The Special Difficulties Of Agricultural Districts

My object is to help those whose difficulties are greatest; who, so far

from being able to pick out boys of musical talent and fine voice, are

obliged to accept the material that offers, often of the poorest musical

description. The country boy is a more healthy animal than his brother

of the town, and there is no fault to be found with the natural volume

of his voice provided he can be taught to place his registers rightly,
br /> to avoid straining the thick or chest register, to pronounce and phrase

properly. This is, however, what the Americans call "a large order."

I have been fortunate in collecting information from several

choirmasters in agricultural districts, who have conquered the

difficulties of this task. First, I quote Mr. W. Critchley, choirmaster

and schoolmaster at Hurst, near Reading:--

"The rural choir-boy differs somewhat from his brethren of the town in

the following particulars. As a rule, he is duller, and slower in his

perception; he is attentive and docile, but sluggish; he retains what he

is taught, and therefore, as far as mere knowledge and memory are

concerned, it 'pays' to take him in hand. His voice is strong, but

rough, and this undisciplined strength is the cause of most of the

trouble he gives. Moreover, he is exposed to the weather very largely,

and this causes him to be more influenced by atmospheric changes than

the town boy, and prevents, in a great measure, any great delicacy of

finish from being obtained. So it will be seen that the country

choir-boy requires special treatment in order to produce good results.

Sometimes, when a village lies compactly together, a large amount of

work can be got through similar to that which we find in towns, but

generally the rural district is wide and scattered, and only a limited

number of practices can be secured. Under these circumstances, I have

found the best course to pursue to be somewhat as follows:--First and

foremost, let the Tonic Sol-fa system be taught, it lightens the work of

the choirmaster in a wonderful degree, and the boys bring an

intelligence to their work which is unattainable by any other means. If

the system has not been taught in the day school of the parish, it

should be introduced at once; if that is not practicable, the choir-boys

should be taught at a second practice-night. This second practice is

required in any case, if anything better than mere 'scratch' singing be

aimed at. All practices should be begun by voice exercises. On the

extra night a greater amount of time should be taken up with them, for

to a country choir-boy, who perhaps in the day is shouting to scare

birds, they are vital. The lower register of a country boy is, as a

rule, coarse, so it is important to get him to use his higher register

as soon as possible. Show him first of all that he has, as it were, two

voices, and point out that he is required, as Mr. Evans observes, to

use that voice which is most like a girl's. He will be apt for some time

to use this voice in the upper notes of the music only, and there will

be a disagreeable transition to the lower register when the music comes

down on G, or thereabouts. To conquer this, I use exercises which train

the upper register downwards, such as:--

d m s m d r [(.d] [(.t]1 [(.l]1]

the object being to strengthen the upper register, and, except where the

'shelve' the lower thick register in the case of treble voices. In

training upwards I insist on easy singing, no straining. I don't mean

apathetic singing, for this is especially to be fought against in the

case of country boys, as there is naturally a want of 'go' about them. I

mean soft singing, but energetic. I tell the boys to sing like birds,

and they generally understand from this that they are to use the upper

register. I do not find much difficulty with them in the way of

flattening. Except in the case of the younger boys, I often hear them a

little sharp. The Tonic Sol-fa method trains their ears, and I get

them to listen, and blend their voices; above all, to get rid of apathy.

And if there should be a tendency with the younger boys to sing flat, I

generally find that the application of the old rules as to position,

loud singing, forcing the voice, faulty breathing, and inattention will

remedy the fault. If it occurs in church, a judicious use of a four-foot

stop on the organ often keeps up the pitch. I find, if the melody of a

chant or tune has a great many of the 'thirds' of the chords in it (I

mean as distinct from the fifth, root, &c.) it is often difficult,

especially on a foggy morning, to keep it in tune, e.g.:--

{ [(.m] m:r m:-- [(.m] r:d r:r m:--



{ [(.m] f:m re:-- [(.m] r:d t1:r d:--



{ [(.m] f:l s:-- [(.s] d1:m r:f m:--]

This is the case in a marked degree when the reciting tone comes about

the natural 'break' of the voice. The remedy for this I find to be

transition into another key, one which I judge to be more congenial to

the state of the boys' voices. Here is where the usefulness of the Tonic

Sol-fa system to an organist comes in. A lot of practice in mental

effects has a surprising result in ear training. Sometimes, however, we

get a clergyman who intones badly, and then it is quite a struggle to

keep in tune.

"There are a number of other little points which tell against correct

singing in a country choir; the generally thick enunciation, the

provincialism, the difficulty in getting open mouths. I do a lot of

reading by pattern, and pay attention to initial and final consonants.

Country boys neglect these more than town boys. I practise without organ

as much as I can. If an instrument is used, the piano is decidedly the

best. I find Gregorian singing has a strong tendency to injure purity of

tone and delicacy of expression. I do as little of it as possible.

