Back to School (100+ years ago)

Submitted by shawreb on
Rebecca Shaw, Music Archivist

In the spirit of the back-to-school season, this week’s blog features three historical pedagogical sources to pique your interest. Selected at random from our digital collection of rare books, these instructional manuals will teach you how to sing, answer all of your burning questions about the piano, and open your eyes to a new (or rather, old) career path: accompanying silent films.

The Tonic Sol-Fa Music Reader by Theodore F. Seward and B.C. Unseld

New York: The Biglow & Main Co., 1890, [MT30 .S5 1890]

A textbook for learning the tonic sol-fa system of musical notation and sight singing, this book prepares its reader for certification by the Tonic Sol-fa College of London (succeeded by the Curwen College of Music). If you are unfamiliar with tonic sol-fa notation, challenge yourself to learn the basics and sing or play one of the many songs found within the reader’s pages.

The authors learned about the tonic sol-fa system while on tour in the United Kingdom with the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1875-1878) and the book claims to have been published with the approval of the systems ‘founder’ John Curwen. The tonic sol-fa system was actually invented by the English teacher Sarah Ann Glover (1786-1867), during her time teaching in schools and training the children’s choir at her father’s church. She published her method in Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational (1835), which Curwen then adapted and published in 1842 without her approval. Read more about the tonic sol-fa system on Grove Music Online.

You may also want to explore Alexander Thom Cringan’s The Teacher’s Handbook of the Tonic Sol-fa System (Toronto: Canada Publishing Company, [1889]). Cringan (1860-1931) was a “Graduate and Licentiate of the Tonic Sol-Fa College, London, England, and Superintendent of Music in Toronto Public Schools.”

Piano Playing with Piano Questions Answered by Josef Hofmann

Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Co., 1920, [MT220 .H753 1920a]

Maybe you have some questions about the piano. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957) offers his reader some insights in this volume, which combines his manual on Piano Playing (1907) and Piano Questions Answered (1909), originally published as a series of articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Read about his studies with Anton Rubinstein, starting on page 57, or get answers to some of your burning piano-related questions: How high should the piano stool be?; What is the matter with my scales?; Should I stop biting my fingernails?; How do I overcome stage fright?; Is the piano the hardest instrument?, and many more.

Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures by Edith Lang and George West

The Boston Music Company, 1920, [MT737 .L15 1920 MUSI]

Do you have mental alertness, musical resourcefulness, and a wealth of repertoire in your back pocket? If so, you may be called upon to provide a live soundtrack for a silent film (if this was the early twentieth century). After all, what is a film without the music?  Edith Lang (1885-1969) and George West will tell you all you need to know in this practical manual.

They even suggest some repertoire for you, based on the theme or mood of the moment. Is it a nature scene? Why not play The Swan (Le cygne) by Camille Saint-Saëns. An impending tragedy? Try the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonie Pathetique. If you are lucky, a few days before you are due to perform, you should receive cue-sheet with timings and song selections. Make sure to brush up on your improvisation skills and don’t be afraid of a little silence.

Further reading

Check out some of our other digitized pedagogical sources on the Internet Archive or browse our Music Pedagogy collection in the Archives.

Stay tuned next week for a post from our Head Librarian Jan Guise on what to expect at the Music Library for Fall 2020.

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