The definitive argument that music instruction belongs in the core curriculum of the public schools was made 168 years ago in a petition to the Boston School Board by composer and singing master Lowell Mason and his compatriots in the then newly organized Boston Academy of Music.
Ever since then, like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up hill only to see it roll down again, generations of music educators and advocates have been essentially repeating Mason and companys major points, to wit:
Musical propensity is not a special gift of the talented few but is an essential part of what makes us human. Therefore every person can and should learn to read and make music proficiently. The active study of music quickens the intellect, cultivates the emotions, and (with singing especially) strengthens the breath and vital organs of the body. Finally, music is a universal language which serves to promote human understanding, cooperation and community.
For all the true purposes of life, it is of more importance , a hundredfold, to feel rightly than to think profoundly, states this document of 1836, which Northampton native Edward Bailey Birge, in his classic History of Public School Music in the United States, refers to as the magna carta of music education. On the merits of that document, the Boston School Board in 1838 voted to add music education to the public school curriculum for the first time ever in America.
The litany of the benefits of music education has changed very little since 1838. Whats sad is it has had to become a regular litany, perennially recycled at school budget time as it was last year in Northampton when music educators, backed by parents and others, were forced to launch a major public relations offensive to spare the elementary music program from the budget axe. They made a good case with tried and true arguments and won at least a temporary stay. Unfortunately, with school and city budgets pared down to the bone, and an override of Proposition 2 1/2 looming, it looks like they may have to repeat the ritual again this year.
Pitiful, isnt this, in a town which from pre-revolutionary days was known as a singing community and which became, in 1868, one of the first to follow Bostons lead in making music instruction part of the core curriculum? That year the city board mandated two hours per week of music instruction in all schools. Compare that to the 40 minutes each week for elementary music instruction that was salvaged for this school year.
Miss Beatrice Fitts
Perhaps the people of Northampton might be willing to dig a little deeper in their pockets to put music education here on a permanent footing if they were more aware of Northamptons prominent place in the history of public school music instruction. Thats what Beatrice V. Bea Fitts, of 38 Kimball St., in Florence, formerly supervisor of vocal music in the city, is thinking. At 93, she has lost none of her zeal for the topic.
Prompted by the recent debate on the elementary music program and by the advent of the citys 350th anniversary celebration, Miss Fitts has been putting in order her small but rich archive of materials pertaining to the history of music education in Northampton. She would be glad if either Forbes Library or Historic Northampton would provide a permanent home for her collection.
Most of what she has are materials relating to a monster Tercentenary Concert which she organized and conducted in May of 1954 in celebration of the citys 300th anniversary year. She had just started in as vocal supervisor that previous fall when she was informed that she would be expected to put on a musical program for the municipal birthday bash. The concert turned out to be a blowout debut, and in retrospect it stands as the great moment, of her 27-year career here. It is a moment that resonates still.
Three hundred students, representing every classroom in the city school system, took part in the concert which, to accommodate the 2,400 people who showed up to hear it, was simultaneously performed in the auditorium and the gym, with groups of readers and performers criss-crossing between the two venues.
After the concert, Miss Fitts carefully filed away every scrap of documentation she could get a hold of including photographs, large reel tape recordings of all the performances, and all of her painstaking research notes and the brief biographical and historical sketches on the history of music in the local schools which she had written and arranged to have recited during the concert in between the musical numbers. Using some of the skills she had learned as a history major at Bridgewater State College (Class of 33), she prospected for information on each of her predecessors by sifting through her well thumbed edition of Birges history and also through decades worth of School Committee minutes.
It is a tribute to Northamptons considerable influence in the development of public school music education in the early years of the last century that Miss Fitts own life had been affected long before she knew Northampton existed.
Her former music teacher and later supervisor and mentor in Quincy, Maude W. Howes, had been one of scores of music supervisors from all across the country who had attended the prestigious Northampton Institute for Musical Pedagogy. The institute was relocated here from Westfield at the turn of the century and continued to operate here each summer until 1929, when it relocated to New York and became the Skidmore College Summer School of Music.
The institute promulgated the Sterrie Weaver method of teaching music reading, named for the teacher at Westfield Normal School who founded the institute. State of the art for the time, this was a novel system that distilled the basics of reading musical notes, keys, metrics and time signatures into a simple sequence of visual aids on slips of paper. It was by this method that Miss Fitts had learned from Howes to read music in grammar school. She used the method herself when she first started teaching. Among her keepsakes is a rare Sterrie Weaver teachers kit, complete with a full set of slips and precise instructions to the teacher for administering the lessons and for marking each students progress.
My favorite item in Miss Fitts papers is Ralph Baldwins credo. Baldwin, a native of Easthampton, was the second music supervisor in the city, succeeding Henry W. Jones. It was Baldwin who brought the institute from Westfield and as its dean quickly developed it into a nationally known organization before he left, in 1904, to achieve greater glory as a music educator and choral leader in Hartford and beyond.
His credo is a little ornate in the phrasing, but it zeros in on the critical connection between music study and what today some term emotional intelligence, a dearth of which is so evident in the breakdown of civility all around us.
Teach the children the fundamentals of the art of music thoroughly, Baldwin wrote. Expertly teach them to read music fluently, to sing beautifully, so that music may become to them a common, and intimate, language for self-expression.
But above all foster the development of the emotional nature of Americas children. Train them to be keenly sensitive to the varying shades and higher aspirations of emotion as expressed in music so that they may become sensitive to those spiritual influences beyond the finite horizon, the appreciation of which will bring to their lives a regenerating force and power for better living.
Free-lance writer Judson Brown, a resident of Northampton, is a former newspaper reporter.