Drill: Solving a Problem Like Maria


Maria Von Trapp (1905-1987)

The myth of Maria Von Trapp perpetuated by Hollywood has probably done even more than Robin Williams’ John Keating to promote flaky educational ideas.

Just as in Dead Poets Society, The Sound of Music presents a stiff, formal world which is joyfully liberated by an inspiring young person who brings freshness, life and spontaneity. This is exactly the Romantic narrative of education presented by progressives, who see any return to hard work and discipline as an attempt to enslave the children who were joyfully liberated in the sixties.

But what really happened when Maria arrived in the Von Trapp family? The truth is very different from the Hollywood fluff. The father was not a stern disciplinarian, but a gentle, warm-hearted parent. The family already had an interest in music, and with the help of a Catholic priest, who became their musical director, Maria trained the children in singing, not lightweight catchy tunes, but a repertoire including Baroque music and madrigals.

To sing such music well takes great skill. Training in singing using a Sol-fa method, depicted in the song ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is not about gambling around Alpine fields wearing clothes made of curtains. It involves a lot of repetitive drill. It involves a lot of exercises. It involves doing a lot of things that are not immediately appealing, and do not look like the end result, because, like all thorough, traditional methods, it has broken down the path to that end result into small incremental steps which must be mastered one by one. Very much like a proper programme of systematic synthetic phonics, it is an artificial and intricately designed method for mastering what is a completely artificial skill.

Such methods for teaching singing are remarkably effective, as Zoltán Kodály demonstrated when they were implemented widely in the Hungarian singing schools. But, like all traditional methods, they depend upon teacher led drill and firm discipline. Evidently this is something the real Maria Von Trapp and her musical director, Fr Franz Wasner, understood very well.

In Hollywood fantasy land, meanwhile, we are led to believe that we can learn all about singing from singing a catchy song with rhymes for every step of the Sol-fa scale. It’s a great song, of course, but it doesn’t matter how many times you sing it, you won’t actually be trained to sing. Singing catchy songs is just fun. Learning to sing properly takes hard work.


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