"On the second choir practice night I spoke of, it is certainly good to

take up glee practice, or a simple cantata. It sustains the interest,

and makes the choir a bond of union in a country village."

* * * * *

Not long ago I found myself by chance worshipping in a remote village in

East Somerset, Churchill by name. There was, in the parish church, a

choir of six boys and four probationers, who sang so slowly and sweetly,

not with the luscious fulness of some boys I have heard, but with such

uncommonly good style for agricultural boys, that I was much interested.

These small villages have, from the present point of view, one

advantage. The day schools are "mixed" (containing boys and girls), and

the teacher is a lady. Both these influences tend to the softening of

the boy's voice. Miss Demack, the school-and choir-mistress at

Churchill, has kindly written a few notes on the subject of her work, in

which she says:--

"I certainly think that the girls' voices soften the boys'. I admit

probationers at the early age of six if I find they have any voice, as I

think the earlier the better. When I took my boys in hand, I found scale

exercises very useful. I did not teach them any tunes until I had

somewhat altered their rough voices. Another help was this: I had a girl

with a particularly good voice, and made the boys imitate her as much as

possible. This I found answered remarkably well. The boys seemed to

adopt quite a different tone."

Miss Demack teaches singing in the school and choir by ear only, and

knows nothing of the Tonic Sol-fa system.

* * * * *

I next give a short paper kindly sent me by Mr. George Parbery,

choirmaster of the parish church, and master of the National School at

Fordingbridge, Hants:--

"Dear Sir,--As choirmaster of the parish church here, and as one who

takes great interest in the subject of singing in schools, I am happy to

respond to your request, as we are essentially a rural district.

"I have occupied my position now nearly ten years, and am just beginning

to find the benefit of the Tonic Sol-fa movement amongst my adult

members of the choir, having now nine adults who have passed through the

school with a good practical knowledge of the Sol-fa notation.

"When I commenced work here (coming from north of England) I was struck

with the very disagreeable tone of the boys' and girls' voices. To say

they sang flat does not convey how flat they sang, nor does it convey

any idea of the tone, but the same may be heard any night at the

Salvation Army meetings here. The vicar of the parish told me also upon

my arrival here, that at a church in Bournemouth a former vicar used to

import all his boy voices outside of Hampshire. So that you will gather

that I had not a light task before me to produce a tone satisfactory to

myself or the inspector. But I may safely say I have for some years

satisfied myself, and last year our assistant-inspector spoke of the

very beautiful quality of the boys' voices. I can assure you that it is

only rarely that I find occasion to complain of the tone. The moment I

hear the objectionable tone produced, I immediately stop the singing,

even if in the middle of prayers. Mine is a boys' school, but I teach

the girls singing with the boys. Now as to how I produced the change:--

"1. I introduced the Tonic Sol-fa notation.

"2. I used to practise very frequently for a few minutes upon the

modulator, making abundant use of the upper--

"3. I prohibited all shouting on high notes.

"4. Particularly was I severe upon loud singing in lower notes, say,

"5. I established a degree of sound, and have it still, what is known

amongst my scholars as 'singing in a whisper'--i.e., to produce

singing as softly as possible. This idea I picked up in Cheshire from a

good Tonic Sol-faist.

"6. I have one or two favourite hymns, which I always pitch higher than

written, and thus compel the boys to use the upper registers. The boys

know I like these hymns, and I never fail to appreciate them to the boys

at the end of singing. I also have a favourite marching tune--I don't

know the name, but I believe it is often set to the hymn, 'When mothers

of Salem.' This tune is very lofty, and I believe the boys really enjoy

its loftiness, but there must be no shouting. When the boys displease

me, I tell them they drop their jaw too much, and they instantly know

what I mean.

"7. I have very little alto singing in school, for the reason that it

has a tendency to encourage loudness. In my choir I arrange for three or

four of the oldest boys to sing alto.

"In conclusion, I may say I am thoroughly proud of my boys' singing from

standard I. up to the top of the school, and I believe my success has

been chiefly from abundant use of the modulator for scale practice, and

never allowing loud singing. Proud as I am of my boys, the girls

certainly excel them, and ten years ago their tone was worse, if

possible, than the boys. I have no instrument in school, but

occasionally use a violin."

