Violin Online: Classes for the Masses

History of Violin Pedagogy: How Did They Learn?

Classes for the Masses in England

by Dr. Robin Kay Deverich

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution signaled abrupt changes in the lives of many. Changes in social and economic order occurred as men and women, accustomed to agricultural pursuits, moved to cities to work in factories and other forms of large-scale industrial production.

In cities such as London, class distinctions divided the wealthy upper-class from members of the lower-class. In the 1820's, philanthropic efforts by the upper-class sought to educate and improve the lives of lower-class factory workers through educational organizations called Mechanics Institutes and other endeavors such as "Concerts for the People." Although the curriculum offered in Mechanics Institutes was initially designed to upgrade the literacy of adult factory workers, this utilitarian concept was liberalized and eventually led to the inclusion of art and music courses at most institutes. Percy Young, author of A History of British Music, commented on the ulterior motives of the upper-class to placate workers through such courses: "The widespread cultivation of choral music by the working classes (happily self-supporting) was also approved as an aid to pacification of unruly temperaments or tranquilization of unhappy conditions."[43]

Hundreds of thousands of adults participated in sight-singing classes, and some British music scholars have described this time period as "The Sight-Singing Century."[44]

"Concerts for the People" were also designed to upgrade the quality of life for the working masses. Mackerness, author of A Social History of English Music, spoke of these concerts:

The 'Music for the People' campaign, which had a considerable success in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, was prompted by the desire to show that the underprivileged had the ability to appreciate good music if only it were offered to London such organizations as the Kyrle Society, the People's Entertainment Society and the National Sunday League were formed to break down the barriers which seemingly existed between the lower classes and the full enjoyment of music. [45]

Scholes addressed the reason why free or inexpensive cultural opportunities were provided during this era:

Perhaps all large cities have, at one time or another had some organization of this nature [Concerts for the People]. The MT Century was the People's Century. There was a great desire to give the People their share of the good things of life and also, as in the Mainzer, Hullah and Curwen [sight-singing] movement, to help them to make their own good things.[46]

Massive participation in sight-singing classes and inexpensive "Concerts for the People," led to the introduction of violin classes for adults. Many of these early adult violin classes were patterned after sight-singing classes. For example, violin classes were offered at the Birkbeck Mechanics Institute in 1839, as well as at other locations such as "classes for amateurs" held at the People's Place School of Music in 1887. Keith Adams, author of a series of articles on adult violin classes in England, described the connection between singing classes and violin classes: "Singing classes were common and the transition to violin classes necessitates no great difference in teaching technique."[47]

A reviewer for the April 1882 edition of The Musical Times described an adult violin classes at the Midland Mechanics Institute in Birmingham, England:

Some 400 or 500 raw recruits may be seen fiddling like one, in more or less correct unison, every Saturday evening, at the modes cost of one penny per lesson! The ordeal must be a trying one to the musical sensibilities of the teacher, Mr. Rickard, but it is scarcely so hard has his experience on the opening night of the class, when some 200 embryo Paganinis presented themselves for instruction with only 40 instruments among them. The establishment of this violin class has naturally given a great impetus to the demand for the choicest Cremonas which can be produced at a price not exceeding 5s. 6d. each and the warehouses of most of the local instrument-dealers have been fairly cleared of resin. Few of these enthusiastic tyros, it is to be feared, will be qualified for places in the Festival band next August; but it is at all events satisfactory to know that there is so much orchestral raw material in a town which has not hitherto been conspicuous for its devotion to the instrumental branch of the musical art.[48]

Heated debate regarding the merits of violin classes raged in British music periodicals. Some musicians apparently felt such classes threatened their livelihood as the following 1896 article indicates:

Local music teachers view with concern the gradual development of the teaching functions of the musical section of the Midland Institute, which has this season expanded into a regular academy of music, at nominal fees for students, with which no private teacher can pretend to compete.The nomination of Mr. Stockley as honorary principal of the school is a guarantee for the soundness of the scheme and the quality of the instruction, but it need scarcely be pointed out how seriously the success of the undertaking must affect the position and earnings of unattached members of the musical profession here.[49]

A similar view was expressed by a violin teacher who stated that he could not compete with the low terms of group violin classes:

I was some five or six years ago, for a short time in a town where there was a musical school, and I was obliged to leave it. In the east End when pupils come to me and ask my terms they say: 'Oh, I can go to the People's Palace and learn much cheaper.' It is ruining the profession. I do not say it is wrong, but I think we are bound to hear both sides. The profession in London is done for, in fact, by these schools being opened here.[50]

Some violin teachers expressed favor for group violin instruction:

I have had 35 years experience in teaching the violin, both privately and in classes, and think this total condemnation of the class system quite uncalled for. All teachers will certainly agree that lessons received in a class will not be as good as those received privately. But given a good teacher, there is no reason why the violin may not be taught satisfactorily in classes. As sufficient proof of this, 15 of my pupils, all taught in classes, passed the college of Violinists' examination for different grades last June. There are thousands of violin students throughout the country who are quite unable to pay anything but a small fee for lessons, and but for this system would be unable to get lessons at all. It is not everyone who can afford to take lessons from 'the best professor in town.' No doubt there are many fourth class teachers.who spoil every pupil they get, whether they have them as private pupils, or in classes.[51]

Many violin classes appear to have used traditional violin literature in teaching students, as indicated by the following description of the instructional material used in Birkbeck Institute adult violin classes in 1896:

Beginners. In this class the method of holding the violin and drawing the bow correctly, and the rudiments of violin playing generally, are explained in the most simple manner suitable for those having no previous knowledge either of music or the instrument. Elementary and Advanced. Study of fantasias, concertos, duets, trios, and exercises by the best masters, including Kayser, Mazas, De Beriot, Alard, Krommer, Kalliwoda, Papini, Rameau, Wieniawski, Hauser, Spohr, Dancla, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Pleyel, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, etc.[52]

Although the immense popularity of sight-singing classes resulted in the 1872 incorporation of sight-singing classes into British schools, instructional material used in adult violin classes was purportedly too difficult for children. T. Mee Pattison, musical advisor of the London-based J. G. Murdoch & Co. music publishing house and instrument manufacturer, enlisted the support of his company to promote violin class instruction for schoolchildren by providing all of the supplies needed: violins, teaching materials, and teachers, for one inclusive, inexpensive price. Students were allowed to pay for their violins outfits in installments---generally, one shilling per week. This method was named in honor of the first group violin class to experiment with this approach: the All Saints' National School in Maidstone, England, and is sometimes known as the Maidstone Movement.

In 1897, the Murdoch Company formed the Maidstone School Orchestra Association (MSOA) to promote this method. At the height of the MSOA's popularity, 400,000 British schoolchildren, one in ten of the state school population, participated in Maidstone School Orchestra classes.[54]

Charles H. Farnsworth, a prominent American music educator expressed his amazement at the results achieved by Maidstone violin classes.

I heard a concert given by the school orchestras in and about London, in Alexandra Palace, where 1450 youthful instrumentalists took part. It is astonishing to see what can be done under these conditions. The idea of teaching the violin in classes strikes one at first as almost impossible, but here is a movement where just this thing is done, not in school time, but outside, yet under the direction of school authorities..It is estimated that in London alone there are over 300 of these violin classes with an average membership of twenty-five and that there is scarcely a town in England where there are not one or more of these classes.[55]

A similar view was expressed by a violin teacher who stated that he could not compete with the low terms of group violin classes:

Significant events in the developmental path of the Maidstone Movement include the formation of the National Union of School Orchestras (NUSO) in 1905. One of the primary objectives of the NUSO was: "To promote the study and practice of instrumental music among the school children and young people of the Kingdom, by encouraging the formation of school orchestras, and so to elevate the musical taste of the nation as a whole." (NUSO Objective 1). It is interesting to note that this objective is supportive of all orchestral instruments, not the violin exclusively, and a violoncello part to the Maidstone Violin Tutor was published in 1909.[56]

