The Gifts That Keep Giving by Sandra L. Mathias

Keynote speech given at the 2005 IKS Symposum by Sandra L. Mathias

Good morning, symposium participants, students, guests, IKS Board members and our gracious British hosts. It is a bit daunting to be the final speaker, following the outstanding keynote addresses that we have heard all week. I wish to express my gratitude to the British Kodály Academy for inviting me to speak at this symposium. It is truly my honor. I hope that you might find some meaning in the words and thoughts that I will be sharing with you.

This keynote speech focuses on my perception of not one, but several of Kodály’s inspirational gifts that, I feel continue to inspire 21st century music educators, students, and parents.

During our time together this morning, I want to explore five of Kodály’s inspirational gifts: his music, his writings, his student legacy, his dreams, and his philosophy. I will present some of Kodály’s words, along my own thoughts. I will also share with you the thoughts of music educators, students, and parents, who feel that they have received one or more of these gifts through their musical experiences.

The gift of ‘music’ will focus on a few of Kodály’s choral compositions, which serve as a rich resource for conductors and aesthetic ‘food’ for performers and listeners.

The gift of ‘writings’ will focus on Kodály’s written words that inspire readers, confirm teachers’ thoughts, and provide insights to us for the future.

The gift of ‘students’ will focus on the lineage of Kodály’s students and how they have disseminated their thoughts on this philosophy around the world, and have, unknowingly, developed an international ‘family tree’ of Kodály music educators.

The gift of ‘dreams’ will focus on Kodály’s courage to dare to dream of a musically literate society of a sensitive and feeling people, who would reflect their culture.

The final gift of ‘philosophy’ will focus on Kodály’s idea of creating a way of thinking about teaching music. This philosophy gives students and teachers a framework upon which to create their curriculum.

Let us first look at Kodály’s gift of music…

I was first introduced to Kodály’s gift of music when I sang ‘Wainamoinen’ in the women’s chorus at the Kodály Center of America in the summer of 1983. His ability to create a beautiful marriage of music and text in his choral pieces has a special quality that lifts the music off the page and into the hearts of its performers and listeners. For the past 20 years, I have had the privilege to share Kodály’s gift of music with young singers as they have ‘unwrapped’ and discovered the excitement while singing some of his special pieces such as – See the Gypsies, Ladybird, Dancing Song, Mid The Oak Trees, Ave Maria, Egyetem Begyetem, Psalm 150, and Christmas Dance of the Shepherds. I can easily recall how excited a group of these young singers was to see the original score of ‘See the Gypsies’ in the Kodály Museum in Budapest. They nearly burst into song in the middle of the museum! Years later, it is meaningful to me to hear students reminisce about the pieces they sang in choir. They said:

See the Gypsies was my favorite of all. I loved all the contrasts within the piece, especially the changes in tempo from the A section to the B section and the harmonies.”

“I used to love to let my voice fly away on my soprano part in Ladybird“.

“I loved singing Egyetem Begyetem in Hungarian, more than in English. Everything fit together and it was actually easier!”

I believe that Kodály’s musical gift to these young singers will never be forgotten. His music will continue to inspire. Kodály’s choral music has a unique quality that gives shimmering beauty to voices, and, satisfaction to the soul of its singers and listeners. This gift of music will only live on into the future if we continue to introduce it to our singers and program it on our concerts.

The gift of Kodály’s words, as found in some of his writings and speeches…

When I first read Kodály’s articles on Music Education in the book, Selected Writings, I thought that he must have wandered the United States listening to all our music educators express their frustrations over the lack of financial and philosophical support for music in the schools, the insufficient class time for music, and the general state of the arts in the country.

