James L. Jackson, Music Department, David Lipscomb College
The Firm Foundation, February 26, 1985
Reliable data about early singing schools in America are difficult to ascertain. There are records, however, of such a school conducted as early as 1730, in Charleston, South Carolina. The curriculum and materials used were entirely up to the teacher, and no uniformity existed before Lowell Mason wrote his Manual of Instruction in 1834. The early singing schools were instrumental in the organization of choirs, due to the grouping of the better singers together, and finally, the special section of seats set up for the choir. Three leaders in the first attempts at training churches to sing were Thomas Hastings (1787-1872), Nathaniel Gould (1781- 1864), and Lowell Mason (1792-1872). Lowell Mason has been given two titles in reference to his influence in music training: “Father of American church music” and “Father of music education in America.” He founded the first music school, the Boston Academy of Music, in 1832, and succeeded in getting music accepted as a part of the public school curriculum in Boston in 1838.
One usual part of the singing school instruction was the reading of pitches by the shape of the notes rather than the position on the staff. Thus, the student only needed to learn seven shapes, and the relationship of the other six pitches to “do” (the tonal center) in order to “read” the music. The Easy Instructor (published in 1802) by William Little and William Smith was probably the first book containing shaped notes, even though this claim is held by Andrew Law, who published his Musical Primer in 1803. The most successful system of shaped notes (that used in our hymnals today) was finalized by Jesse Aiken, in Philadelphia, in his Christian Minstrel (1846).
Shaped-note hymnals have been the rule among publishers in the church, with the exception of round-note editions of Great Songs of the Church. Most young people in the church today do not know the shapes, but have been taught in our school music programs to read pitches by position of notes on the staff — a system which is used universally for musical notation. Because of the increased level of music skills and knowledge in the church today, perhaps it is timely to eliminate the publishing of shaped-note editions — a system which is not generally respected by trained musicians.
Another product of the singing school movement is the proliferation of songs being promoted for use in worship. Although there are always exceptions in the works among amateur composers, many of the songs being produced are of inferior quality, both in the music and the texts. Emotionalism and elements of contemporary “pop” music tend to interject secularism into the worship. In the church of the first century, any music associated with secular life or the pagan past (including instrumental music) was regarded by many as unsuitable for the church. Perhaps we should take a careful look at the music we are using in the worship assembly, to examine its content and message.
The singing school movement has been continued during the period called the Restoration. However, there was a period of some 20-25 years of inactivity of singing schools in the church until the Texas Normal School was established in 1946. Some permanent normals and singing schools are held annually. Among these are:
Established in 1946 by Austin Taylor and Edgar Furr. Meets in Sabinal, Texas in its own camp facilities. Recent faculty, with Edgar Furr as director, includes Joe Ed Furr, Ken McPherson, James Tackett, Ken Spoor and Gary Box.
Founded in 1968 by Reuel Lemmons, meets two weeks in July, at Hensel Memorial Camp, near Austin, Texas. Faculty includes Holland L. Boring, Sr., Paul Epps, Holland Boring, Jr., Bob Connel, Tom Chapin and Bill Cox.
Founded in 1966. Directed by Holland Boring, Sr.
Meets in church building in Haskell, Texas.
Directed by Walter H. Chaney. Meets in Guntersville, Alabama.
Directed by John D. Blackstone. Meets at Christian Camp in Thorp Springs, Texas.
In addition to the annual summer singing schools, numerous teachers have conducted congregational singing schools, or singing emphasis workshops. Ralph Casey, from Norcross, Georgia, and perhaps others, are presently devoting their full-time efforts to conducting such workshops. Singing school efforts continue to supplement the formal training that students now receive in public school and Christian school music programs. Our Christian colleges have church music minors and majors to give strong academic training to the leaders of congregational singing for today and the future. Every effort to encourage the improvement of congregational singing should be promoted by elders and other church leaders.