A history of the New Zealand Singing School

Our beginnings….

Peter Williams, Music Tutor at the then Hawke’s Bay Community College, decided to organise a Singing Seminar or Workshop at the College on Queen’s Birthday Weekend, 1976.  The tutor for the workshop, Beatrice Webster from Auckland, was greatly impressed with the local singers attending.  Such was the success of the Workshop that she agreed to the singers’ request to travel down from Auckland two or three times per school term to give private lessons.  One of the comments made was that “the biggest thing that Beatrice did was to make singers enjoy singing together, and not compete against each other’.   Beatrice recognised that the singers involved in these lessons really did not know each other and needed a goal – so Beatrice decided forthwith that the group should work on excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro and aim for a public performance.  And so it was that on 10 November 1979 the newly-named Hawke’s Bay Song and Opera Workshop gave its first performance in the Century Theatre, Napier.

The Hawke’s Bay Community College had initiated, funded and organised the first Singing Schools through the capable hands of Peter Williams.  The first School was run in January 1977; records are not complete, but it appears that here was some financial commitment by the Community College and by the already-established Hawke’s Bay Ballet and Dance Summer School, as part of the overall extensive programme run by HB Ballet and Dance.  Understandably, the Community College could not continue to provide funding.  It was also obvious by 1979 that Workshop members felt the venture was too valuable to lose.  It was unique, being the only school in New Zealand run purely for singers.  The School started to expand as members of the Workshop took on organisational roles.  It employed tutorial staff from both New Zealand and Australia.  It was, and still is, one of the major musical experiences in New Zealand.

Changes in 1988

The New Zealand Singing School ran in January of every year until 1988.  Late in 1986, discussions took place on holding the School every second year.  Sadly, Beatrice Webster’s health had declined and it was felt that time was needed to plan future repertoire and to research the future of the School.  The general feeling was that it would benefit everybody to take a break for one year, to give an opportunity for fresh ideas to emerge and to give stimulus to the next School – that of 1989.  The decision that there would be no School in 1988 was announced at the end of the 1987 School. This was a difficult time indeed, but in retrospect, a wise evaluation was made and an appropriate solution found.

The New Zealand Singing School has been running biannually ever since.  It averages around 70 students per School, with 80 students being the agreed maximum cap to ensure optimal teaching and learning opportunities.

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of Beatrice Webster MBE in September 2000.  Beatrice’s legacy to the New Zealand Singing School is enduring and really immeasurable.  The Singing School Trust mourned the loss of such a dedicated teacher and friend.

To find out more about the history of the New Zealand Singing School from 1979-2011, email info@singingschool.org.nz to order Beatrice’s Legacy: The History of the New Zealand Singing School 1978-2011. $10 per copy.

Beatrice Webster

The ten original singers of the NZSS, circa 1983.