In his article: Music in the Kindergarten: he writes: “…the frightening lack of music in our curriculum, indeed the definite anti-music tendency, is gravely detrimental to the education of the nation, too.” He continues by discussing the crucial necessity of singing songs of one’s language and nation to give the child a sense of self and soul. He says: “…most of the texts are completely alien to the emotional world and way of thinking of children…, they do not start from the soul of the child and his view of the world, but impose upon him the author’s own ‘self’.” He further wrote: “Hungarian public opinion does not take schools seriously enough. It believes that school and life are different things. But school, and even the kindergarten, stands for real, full-blooded life. Anyone who is hurt there may not recover from the hurt till the day of his death. And if we sow a good seed in him, it will flourish all his life.” (Selected Writings, p. 148.)

And from his article, A Hundred Year Plan, he wrote: “It was in 1680 that Miklos Misztotfalusi Kis had the idea that every Hungarian should learn to read. It took 250 years for it to come true. With music reading, we shall, perhaps, achieve it in a shorter time. But what curse is upon us that always makes us do things wrongly at first?”

Why is it always the incompetent people that force their way to the scene of action, spoiling things to such an extent that twice as much work is needed to put things right again than would have been required to do them well at the first go!” (Selected Writings, p. 160)

For me, I now realize that teachers, all over the world face similar attitudes and situations. Kodály’s words give us inspiration for the daunting task that faces each one of us as we follow our dreams to educate the soul of our students through the music of their heritage and beyond. For as Kodály wrote: “the purpose of music is not that it should be judged, but that it should become our substance. Music is a spiritual food for which there is no substitute: he who does not feed on it will live in spiritual anaemia, until death. There is no complete spiritual life without music, for the human soul has regions, which can be illuminated only by music”. (Music Should Belong To Everyone – p. 51 from What is the Purpose of School Music Societies)

As a college professor, I assign many of Kodály’s articles for students to read in preparation for their classwork. As they begin to enter their professional semester, they read Who is a Good Musician?. As they begin creating curriculum and lesson plans, they read Music in the Kindergarten. Before they begin making an instrument, they read the small, one page article, I Made My First Instrument Myself. They comment in class on how appropriate Kodály’s words are to them today. His words always reinforce their decision to enter the field of music education.

The gift of Kodály’s words lets us know that we are not alone in our quest to create musical cultures. We are grateful that he put down his thoughts that today inspire us not to give up our goals. How fortunate we all are to be able to be inspired when we open a book containing Kodály’s words. It does not matter how many times we may read the same article, we always receive food for thought and a sense of conviction for our dreams and purpose. As books, such as Selected Writings become less and less available, we are indebted to Ildiko Herboly Kocsar for compiling quotations from Kodály’s writings and speeches in the IKS publication: Music Should Belong to Everyone. If Kodály were alive today, I think we all would want to express our gratitude to him for this gift of speeches and writings. As we read them, they make us feel as though he is alive, teaching us through his word.

The gift of students…

I imagine that Kodály did not realize how he would ‘father’ an international ‘family tree’ of music pedagogues. Beginning with himself and the 13 students from his first composition class at the Liszt Academy, a worldwide tree of extending limbs and branches has grown and continues to grow.

Sustaining the tree from a sturdy trunk is Kodály himself. Extending out on to large supporting limbs we find the first generation of pedgagogues. Next comes another firm limb of the second generation. This is followed by a third limb of the third generation. on the branches of these limbs we find offshoots of locations where Hungarian master teachers have travelled to plant seeds of the Kodály philosophy. on the branches to the North, we find Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway. On the branch bending South, we find Australia, South Africa, and South American. On the branch reaching out to the East, we find Korea, The Phillipine Islands, Taiwan, Japan, and China. On the branch reaching out to Central Europe and the West, we find Poland, Italy, Greece, France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, The United States, and Canada.

