Summer singing schools predated Vacation Bible Schools

Published 10:00 pm Sunday, June 16, 2013

Vacation Bible School is in full swing across the area and children who are already bored with an idle summer are ready for a different kind of school. When I was growing up, I only attended one Bible school and that was while staying with my grandparents in Bogalusa. If there were Bible schools in the country churches, I wasn’t aware of them.

However, the old-fashioned singing schools were held at country churches during the summer, and like the Bible schools of today, they were well attended. Perhaps they still are being held, but I haven’t heard of one in a while. Looking back, the schools were unique, teaching both how to sing parts and participation in group singing.

A few years ago while on vacation we visited Dollywood where they had an animated male quartet dressed in old-fashioned costumes and singing the old favorite hymns from singing school days. The display told all about singing schools and learning music via “shape notes.”

According to the display, this style of singing is also called Sacred Harp singing and stemmed from singing schools during the American colonial period. It has been preserved in the rural south and is remembered by so many rural children and adults as perhaps the only musical training they experienced.

The shapes of the notes correspond with the musical sounds fa so la mi, and one experienced in this type of singing can look at the notes and correctly sing any song. Many area churches still use hymnals with the shape notes.

I remember there were music people, most often men, who conducted these schools. These were also social occasions for young people since school was out, and it was one of the times they could be with their friends. Unfortunately, sometimes the socialization seemed more important to them than the musical instruction. The teacher was usually pretty alert and could put a stop to most of the foolishness.

The ones I attended were held in the mornings for a week — or maybe two weeks. Those who listened to the lessons could both learn to sing and to lead singing. Most instructors used the Stamps-Baxter hymnbooks as they featured the shape notes. Every person was also given the opportunity to “lead” the singing.

While I attended singing school at least one summer that I remember, I never did catch on to the importance of learning the shape notes. I suppose the reason was I was also taking band at the time, and the notes for my trumpet were completely different from the shape notes concept.

Learning to sing the different parts was very interesting, but maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention as I never learned to sing anything but soprano. I also didn’t catch on to the motions for leading singing — called beating time — as one used the forearm in an up/down and right to left movement.

The leading motions were done according to the timing marked at the beginning of the song — that I remember because it was just like my band instructions. Many people currently leading singing at churches perhaps learned the process during singing school — or learned from somebody who did.

The school taught all about quarter, half and whole notes as well as rests and when to use them. At the close of singing school, everyone was invited to a big singing where students were able to show what they learned and other enthusiastic singers could enjoy praising the Lord in song.

I recently read in an article that this type of singing is making a major comeback in cities and on college campuses, and all day singings are becoming very popular once again. Most singings last from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with an hour break at noon for dinner on the grounds. It didn’t mention a comeback for singing schools.

Listening to the singing at some of the country churches makes one understand the impact of things learned at singing school. The quality and sound of the music bears the mark of a different kind of musical training, especially among the older people who remember the lessons taught during summer singing school.

Retired Lifestyle Editor Bob Ann Breland, a resident of Pine, writes a weekly column and may be contacted at bobann_b@ yahoo. com.