Fifty participants at the Ben Speer’s Stamps-Baxter School of Music soaked in more than 90 years of tradition this week as they learned different ways to better communicate the Southern Gospel sound.
A tradition that began in the mid-1920s and reemerged in the late 1980s after decades of hiatus returned this summer to Middle Tennessee State University’s Wright Music Building for a weeklong event focused on vocal and piano training.
This year’s camp started July 7 and concludes Saturday, July 14, completing three decades at MTSU after being resumed in 1988 by gospel music legend Speer, a member of both the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame and The Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Now directed by Speer’s son, Steve Speer, the school’s mission is to strengthen the talents of attendees through private lessons, music theory, sight reading, ear training and much more.
“Southern Gospel music is a unique genre of music that primarily consisted of a four-part harmony — the bass, baritone, tenor and what some people call the second tenor,” said Steve Speer. “There are also some groups like my family’s group that included women, which created the new way — alto, soprano, baritone and bass.”
Throughout the week, participants attend worship service after breakfast, go to classroom sessions, group singing and workshops before lunch, and at night everyone enjoys “supper” before attending a concert, having open mic sessions and free time.
Many of the Stamps-Baxter instructors have been involved for years. They say they stick around because they believe in what the program has to offer.
Kenna Turner West, who has been with the camp for eight years, is a Dove Award-winning singer/songwriter who offers private lessons in songwriting for the program. West also has strong Southern Gospel roots, having sung with the well-known Blackwood Brothers after joining the group in the early ’80s as a teenager.
“I believe that the overall goal for this school is to equip men and women to fulfill their calling if they feel called to music,” said West. “They come here to learn the skills and techniques, but it’s amazing to be a part of whatever skill set they have mastered when they leave.”
Twenty of this year’s 50 participants were returnees like Brent Boutelle, a 17-year-old pianist who has been homeschooled for six years and says he’s amazed at how much he has improved since being involved with Stamps-Baxter.
“I’m a musician, and I really wanted to better myself,” Boutelle said. “I enjoyed my first time here a lot, and I find myself improving each time.”
The school’s website promises each participant that she or he will sing better or play better by the end of the week or receive a refund.
“My father believed that the quality of Southern Gospel music would improve when people learned more about what they were singing,” Steve Speer said.
This year’s camp concludes with a concert beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Hinton Music Hall inside Wright Music Building, 1439 Faulkinberry Drive. It is free and open to the public.
Because of ongoing construction on Middle Tennessee Boulevard, motorists should access Faulkinberry by entering campus at Greenland Drive and Champion Way. A searchable campus parking map is available at http://tinyurl.com/MTSUParkingMap.
For more information, visit the Ben Speer’s Stamps-Baxter School of Music website at www.stampsbaxterschool.com.
— Keundrea Simpson, student intern (firstname.lastname@example.org)