in a year or more of music classes anywhere else.”
The gospel school had its first classes in 1981 and has been hosted at a number of places in the area since then. It’s jumped around from Truett McConnell University in Cleveland, Young Harris College in Young Harris and the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.
Now at Brenau University, this year’s school will end with a free concert at 7 p.m. Friday, June 22, at Pearce Auditorium.
The school teaches what Butler called “redback church hymnal” music, which includes songs like “Heaven’s Jubilee,” “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
It’s the first time the school has been held at Brenau. There are beginner classes to help newer participants and advanced classes that help the ones who are more experienced.
Butler said he attended a similar school when he was younger and it changed his life. On top of being the director of the gospel school, he is the music minister at Bible Baptist Church in Monroe. Children from his church go to the gospel school and he said its changed the course of the church, too.“What I’ve learned is they can sing anything,” Butler said.
The school has students from 5 years old all the way to 70 and older who take part every year.
And it’s a lot like a normal school. The students live on campus during the two weeks and wake up in the morning for music classes. After that, they gather for a group choir practice. That’s followed by more classes and more group choir practice. Butler said they usually wake up at 8:30 a.m. and are done with the day around 9 p.m.
“It’s an intense two weeks,” Butler said. “We offer piano lessons, voice lessons, guitar and bass lessons and private songwriting lessons. We teach conducting, we have sight singing classes, we have music theory classes, we have just a wide array of things for students to come and study.”
He said the school is pretty comprehensive and teaches at a level that helps the students move on to professional careers. There are even students who attended the gospel school, went on to other places to study music and came back to teach with the school that helped jump-start their careers.
“We’ve even got students right now that are traveling with college ensembles and teaching in different music programs,” Butler said. “Most of the students, they cover a wide range of things. Some want to be music teachers, some want to be professional singers, some just want to be a better church choir member.”
Whatever their goal is, Butler said the gospel school helps in all aspects. That’s why he said they want to “preserve and promote” shape-note singing. It’s not just gospel music the students will be prepared for. He said gospel music is kind of like the base of every other type of music.
“I believe if you can read and sing this style of music, you can read and sing anything,” Butler said. “There won’t be anything that you encounter in other types of music that will surprise you.”