Singing Schools

The 18th-century US institution of local singing classes for sacred music had its counterpart in the Maritimes and in some parts of both Lower and Upper Canada between the 1770s and Confederation.

Singing Schools

The 18th-century US institution of local singing classes for sacred music had its counterpart in the Maritimes and in some parts of both Lower and Upper Canada between the 1770s and Confederation. A singing master, often an itinerant and an immigrant from the New England states, would advertise "tuition in psalmody" or "lessons in sacred vocal music," conduct classes 2 or 3 evenings a week over a period of 3 months or so, collect a fee from the (mainly young adult) participants, and then move on to another small town. Schools were usually organized on the master's initiative, but some also under community or church auspices.

Singers learned from a "tunebook," a combination of musical anthology and sight-singing primer, whose repertoire comprised hymn tunes, simple anthems, and, perhaps, secular partsongs. The schools were an instrument of informal education in both musical rudiments and Protestant "psalmody" (metrical psalms and hymns). They were also a notable social phenomenon: a scene in Haliburton's The Clockmaker, 1836-40, cites favourite tunes and also depicts the singing class as a venue for courting.

James Lyon, a minister and tunebook compiler from New Jersey, may have operated a singing school during his appointment in Nova Scotia, during 1765-70, as he did in earlier and later appointments elsewhere. More precise records exist for the schools of Amasa Braman (Liverpool, NS, c 1776), Reuben McFarlen (Halifax, 1788) and Stephen Humbert (Saint John, 1796). No doubt there were others, and after 1800 a considerable spread of the movement is documented. The first Canadian tunebook, Humbert's Union Harmony (1801; further editions 1816, 1831, 1840) includes an original tune entitled "Singing School," with text and music by the compiler, vividly outlining the practices and purposes of such classes and their pursuit in a Canadian environment.

As in the US, the movement in Canada inspired original tunebook publications and a modest body of original compositions. As late as 1867 one such publication in Toronto, The Vocalist, included 70 new tunes by the compiler, Missouri-born George W. Linton; typically, the title-page says it was "designed for the Choir, Congregation, and Singing Class" (italics added).

The singing schools propagated a simple repertoire and performing style and gave amateurs a genuine and active, if elementary, musical experience. They represent a significant "grass roots" aspect of early Canadian musical, religious and social history.


Further Reading

  • Dorothy H. Farquharson, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing: a History of Singing Schools in Early Canada (1983).