The Singing By-Ways: Origins of Class Music Education in South Australia

By Southcott, Jane | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Singing By-Ways: Origins of Class Music Education in South Australia


Southcott, Jane, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


A fundamental question in research concerns how ideas and practices move from one context to another, one culture to another, or one generation to another. Historians seek to answer such questions in all disciplines, and music education is no exception.

Throughout the nineteenth century, as part of the process of colonization, educational practices were introduced into both schools and communities throughout the world. In South Australia, as elsewhere, the tonic sol-fa method became the mainstay of the music curriculum in state schools for more than sixty years. However, before its adoption in the mandated school syllabus, the method was apparently established in the community through churches and their Sunday schools. Music was seen as an adjunct to worship and religious conversion. South Australia was not the only colony to introduce the tonic solfa method, as the pedagogy traveled widely with missionaries and colonists across the world. It is appealing to seek to identify responsible individuals but it is not always possible. The historical record is not always complete, however, it is important to attempt to discover and understand what occurred. A fellow researcher described the process of historical enquiry in this way:

   The reader must be warned that we will make several detours and
   deviations along the way, for we have tangled stories to weave,
   intriguing digressions to pursue, idiosyncratic personages to call
   upon and obscure volumes to sift. But this is what history is, the
   dirt roads and singing by-ways often having more to interest us
   than the straight, black highway. (1)

This example of South Australia illustrates the use of music as an educative device in the service of church and, ultimately, state.

Tonic sol-fa Method

In 1841, at a conference of Sunday school teachers in Hull, England, there was an extended discussion on the poor state of congregational singing. John Curwen (1816-1880), a young nonconformist (Congregational) minister and invited speaker on educational matters, was commissioned to recommend "some simple method" of teaching singing. (2) Curwen found the teachings of Sarah Glover (1786-1867), whose system he adapted and extended to form the tonic sol-fa method which employed the solmization syllables doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah and te. The tonic of a major key was given as doh, that of a minor key as lah. In the notational system, degrees of the scale were represented by their initial. Upper or lower octaves were identified by figures above or below the letter. (3) Curwen emphasised that a note should be heard mentally before it was sung. (4) Notes were placed by their relative position within a key, not by their absolute pitch or by reliance on a given musical pattern. A chart called a "modulator" was used, which contained the solmization syllables placed atop each other. (5) Each degree of the scale was also represented by a hand sign. In the specialized notation system, rhythmic values were represented by bar lines and punctuation marks. (6) The notation could represent considerable musical complexity and obviated the need for expensive staff notation publishing.

The tonic sol-fa system was an educationally sound approach to the teaching of sight singing through aural training and a carefully sequenced program of music learning and activity. Curwen had, from his earliest attempts to promulgate the method, targeted "meetings of Sunday School teachers, the clergy, mission and temperance workers, and evening classes for adults anxious for "self-improvement." (7) Curwen's first published text on the method was Singing for Schools and Congregations, published in 1843. Between 1848 and 1852 the method was promulgated energetically and widely. (8) The Tonic Solfa Reporter, a journal that supported the method and its teachers, was first published on a trial basis in 1851 but begun in earnest in 1853. (9)

The Tonic sol-fa Method in Early South Australian Schools

The tonic sol-fa system was formally established in the South Australia state-supported school curriculum in 1892 when the Education Requirements "required" singing and music gained a minor place in teacher qualifications.

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