Although cellos were occasionally mentioned in reviews of concert performances of MSOA classes, the cello never appears to have achieved the popularity of the violin in MSOA classes. The MSOA also advertised that they would assist schools in the formation of classes for violin, cello, mandolin, brass bands, military bands, drum and fife bands and bugle bands,[57] but there are no indications that any of these instrumental classes achieved notable success. Activities sponsored by the NUSO included: combined group concerts on local and regional levels, and annual music festivals which were held 1905-1938 at such locations such as London's Crystal Palace and Royal Albert Hall. The number of students involved in annual music festivals ranged from 700 in 1905 to 6,650 in 1914 ( e.g. the NUSO's 1914 Annual Music Festival at the Crystal Palace featured 3,650 intermediate students performing en masse in an afternoon concert, and 3,000 advanced pupils in an evening concert.[58]

The NUSO also provided opportunities for teachers to share teaching methods; established a system of supervision (inspectors periodically visited each class); sponsored scholarships and awards, and made efforts to encourage students to continue their participation in music once they left day school (a British term comparable to elementary school in the United States). One of the NUSO's objectives states: "To keep in touch with young people after leaving the Day School by means of Evening Classes and Orchestral Societies." (NUSO Objective Seven) NUSO Evening Violin Classes were established in 1906 in various locations such as the Croyland Old Scholars'Orchestral Society in Edmonton to help alleviate problems former MSOA violin students encountered after they graduated such as: "the pupils were not sufficiently advanced to join an adult orchestra" and "home practice was often inconvenient and sometimes monotonous."[59]

An article in the school orchestra periodical published by the NUSO, The Young Musician, describes the philosophy underlying MSOA classes: music is for all children, not just the talented few.

Music should occupy a place in the education of all children, whether they possess what is commonly called an "ear for music" or not. Such children, even though they may never achieve technical skill, will be familiarised [sic] with harmony and rhythm. This will unconsciously tend to better-offered minds, greater gracefulness of movement, and more harmonious lives generally.[60]

Features that appear to have contributed to the popularity of the Maidstone violin classes include: convenient packaging of method books, music and instructional materials; the availability of inexpensive; machine-made violins in a variety of sizes (such as small violins for young students); performance opportunities for students to play in large group concerts; and the aforementioned philosophy that music is for all children, not just the talented few.

It is interesting to note that many of these features are shared with another violin methodology: the Suzuki Method. Pre-packaged commercial features appear to have contributed to the success of both methods, and as a side-note, it is plausible that Shinichi Suzuki may have heard of the MSOA violin classes through the travels of his father, Masakichi. Masakichi Suzuki founded the Suzuki Violin Factory in Nagoya, Japan in 1900, and by 1910, Masakichi's factory was producing 65,800 violins per year, a number that one author claimed made the Suzuki factory one of the largest violin factories in the world.[61]

In 1910, Masakichi went to England for five months (he also visited other European countries).[62] Although it is not clear whether or not Masakichi's trip to England was for research, pleasure or business, his trip to England in 1910 coincided with a time when over 400,000 British pupils participated in Maidstone Movement classes. It is also interesting to note that Masakichi exported violins from his factory, thus he may have explored the possibility of selling to British and European sources, or, he may have been investigated violin manufacturing processes used by the companies that made the Maidstone violins. There also is the possibility that Shinichi heard of MSOA classes during the eight years when Shinichi Suzuki studied the violin in Germany (1920-1928), because MSOA classes and large concerts were still being held in the United Kingdom during this time. There is, however, no conclusive proof that the MSOA provided any impetus or ideas to Masakichi or Shinichi Suzuki. A 1995 query to Shinichi Suzuki regarding this subject resulted in a reply from his wife, Waltraud, that her husband was too advanced in years to recall details regarding a topic so long ago (personal correspondence).

Although MSOA classes and NUSO Annual Festivals and activities continued in the United Kingdom through the year 1939, circumstances relating to World War II led to the ultimate dissolution of the MSOA. Classes were discontinued during the war due to factors such as the war-time evacuation of children from major cities such as London and the conscription of teachers into military service. The war also contributed to the financial difficulties of the Murdoch Company, and the company dissolved in 1943 for financial reasons. Following World War II, the British government assumed responsibility for school instrumental instruction, and the string methodology that was eventually adopted in the British school system was the Rural Music School Association. It is interesting to note that the most significant and lasting impact of the MSOA appears to have been upon instrumental music in the United States, a topic that will be explored later.[63]


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