In the new national tour of The Sound of Music, on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 31, Maria teaches the von Trapp children to sing in perfect harmony in a matter of minutes—exactly the time it takes to sing the song “Do-Re-Mi” from start to finish. Not exactly realistic.
But the rapid-fire music education of the von Trapps is more true-to-life than you might imagine. Maria has a secret weapon wielded by music teachers for more than a century: the tonic sol-fa system, also known as the Norwich sol-fa, the Curwen method, or Glover method. Previously indoctrinated audiences will recognize the rising and falling hand motions Maria teaches the children; they are designed to simplify music theory and make it possible for people to learn to sing beautifully in a matter of days instead of weeks or months. The tonic sol-fa system uses hand motions and specific words for each note in a scale, which gives students physical, auditory, and visual cues simultaneously. The system makes learning to sing fun and interactive, as anyone who’s seen The Sound of Music will know. While not used extensively today, it was the primary method of teaching music in the English-speaking world for most of the 20th century and is still common in the some parts of the U.S.
Sarah Glover (1786-1867) devised the system while teaching in Norwich, England. Based on earlier systems and her own experimentation, the tonic sol-fa system allowed her to create good-quality choirs from first-time singers in weeks. In 1835, she published a book detailing the system, Scheme for Tendering Psalmody Congregational. The book and method were very popular, and Glover went on to invent a glass glockenspiel to accompany her system called a harmonicon. Pianos were not common in schools at the time, and the instrument allowed teachers with little musical training to teach using Glover’s method.
One such teacher was Reverend John Curwen (1816-1880). He discovered Glover’s system in 1841, when a friend lent him a copy of her book after the Sunday School Union asked Curwen to devise a way to teach music quickly in Sunday school. Although he described himself as “completely without musical skill,” Curwen found that Glover’s system worked wonderfully. In 1843, Curwen published his own version of the system, Grammar of Vocal Music. He went on to publish several books on the system, and started the Tonic Sol-Fa Association. Thanks to Curwen, the system Glover invented became widespread in the U.K., its colonies, and eventually the entire English-speaking world.