The Singing School: An American Tradition The Singing School was an institution that was uniquely American. it was established to serve a dual purpose: the desire to create music and the need for sociability. Generations were taught to read and sing music by itinerant singing masters, who developed characteristic methods and materials of instruction, and distinctive performance practices. Through this institution, many people were given the opportunity to participate in music, either as a singer, a teacher, oral a composer. The Singing School foreshadowed the development of church choirs and musical societies.
Early settlers in this country brought with them their native English music, both sacred and secular. They made use of various Psalters compiled in Europe. It was not until 1640, however, that the Puritan ministers in America made their own translation of the psalms. The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in British North America and was widely used.
The most distinguishing feature of this book was its rhymed and metered English poetry. This allowed a few tunes, having the same rhythms as the poetry, to be used as melodies for many psalms. In addition, the text employed the vernacular, and consequently promoted memorization. The ninth edition of the Bay Psalm Book, published in 1698, was the first edition published with tunes. This edition had printed the letters F-S-L-M, representing the solmization syllables fa, sol, la, and mi, under the notes.
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This indicates that there was a familiarity with and an interest in music instruction as applied to psalmody. It was not until the early 18 th century, however, that as a direct result of agitation by ministers for a reformation in congregational singing, arguments were advanced promoting regular singing and the eventual establishment of singing schools. The singing school grew out of the employment by the churches in New England of regular singing. Records indicate that the first singing school was probably established in Boston, the most advanced town in New England, around 1720. The singing school gradually spread throughout New England during the next twenty-five years. Throughout the eighteenth century, the scope and span of the singing schools continued to grow.
The advent of the 19 th century saw singing schools established from Maine to Pennsylvania. The first singing schools were church-oriented, due to the face that the original purpose of the schools was to improve congregational singing. After selecting a date (usually two to four weeks during the winter or between planting and harvesting of crops), a teacher was secured (in most cases, the local school master or an itinerant singing teacher), and location was established (either in the local school house or some other public building).
After the middle of the 18 th century, most singing schools were conducted by itinerant singing masters, who operated them for their own profit.
Although a few teachers devoted themselves full-time to teaching, the majority of them maintained other occupations such as school teaching, retail sales, or farming. These schools, taught by itinerant singing masters, were usually not affiliated with a church. Each student was charged a tuition fee, in addition to being required to purchase his own text. A logical outgrowth of the singing schools was the establishment of the church choir. At first it consisted of those who had attended the singing school and rehearsed the psalms, sitting together at church services. This eventually developed into the formal organization of the church choir.
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The singing school movement also gave rise to several publications designed for use in the schools. These were often published by the singing masters themselves, and served as a supplement to their meager incomes. There were three types of materials: manuscript books, printed “Gamuts” and tune-books. The manuscript books were simply bound pages of manuscript paper designed for the student to record the various rudiments of music and such tunes as the singing master specified. “Gamuts” were printed books containing a summary of the rules of music, a few standard pieces, and blank manuscript pages on which to write tunes. Tune-books, produced in large quantity during the eighteenth century, were the most important instructional materials of the time.
They consisted of an introduction, which listed the complete rules of music, and a large collection of printed music. The printed music was often graded according to difficulty. Tune supplements were similar to tune-books, but were designed to be bound with Psalters and hymnals, and included a short summary of the rules of music followed by a number of plain psalm tunes. Organized teaching methods gradually emerged from the growing singing school movement. These rules were often listed at the beginning of tune-books, and ranged from extremely simple to very complex.
The directions, for example, printed in Tunes in Three Parts, were: TO THE LEARNER Get a pitch pipe tuned to the Note A. Sound that note with your voice, and then raise or lower your voice note by note till you come to the first note of your tune, and you have its true pitch. These directions are characteristic of those appearing in tune-books of this era. The simple directions were designed to be further explained by a teacher, while the more complex ones were designed to be expounded upon.
The tune-books not only listed methods of instruction, they included rules for the organization and operation of the schools and an explanation of the results desired. The student in the singing school first memorized the rudiments of music. The second step, once memorization was begun, was the solmization of exercises and tunes. The singing school also embraced voice production, which included breath management, articulation, pronunciation, in addition to some quality. Once the rudiments of music had been completely mastered, the next step was to apply this knowledge to the music in the tune-book. The student progressed from a simple tune harmonized in a straight four-part setting with few rhythmic variations, to more complex fuming tunes and other pieces.
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An interesting characteristic of the singing school was the maintenance of a steady beat during the performance of tunes. This was accomplished by having the students all beat time as they sang. Several tunes books contained complete and elaborate instructions for beating time, while others maintained a simple up and down motion of the hand or foot wood suffice. The singing school movement was eventually incorporated into the public school system of the United States. Those responsible for this growth, however, received their early training in the singing school. Luther Mason, in 1864, introduced music in the primary schools of Boston.
His involvement with the singing school movement began very early in his career, and lasted, with many changes and variations, throughout his lifetime. In 1870 he published a monumental work, the National Course, which outlined methods that were widely adopted and in use for many years. The new National Course emphasized methods of school music teaching, and made the older type of music and instruction employed in the singing school obsolete. Only in isolated, rural areas did singing schools continue to exist. The contributions of this early American institution can be traced directly to the current music curriculum in the public school system in America, and the singing school must be viewed as a very important factor in the development of American music.