Sacred Harp is a traditional sacred choral music that originates in the South and is also called “shape note” singing. It is traditionally performed a cappella by singers arranged in a hollow square and participants take turns leading a song by standing in the center. Often heard is the claim by Sacred Harp singers that they sing for themselves and each other instead of just putting on a performance for an audience, yet so powerful is the music that it often literally shakes the walls of the venue and can be heard a half mile away. If you have never heard a group singing “I’m Going Home“, as shown in the movie Cold Mountain, it is hard to describe the overwhelming, transcendent power of those voices in unison. As I did a little research on the background and history of the practice of Sacred Harp singing, it struck me that there were some useful insights that could apply to organizational leadership.
Everyone is expected to participate
Sacred Harp singing has no separate seats for an audience because everyone attending is expected to participate. The singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part (Treble, Alto, Tenor, Bass) on each side, all facing inwards so they can see and hear each other. In your organization, everyone should be there to participate to the fullest, both contributing and enjoying the results, with no place for people who are there just to observe or “get by”. Its when everyone is passionately joining in that the real music begins to happen. To grow and survive as a business, there can be no dead weight and those who are not participating should be weeded out ASAP.
There are no rehearsals
Every singing is a unique and self-sufficient event with a different group of assembled participants. There are no do-overs and everyone has to be focused because there is only one chance to perform a song per event. The same goes with your business. Each project, often comprised of different participants, is a unique opportunity to make something special happen, so don’t waste it. The good thing is, even those events that don’t go quite as planned can be part of the learning process. Singers of every talent level learn how to transition from the clamor of the warm-up into the powerfully unified harmony more quickly with each event. Your team or organization also should learn by doing and can develop the ability to get into sync faster and be productive across projects and teams. Training does have value but people are most fully engaged when actually performing.
The power of many
Most musical performances try to highlight the most talented or those with the strongest voice. Even in a large traditional choir, a bad performance by one or two can significantly distract from the overall work. In sacred harp, however, there are no soloists and a single loud or discordant voice cannot easily sway those around them. It is rather the strength in unison that gives the music its power. No matter your lack of vocal talent, with sacred harp, if you are able to get in sync with your sector, you can meaningfully contribute to the performance. Certainly a very talented group will sound better than one that is comprised of people of mixed or average talent, yet even the lesser talented group can produce moving music once they learn the basic notes.
So often, it can be a great temptation of many leaders to focus only on the most talented (or the loudest) voices in the room. Every manager wants their team comprised of only A players but all too often, you have to work with the human resources that you already have or can scavenge from somewhere else. The Biblical King David started out with “all those who were in distress or in debt or discontented” and THAT was the group later called “David’s Mighty Men”. So it’s essential to inspire and derive the maximum ability from the talent that you do have in order to get A level performances from B level talent. That requires your focus as a leader to be on helping everyone learn their part.
Don’t worry if it all sounds like gibberish during the warm-up period
In shaped note singing, the first part of every song starts with a warm up of sorts where the only thing sung are the notes fa, so, la and mi. As everyone starts in, the sound is more cacophony than harmony and it hardly sounds like a song at all for the first minute or two. Gradually, through iterative repetitions of the few notes, participants get into sync with the pitch and tempo established by the leader. Once the song leader determines that everyone is in alignment, they signal that the real production is to begin and the next verse starts the song with earth shaking harmony. Similarly, most of the early effort on any project is getting the team into sync with each other and the vision that the leader has set out. The beginning is often chaotic and real progress seems slow. The key is to have a leader who can set the tempo and a consistent, iterative process that reliably gets everyone on the same page so that the real work can begin.