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Brockwell Gospel Music School ... Teaching one note at a time

Thursday, June 18, 2009

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Students learn the basics of music theory, sight-reading, ear training, song writing, directing and more at the two-week school. Photo by Niki de Soto
Summer is the time for enjoying long afternoons playing outside and attending summer camp. In Brockwell, Ark., folks from across Arkansas and seven other states are spending their summer vacation learning, playing and singing gospel music at the Brockwell Gospel Music School.

Founded in 1947, the school has brought the gift of music to thousands of students in the past 62 years, many of whom have gone on to become teachers themselves at the school.

Anna Floyd, current manager of the school, began as a student at the school when she was just a teenager. "I started coming when I was 13. I didn't know how to carry a tune, so I had a lot of learning to do," Floyd said.

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The Brockwell Gospel Music School has grown over the past 62 years to incorporate four buildings on their campus. Photo by Niki de Soto
Floyd began teaching beginner's classes at the age of 16 and has been a part of the school family ever since. "We try to separate out the classes both by ability and by age, so the students have the best learning environment available, with others of their same ability level. This way, everybody benefits more," she said.

Current teacher, Teena Sipe Davis, fondly remembers her summers at the school. "It was what I lived for, just to come to singing school. The people who I met, I'm still friends with today. I keep in touch with a lot of folks from my time here as a student. Many of my fellow students are now teachers here with me. We all grew up here at singing school together, and we all teach. The kids, they remind me of us when we were little. I would encourage anybody to come," Davis said.

According to the school's Web site, the singing-school tradition goes back to the time of the Second Great Awakening on the American frontier in the first years of the 19th century. This tradition contributed significantly to the growth and power of the great revivals that especially captivated gospel-hungry settlers in the frontier South in the first third of the century.

Floyd's father, Lindsey Lee Floyd, played a large part in bringing the singing tradition to Izard County by founding the Izard County Singing Convention in 1910. Building on this tradition, Orgel Mason along with Lindsey Floyd, Steve Jones, Jeff Cooper, and Thomas and Ethel Brockwell founded the Brockwell Music School on land donated by the Brockwells in 1947.

Mason was a musician and piano tuner who began singing gospel music as a teenager and worked as a young man for the legendary Stamps-Baxter Music Company in Dallas, Texas. Mason became convinced the school could be replicated in north-central Arkansas to train amateur musicians without the commercialization so often present in the gospel music industry at that time.

His son, Loye Mason, has been a part of the school from the very beginning, as he was born the same year the school began. "Dad started the school to help the area churches musically. What we teach now is exactly what dad started out teaching, except we have more teachers and more students. It's been this way for 62 years so we don't try to fix a wheel that's rolling," Mason said.

To teach the first classes, Orgel Mason and his co-workers recruited the Home State Quartet of Little Rock to help them out. "Clarence Heidelberg of the Home State Quartet actually taught me how to carry a tune," Anna Floyd said.

The school's leaders used teachers from throughout Arkansas and occasionally other Southern states and prided themselves on always staffing the school with highly trained, skilled musicians.

Former teacher and student Norma Muncy is proud of the way the school has continued to blossom. "It has just grown and the teachers just get more qualified as it grows. We have new kids every year, and the older ones graduate on and some come back and teach, to continue the community here. There are some really fond memories of here, everything from playing in the creek to the camaraderie," Muncy said.

The instructors at the Brockwell Gospel Music School maintain a set two-week curriculum. Students range from young children to senior citizens who come from around Arkansas and other states to improve their musicianship.

One of the adult students, David Malone, feels the school has a lot to offer people of all ages. "They have wonderful teachers, and I'm glad they've kept it going this long. I already knew how to play guitar some, but I wanted to get better at it," he said.

The school also offers instruction in sight-reading, conducting, and composition, as well as in singing by ear and shape-note singing. It uses the same curriculum it always has as Loye Mason noted, concentrating on four-part, Southern-style gospel harmony. The school has a loyal following among its graduates, many of whom have sent their own children to attend the school, including members of the family of famed gospel composer Luther Presley.

One of those former students, Roy Guiltner has sons attending the school this year. He feels the lessons here are gifts for a lifetime.

"Music is a blessing, and I think gospel music has done some wonderful things. It's kept many in church, because the power of the Holy Spirit moves through the song. It's very important that this love of music gets handed down from one generation to the next. I think they'll appreciate this later on, remembering some of the songs that they sing here at music school. One day when they're having trouble or distress, they'll bring those words back up and it will bring comfort to them. I can still remember the words to many of the songs we sang when I was a student here, and those words can bring a lot of comfort to me," Guiltner said.

To cap off the two weeks of instruction, the school features a closing night program of music for the public on Friday, June 19 at 7 p.m. in the tabernacle. Everyone is welcomed to attend and support the students. The public is also invited to attend the monthly Gospel Singing held on the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. in the tabernacle.

The Brockwell Gospel Music School is located in Brockwell, Ark., at the intersections of Hwy. 56 and Hwy. 9 in Izard County. For more information about the school, contact Anna Floyd at 870-368-5012 or by e-mail at natsgran@msn.com. Their Web site is located online at www.brockwellmusicschool.com.



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