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. It will also include personal vignettes from Isaac's colleagues that reflect the admiration and affection that many had for Isaac during his long career.
For many years, music education historians have dedicated much of their time and energy to a large-scale view of the contributions of relatively few dedicated educators. The works of historians including Edward Bailey Birge, Alan Britton, Carol Pemberton, James Keene, Michael Mark, and Charles Gary provide valuable insights about music education's founders, early leaders, organizations, and the effects of music education as a major movement in the United States. Valuable as these histories are, Humphreys labels the histories of these scholar-historians as homogenous, emphasizing leading individuals, programs, and institutions at the expense of rank-and-file music educators. (11)
According to Rousmaniere, education historians rarely write about the life histories of influential teachers. This narrative vacuum of rank-and-file teachers creates a deafening historical silence on their work; therefore, "by neglecting teachers' accounts of their experience, historians have often misread the actual conditions of teachers' work, and have underestimated their ability to shape schooling in many different ways." (12) Bringing the voices of classroom teachers out of the shadows and telling their life histories provides a method of rescuing this silent history. (13) Consequently, the life histories of teachers may teach us something about training, recruiting, retaining, and continuing to foster the professional development of music teachers. (14)
In spite of Isaac's prolific output of compositions and arrangements and his singular influence upon music published for school orchestras, few have written about Isaac and his contributions to string teaching. (15) When he died in 1996, no complete biography or bibliography of his nearly 1,000 compositions, arrangements, or writings existed. Laura Reed, editor of the American String Teacher in 1996, writes:
I discovered how little has been written in music education periodicals and books about Merle Isaac and his contributions to string teaching. I hope future students and music education researchers will consider compiling a complete biography and bibliography of Merle Isaac. Such a project would be a welcome addition to the current body of historical literature on string teaching. (16)
Isaac's close friends Alexander and Frances Harley, founders of MENC's Tri-M Music Honor Society, provide rare glimpses into the life of Merle Isaac. The Harleys, along with Isaac, were lifelong music educators serving the profession with distinction together for nearly fifty years. Isaac began collaborating with the Harleys when Merle and Alexander served together in the In-and-About Music Educators' Club (a precursor to state music educators' associations) during the 1930s. Prior to his death in 1989, Alexander Harley interviewed Isaac for an article in The Instrumentalist magazine. Eight years later, a year after Isaac's passing on 11 March 1996, Alexander Harley's wife Frances wrote a fitting biographical tribute to Isaac in the American String Teacher entitled "Merle, Magical Musician."
Walter S. Wolodkin, a friend and colleague of Isaac, offers a sad vignette to this lack of research on Isaac. He laments, "I was honored to play in a string quartet for his funeral service. Sadly, very few people were there. And, I was not able to find any newspaper stories about him--one of the most published arrangers in America." (17) (Despite Wolodkin's remark, it should be noted that the Chicago Tribune in fact ran Isaac's obituary.)
"We Learn by Doing:" 1898-1929
Merle John Isaac was born in the rural community of Pioneer, Iowa on 12 …
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Publication information: Article title: Merle J. Isaac (1898-1996): His Contributions and Influence on Music Published for the School Orchestra. Contributors: Tsugawa, Samuel - Author. Journal title: Journal of Historical Research in Music Education. Volume: 32. Issue: 1 Publication date: October 2010. Page number: 57+. © 2007 Ithaca College, School of Music. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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