Singing Schools in Canada

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, February 1982
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“What is a singing school? Is it really necessary to ask such a question as this? Who has not heard of singing schools and singing master? We have them at the present day, and we frequently hear people who are well advanced in years speak of the time when they were young and the good times they had going to singing school, but we never hear much of what they learned; they generally admit themselves that they only went for fun. Such being the case the term “singing school” does not convey the idea of great musical progress accomplished. However this may be, the singing school has been instrumental for ages in preserving a knowledge of Music, and many a teacher and others attribute their first knowledge of Music to the singing school. A great many are possessed with the insane idea that because they have never learned anything at such schools that hey are a nuisance and should not be countenanced, when, in reality, the fault does not lie in the school but in their own inability and carelessness in learning, and so they throw the whole blame on the class with a view of clearing themselves. On the contrary, the singing school is the best medium for acquiring musical instruction that we have at our command, providing that it is properly conducted and that the teacher understands his work. Some may not see it in this light, but that does not mend the matter in the least, and I am prepared to prove it is true. In a singing school, under a competent teacher who is faithful in the discharge of his duties and where scholars are attentive in preparing the work laid before them, a more thorough knowledge of Music is obtained; they become more acquainted with the elementary part of Music, and the ear is more cultivated owing to the fact that they learn to depend more on the ear than on an instrument, and thus become more familiar with the various musical sounds. They also receive a better knowledge of Music. Some people have such dark and vague ideas of the length of time necessary to obtain even an ordinary knowledge of Music; they imagine that a few lessons can make them perfect. I remember once, while teaching a class on the 12th Line of East Zorra, in connection with the English church, of hearing that a lady remarked, after the class had been about a month organised, that she did not see that there was much improvement in the church singing. Thus, you see, what an insignificant idea she had of the time necessary to learn. It takes scholars of an ordinary ear and ability two years, with one lesson a week, to attain anything like a passable knowledge of Music, and yet, after years of study, there is something new to learn.

“We find some, again, who do not really know what is to be learned in a singing school, for instance, a gentleman who had four children attending a class over which I had control said that I was spending too much time at the blackboard, and did not learn them enough of pieces; another gentleman who had four children attending the same class, said that he did not care should they never learn a piece in the class, he sent them there to learn the rudiments, and then they could learn their own pieces. The latter gentleman was right.

“We find from history that singing school date from a very early age. Pope Hilary founded one in 350 during the early years of the Christian church, and this school did a good deal to establish a dignified style of sacred singing. Gregory the Great established a singing school in Rome, and so we see by this that singing schools were first organised by men who had the interests of religion at heart. Take it at the present day and we find people who make great professions of religion, and yet act as though they cared very little whether singing schools were organised for the benefit of churches or not, and some ministers are also negligent in this respect.

“The Rev. W. Henderson, Methodist, took a lively interest in singing schools, and, while on the Kirkton circuit, did all he could to get people to take an interest in such work, and, in some instances, I am sorry to relate, he met with some opposition. Some asserted that he was losing too much time with such trifles, and other such paltry excuses. The Rev. R. Hamilton, Presbyterian minister of Motherwell, did all he could to encourage classes among his people, and there are many other ministers who do likewise, but they do not always meet with that encouragement they should, because there are so many who have no taste or ear for such things. What does Shakespeare say about such men? Listen:

“The man that has no Music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus;
Let no such man be trusted.”

“We have many faithful pioneers, who labored industriously when this country was new in teaching singing schools, among these we find R. Abernethy, of Embro, and T. G. Flewelling, of Ingersoll, both of whom have been in the work over twenty-five years. Let us do all we can to encourage such classes, so that we may have them in every corner of the province. So take off your coats, roll up your sleeves, conquer your prejudices, put your shoulder to the wheel, and fight for the good cause.”

Old time singing school. (Photo courtesy of the Bettmann Archive.)


J. McKay. “MUSIC: Its Origin, History and Application to Religion and the Home,” St. Mary’s, Ontario, 1884, p.43. The Art Gallery of Ontario Archives.
“York Gazette,” February 14, 1810. The Publications of the Champlain Society, Ontario V, the Town of York 1793-1815, edited by Edith G. Firth, 1962, p. 275.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1982, 2020


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