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Monday, October 6, 2014

History Focus: Lowell Mason

Author: Timothy Smith,

            Lowell Mason (1792-1872), the self-declared “father of singing among children in this country"(1) is considered by many to be the father of American music education.  This is due to the pivotal role he played in the school reform movement during the early Nineteenth-century and in his work promoting music as a curricular subject to the Boston public school board in 1837 (2). Mason served as music teacher and music supervisor from 1837 until his dismissal in 1845. Mason’s method, and most famous publication, Manual of the Boston Academy of Music, for Instruction in the Elements of Vocal Music on the System of Pestalozzi (1834), was based on his understanding of the methods of the Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. This publication, although mostly plagiarized from German educator G.F. K├╝bler’s Anleitung zum Gesangunterrichte in Schulen, (3) was important because it described how music education helps develop the moral, physical, and intellectual capacities of students (4), and because it provided the Pestalozzian principles as a basis for music instruction (5).

A Portrait of Lowell Mason (6)

It is important to understand the customs of Mason’s time. First, the borrowing of whole sections of music books, especially theoretical descriptions, without giving proper credit to the original author, was common. Second, the use of the term ‘Pestalozzian’ was generally used to describe any new educational procedure during the early Nineteenth-century (7). While it could be that Mason was using the term in this way, Mason did become more learned in the Pestalozzian method later in his life. It is also important to remember that his contributions to the school reform movement are far more important than his knowledge of Pestalozzi’s principles.
            Although Mason’s tireless self-promotion led to him becoming very popular and successful during his life, his methods and motivations were sometimes questioned. In 1844, singing school teacher H.W. Day accused Mason of favoritism in hiring music teachers and of using a system of teaching designed to sell his own books. Another criticism was that, similar to the authors whose works on which he based his work, Mason's method focused more on teaching techniques rather than learning theories (8).  The lack of focus on student learning likely contributed to Day’s belief that children who were taught with Mason’s method had little musical knowledge by age fourteen (9)
            Although Mason’s behaviors sometimes reflected the questionable ethics common in the 19th-century in the United States (10), "his philosophy of teaching music to all children has become a tenet of the music education profession today" (11). The ideas that Mason introduced in American music education in the 1830's such as teaching using aural based methods before introducing music reading, using musical models instead of explaining musical concepts, teaching one concept at a time, and teaching for mastery before continuing are characteristics shared with Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory and the rote-first methods of Suzuki, Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Orff.

(1) Michael L. Mark and Charles L. Gray, A History of American Music Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman and LittlefieldPublishers, Inc., 2007), 147.
(2) James A. Keene, A History of Music Education in the United States (Centennial, CO: Glenbridge Publishing, Ltd., 2009), 109.
(3) Mark and Gary, A History of American Music Education, 142.
(4) Michael Mark, Music Education: Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today (New York: Routledge, 2013), 48-52.
(5) Mark and Gary, A History of American Music Education, 127.
(6) "Lowell Mason," Wikipedia, accessed September 20, 1014,
(7) Keene, A History of Music Education in the United States, 116.
(8) Ibid., 115.
(9) Ibid., 124.
(10) Ibid., 108.
(11) Ibid., 127.

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