Teachers from each generation have freely given to their students, who have, in turn, become teachers who continued to give freely to the next generation of their students, and so on. This sharing of knowledge and expertise has created a world-wide dissemination of the Kodály philosophy. Teachers throughout the world have become excited using ideas learned from their teachers. This gift of students, which spawned this international pedagogical ‘family tree’, will continue to grow on into the future. Because of the grounding of the philosophical ideas put forth by Kodály and his early students, this tree will not wither and die, but remain ‘evergreen’, reaching up and out to touch people in all corners of the world.

The gift of a dream…

Kodály’s dream was to create a Hungarian musical culture in 100 years. As mentioned earlier, since it took 250 years to create a Hungary that could read, Kodály believed it would take less time to achieve music reading for all. The means: as stated by Kodály would be:

  1. making the reading and writing of music general, through the schools.
  2. the awakening of a Hungarian musical approach in the training of both artist and audience.
  3. The raising of Hungarian public taste in music and a continual progress towards what is better and more Hungarian.
  4. Making the masterpieces of world literature public property, to convey them to people of every kind and rank.

Kodaly said: “The total of these means will yield the Hungarian musical culture, which is glimmering before us in the distant future.”
(Selected Writings, p. 160)

Kodály concludes his article on A Hundred Year Plan by stating: “We cannot prophesy, but if the principle of expert tuition comes to be realized in practice by 1968, that is to say a hundred years after the birth of the primary education act, it may well be hoped that by the time we reach the year 2000, every child that has attended the primary school will be able to read music fluently… This, however, will only be an external sign of what will surely have developed by then and will rightly bear the name of Hungarian musical culture.” (p. 162, Selected Writings)

Because Kodály dared to have a dream of creating a musical culture in 100 years, we are inspired to carry his dream along with our own, to every nation, city, school, and classroom. We also, dream of musical cultures in our own countries. We believe as Kodály did that “music multiplies the beauty of life and all its values.” (speech for the Inauguration of the New Building of the Kecskemet Singing School).

He further wrote: “A man who has talent is required to cultivate it to the highest degree so as to be of the greatest possible use to his fellow-creatures. Every human being is worth as much as he can turn to the advantage of mankind and to the service of his country. Real art is one of the most powerful sources for the uplifting of mankind and he who renders it accessible to as many people as possible is a benefactor of mankind.” (Who Is A Good Musician?)

Kodály further helps us shape our dreams for our own countries with these words: “Each nation has a rich variety of folk songs well suited to teaching purposes. If selected and graded carefully, they furnish the best material through which to introduce musical elements and make the children conscious of them. It is essential that the material used should be musically attractive. In some countries, the outdated system is still in use, which employs dry, lifeless exercises for children, which the children hate and very often together with them they also hate the music lesson, and finally, music. If children do not look forward with thrilled expectation to the music lesson, no result is to hope for, if they do not feel refreshed and enjoyed, all labor is lost. It is our firm conviction that mankind will live the happier when it has learned to live with music more worthily. Whoever, works to promote this end, in o¬ne way or another, has not lived in vain.” (Music Should Be For Everyone, pp. 69-70).

I believe that this gift to dream sustains us all in our work every day as we strive to create a musical culture in our own situations.

The Gift of Philosophy…

Over the past 25 years, I have come to realize why Kodály gave us a philosophy for teaching music and not a method to teach music. A philosophy is a way of thinking. This philosophy is a way of thinking about teaching music. A philosophy has basic tenets that provide a foundation for our thinking to develop. Kodály tells us to “teach music and singing… in such a way that it is not a torture, but a joy for the pupil; instill a thirst for finer music in him/her (a thirst that will last a lifetime).” (Children’s Choirs).

He tells us to begin with music of the child’s musical mother tongue, develop music literacy, use the most natural instrument – the voice, and follow the ideas of child-development with age appropriate songs and games that will lead students from the known to the unknown.

