EUPORA • In most contemporary churches, “reading music” means reading words printed on a giant screen at the front of a darkened auditorium and singing along in unison with the amplified voices of worship leaders on a stage.
But for Eupora resident Lisa Threet and other “singing – really sing – in four-part harmony.
“There’s nothing like four-part harmony,” she said. “It’s just so good. It’s just heaven to actually be able to hear all four parts. We can’t let that go away; we just can’t.”
First Baptist Church in Eupora just finished hosting a week-long singing school which Threet helped to lead. She explained that singing schools have always been a fixture in her life.
“It’s just in my blood,” she said. “I’ve done it my entire life. My daddy was a singer; my mama was a singer. My great-grandfather started the Webster County singing convention, and now my daughter is the president of it. I raised my kids in singing school and they love it.”
Threet said the shaped notes used in singing schools help students of all ages learn to “sight-read” music.
“Shaped notes just make sight-reading easier,” she said. “A ‘do’ (as in ‘do re mi’) is a triangle and has a solid sound. Each shape has its tonality and characteristics.”
Threet explained that while singing schools have always been part of her life, they’re getting harder to come by.
“Singing schools aren’t as plentiful as they used to be,” she said. “They used to be more widespread, but now it’s mostly a Southern thing. There are big ones in North Carolina and Georgia and Florida. I just came back from the closing of a two-week-long one in Alabama, and oh, my goodness, it was awesome!”
Threet said the singing schools with which she has been affiliated use a style of gospel music commonly referred to as “convention music,” while other singing schools favor the older and more primitive sound of “Sacred Harp” music.
“Sacred Harp is a completely different sound,” she said. “It’s an older sound. Convention music is less severe sounding and it’s put together in a more melodic way.”
Threet said four-part harmony touches her soul in ways the spoken word can’t.
“It speaks to something inside you that nothing else does,” she said. “You can go to a singing for a day and that’s just as much church – maybe more church – than listening to a sermon. Once you hear it, you think ‘That’s it! That’s what I’m looking for!’”
Like her mother, Threet’s 30-year-old daughter Lera Threet has been around singing schools all her life.
“I was in singing school in utero,” Lera Threet said. “I could read shaped notes before I could read words. It’s just ingrained in me and I love it. There’s just something about four-part harmony. There aren’t words for it.”
Threet said contemporary “praise and worship” music just doesn’t resonate with her the way the older music does.
“It tends to be entertainment, not church,” she said. “You can’t hear anything but the melody and you’re away from hymnals. I’m very old-fashioned. I want to be able to sing alto without having to guess at it.”
Alongside Lisa Threet, Marty Phillips helped teach the singing school in Eupora. Phillips is a second-generation singing school veteran and the president of Jeffress/Phillips Music in Crossett, Arkansas.
Phillips, his wife Ann, and their 20-year-old son Madison travel all across the South every summer leading singing schools. Phillips said he took over the business from his uncle and started teaching singing schools the same year he got married.
“I’ve been doing it all my life,” he said. “My uncle started this in 1944. I’ve been married 45 years, and we did singing school the first summer we were married.”
Like the Threets, Phillips said his enthusiasm for contemporary praise and worship music is limited.
“There’s some good contemporary music out there,” he said. “But there’s a dumbing-down in the drift away from reading music. They just say, ‘Here’s how it goes,’ and then ask you to repeat what they sing. That’s how they teach you in kindergarten.”
Phillips said he and his family will spend 11 weeks teaching singing schools throughout the South this summer, giving students the gift of harmony.
“The harmony is the beautiful part,” he said. “That’s why we teach shaped-note singing and four-part harmony. It’s a lot of fun.”