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Singing school

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Singing school

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A singing school is a school for teaching vocal music. Singing schools form an interesting cultural tradition in the Southern United States. While some singing schools are offered for credit, most are informal programs. Many singing schools are religious in nature, associated with one or more Christian traditions. Singing schools are often associated with churches that have an a cappella tradition, such as the Church of Christ and Primitive Baptists. Singing schools are also common in connection with the Sacred Harp shaped note singing tradition. They are also common with churches in rural areas of the south, such as Missionary Baptist, that still use Hymnals printed in the seven shape note system.



Singing schools began in the Northeastern United States in the early days of American history. The New England colonies were founded by settlers seeking religious freedom; they believed in the importance of congregational singing of hymns in Christian worship and thus saw it as important to train each churchgoer to sing.

According to Eskew and McElrath, "The singing school arose as a reform movement in early eighteenth-century New England." In some denominations controversies existed on whether congregations should sing audibly, and whether singing should be limited to the Psalms of David. This New England controversy centered around "regular singing" versus the "usual way". The "usual way" consisted of the entire congregation singing in unison tunes passed on by oral tradition. "Regular singing" consisted of singing by note or rule. Though intended for the entire congregation, "regular singing" sometimes divided the congregation into singers and non-singers. Massachusetts ministers John Tufts and Thomas Walter were among the leaders in this "reform movement". Tufts' An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes is generally considered the first singing school manual. By the middle of the 18th century the arguments for "regular singing" had generally won the day. By the end of the 18th century, the singing school manuals had become standardized in an oblong-shaped tunebook, usually containing tunes with only one stanza of text.

A shaped note system of music notation was developed to aid amateurs in singing songs from notation, and this tradition was incorporated into singing schools. In time divergent shaped note systems arose, including Sacred Harp, which had four different shapes, and a seven-shape note system. With these systems, it was possible to teach nearly any interested person to read music.

Eventually singing schools in the north faded to obscurity, while in the south and west they became a prominent social event for small town Americans looking for something to do.

Singing schools were often taught by traveling singing masters who would stay in a location for a few weeks and teach a singing school. A singing school would be a large social event for a town; sometimes nearly everyone in the town would attend and people would come for miles. Many young men and women saw singing schools as important to their courtship traditions. Sometimes the entire life of a town would be put on hold as everyone came out to singing school. In this way, singing schools resembled tent revivals.

One common tradition was the "singing school picture" taken of the teacher and students on the last day of school. Many old black and white photographs exist as records of these events from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; genealogical researchers often find these records useful. The pictures were often taken in front of a blackboard with the name of the teacher and date of the school. Some of these pictures show small classes, while others record very large schools.

Singing schools underwent many changes as cities grew and the population moved away from an agrarian lifestyle. One of the most notable changes was the length of schools; at one time it was common for schools to last four weeks. Then this was shortened to two weeks, and finally it became the norm for a singing school to last one week. Singing schools held less interest for the general public and could rarely get attendance from an entire town. Instead the schools would be attended by interested students from a much larger region. In the case of Sacred Harp singing schools, students usually attended because of their interest in the Sacred Harp singing tradition; in other schools, students attended because of an interest in vocal church music, especially for those churches that maintain an all a capella music tradition.

Travelling singing school masters faded away in favor of annual schools in the same location. Primitive Baptists have established three permanently located singing schools in the state of Texas (Harmony Hill at Azle, Harmony Plains at Cone, Melody Grove at Warren). The Cumberland Valley School of Gospel Music (org. 1983), a popular non-denominational seven-shape note singing school, meets annually in Pulaski, Tennessee. Camp Fasola represents a new venture (org. 2003) by Sacred Harp enthusiasts into a permanent annual singing school.

Laura Ingalls Wilder related attending a singing school as a young lady in Little Town on the Prairie, one of the Little House Books. Her husband, Almanzo Wilder, proposed to her there. Singing schools are also common in Missionary Baptist churches, as well as rural churches across the South. This would include Methodist, Church of God, Southern Baptist, and other denominations. Many of these churches still prefer to use shape note hymnals, as opposed to round note versions that many denominational publishing houses only provide. The Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy in Tennessee carries on the tradition of a church affiliated singing school. They have a one week program each June, and many members of this organization are members of various Missionary Baptist Churches. They also use song books published by Leoma Music Co., Barry Witcher Publishing and Sammy Cornwall Publishing. For instructional use they use the Rudiments of Music and Understanding Harmany written by Marty Phillips of jeffress/phillips music co.


The basic subject taught at a singing school is music theory and sight reading, the ability to sing a piece of music by reading the music notation. The basic knowledge required to do this can usually be taught in one week, but a couple of years of practice are usually required to become proficient. Most religious schools also focus extensively on song leading, the ability to direct a group in vocal music. Song leading requires both music theory skills and public speaking skills. Most religious schools are associated with Christian religious traditions that allow only male leadership; thus, many schools offer song leading classes only for men and boys. Other schools allow women to attend song leading classes and practice the skills, but not lead, while still others teach men and women alike in the exact same program.

In addition, many schools teach harmony, the art of writing multiple parts of music for a song, and lyric writing, the art of composing words for a song.

Many singing schools have published their own small textbooks on music theory, harmony, and song and lyric composition. These are often offered to students as part of the tuition charge of the school. Students are also generally obliged to purchase a pitchpipe, a small instrument that sounds a single note. Those students that learn song leading are taught to use the pitchpipe to establish the key and starting note of a song. Primitive Baptists and others do not believe in or use a pitch pipe to establish pitch, instead pitching by ear.

It is common for students to continue to return to their singing school year after year, even after completing all the curriculum the school offers, for additional practice as well as for the social opportunity the school represents. Many singing school students eventually become teachers. Though singing schools do not have the prominence they once did, for many people they are an important event to look forward to year-round.

