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, or
as 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. This indicates that there was a familiarity with and an
interest in music instruction as applied to psalmody.
It was not until the early 18th 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
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 19th 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 18th 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.
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,