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Music Education in Schools

A History

by Kerry Meadows-Bonner

The development of Music Education has been a part of New Zealand’s Primary and Intermediate school curriculum since the nineteenth century and has always been viewed as a valued subject inextricably linked with New Zealand’s evolving education system.

In 1877, The Education Act established the Department of Education, although it didn’t officially begin to function until 1878. Since most settlers who came to our shores during the nineteenth century were British, their newly adopted country became an extension of Britain and a somewhat Utopian desire to ‘create a great nation’ here in all aspects, especially education.

In 1877, the Education Bill was passed in the House of Representatives, where the time was now right for the establishment of a national system of education in New Zealand. The Hon. Charles C Bowen was the driving force behind this bill stating, “Experience of all countries show, that it is absolutely the duty of the State to provide that primary education, which is the key to knowledge for every child.”

January 1st 1878, New Zealand’s education system came into force and with the exception of a secular clause, resembled the British system providing a national system of free, compulsory and secular primary education for all children, with subjects ranging from reading, writing, arithmetic, English Grammar and composition, geography, history, elementary science, drawing (object) lessons, sewing, needlework (for girls only) and vocal music.

Since colonists set about replicating ideas and teachings methods from their own British experiences, the aim was to give New Zealand children a similar education to that of English primary schools, so it came as no surprise that the subject of Vocal Music was officially sanctioned into the curriculum as it had been the sole medium of class music education in England during the nineteenth century.

Vocal Music as a subject was created in English schools as an extension to improving the music in church services, with the intention that if young people acquired sufficient ‘vocal’ skills, it would encourage them to retain and develop musical abilities and that music would exert a ‘civilised influence’ on youth of the working class. In schools, it served to encourage the introduction of chosen songs and hymns, to impart a ‘moral’ lesson to the singers who performed them. Music was not valued for its intrinsic worth, but rather as a beneficial influence in education.

It wasn’t until 1887 that a parliamentary committee was established to investigate New Zealand’s education system, with an aim to determine whether or not expenditure could be reduced due to growing economic difficulties. The committee eventually concluded two things, that the core subjects introduced into the education system, reading, writing, arithmetic and vocal music were indeed essential, and music, drawing and elementary science be taught by specialist teachers.

While the ‘extra’ subjects of elementary science and drawing were seen as tools to enhance broader knowledge, singing was not viewed in the same light. Of course, the purpose of singing in the curriculum won stating numerous beneficial reasons, like the moral virtues of cultivating ‘higher and better feelings’ of children, and to foster artistic aspirations, leading to true refinement of one’s character, and singing for voice training. One Taranaki teacher stated that vocal music in the curriculum had “done great good in improving the quality of tone in reading and recitation”

Quality of tone in speech was very important to educators during this period, and vocal music was a way of leading children to learn instrumentation and define aural perception. An Auckland singing master, Thomas Cranwell believed that singing lessons were essential in leaning this valuable skill, stating, “If children’s ears are not trained, practise in learning to play an instrument, say, a violin, is useless, except in the presence of the instructor.”

This was an important consideration since many people played instruments during the nineteenth century, with the Nelson school of music established in 1894. However, despite the exclusion of instruments from schools both from the 1878 and revised syllabus of 1885, there are reports of a drum and fife band had been formed in the Hawkes Bay, Ormond district in 1888 and another at Albany Street School in Dunedin. In 1890, a school orchestra established at Auckland Grammar School performed for speech and prize days.

Despite vocal music’s elevated status in the curriculum, at the turn of the century, inspector (generals of schools) at times appeared ambivalent towards the subject, viewing it as an opportunity for relaxation and recreation and so, a new implementation of a school examination system was put in place, that welcomed some new changes but continued to add strain on teachers and students alike. One of the new changes was abolishing of individual standard ‘pass’ on vocal music liberating teachers from external examinations, although internal examinations were still to be held three times a year.

Vocal Music was then further developed in schools with the introduction of gramophones that provided a means in musical appreciation and further education and although many educators were initially against the idea with concerns over it making musical education ‘too easy’ for both teacher and those taught, enthusiasm soon grew with witnessing in regard to the value of the gramophone for educational purposes. In 1925 gramophones were made available in schools through subsidies, courtesy of the New Zealand Department of Education.

Since musical appreciation was acknowledged as an entirely new realm in school music, each Education District was supplied with a series of nine gramophone records on musical appreciation and lectures showed how a musical theme is developed, how musical phrases express metal moods and how melodies are built up. Educational catalogues (by the Columbia Gramophone Company Ltd) provided a wide choice of records from which teachers could make their own selections for classroom use. Brief historical information for the teacher’s benefit were also provided, simple music form in folk song and folk-dance, the age of polyphony, and Tudor keyboard and instrumental music (including compositions by such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Schumann and Wagner)

Interestingly, the Department of Education stated that pupils should be taught “love good music” through classical compositions and teachers were cautioned to not attempt anything too ambitious in the beginning stages since pupils might develop a ‘distaste for music worth listening to’

It was important for the Department of Education that children learn to discriminate between ‘attractive pieces’ and ‘rubbish the flooded the markets of that era’ with the assertion that musical appreciation taught pupils how to love the best in music only therefore knowing how to rightly value it. Popular music styles were viewed as ‘passing fads’ which held no educational value.

From 1969 onwards however, that stance changed and fostering appreciation of various styles of music from Folk, Rock, Electronic music was introduced promoting ‘tolerance and insight to other interests and life-styles. Significantly, this included a song from the 1967 Broadway Rock Musical, Hair (one of the first musicals to feature naked performers) the inclusion of this song in a broadcast booklet was a reflection of how standards had changed amongst educational officials and the preoccupation of songs with ‘good moral taste’ that had persisted school music for the last one hundred years was no longer an issue.

Today in the 21st century, technology and apps provide exciting and developing tools for music educators in schools. The benefit of music education continues to be beneficial for all, not just those with talent. Although music education and its appreciation has drastically evolved within schools, how it is taught, what is taught and the multitude of musical genres and instrumentation, one thing remains the same time and time again, that learning music helps children to achieve better academically and socially and continues to be an integral subject in the education system, today, tomorrow and in the future.