The scripted music lesson – the long view

In my musings in last week’s blog about silent obedient school corridors and the contemporary rhetoric of zero tolerance in regards to children’s behaviour, I made reference to Swiss children of two hundred years ago singing on their way to lessons.

The organisation Sing Up responded showing how singing could be a part of school life and used to make sense of transition times. Thank you Sing Up.

I had been reading Bernard Rainbow’s The Land without Music. And now chapter 10 titled The Synthesis of Indigenous and Continental Methods: John Curwen.

In the chapter Rainbow provides an extract from a scripted music lesson devised by John Curwen and published in the Independent Magazine in 1842. This was the first in the series.

Curwen begins with a note to the teacher:

Where I suppose a pause while anything is done, I will mark it with an asterisk.

“Now, children, we are going to learn the art of singing in tune. What are we going to learn? First, then, you must remember that any musical sound is called a note. What is a musical sound called? This is a note.’’

(I hear you singing to the sound ah any note you please.)

“I will sing another note. *    Could not some of you sing a note? Hold up hands – those who can sing a note. Do you –  *    and you.”    *

‘’I want to distinguish the same note from a different one.’’

‘’Sing the same note as this.   *      Sing the same note as this. *    Sing the same note as this. *     Hold up hand – those who will sing me a note, and I will sing the same. Do you –  *    and you.’’   *

‘’Now hold up hands – those who will sing me a note and I will sing a different one.   *    If I sing a note, which of you will sing a different one? Hold up hands.’’  [1]


Curwen’s purpose is to enable other teachers to teach children to sing in tune. His method is both direct and sensory. But Rainbow points to another feature which might easily pass the reader by and which for the time was novel.

While other pioneering music educators of the time were propagating their methods through their charismatic public style – a ‘this is how I do it, go forth and do it like me’, Curwen was aware that there was no guarantee that those who went forth would bring the same degree of charm, patient manner, responsiveness and humanity to their teaching as was publicly presented.

There was a translation gap and in Curwen’s view it was by scripting the lessons in a way that sought to capture something of the subtlety of the teacher-pupil relationship that mechanical replication of a method could be avoided. [2]

While the idea of scripting music lessons may seem an oddity to many today, (oh, but see the recent Guardian article) it is worth noting Curwen’s concern that the success of any lesson rested on the manner and attitude of the teacher.

This remains the case today. But isn’t classroom climate, with the teacher-pupil relationship at its heart, a tricky thing to catch hold of, share with others and replicate. I’ve long been interested in just what it is that teachers say, how they respond to the responses of their pupils and so on.

John Curwen reminds us that music teaching, whether scripted or not, has a relational centre. The teacher, the pupil and what is being learnt work in productive mutuality where the pupil has ‘a voice’ to lesser or greater extent. [3]

I feel the challenge of writing a scripted music lesson coming on. Something for the new year perhaps.


[1] Rainbow, B. (1967) The Land without music: Music Education in England 1800 – 1860 and its Continental Antecedents. Novello and Company Limited: London. (p. 148)

[2] Alas, I have no evidence that Curwen’s scripted music lessons were successful in achieving their purpose. He was certainly successful in teaching his own pupils to sing in tune and at sight.

[3] In the extract above I have taken the liberty of enlarging the asterisked spaces, those places where the teacher pauses ‘while anything is done’. I am assuming that Rainbow’s transcription of Curwen’s text to be faithful.

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