Harmony Highlands Singing School, a tradition which spans generations and denominations, began 19 years ago at Zion Rest Primitive Baptist Church in Jasper. Students come from all over the United States to attend the school each year during the last full week of June.
The focus of the instruction is on a capella singing, which is taught with the use of shape notes.
“It’s just regular musical notes, but we do it in a shape note form to make it easier to distinguish what ‘do re me fa so la te do’ is,” said Elder Charles Kitchens.
The rule of thumb at Harmony Highlands is that if a child can sit up, then he or she can sing. Classes are organized for seven different age groups, beginning at the pre-K level and continuing through ages 18 and above.
Each day begins with breakfast and a vocal warm-up session that doubles as devotional time. A full schedule of instruction follows.
The whole group assembles twice a day for congregational singing led by Bryce Lowrance, the choral activities director at Lake Worth High School in Texas.
Lowrance taught his first singing school when he was 16 years old. In addition to Harmony Highlands, Lowrance also devotes time each year to singing schools in Texas and North Carolina.
“He puts us through a lot of exercises during those assemblies to keep us on our toes,” Kitchens said.
Kitchens added that Lowrance has often remarked that he enjoys coming to Dotson Baptist Camp each year because “the folks come here to sing.”
The songbook used at Harmony Highlands is The Old School Hymnal, a favorite of Primitive Baptists that was first printed in 1920.
The theme song of the weekend is “How Happy Every Child of Grace.” The words were penned by Charles Wesley in 1759, and the music was added in 1905.
The weekend always concludes with a special service at a local Baptist church in which students show how they have grown as singers and song leaders during the week.
“We have a few guys in our church who have been doing this since the beginning. You can hand them a piece of music that they have never sung. They will work their way through it, sound it out and then get up and sing it,” Kitchens said.
Harmony Highlands Singing School was started several years ago by members of Zion Rest who had been traveling to Mississippi to attend a similar event.
The school grew so large that it was moved to Dotson Baptist Camp 12 years ago. A new dorm has now been constructed to house the more than 200 youth who turn out each year.
Students from Harmony Highlands fill up the camp’s dorms, which have a total capacity of 128, as well as 16 campsites.
Located eight miles north of Jasper along the banks of Blackwater Creek, Dotson Baptist Camp offers the perfect location for enjoying a time of fellowship without the distraction of technology.
Cell service is almost nonexistent in the area.
“People really are unplugged for the week,” Kitchens said.