Sacred Harp singing schools use one or more of the 20th century editions of The Sacred Harp as curriculum. Some of these are one-day workshops held in conjunction with a singing convention. The emphasis is on teaching newcomers and advanced musicians the note system and traditions of Sacred Harp.

List of Singing masters

Aiken, Jesse B.
Arnold, Robert Sterling (1905-2003)
Billings, William (1746-1800)
Cooper, Wilson Marion (1850-1916)
Funk, Joseph (1778-1862)
Hayes, Autrey
Kieffer, Aldine Silliman (1840-1904)
Morgan, Justin (ca. 1747- ca. 1798)
Phillips, Marty
Showalter, Anthony J. (1858-1924)
Stamps, Virgil Oliver (1892-1940)
Teddlie, Tillit Sidney (1885- 1987)
Vaughan, James David (1864-1941)
Walbert, W. B. (1886-1959)
Walker, William (1809-1875)
White, Benjamin Franklin (1800-1879)

Joe Roper, native of Hayden, Al. 1915-1990. Inducted into Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, October, 2005. Byron E. Reid, Hayden, AL. 1929 - to date. Taught over 300 singing schools across North Alabama, and has had over 100 songs published. Key Dillard, Murfressboro, TN., founder of the Cumberland Valley School of Gospel Music, and the Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy, as well as taught singing schools across the South and in Jamacia, Trinidad and Tobago on Mission trips.

Other singing school teachers include Jimmy Jeffress and Gene Jeffress. Both are music educators by trade, and affiliated with the jeffress/phillips music co. of Crossett, Arkansas. They are currently both State Senators in Arkansas, but keep involved in teaching, composing Southern Gospel Music, and in singing with the Jeffress Family music group. They both have had 30 years of public education in choral and school choir programs , in addition to singing schools. They teach in the annual Jeffress School of Gospel Music. Marty Phillips, the editor of the company is a first cousin.

James E. Reid, Minsiter of Music and singing school teacher, has taught in over 100 singing schools in North Alabama, including the ALABAMA SCHOOL OF GOSPEL MUSIC. He has served as a Minister of Music in several Southern Baptist Churches in North Alabama, and has composed over 150 songs, co-writing some with his father, Byron E. Reid, and his brother Dr. Byron L. Reid, Music Editor of Leoma Music Co. He has taught private students in the last 30 years, in addition to his church work. Like the great Beethoven, only his loss of hearing has compelled him to retire prematurely from the music field. He was a student of Autrey Hayes, another great teacher in the Southern Gospel Music tradition. His contributions to Southern Gospel Music and the Alabama Southern Baptist Convention will remain for many years.

EUGENE MCCAMMON, Current Director of the CUMBERLAND VALLEY SCHOOL OF GOSPEL MUSIC, and Music Editor of the Cumberland Valley Music Company, is a retired music educator, and a singing school teacher of over thirty years. In addition to teaching in CVSGM, he has taught in the North Georgia School of Gospel Music, Ben Speers' Stamps-Baxter School of Gospel Music, and various music seminars' over the years. He is a published composer of over 250 songs with Stamps-Baxter, James D. Vaughan, Jeffrees and Jeffrees/Phillips, Leoma, Gospel Heritage, National, Texas Legendary and other companies. He has served as President of the NATIONAL GOSPEL SINGING CONVENTION, and is the current EXECUTIVE SECRETARY of the Board of Directors. Prof. McCammons' influence in the field of Southern Gospel Music is having a major impact on all people of all ages today, and his music reaches untold thousands around the world.

Dr. Byron L Reid, Music Editor with Leoma Music Co., has over 200 published southern gospel convention songs by Convention Music Co., Stamps-Baxter Music, James D. Vaughan Music, Leoma Music Co., Jeffress Music Co., National Music Co., Cumberland Valley Music, Jeffress-Phillips Music, Ben Speer Music and Texas Legendary Music. He has taught singing schools over the last 30 years in various churches, as well as private music students. He is currently on staff with the DOREMI GOSPEL MUSIC ACADEMY. Dr. Reid served as President of the Tennessee State Gospel Singing Convention in 1990, and President of the National Gospel Singing Convention in 2006. He has served in various conventions in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee over his years in Southern Gospel Music. His song writing class at the DOREMI GMA has produced from one to three new songs each year, collectively by the class or individually by some of his students. He continues to have an impact on many yong people today.

Joel McKissack, noted Southern Gospel music composer and lyricwriter, and currently Senior Music Editor of Leoma Music Co., has taught in singing schools over the last 30 years. He has taught in the DOREMI Gospel Music Academy and served on the Board of Directors for the CUMBERLAND VALLEY SCHOOL OF GOSPEL MUSIC. He has contributed to the industry by his design and use of computer graphics and in music notation. He is the director of BALT music, McKissack Music Makers and MONJERLEE Music and continues to work producing CD's of this style of music. He has written over 100 songs by seven different publishers and continues to be a leading influence in the area of Southern Gospel Convention Music.

External links



Sample the doremigospelmusicacademy site for a some of the music sung at the 2005 music program.

Singing schools

Leoma School of Gospel Music, Lawrence County Youth Camp,Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, the Third week in July. Visit website at Web:http// or email:


  • A Practical Handbook for Singing and Songleading, by Burt Jones
  • Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, by James R. Goff Jr.
  • Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: the Life of Justin Morgan, by Betty Bandel
  • Sing with Understanding, by Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath ISBN 0805468099
  • The Singing School and Shaped-Note Tradition, by Curtis Leo Cheek (thesis in partial fulfillment of a Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Southern California, 1968)
  • Three Centuries of American Hymnody, by Henry Wilder Foote

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.