The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Singing Masters and Singing Schools

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1985

Issue: August, 1985

The Galax Post-Herald, in a June, 1920 issue carried an article stating that Professor J.H. Ruebush, President of Shenandoah Collegiate Institute, Dayton, Virginia, would be conducting a two week session in music at a rural church some few miles from Galax, Virginia. Each night would be devoted to a singing school. During the day Professor Ruebush would be available for giving individuals lessons in piano, violin and also giving critiques in either. He would also counsel with those interested in musical and college preparatory education.

The teaching faculty of Shenandoah Collegiate Institute about 1900. W.H. Ruebush, 2nd from left. J.H. Ruebush, 4th from right.The teaching faculty of Shenandoah Collegiate Institute about 1900. W.H. Ruebush, 2nd from left. J.H. Ruebush, 4th from right.

Nothing influenced people in church music as much as singing masters and singing schools of which the above mentioned was an example. Strangely enough, singing schools were almost entirely confined to the mountain and rural areas. They came into being in the early 1800's and disappeared soon after World War 1. They served a great purpose in their day.

Generally these schools lasted two weeks. The opening night would see the school divided into two groups. The beginner's group would be instructed in note reading, singing the scale and then singing by note. The advanced group would be composed of those who could do the above. They would be instructed in harmony and in "singing by parts", tenor, bass, alto and soprano in their individual classifications. The results accomplished were amazing. What these persons learned by the end of the school remained with them and enriched them for the rest of their lives. They knew the rudiments of singing. They taught others. The elementary training continued to bear fruit and help church singing wherever they went. They could get a few people together, select those with a little talent and soon had them singing as a choir.

Singing masters went out to train people how to sing and to encourage young people to further their education. It is interesting how they came into being in early America.

Early church music and hymn singing was very limited, in fact it was almost scarce. There were no hymnals owned by churches. Individuals owned their own, which contained words only and no notes or written music. There were no organs or instruments to provide pitch, tune and beat. It was common practice for a person who knew the words to stand and repeat a line at a time of a hymn. This was called "Lining' or "Giving it out". The people would follow by singing a line at a time.

Through the singing schools, people were introduced to hymn books and taught how to use them. Thus, churches found out not only how to use hymn books, but where they could be obtained, because the singing masters sold the song books and promoted the sale of them. It is interesting how the Appalachian areas became one of the most outstanding singing areas in the United States. One man was largely responsible.

Joseph Funk was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania near Philadelphia in 1777. His family moved to Virginia and settled ten miles northwest of Harrisonburg in a mountain valley which came to be and still is named Singers Glen. Joseph Funk came to be an educator, musician and a publisher. In 1832 he purchased his first printing press, type font and book binding equipment. It was hauled by wagon from Philadelphia to "The Glen" as it was called in short. He then published his first hymn book, "The Harmonia Sacra." It was used by the Mennonites and Conservative Baptists (later part of them formed the Brethren Church, also known as the Bunkers).

In 200 years, 22 editions numbering over one million copies of The Harmonia Sacra were sold. Joseph Funk died in 1862 and his sons continued the Funk business.

In the period 1840 to 1860 individuals began to come to Joseph Funk to learn how to use hymn books and how to become singing masters because he printed or published and sold hymn books.

Three young men came in this way to study and learn how to print, to sing and how to teach others to sing. They ended up joining the Funk business. They were Ephraim Ruebush, John W. Howe and C.B. Hammack. They not only joined the business, but Ephraim Ruebush joined the family by marrying Joseph Funk's granddaughter, Lucilia Kieffer. Her brother, Aldine S. Kieffer, a talented singer and poet soon came to Singers Glen and joined the others to form a new printing company known as the Patent Note Company. They continued the work Joseph Funk had started. They published their first hymnal or song book under the name of "The Christian Harp" in 1867. It contained 112 pages, was edited by Aldine S. Kieffer and eventually sold 100,000 copies. It also brought more students to Singers Glen to learn music, to become singing masters and to go out and hold singing schools.

In the fall of 1878 the partners moved the business some 12 miles to Dayton, Virginia, a village 4 miles south of Harrisonburg, where they had better mail distribution, shipping facilities along with better student boarding facilities. The firm name was changed to the Ruebush Kieffer Co. Their business increased. By 1900 the firm was the largest book publisher in the state.

Much of the success was due to Kieffer who composed numerous hymns and songs. After Kieffer's death in 1908, Hall and Beazeley continued to compose hymns while the Ruebushes composed instrumentals and band music. All of them went out to hold singing schools and music seminars. Their influence was felt in all the mountain and rural areas of the Virginias and surrounding states. People today still tell of parents, grandparents and ancestors who excelled as singers and song leaders because they attended and received training under a singing master in an early day singing school.

The Dayton, Virginia community became widely known as a music publishing and teaching center. In its 50 year history, the Ruebush Kieffer Co. published over fifty song books for musical use and teaching. They were adapted to church, Sunday school, glee club and quartet use, instruction and practice of theory and harmony. The firm also published for many years a monthly magazine, "The Musical Million." It enjoyed high acclaim throughout the South

Now for the rest of the story of how this small town sent out more singing masters and teachers than any other place in the nation. In 1844 Dayton had the only high school in the county maintaining a nine month session. In 1875 several pastors and laymen in the United Brethren Church organized a church oriented high school and named it Shenandoah Seminary. When the Patent Note Co. moved to Dayton in 1878 with its music teaching emphasis and students, they soon combined their school and teaching staff with the Seminary. In 1879 the school became known as the Shenandoah Institute. Later it was expanded to Shenandoah Collegiate Institute and School of Music. It continued to progress into a two year junior college and musical school. In 1937 the name - was changed to Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music. In 1960 it was moved to Winchester, Virginia where it has continued to grow and thrive.

How has all this history affected churches and congregations? Consider the Mennonites who were a strong church in Rockingham County where this story is centered. They were a singing people but in the early days, they had no hymnals as such. They had various and miscellaneous books individually owned, with words only but without music (as stated earlier). Most of those hymnals had been brought from Germany and Holland. To meet this need, Joseph Funk published his Harmonia Sacra, which contained an instruction section and which the Mennonites chose to take seriously and use.

Joseph Funk saw the need to supply the church songbooks and then teach the people to use them.

Other people began writing Joseph Funk, "Where can we learn to use your hymn books?" He replied, "Come here. We will teach you. Then you can go out and teach others." Thus between 1840 and 1860, he developed into printer, publisher and educator. From then on, he sent out his students to teach people and to bless churches. As a result the Mennonites, Brethren, Dunkers, rural Baptists and other faiths developed superior harmony and tone quality in their congregational singing. As children, they were all trained in singing schools in each church and not in a community school as others were. In each church building, the church was divided and seated by and in their respective parts of bass, tenor, alto and soprano. Their churches were adapted to this because these faiths separated the seating of the men and the women, dividing them by a four foot high partition in the center from the front to the back or last of the pews.

For these reasons, all of these faiths and especially the Mennonites and the Brethren had congregational singing second to none and really beyond comparison. Their singing had a depth, tone quality and harmony that would fill the sanctuary, overwhelm the listener, touch his spirit and move his soul. This music would flood over the listener and fill the auditorium as no organ or orchestra ever could.

This quality of singing began decreasing after World War II. The people became too involved and too busy to attend singing schools. The men and women are no longer divided and seated by sex. The church has suffered the loss of music values that it once enjoyed. Singing talent is still inherited by individuals that was engendered in their ancestors, but there are no more singing masters and no more singing schools. The quality of church music suffers because of their passing.