Singing Schools

Singing schools. A New-World echo of an English movement to renovate psalm-singing. The schools appeared first in New England in the early 18th century.

A New-World echo of an English movement to renovate psalm-singing. The schools appeared first in New England in the early 18th century. They were organized by itinerant musicians, usually amateurs themselves, who for a period of months or years would teach the rudiments of musical notation and choral singing in meeting houses, taverns, or rented halls. The new reading skills greatly increased the repertoire of psalm tunes. From New England the movement spread to the English-speaking areas of Canada with the influx of United Empire Loyalists and Mennonites. As Dorothy H. Farquharson points out in her study of the singing school movement, the singing masters 'were among our first Canadian composers, collectors and recorders of [a] valuable phase of our religious folk-song which is the foundation for spiritual and gospel music or "country sacred music"' (O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, p 15).

An early instance in Canada is that of Amasa Braman, a Connecticut singing master who taught psalm-singing in Liverpool, NS, 1777-8. Reuben McFarlen offered to teach the rules of psalmody in his singing school in Halifax in 1788, and Stephen Humbert, from New Jersey, opened a Sacred Vocal Music School in Saint John, NB, in 1796. While the singing school movement had produced several hundred tunebooks in the USA, Humbert's Union Harmony (1801 and later editions) was the first and for many years the only Canadian compilation of its kind. Lacking printed music, Andrew Mackay taught sacred music in the late 19th-century by writing large notes on wallpaper scrolls hung over the blackboard at schoolhouses in the communities around Pictou, NS; some of these scrolls are preserved at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, the National Library of Canada, and in the First Presbyterian Church in Pictou. In Toronto (then York) Joseph B. Abbot proposed to open a 'School in the principles of Church Music' in 1810, but as late as 1837 Mrs Anna Jameson noted with regret the lack of a singing school. The Children of Peace organized singing classes in Sharon, Ont, about 1819. At that time the movement began to fade in the USA as a simpler, more homophonic type of church music came into fashion. In rural and frontier areas, however, singing schools lived on until the late 19th century. In Merivale, near Ottawa, George Stiles developed a choir of 100 young people who rehearsed twice a week and sang at social events and concerts in the 1880s, and in Regina a visiting musician, R.B. George, in 1888 held a 'convention' of 30 pupils, to teach them to read and sing and prepare a concert in a mere five-day period. As these examples show, singing schools should not be considered forerunners of the modern conservatories. Numerous other instances are given by Farquharson. Although she believes that the movement as such did not extend west of Upper Canada, she cites isolated examples from western Canada, eg, quoting a letter located by Frederick A Hall, written from Kildonan, Man, in 1856, mentioning that 'Two Gentlemen from Red Lake have come last week - they are teaching singing a la mode americain [sic] in classes for tenor nights - fees 2/6 for girls and 5/ for boys.' Dale McIntosh's Documentary History of Music in Victoria cites newspaper ads from 1861, 1864, and later years for singing classes. However, by then most teachers were resident rather than itinerant.

As John Beckwith has pointed out, the hymn-singing taught by the singing school masters 'was cultivated not exclusively for public worship but often for edification and enjoyment in ordinary social circumstances, and as a simple way of learning to read musical notation' (CMH, vol 5, 'Introduction,' p voice). This is confirmed for a later period by Elaine Keillor, who in recounting an elementary singing-school for men led by H.G. Tiepke in Ottawa in 1872, comments that while most if not all repertoire consisted of hymns and the occasional anthem, the singing school 'was largely a social activity rather than a religious one' (Musical Canada, p 116).

See also Literature with musical content: 1/Anglo-Canadian.


Further Reading

  • Trowsdale, G.C. 'Vocal music in the common schools of Upper Canada: 1846-1876,' J of Research in Music Education, vol 18, Winter 1970

    McMillan, Barclay. 'Tune-book imprints in Canada to 1867: a descriptive bibliography,' Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, vol 16, 1977

    Farquharson, Dorothy H. O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing: A History of Singing Schools in Early Canada (Waterdown, Ont 1983)

    CMH, vol 5

    Keillor, Elaine, 'Musical activity in Canada's new capital city in the 1870s,' Musical Canada

    Vogan, Nancy E. 'Music instruction in Nova Scotia before 1914,' Musical Canada