* * * * *

A correspondent from another agricultural county--I will not give his

name--favours me with some rules which he has used more or less for

thirty years. In one school taught by the writer, the inspector said he

could not distinguish the boys from the girls' voices--truly a high

compliment. My correspondent names a new hindrance to church music in

rural places, namely, the clergyman's daughter!--

"Practise the scales up and down to the words 'la' and 'ha,' the latter

for the purpose of separating the teeth. Commence at the key of C to

C1, then from D to D1, and so on upwards as high as the voices of the

boys can reach, never resting satisfied until they cover two octaves

firmly. In teaching new music, and, generally speaking, in accompanying

the boys, play the note they are singing and its octave above--on the

stopped diapason and flute if an organ, or the corresponding stops on a

harmonium. Let there be no other accompaniment, and on every occasion

the octave above the note sung. This is very particular. Check one voice

singing above another. Have no leaders. Stop or subdue all harsh voices,

and make them listen to, and try to copy the pure notes of the flute;

let the boys sing well within their strength. If you lack power,

increase the number of choristers, and subdue the voices. I always

choose smooth flowing chants, with the reciting note ranging from F to

C. I do not care to go higher than G above the line in anthems or

services, but have trained them to start on B[b], 'The Sisters of the

Sea,' by Jackson.

"I never trouble about altos, they are too difficult to get, and

indifferent and troublesome when obtained, but in verse parts of

services or anthems, one of the best boys will supply the deficiency,

and even take up the lead in a chorus.

"Choirs experience a difficulty which is not included in your list of

points. I have received L60 per annum as an organist, L50 and a house.

On another occasion I was offered the choir-mastership of a church

choral society of 60 members. At this time I was trainer and conductor

of a choral society of 100 voices with string and wind accompaniment,

the subject being The Messiah. Yet I was not considered competent at

the church at which I played to put a tune to a hymn, but had to submit

to the parson's daughter, who was qualified through taking three months'

lessons from a German. On one occasion this lady went ten times through

a hymn to please her father in trying to fit a four-lined tune of the

wrong metre to a six-lined hymn! I offered to go through an eleventh

time, but he never interfered again. I could give you many instances

where these ladies themselves are the great drawback of good church

singing, but on the other hand, I could mention cases where they never

come near a practice, or interfere from one year's end to the other."

* * * * *

Knowing, as I do, the devoted way in which clergymen's daughters in many

rural places train the choir, I hesitate to endorse this charge. The

work needs to be done with tact and consideration. In the vast majority

of cases these ladies are a great help. I do not approve the plan of

playing the melody in octaves while it is being learnt, which my

correspondent advocates. I give his letter as a record of earnest work.

* * * * *

Mr. W. W. Pearson, of Elmham, Dereham, Norfolk, writes to me as


"I have had, as you say, a great deal of experience in teaching singing,

especially in rural districts; but the neighbourhood I have lived in for

the last twenty years (Norfolk), is a very barren field for musical

culture--the worst in my experience. The voices of those who do sing

in this county are, on an average, a minor third lower than those of

Yorkshire, North Wales, the west of England, and other places where I

have had experience. They are also, for the most part, flabby, wanting

in resonance and quality. Tenors are very scarce, and even the few who

can sing in the tenor register, have not got the true tenor quality.

This may be the effect of the low elevation above the sea-level, and

the damp humid atmosphere; or it may be partly due to race.

"The plan I adopt for getting boys to use their upper registers is a

very old-fashioned one; but it is very effective. It is to make them

sing the major diatonic scale, ascending and descending; beginning at a

low pitch, and gradually raising it by a semitone at a time."

* * * * *

Mr. C. Hibberd, of Bemerton, near Salisbury, whom I quote also in the

chapter on "Flattening," dwells on the difficulties of the rural

choirmaster. He says:--

"I have rarely come across the soft fluty tone in the country. I once

met with a boy with it in the choir at Parkstone, near Bournemouth, and

another here at Bemerton, but in both cases the boys were above the

average of country boys, and the village was close to a larger town. In

both cases, also, the boys had good and careful practice over and above

the ordinary choir practices. At places farther in the country it seems

an impossibility to get the tone. With only a few boys to pick from, it

is a difficulty to find boys enough to fill up ordinary vacancies. With

a great deal of trouble and practice one can get a great part of the

roughness toned down, and, as a rule, that is all."

* * * * *

Several of my correspondents, it will be noticed, speak with great

confidence of the use of the Tonic Sol-fa system in rural places. This

system, useful everywhere, certainly attains its greatest usefulness in

places where the task of the choirmaster reaches its highest degree of

difficulty. To those whose only acquaintance with Tonic Sol-fa is a

casual glance at a printed page of the new notation, it naturally seems

strange that the use of a musical shorthand can affect the whole

training of the boy. But behind the letters and punctuation marks, which

go to make up the Tonic Sol-fa notation, there lies the Tonic Sol-fa

method--a fixed and many-sided educational system, founded on the truest

principles of education, carrying on simultaneously the training of the

ear for tune and time, making progress sure because gradually

developing the intelligence along with the voice. With Tonic Sol-fa,

also, is associated a definite system of voice-training. Tonic Sol-fa

teachers are all more or less of educationists, and have caught by

observation or study the teacher's art. This is the cause of their