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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Story of Tonic Sol-fa *

by Mrs. J. Spencer Curwen.
(Written for Girls )
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 469-471


*Jubilee Paper.

"What is Tonic Sol-fa?" is sometimes asked even in this hear 1891, in which is celebrated the jubilee of the movement. We are a big nation in this little country of ours, and notwithstanding the fact that about six million persons are singing from our notation, and that an average of 8,000 new classes are formed annually, there remain a number of people who know nothing of Tonic Sol-fa but its familiar name, or who may have accidentally come across the mysterious-looking rows of letters from which the "board-school children" learn to sing, but which "it is quite absurd to call music, you know."

The scoffers, however, are fast disappearing, and there is a steadily increasing number of those who want to know more about a notation from which little children do somehow learn to sing at sight, and a method to which even the obstinate unbelievers pay a great tribute--for they say that it is not to its notation (which they hate), but to its carefully elaborated method (which nevertheless they will not study), that the movement owes its success.

The jubilee year is a fitting time to tell the story of Tonic Sol-fa, and the Parents Review is a fitting paper in which to tell it, for the system which has resulted in placing England first among the nations for Choral Music grew out of the heart and brain of a man possessed by an intense love for little children, who thought for them, studied for them, methodised for them, made himself a musician that they might sing.

John Curwen, a young Congregational minister, was chiefly known fifty years ago for his remarkable power in addressing children. His winning manner, dramatic instinct, and intense earnestness attracted children and held them spell-bound, and in after life he frequently met persons who recalled the text and the substance of some of those Sunday-school addresses. "One had only to see him with young people," wrote a friend after his death, "and one felt to be in the presence of a man who lived for children, and who, by every word and look, won their love and game them instruction and delight." This power was partly a gift, no doubt, but it was a gift cultivated and improved. "He read all the books on education he could lay his hands on, and formulated to himself the method on which he proceeded."

All through the earlier part of his Sunday-school work Mr. Curwen had one great difficulty to contend with, and that was the management of the singing. He believed with all his heart in the power of music, but was not naturally "musical." Up to the age of eighteen he knew absolutely nothing of music, and his struggles with it later were almost pathetic. He says:--

"For myself, all this while, I could neither pitch a well-known tune properly, nor by any means 'make out' from the notes the plainest psalm-tune which I had not heard before. To obtain the moderate ability was the height of my musical ambition. I therefore sought a private teacher, who, with the help of a piano, drummed much practice into me, but no independent power. I could run in the go-cart, but I could not take a step alone. I remember being often told that I did not mark correctly the 'half-tones' of the scale, ad I thought if those same half-tones were but marked plainly on the music before me how gladly would I strive to mark them with my voice. As it was, I was continually afraid of these 'half-tones.' I knew that they were on the staff before me somewhere, but I could not see them. No sooner had I, with great pains, taught my ear an interval, than I found the very next example of what seemed to be the same, to be quite a different thing by half a tone! I longed for some plan by which these puzzling deceivers might be named and detected with equal facility in all their shifting abodes on the staff."

At this time, when Mr. Curwen was about twenty-four years of age, he heard that a lady, the daughter of a clergyman at Norwich, was very successful in teaching the children of her father's schools to sing, and to sing in parts too, which was not so common in those days. Eager to learn, away went Mr. Curwen to Norwich, and from Miss Glover he received his first ideas of the notation which he afterwards elaborated and improved, and which is known to all the world as "Tonic Sol-fa." It was in her efforts to train a young man to teach the Sunday-school children that Miss Glover hit upon the plan of employing the initial letters of the Italian scale-syllables as a notation, and she had used it successfully for many hears. Mr. Curwen's delight knew no bounds. He reached at a leap the summit of his musical ambition. He could sing a humn tune at sight and pitch it himself! Then these two lovers of little children rejoiced together; between the old lady and the young man began a friendship which lasted while Miss Glover lived, and the grain of mustard-seed planted at Norwic grew into a great tree, in which millions of little birds are (literally) singing to-day.

