Sunday, August 19, 2018

Thank Lowell Mason


“If you can read this, thank a music teacher” says the bumper sticker with some music notes on it.  But there should be another bumper sticker that reads:

“If you are a music teacher, you can thank Lowell Mason.”

Lowell Mason was born in 1792 and as a young adult, worked at a bank in Savannah, Georgia while collecting material for his first published book of sacred hymns. In 1827, he moved to Boston, led several church choirs and became president of the Handel and Haydn Society. He devoted himself to teaching singing, both sacred and secular works, continued to compile hymns and composed some of his own. He founded a singing school for children that he taught for free. His first class of 8 children performed in public to such acclaim that a few years later, the school had grown to some five hundred children. In 1837, he volunteered to teach singing classes in the newly-created first American public schools and one year later, the school board voted to include music in the public school curriculum and named Mason superintendent of music.

So if you are a music teacher in the public schools, you can thank Lowell Mason for your job. 180 years later, music still is theoretically part of all public school curriculums. The reality is quite different due to our country’s callous indifference in fully funding education and the unspoken agreement that music is a frill to be cut first in any budget crunch. In California, a thriving public school music curriculum was effectively cut dead by the property tax initiative Proposition 13 some 40 years ago and the road to recovery has been slow, to put it mildly. Perhaps all California earthquakes in the past decades are really Lowell Mason turning in his grave.

Meanwhile, I discovered in Richard Crawford’s book America’s Musical Life that not only was Mr. Mason an effective mover and shaker and visionary teacher/ musician, but that his pedagogical principles were pretty well-aligned with the Orff approach that has revolutionized American General Music programs in the past 50 years or so. The Orff practice of sound before symbol, of making music over learning about music, of experience before theory, of developing a clear sequence of emerging rhythmic, melodic, expressive skills, were all things he thought about some 60 years before Carl Orff was born. His pedagogical principles, summarized here by another music pedagogue who worked with Pestalozzi, were:

1.     Teach children to sing before they learn the written notes.
2.     Make students active rather than passive learners, by having them imitate sounds and observe their properties
3.     Teach one subject at a time, such as rhythm, melody or expression and practice each separately
4.     Help students master each step through practice before moving on to the next
5.     Teach principles and theories after the practice.

Isn’t that interesting?

Thanks, Mr. Mason, for your hard work and clear vision. Despite all obstacles, there still is some effective music education happening in this country and we’re still working on carrying that ball further down the field.

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