A Short History of the Texas Normal Singing School
In 1944 Edgar Furr was a preacher in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He worked with the church in Brownsville and also conducted many gospel meetings for churches in Texas. During World War Two his travels among churches helped him to discover a shortage of song leaders created by the circumstances of the war. He knew that when Christian men came home from war, many of them would not be prepared to become effective song leaders.
In the same year, Austin Taylor (a well-known songwriter, singing school teacher, and hymnal editor) lived in Uvalde, Texas, about 80 miles west of San Antonio. During the war years, he also traveled among churches teaching congregational singing schools and leading singing for evangelistic meetings. He, too, became aware of the need to provide song leadership training among churches.
Furr and Taylor met in that same year, and the two of them began to share their insights into the need for song leadership training. For the next two years, those men shared ideas about how they might do something to help meet the need for song leaders. In 1946 Furr and Taylor formed a partnership to establish a summer singing school.
Sixty years earlier a famous Texas church musician – F.L. Eiland – established a summer singing school in Waco, Texas. A number of well-known church musicians were trained in his school. So, his school became well known. Eiland died in 1906 and his school closed. Both Furr and Taylor were aware of Eiland’s old school. They decided to revive Eiland’s strategy in their school.
The school was named the “Texas Normal Singing School”. The term “normal” was an old term used to describe schools that trained teachers to a certain standard (“norms”). Many universities and university education departments began as “normals.”
The school was established in Sabinal, Texas. Sabinal was a small town 20 miles east of Uvalde on the highway to San Antonio. In 1907 a Christian College had been established in Sabinal. The school operated for ten years and then closed its doors in 1917. The members of the church in Sabinal had fond memories of the old Christian college and were very enthusiastic about the creation of another Christian training school in their community. The Sabinal Christian College heritage was partially responsible for the community’s enthusiastic support of this new singing school.
From 1960 to 1980 the singing school hosted a Sabinal Christian College Reunion on the closing day of the school. Many ex-students of the old Christian College came to Sabinal on that weekend and attended the closing night singing of the singing school.
The Singing School created a school campus across the street from the large Church of Christ building. This complex of buildings was located one block from Main Street. Campus buildings were wood frame military buildings purchased at auction from an airbase near San Antonio. The school had three dormitories, a dining hall, a classroom with a piano, five teacher’s apartments, and a recreation center. The school used the classrooms in the church buildings and conducted all their assemblies in the church auditorium.
The school was conducted for two weeks each summer in the month of June. The primary market for students was teenage boys from churches in the Southwestern United States. As the years passed by the school also attracted adult students.
Edgar Furr was the school’s administrator and marketing agent. He also provided food service. Austin Taylor and Holland L. Boring, Sr. were the first teachers in the school. Holland Boring, Jr. and Don Boring became teachers later. This faculty of teachers were the primary instructors for the first twenty years of the school’s existence.
After 1966, the Boring family decided to establish summer singing schools in other communities, so the faculty of the singing school experienced major changes. Joe Ed Furr, John Furr, James Tackett, and Richard McPherson joined the faculty.
In 1970 the Sabinal Church of Christ decided to build a new church building eight blocks away from the school on Main Street. The old church building was abandoned. When the singing school was no longer able to use the facilities of the church building, it purchased some city lots adjacent to its property and began building classrooms and an auditorium.
Austin Taylor died in 1972 at the age of 90. His passing resulted in some major changes in the school. A new songwriting training program was added to the school. A number of new training classes were offered, including The History of Church Music, Advanced Worship Planning, and an extensive practice teacher’s program was offered to train future singing school teachers. In 1974 the school added Ken Spoor, Walter Chaney, and Stanley Stevens to the faculty.
The largest attendance the school was privileged to have occurred between 1976 and 1979.
In 1980 the school changed from a two-week school to a one-week school. At the same time, the enrollment in the school began to decline. By 1984 the administration began to consider making some major changes to give rebirth to the school. Market research indicated that people were no longer interested in attending a singing school in a small community in Southwest Texas. The school needed to relocate.
In 1985 Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas invited the singing school to move to its campus and become a part of its summer activities. The beautiful campus of Trinity was a wonderful place to conduct the school, but the name of the university caused confusion in the brotherhood market, and this confusion did not allow the school to grow.
In 1988 Abilene Christian University invited the singing school to move to its campus. The College of Biblical Studies opened its doors to the school. This became an ideal environment for the school to grow and develop.
