John Wheeler Tufts was born on May 12, 1825 in Dover, New Hampshire. An accomplished composer and pianist, he spent the years 1846–1848 in Leipzig and Frankfurt, Germany. While there, he studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles and music theory with Moritz Hauptmann at the Conservatorium der Musik (founded by Felix Mendelssohn). When he returned to the US, he worked as an organist and conductor in Bangor and then Portland, Maine, where he formed and led a choral society, before settling in Boston, Massachusetts in 1880. There, he was appointed as Director of Music and Organist of King’s Chapel, an independent Christian Unitarian church renowned for its music program, where he worked for 15 years.
In Boston, Tufts played a leading role in reforming music instruction in primary schools, insisting on involving all public school teachers in the musical training instead of allowing it to remain the responsibility of music supervisors. Tufts also collaborated with his former piano student, Hosea E. Holt (1836–1898), to write a music instruction textbook series, with Tufts composing the exercises and writing instructions for the teaching methods that Holt had developed. The product of their collaboration, The Normal Music Course: a Series of Exercises, Studies and Songs, Defining and Illustrating the Art of Sight Singing, was published in 1883, followed by a Second Reader in 1886 and a Third Reader in 1887, and was intended for elementary school instruction. The Normal Music Course was a reaction against the prevailing method in music education, which was the “sound before symbol” approach (or rote singing before note reading) developed first by Lowell Mason (1792–1872) and published in a series by Luther Whiting Mason (1818–1896) in 1870. Instead, The Normal Music Course advocated for the study of notation, tonality, and intervals before singing any music and was promoted as more “scientific,” in line with the post-Civil War trend of approaching classroom subjects in a more systematic and objective manner. The text became the standard for school music series by 1893. Tufts, who had a talent for drawing, also provided illustrations for the series, making it the first music text to feature pictures illustrative of the text.
Tufts went on to publish several supplementary music readers to The Normal Music Course series, including The Aœdean Collection: Part-songs for female voices (1884), The Normal Music Course High School Collection (1887), and The Euterpean Song Book (1888) for students at the high school level. He also compiled several anthologies of vocal music for more general use in schools and in singing clubs, including Child Life in Song (1883), The Cecilian Series of Study and Song (1892), and Polyhymnia (1897), as well as The King’s Chapel collection of tunes and chorals (1883) for use in his position at the King’s Chapel. In addition to his work in music education, Tufts cultivated an interest in the physical sciences and was an active member of the Boston Scientific Society from 1881.
While absent from most music dictionaries and histories, Tufts was known as a competent composer and contrapuntist, and a thorough musician. According to L. C. Elson, author of The History of American Music (1904), his carefully graded music series gave public school music education a “much firmer foundation that it had ever had before.” Tufts died on March 18, 1908 in Camden, Maine.
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