For John Curwen to possess anything was to share it, and the next thing to be done was to pass on his newly-found power to others--to everybody! Next to the children came the thought of the poor folk, those who had neither time nor ability to master the difficulties of the staff notation, nor money to pay for music-lessons. Why should not the working man read music as he reads his newspaper? Why should not every cottage in England be bright with home-made music? It was a grand possibility--but it was a possibility; it was a beautiful dream--he would work for its fulfillment. He had discovered that the thing music was in itself easy and natural, it was only the medium that was difficult. A notation "for the people" must be easy--he had proved it; it must be true- he was sure of it; it must be cheap--he would see to that. The very idea was a lever with which to move the world--it took a quarter of a century of pressure, but it moved it.

No man was ever better equipped for the conduct of a great educational movement. Mental philosophy had ever been his favourite study, experimental teaching his hobby. He had taught little children to read; he had used beans, shells, and wooden bricks in teaching arithmetic long before the kindergarten movement made these plans common. "He passed through life a methodiser, a graduator, an educationist, having no special skill in any one subject, but maintaining the attitude of the learner, and pointing the way." Even the fact of not being naturally "musical" was in his favour. "He often said that if he had been quick at music, he would have been unable to sympathise with beginners and those possessing no natural advantages; and it would have been scarcely possible for one who had fallen into the lines of musical practice and prejudice to construct the Tonic Sol-fa system. At every point he took the view of an educationist. Musical tradition was of no account; everything was weighed, and nothing that could confuse a beginner was accepted." Then too, like his master, Pestalozzi, he was full of "the enthusiasm of humanity," while, unlike him, he had an "unrivalled capacity to govern."

The charm of his personality was irresistible, and attracted to him an ever-increasing number of devoted followers, who caught his spirit and threw themselves heart and soul into the propaganda. And we must remember that it was not merely for music, as music, that Mr. Curwen and his disciples laboured, but for music as the handmaid of education, of morals, of temperance, of religion.

When supplying his people with a musical literature, he was as scrupulous about the choice of the words as of the music. Of children's songs he wrote, "If you want children to sing well you must give them words which will stir a child's heart as well as music whil will suit a child's voice." Much of our best English glee and madrigal music was written to very questionable words, and a large proportion of the men's-voice music of Germany consists of songs in praise of drinking. For these, when he issued them in Sol-fa, he had new words written, for he said, "If that which is good in poetry is brought out with tenfold power by music, that which is bad receives a tenfold force of evil." In his own publishing firm the same tradition prevails to-day.

But we must hasten on. The first years were years of such struggle against prejudice as would have disheartened a man of less sturdy will or less faith in his mission. Sol-fa had neither Royal patronage nor Government support to back it, but it struck its roots down deep among the people, and because it was true it lived and few. Those who knew a little taught that little to those who knew less, and the spread of the method was very rapid, the estimated number of pupils rising from 2,000 in 1853 to 20,000 in 1856. Mr. Curwen meanwhile was directing all his energies to raising the quality of the teaher's work rather than to extending its area. At a very early date he insisted on that separation of the pupils into grades which is such a cardinal feature of the method. He relates how one evening he went early to the class-room and reserved some front seats, which he told the children were for those who could sing the first nine exercises of the book alone. These he playfully called his "little graduates." He afterwards prepared a carefully graded series of certificates, not for the glorification of the pupils, but to assist in "sorting: them, and to secure that each stage of the work was thoroughly mastered by the individual pupil.

The atmosphere of persecution is very bracing to the persecuted. It keeps up their spirits! It verily was the life of Sol-fa. When the musicians said "It is of no use except for very simple music," Mr. Curwen issued the Messiah, the Creation, and Mozart's 12th Mass in the letter notation. The Sol-faists took to the classics, and soon, like Oliver Twist, they asked for more. And they have gone on asking, till to-day the great house of Novello--which does not care a snap for Sol-fa as an educational movement, but merely supplies a demand--is printings its fine catalogue of choral music in Tonic Sol-fa, and issues all modern high-class works in the two notations simultaneously.

It was said, too, that the letter notation could not be applied to Harmony. But Mr. Curwen was already at work in this direction. First he learnt harmony himself, and then proceeded to remove its difficulties before he passed it on to his students, as we remove the hard and indigestible rind of a fruit before we give it to a child. The notation offered no difficulties; it solved many. But in Mr. Curwen the philosopher ever dominated the musician; he saw that the whole subject needed new handling, and the building up of his harmony method cost him much time and thought. He once said, "Remember that we do not make music simple. I is simple. We only remove the unnecessary trappings with which the grammarians have dressed it."