The school has continued its association with ACU for over thirty years. Joe Ed Furr served as the school’s director until his death in 2019. During his tenure, he initiated significant improvement and expansion of the school’s curriculum, faculty, and marketing strategies.
The environment of the campus of ACU allows the school to accommodate men and women, adults and teens. The Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building makes it possible for the school to offer a wide variety of classes. The school now offers four areas of training: (1) Song/Worship Leading, (2) Song Writing and Publishing, (3) the Christian Singers Workshop, (4) and a certification for Women in Church Music.
The facilities available on the campus of ACU have made it possible for the school to expand its training services. The school now offers all song leaders personalized video coaching on a daily basis. The digital age is well supported by the world-class campus and facilities.
When the school first started at ACU, a number of people requested that the school offer an annual weekend conference for worship leaders, that was not part of the weeklong Singing School. The school had no role model to imitate in developing this service, so it began a series of experiments. Eventually, the format developed towards a Friday night – Saturday afternoon. The conference organizers gradually discovered that worship leaders’ greatest need is to be creatively and spiritually sparked along with ideas crafting effective assemblies. The focus of the conference is always to generate such ideas and creativity. In the conferences, worship leaders are given both training and some hands-on experiences. These conferences also seek to help worship leaders be brought up to date on recent media, resources, and services available to them.
TNSS Worship Leader Conferences expanded beyond Abilene. They were presented in Houston, Temple, and Austin, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Chicago, Illinois.
In 1994 Howard Publishing released a new hymnal, Songs of Faith and Praise. That hymnal made it possible for Christians everywhere to new songs of an entirely new genre (“praise music”) and to appreciate beautiful songs of praise to God. We became a part of the “praise song” movement. Our students became enthusiastic about these songs.
A few years after Howard published Songs of Faith and Praise, James Tackett began producing the Paperless Hymnal. This video projection hymnal made it possible for the school to further expand our song resources. We now teach students to lead singing both with paper hymnals and paperless hymnals.
From the year 2000 to 2012 the Singing School continued to grow both in numbers of students and numbers of teachers. In the summer of 2009, the school enrollment grew beyond 100 students. This larger student population inspired the school to grow the faculty to 20 instructors. This has allowed us to expand the number of courses we offer. This has also allowed us to use team teaching to further enrich the content of our classes.
In recent times, a small number of congregations have begun to abandon a cappella church music in favor of instrumental music. This has caused concern. The Singing School is fully dedicated to promoting, developing, and encouraging a cappella church music in a positive atmosphere. If we are going to perpetuate church music into the coming century, we will need to continue to train our people to maximize the quality of a cappella congregational singing.
In the latter half of 2015, the Singing School was reorganized to legally operate under a Board of Directors. Named to our Board were the following officers: Joe Ed Furr (president), James Tackett (vice-president), Levi Sisemore (treasurer), Tony Kite (secretary); additional members include Jim Fletcher, Tim Lowry, and David Williams.
Most of the decisions that affect Singing School operations and curriculum continue to be handled by a monthly faculty conference call, but legal and business concerns will be met by the newly-appointed Board. These monthly conference calls were responsible for many of the successes of the 2015 Singing School.
Among the Board’s first priorities was filing for non-profit/501(c)3 status with the IRS, making all donations to the School tax-deductible and also granting us other operational benefits.
Before Joe Ed Furr passed way in 2019, the Board of Directors had taken the primary role in the administration of the Singing School, allowing for a smooth transition. Joe Ed’s funeral was conducted in Sherman, Texas with James Tackett delivering the eulogy and Levi Sisemore leading Where No One Stands Alone (a Singing School tradition), with TNSS instructors David Williams, Ken Spoor, Cooper Atkeson leading additional songs.
Like all additional staff members, the Board receives no compensation for their work at the Singing School – everything is done voluntarily. It is our hope that such transparent leadership practices will foster good-will with you, our friends and alumni, and a culture of accountability within the Singing School organization.
In the Spring of 2020, COVID-19 shut down most of the world, including church services and nearly all musical and singing events. The Board of Directors listened and watched very carefully and was able to negotiate having the Singing School in 2020, in spite of the virus (all federal, state, and local regulations were observed). The biggest hurdle for 2020 (and in 2021) was that the ACU campus was closed (this was our facilities for classrooms, housing, and dining). We were grateful for the option to lease part of the Oldham Lane Church of Christ building for our week of Singing School in both years.