I’m going to take a break from my usual theological postings to post something a little different. This post is dedicated to the Haskell Singing School, a church camp I have gone to every year for the past 14 years (with the exception of 2006 when I got my first job out of college and had no vacation time saved up – a sad year indeed).
Now you might be asking yourself: why would someone go to a church camp for 14 years? Aren’t those camps just for kids? It’s a good question. Most church camps are for a certain age group. For instance, when I was in 4th and 5th grade I went to Camp Impact at Oklahoma Christian University which is for that age range (funny enough, Erin, my wife, also went to that camp those years but we didn’t know each other). Camp Impact was great fun but I wouldn’t want to keep going year after year. The same is true for other camps that kids go to like Kadesh, Blue Haven, Cornerstone, Zenith, etc. You actually outgrow going to these camps because they are targeted to a specific age group and thus what you once might have gotten out of them you no longer can.
Singing School is different. How? Well let me explain…
The most obvious difference is purpose. Singing School isn’t to give kids a spirital experience – that’s simply a byproduct of going. I’ll admit that some of the most amazing spiritual highs I’ve ever been on have been at Singing School but that is not it’s purpose. It’s purpose is to teach people how to sing in worship. If you’re not from a Church of Christ (CoC) background then that won’t make alot of sense to you, but if you are, then you’ll understand the big deal. Singing acappella (that is, without instruments) is of high importance in the CoC. So when you sing without instruments you require voices to fill in the harmony and that means that people need to know how to sing soprano, alto, tenor, and base, and harmonize well together. Singing School serves this purpose in several ways:
1) Learn new music: the six (sometimes seven) instructors are all incredibly talented musicians and take a combination of (1)recent and popular Christian music that you might hear on Christian radio and compose it for acappella singing and (2)older favorites that they rearrange into something different. Every year I go I learn about 15 new songs, and about half of them end up in our worship services 3-5 years later as “new” songs.
2) Learn to sing your part in harmony with others: you’re put in your section (soprano, alto, tenor, base) based on your vocal range and then you learn to sing your part. It’s good practice for congregational singing back at home. They also have sectionals where you break out into each section and focus just on your part for a while before meeting back up with the big group.
3) Learn to sight read: there is a big focus on learning how to read the music as you’re signing it so that you can pick up your vocal part immediately, anywhere, for any song.
4) Learn to write music: classes teaching basic music (do, re, mi) to intermediate to harmony and advanced harmony are offered. A guided song writing class is offered too.
5) Song leading: in the afternoons the men go to song leading classes where these veteran worship leaders coach you into becoming not just a song starter, or a song leader, but a worship leader (and there is a difference between the three). For many of the older men, this is their favorite part because they lead the singing at their churches and they want to figure out how to do it better. During this time the women go to womens chorus where special pieces written just for female voices are learned. Some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard came from womens chorus at Singing School.
What’s It Like?
The atmosphere of Singing School is different from any other camp.
Instructors: Six to seven men, all very musically gifted, many of whom are worship ministers at congregations around the country drive to this small town in West Texas. Some come from as far away as Colorado and Georgia. Almost all of the songs that are learned are composed by these men. They love God and they love music, as passion that is quickly evident when you meet them.
Facilities: During each day the students come to the church building and are broken up into classes based on knowledge level of music. There are beginners classes for both younger students and adults, and then many classes in-between, all the way up to harmony and song writing. There are breaks in the morning, for lunch, a coke break, and plenty of time to have fun in the gym or just sit around and talk.
Classes: The classes are not hard and are always fun. The teachers know how to teach music in a way that makes sense and is easy to follow. There’s no homework or tests or anything like that. Seriously, going to these classes is fun, even if you don’t like music.
Big Group Chorus: from 11:00 to 12:00 the big group practices together and then later in the afternoon from about 2:45 – 3:45. There’s also one or two other big group sessions in the evenings. Students get the afternoon (from about 4:00 to 7:00ish) off.
Lodging: Students stay in the homes of the church members. This may seem odd to you, and that’s because it is. It’s different from anything else and it makes it all very personal. The family whose house you stay at cooks all the meals for you (except lunch). When the classes are over for the day you go back to your houseparent’s home. The houses are put together by gender and age group, so if you’re a 10 year old girl, you will probably stay with 10-13 year old girls. You must be at least 10 years old to start going, and 10 – 18(ish) stay at the homes of church members. Once you are 18 you can start staying at the church in one of the back classrooms, which is where I stay, along with about 8-10 other men.
Devotionals: Every morning and evening there is a devotional. In the morning it’s in the church auditorium. In the evening it’s out in the lawn of one of the church members. Devotional thoughts are led by the older boys, usually around 16-18, though I have traditionally given the Sunday night devotional thought (for the last 8 or so years). Not only is there intense learning at Singing School, but it’s also a very spiritual experience.
Age Demographic: One thing that is startling is that when we’re in chorus time you’ve got kids of all age ranges (10 – 18) sitting together and having fun singing. It’s not uncommon to see a 16 year old student helping a 10 year old student better follow along and master the song. There are also several adults who attend, notable among them is my good friend Steve Smith (a grandfather now) who still comes every year and brings a few kids from his church too. There are usually several older men who come and then there’s about 6 guys in our 20s who just never stopped coming.
Overall the atmosphere is exciting and energetic. Words cannot fully capture how much fun going to this place is. It’s spiritually refreshing and invigorating to spend the entire week singing to God! Sometimes an entire family will come. Many times people from other denominations will come to learn and experience acappella singing.
Singing School has touched my life in ways beyond words, and I want to share it with others. I would love to take kids from Prestoncrest to go. This isn’t your typical camp and it can bring acappellla singing to a whole new generation in a fun way. Like I said before, acappella singing is a big part of the Church of Christ’s history and teaching the next generation how to sing in harmony together in worship should be a priority (certainly not the top priority, but definitely up there).
If anyone at my church reads this and you think perhaps you’d like to go or send your kids, I’d love to take a group of kids. Singing School is always the first full week in July. This year it’s July 5-10, with the final program the night of the 10th (where we sing all the new songs for the parents and local church members). Cost is $180 and that covers all food, lodging, materials, and tuition, and it’s worth every penny. Haskell is located here and the church is here. This is probably too late to make plans to go this year, but if it sounds interesting, think about it for next year. It’s very common for students to go back 5, 6, even 7 years….and then there’s me and some other friends sitting around 14 years.
Peace to you,