A professor of music in the West of England, who adopted the Sol-fa notation and method for his sight-singing classes and used it with great success in ladies' schools, was asked by Mr. Curwen's son whether he also used it for teaching harmony. He replied, launghingly, "My dear fellow, it wouldn't pay. It makes harmony so absurdly easy that our pupils wouldn't last long enough."

Musical form, counterpoint, composition, the teaching of orchestral instruments, were in turn brought into Mr. Curwen's laboratory. Every subject that he touched yielded to the power of his analytical mind, and re-formed itself under his orderly exposition, reaching his students in a language which they understood.

Who were his students, and where? All sorts of conditions of men, and in all parts of the kingdom. Welsh miners; precentors in Scotch village churches; hand-workers; tradesmen, clerks. For singing they met in classes, but the students of the higher branchers were mostly solitary, and for these Mr. Curwen hit upon the idea of "teaching by post." Several institutions claim the invention of this plan of reaching solitary students, but Mr. Curwen undoubtedly began it, as far bac as 1857. He conducted this correspondence at first himself, but it soon grew too heavy, and finally became a part of the work of the Tonic Sol-fa College. The chief work of the College is examining, issuing certificates, and conducting the teaching by correspondence, but every Midsummer it holds Normal Classes, attended by teachers from all parts of the United Kingdom, with some from America and the Colonies. They spend a month together in real hard work, studying voice-training, harmony, counterpoint, &c., but chiefly the "Art of Teaching." Herein does our College differ from all other musical colleges in England--and so far as we can learn, in Europe--that its students are taught the principles which underlie all teaching, and are exercises in the application of those principles to their special subject. They give real lessons to real classes in the presence of a master and of their fellow-students, receiving criticism and giving it in turn. They are practical teachers. They come from their own classes, bringing their difficulties with them; and they go back strengthened and encouraged for a new winter's work.

The relation of the Tonic Sol-fa notation to the staff has not yet been touched upon, and yet it is the point which will perhaps have most interest for the readers of the Parents Review. More than once, when recommending sol-fa for little people, I have been asked this rather funny question, "But will it help them in their music? Music, of course, always meaning the piano! Writing a few months ago in this magazine upon pianoforte teaching, I dwelt upon the fact that it does help very much indeed, especially if the pianoforte teacher be a Sol-faist, and able to appeal to the musical knowledge the little singer possesses, and to explain the relation of the new signs to the old facts. The ability of Sol-faists to develop into good staff-readers is proved by the fact that the ablest conductors welcome them into their choirs, and testify that they make the most reliable readers. Our students find their way to the Royal Academy of Music, and do well there, especially in harmony. More than one Mus. Doc. and several Mus. Bacs. have won their hoods through Tonic Solf-fa. These, as well as some of the most successful and popular concert and operatic singers, will tell you that while they do their work in the staff notation they "always think in Sol-fa."

So much for our higher work; but I would end, as I began, with the children. Two and a half millions of children in our public elementary schools are learning to sing by Tonic Sol-fa; but what about the others--the children of the middle and upper classes? Well, a curious thing has happened. Sol-fa has leaped, socially, from the elementary schools to the families of the "upper ten," skipping almost entirely the middle-class and private schools. One of our lady teachers has the whole of her time filled during the London season with "drawing-room classes" in Mayfair and Kensington, and in the autumn she pays visits to country houses, continuing her teaching. Others give to this as much time as they can spare fro still more important work, so that the extremes have met; but in high schools (with one or two exceptions) the sight singing will not bear testing, and the private schools are "out of it." Why is this? Why should a few children at the top and some millions at the bottom of the social ladder be the "privileged classes" in this matter of sight-singing? Why should these be free to roam over a wide field of beautiful part-music, whilst other millions in the middle are still sticking at a five-barred gate, though the key that will unlock it is all ready to their hands? Is it prejdice--or lack of knowledge?

These schools, too, will have their day. The educational wave is just beginning to touch the shores of the musical world. There is an honest desire among professional musicians to improve the quality of the teaching, a healthy dissatisfaction, a "feeling about" after better ways of presenting the subject. Here one and there another looks more closely at Sol-fa and says "there is something in it." Here one and there another cribs something from Sol-fa--and says nothing at all about it! Slowly but surely the Tonic Sol-fa leaven is leavening the whole lump.

Meanwhile the children are waiting.


Typed by Dawn Duran, Feb 2013