Upon this philosophy are built the pedagogical ideas of Pestlazzi, Kestenberg, Piaget and others. Teachers plan kinesthetic, aural, and visual activities around the unknown to enable students to experience it before labeling it. Teachers learn to lead students to discover the unkown through the known. Teachers guide students through practice of the new knowledge from familiar material to unknown material and on to sight-reading, improvisation, and composing. The concepts and skills of music are woven throughout the process in a joyful, positive spirit, enabling the student to be motivated and inspired and develop a love of music.

I asked some singers, parents, and teachers who were attending a summer course, to share some of their thoughts on the Kodály philosophy. They have given me permission to share those thoughts with you.

First, from 2 young singers who are 14 year-old twins from my children’s choir in Ohio: “The Kodály philosophy has been part of our lives since we were 8 years old. When we were in second grade, our elementary music teacher taught using the Kodály philosophy. Our education in this philosophy continued throughout our middle school grades and continues today in the community children’s choir that we sing in. It has had a great impact on how we think about and read music. The Kodály approach goes beyond mimicry and teaches the musical makeup of a song. Instead of listening to a song sung and then repeating it until learned, the Kodály philosophy allows a singer to understand the music through intervals and form. Throughout our years in choir, we have sung several pieces arranged by Kodály. Not only do these compositions stress using the inner ear, they also introduce the singer to Hungarian folk music and culture. Overall, the Kodály philosophy has increased our musical literacy to an extent difficult to achieve with any other technique.”

From their parents: “Our twin 14 year-old daughters have been taught through the Kodály philosophy since second grade. They have always loved to sing, and music class was always a joy for them. They also began traditional piano instruction at this time. We do not know whether the Kodály teaching or the piano instruction is alone responsible for their musicianship. We believe that the combination of the two has made them strong musicians. We do know however, that their ability to read vocal music is far superior to their peers who have not had the same instruction. We are grateful to have had this instruction given to our daughters. Their lives and anyone who hears their musical talents benefit greatly from the teachings of Zoltan Kodály.”

From young teachers:

From a young American teaching in China: “The Kodály training has given me a wonderful system and plan to my teaching. .I can truly see my students improve from year to year and enjoy singing more and more. This approach has made all the difference in my teaching.”

From a young man teaching in a parochial school in Ohio: “I know that the Kodály philosophy is making me a more competent individual.”

From a young teacher in the Columbus City Schools:
“It is much more fun and easier to teach music using the Kodaly philosophy! Taking the known to discover the unknown makes sense to me, as well as my students. Now, my students understand rhythm because it is not made into a math equation, but comes from the music.”

From a young high school teacher in Ohio: “The Kodály philosophy has made all the difference when it comes to my own reading and musicianship. I went from looking at new music as an obstacle, to seeing it as a fun challenge. Teaching from the philosophy makes me truly feel like I am teaching my students something that they can hold onto in the future, instead of just teaching them songs they soon forget, with no real meaning.”

From another teacher in the Columbus City  Schools: “This training has defined how I teach. Before I began these classes, I taught from a music textbook and always sang with CD’s. I was unsure of what to teach and when. Now I teach with my own voice. I have a curriculum sequence that makes sense and my students provide all the music (no CD player). I also feel that I am teaching with much better repertoire.”

From a high school teacher in Illinois: “The Kodály philosophy has helped my students realize their full potential as independent musicians. They better understand their abilities to learn music on their own, while still maintaining an enjoyment of singing.”

From more experienced teachers…

From a middle school teacher in Georgia: “Because of the Kodály approach, I look at singers less restrictively. Before, I was convinced that only the ‘best singers’ should be in my choir. Now, I appreciate more accuracy than natural talent in singers. I try to help everyone who seeks me out. I definitely use stronger literature of better quality. This will be a life-long quest (a labor of love) rather than a mere career.”

From a teacher in a city school system: “I have become a more organized teacher with clearly defined musical objectives. These objectives are now mine, not something handed to me – they are developmental, sequential, and best of all, they work! My children are finally reading and writing music and loving it.”

