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Celebrating the Bicentennial of Lowell Mason (1792-1872)

The eighth of January 1992 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Lowell Mason. Mason's legacy to the field of music education is immense, though its story is not without flaws. Mason led the way to music in the public schools, he pioneered efforts to train teachers, he worked diligently to produce musical materials suitable for use with children, he gave some attention to music for the handicapped, and he made some small contributions to multicultural music education. His tendency to borrow others' work without giving proper credit and his sometimes excessive interest in personal gain bring this otherwise mythical figure back into a more human scale.

The story of Mason and the inception of music in the Boston schools in 1838 has often been told. Less well-known is his work in teacher training. Beginning in 1833 with the organization of the Boston Academy of Music, 'Mason spent most of the latter part of @'his life teaching classes, giving workshops, working at institutes, and otherwise bringing his Pestalozzian methodology to those who would teach music in schools or lead church choirs. The Academy had a teachers' class from the beginning. In 1833 Mason also appeared on the programs of the annual meeting of the American Institute of Instruction in New York City and at the Essex County Teachers' Association in Topsfield, Massachusetts. His itinerary over the next thirty-five years would include numerous visits to cities in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Ohio.

Mason's career in higher education was neither lengthy nor of great moment as compared with his other activities in music and music education.

He taught pan-time at the Massachusetts State Normal School in West Newton from 1847 to 1851, and he was with the Union Theological Seminary in New York City for one year (1854-55). He taught at the North Reading (Massachusetts) Normal School in 1861 and 1862. New York University awarded Mason an honorary doctor of music degree in 1855, but there is no evidence of any other association between Mason and the school.

So far as scholarship is concerned, aside from his numerous collections, editions, and compilations of sacred music and music for school use, Mason's favorite topic was Pestalozzian methodology. He published a series of sixty-one articles on that subject in the New York Musical Review and Gazette from 1855 to 1857. His very last book, which he co- authored with Thomas F. Seward (1835-1902), was The Pestalozzian Music Teacher, A Brief Presentation of Elementary Principles of Music, Elements of Music, Presented in the Form of Interrogation (New York: C. H. Ditson, 1871).

In the field of publications for children, Mason's work was prodigious. He began with The Juvenile Psalmist in 1929 and concluded with The Song Garden in 1866. In thirty-seven years he produced fifteen books designed for young people's instruction in music. In this he was often aided by contributions from his colleague George J. Webb (1803-1887). Among the most important arguments contained in his works for school use is the one found in the Preface of The Juvenile Lyre, which he co-authored with Elam Ives in 1829. There Mason and Ives attacked the notion that only a small minority of students have sufficient musical ability to benefit from instruction. They made a convincing case that music should be taught to all children because it enhances growth and development of their morality, health, and mental faculties. In addition, school music would provide suitable entertainment for young people and develop their character in positive ways.

Though Mason's commitment to music for handicapped children was not large in comparison with his other work, he did work with children in the Perkins School for the Blind from 1832 to 1836. Several of Boston's leading citizens helped organize the school in 1829, and it opened under the leadership of Samuel Gridley Howe in 1832. Mason taught vocal music, piano, and organ there from the school's inception until 1836, when he turned the music program over to Joseph Keller. In his last year there, Mason even organized an instrumental music program and provided instruction in flute, clarinet, horn, violin, double bass, and guitar.

Mason's involvement with music of other cultures was slight, but two notable instances may be cited. First was his work in Savannah, Georgia, from 1813 to 1827. While in Savannah, Mason was church organist and choir master at the Independent Presbyterian Church. He also taught Sunday School and was superintendent there from 1815 to 1827. Mason enrolled African-American students in his school, a noteworthy accomplishment, given the time and place. His other brush with multicultural music education came with his involvement with George Guess (Sequoyah) in the publication of The Cherokee Singing Book of 1846.

Music educators have much to reflect on when considering what has happened in the two hundred years since Mason was born. His contributions were truly significant, and they inform and inspire the profession still today. Chief among these is his belief that all people possess musical ability to some degree and can gain from active participation in it. Whatever his shortcomings may have been, Mason did much that deserves to be remembered by all who are interested in American music and music education, and he should be honored in his bicen tennial year.

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Last modified on Friday, 03/10/2014

George N. Heller (1941-2004) was Professor of Music at the University of Kansas.

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