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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Kyle Vuille photo

Local a cappella group give a breakdown of the art

By Cindy Mullet

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

In a cappella singing is it more important to hit the exact note or to listen to the other singers?

This was the question Patti Nefzger of the Red Top Singers posed to the Glendive Public Library’s lunch and learn gathering Wednesday noon.

Singing the correct note may seem to be really important, but if everyone else in the group has gone up a half step, the person who is “right” will be the one sounding “wrong,” she said, adding, “You have to listen to everyone else.”

A cappella singing is a church and family tradition for most of the Red Top Singers, Tom Nissley explained. His grandfather led singing in an Amish church near Bloomfield in the early 1900s. Their singing was more of a chant. Now when he sings and plays the guitar his son says it sounds like folk rap, but he traces it back to his Amish heritage.

After a number of years, the Amish community disbanded and members joined the Mennonite Church which had a tradition of a cappella singing. Nissley grew up singing in church without piano accompaniment. While the church now has a piano, members still enjoy four part a cappella singing, he said.

Along with the church tradition, Nissley’s family really enjoyed singing in the car, while working on the farm or just around the house. He remembers his mother teaching him to sing harmony with a simple little song. She taught him the melody and when he could hold the tune, she introduced harmony, he said. 

At one time shape notes were used to help singers who did not read music, Nefzger explained. Each shape stands for a different note on the scale so by looking at the shape of the note, singers would know what to sing and could easily transpose songs from one key to another. 

The use of shape notes is similar in principle to the way Maria taught the Van Trapp children to sing in “Sound of Music,” she noted, adding, they are seldom used now and the distracting shapes can be “quite annoying.”

The Sacred Harp singing was a movement that promoted shape notes and a cappella singing. Singers were split up into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses and arranged in a square so the parts faced each other, and all the singers could hear each other, she said.

When singers stand or sit in a square or a circle rather than in rows, they can produce a “big ball of sound” even when they are few in number, she added.

A quartet started the singers’ performance with an adaptation of “Little Brown Church in the Dale,” that one of their members had written for their 100th anniversary celebration last summer. The rest of the group joined them for a number of songs and then the singers encouraged everyone to sing a couple rounds with them. 

Singing rounds is a good way for singers to learn to hold their parts while other singers are singing something else, Anita Zody explained. One group will start the song, after a measure or two, a second group starts and then another until everyone is singing.

Not everyone in the Red Top Singers reads music so when they learn a new song they usually use a piano until they all learn their parts. Sometimes they don’t stick to the written notes, but just harmonize and can end up with more than four parts, Merle Mullet noted.

Neither of the men in the quartet read music so their song sheets have lots of up and down arrows and other marks to help them along, Nissley added.  

Members of the group enjoy singing and have something to sing about, he emphasized. Their faith and hope in God are always at the core of their songs. As he and others have grown older hearing problems make singing a bit more challenging, but they keep doing it. 

“We like to sing. We used to have a lot of great singers here. Now we just sing,” he said.

Reach Cindy Mullet at

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