From a teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio: “The Kodály philosophy changed my life completely. I now have goals and strategies for my teaching. I have a sequence to teach by, a method to use that allows my students to grow to unbelievable heights! I never knew or had enough faith that they could learn so much about music.”

From a teacher in rural Ohio: “My students have benefited greatly from this approach to teaching music. They have become owners of the music.”

From another teacher in rural Ohio: “For thirteen years of teaching, I had jumped from one workshop to another, trying to find a way to teach general music effectively. By a course of luck (or God’s grace), I ended up in a summer Kodály course. All of a sudden a light bulb came on in me, and I realized I was learning about a sequential approach to teaching music. When I returned to my teaching after a second summer of training, I discovered that my students had retained what they had learned the year before. I am proud of my teaching now and I will never teach a different way.”

From a junior high band teacher: “This Kodály training has made me aware of how valuable singing is in any music setting, even band! I am now concentrating more on my preparation of pieces my band will play. This training re-ignited (and reaffirmed) my quest to help every child become a lifelong musician who loves music. My musicianship training has forever opened my ears. These three years of learning have truly been a spiritual experience… to be with so many teachers and students of all ages, who love music and have a passion for sharing the beauty of music with all mankind. This has been a life-changing experience!”

From a teacher in Colombia, South America: “I come from a country full of talented people and loving music teachers who, without any clue about how to develop an effective music program, try their best, in order to transport a passion and love for music, to their students. I wish many music teachers in my country could have the great opportunity to find the amazing pathway of the Kodály philosophy, and after enough training, be able to transform their teaching. My own professional life has a ‘before Kodály’ and an ‘after Kodály’. I wish the International Kodály Society would put their eyes on Colombia in order to give to my country and our children the Kodály philosophy.”

And, lastly, from a teacher at the United Nations School in New York City: “I received the essential words of the Kodály philosophy ‘music is for everyone” in a setting of beautiful music making and dedicated master teachers working to pass the craft on to a new generation of music educators. The year was 1978. I carefully listened to the tales, which chronicled the vision of Zoltan Kodály in Hungary. The best music for children, of course…but I was equally captivated by the possibility of ‘teachers’ choruses’ and ‘workers’ choruses’. Not just the elite… but live, active music making for all. Some 26 years later, in addition to my teaching, I direct women’s choruses, which fulfil my own desire to connect my personal calling to what happened in Hungary years ago. In these choruses, housewives, engineers, students, diplomats, teachers, hairdressers, professional musicians, and local women who never finished high school come to sing great music together. If I only heard ‘the words’ of the Kodály philosophy, it would never have taken root in my teaching practice or the continuous maturing of my own imagination and artistry. I have heard and watched what live music making does to folks, who would never have believed that this experience was intended for them. Music is for everyone. The words are ever new and compelling as we now work to pass the craft on to the next generation. The year is 2005.”

I am grateful to these people for sharing their thoughts.

This gift of philosophy still inspires us and future generations to believe and strive to create a better life for humanity – to know that we are doing something for the human soul in the face of the cheapening of life all around us. What we have to offer is priceless, yet costs so little to disperse.

Kodály’s gifts of music, writings, students, dreams, and philosophy do keep giving – to students, parents, teachers, artists, and audiences. How fortunate we are to have been recipients of these gifts. How fortunate we are to be able to pass them on to others.

If Zoltan Kodály were here today, we all would want to stand and offer him a special ovation for these gifts that truly do continue to inspire. Thank you.


Herboly-Kocsar, Ildiko. Music Should Belong To Everyone. 120 compiled quotations from Kodály’s writings and speeches. International Kodály Society, 2002.

Kodály, Zoltán. The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály. Boosey & Hawkes, 1974.

NOTES: With special gratitude to the Hungarian master teachers at the 2005 summer course of The British Kodály Academy in Leicester, England, for their assistance in preparing the first, second, and third generation of Hungarian master teachers for the pedagogical ‘family tree’.