Merle J. Isaac (1898-1996): His Contributions and Influence on Music Published for the School Orchestra

By Tsugawa, Samuel | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Merle J. Isaac (1898-1996): His Contributions and Influence on Music Published for the School Orchestra


Tsugawa, Samuel, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


The rise and development of instrumental music instruction in the public schools in the United States remains a superlative accomplishment of the progressive education movement during the first half of the 20th century. (1) Between 1900-1920, pioneer orchestra teachers such as Will Earhart, Joseph Maddy, and Osbourne McConathy created opportunities for students to participate in school orchestras throughout the United States. (2) Their vision, energy, and political shrewdness helped create the demand for orchestras in the schools. In fact, according to Birge, expanding the school orchestra during this period had a profound impact on how future instrumental music instruction in the schools developed. The growth of elementary school orchestras, grade and high school bands, and other instrumental class instruction received its "foundational beginnings" from the high school orchestra being established and accepted at this point as a viable course of study. (3)

At the end of World War I, school orchestra and bands grew as thousands of musicians trained by the military returned home with the abilities to serve as teachers and conductors. (4) Improving instrumentation, which changed the musical identity of a school instrumental ensemble, and the contest movement "played a large role in the stimulation of instrumental music in the public schools." (5)

In spite of these early successes, however, a philosophical and pedagogical void regarding how to teach stringed instruments remained throughout the 1920s and 1930s. At the center of this void was the dearth of published music and method books for student orchestras.

In 1920, a committee appointed by the Music Supervisors National Conference combed through several thousand works to determine appropriate selections for student orchestras. The results of this survey yielded a list of only 302 selections. A revised study published five years later expanded the list to 582. (6) Prior to 1930, much of the music published proved too difficult for school groups to perform. (7) By 1929, however, teachers began to share a glimmer of optimism. G.F. McKay noted in the 1929 MENC Yearbook, "Genius will appear which will give its energy and enthusiasm to the very specific problem of orchestral literature for the schools."8 This seemingly prophetic statement foreshadowed a change in the musical landscape for school orchestras.

I believe that the genius and enthusiasm McKay spoke of exemplifies the life and works of Merle J. Isaac (1898-1996). Isaac remains to this day a strong influence on the philosophical, curricular, and musical development of public school orchestras. Isaac's prolific output of arrangements, compositions, and method books span sixty years (9) making his name familiar to most school orchestra directors. (10) In addition, Isaac's articles and books provide sage advice on arranging, teaching, string pedagogy, and managing programs; consequently, providing a pedagogical and leadership model for current music educators. In a time when age-appropriate music and method books were in their infancy, Isaac was one of the first string educators to teach string classes in a heterogeneous setting and combine the use of a method book and compositions and arrangements suited to beginners to teach musicianship through orchestra performance, a model of instrumental music teaching still prevalent today.

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The purpose of this article is to add to the scant body of knowledge about Isaac, his accomplishments, and contributions to music education. The availability of music and materials had a large impact on how school orchestras grew between 1930 and 1960. During this period, Isaac's arrangements, compositions, and method books provided a foundation for today's school orchestras to develop. This article will document Isaac's life and career, analyze his writings, philosophies, and music, and contextualize his contributions and influence on the modern school orchestra.

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