Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

The Decline and Revival of Music Education in New South Wales Schools, 1920-1956

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

The Decline and Revival of Music Education in New South Wales Schools, 1920-1956

Article excerpt


This paper explores music in New South Wales (NSW) state primary schooling from 1920 to 1956, through the lens of music teaching and practice, building on the research of Dugdale (1) and of Stevens (2) into music in NSW state primary schools prior to 1920. Music and singing were synonymous in the school curriculum from the beginning of public education in 1848 until 1920. (3) While music was only a small component of what was taught in schools, it was valued for its extra-musical benefits, as a moral, disciplinary and aesthetic force, and for its ability to help mould children's character as future adults in society.

Around the turn of the century, NSW state schools were musical places. Thousands of children could be assembled, at short notice, to form choirs to perform at celebratory or commemorative events:4 a choir of over 5,000 children performed in 1897 for the Jubilee Celebrations of Queen Victoria, and the handpicked choir of three thousand sang at the Public School's Patriotic Display in 1900; (5) a colossal choir of ten thousand public school children performed at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia, (6) and a choir of similar size performed during the visit of the Prince of Wales visit to Sydney in 1920. (7) These choirs sang complex musical pieces. If those in, for example, 1919 who reported on NSW schooling had been asked to talk about music, they would have described a typical scenario where classroom teachers took responsibility for teaching music, and where overall a good quality of vocal music was produced. The developmental learning sequence would have described infants' classrooms where children were taught singing 'by ear'; as children grew older and progressed to higher classes, vocal music was taught using the Tonic Sol-fa method, and in upper primary classrooms, children were taught to read vocal music from staff notation. They might also have talked about choral singing being important in commemorative or celebratory events, noted that church choirs and amateur choral societies comprised men and women who had learnt vocal music at school. They would not have mentioned instrumental music in schools, as this was not in the syllabi of the time, and was only occasionally present. (8)

Despite this healthy situation, after 1920 music remained this way in only some NSW schools, other schools not meeting the minimal requirements for an adequate music course. (9) This paper draws on the annual reports of District Inspectors, Superintendents, Supervisors of Music and their assistants (10) to examine this apparent decline of music after 1920, and its subsequent revival.

Vocal music in school, 1920 to 1956

The period of decline--1920 to 1932

In his 1920 Annual Report on music, (11) Theodore Tearne noted improvements in the tone of children's singing and in their better use of the head voice, matters of paramount importance to him throughout his period as Superintendent. The main findings of his 1919 and 1920 Annual Reports echoed his 1918 report: there had been improvements in voice production, but sight-reading was still weak. In 1918 he proposed a practical 'remedy' to improve sight-reading--lesson plans detailing what should be taught for both half-hour music lessons each week for each class from Third to Sixth Class. More specifically, he proposed that one lesson per week be devoted to scales, the modulator and sight-reading, while the second lesson should focus on songs. (12)

Tearne's 1920 report identified two problem areas. First, while many teachers were willing to teach a vocal music program, many lacked a correct ear and confidence in their own ability. Tearne recommended that headmasters place such classes with a confident teacher, with the weaker teacher assisting. Secondly, sight-reading was weak: Tearne recommended the focus of the one weekly music lesson on sight-reading, to be enforced by the headmaster. …

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