Charles A. Fullerton and Rural Music Education

Charles Alexander Fullerton, 1861-1945

    Affectionately referred to as “Iowa’s grand old man of music,” Charles Alexander Fullerton was instrumental in the development of music education in the state. Born on October 11, 1861, in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Fullerton family relocated to Iowa when Charles was nine years of age. Educated in Iowa’s public schools he went on to attend the Iowa State Normal School (I.S.N.S.) where in 1890, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in music. After graduation, he began working as rural school teacher and eventually became a superintendent, a position he held at schools in Norway, Parkersburg, and Manson, Iowa. Always seeking new challenges, Mr. Fullerton returned to the Iowa State Teachers College (I.S.T.C.) in 1897 where he established himself as an influential member of the Department of Music. During his tenure at I.S.T.C., he held various titles including: Instructor of Vocal Music (1897-1900), Assistant Professor of Vocal Music (1900-1902), Professor and Director of Vocal Music (1902-1909), and Professor of Music and Head of the Department of Music (1909-1934).

    Mr. Fullerton’s passion for music and education inspired him to develop the “Choir Plan” (also known as the “Fullerton Plan” and/or “Iowa Plan”). In 1914, he had the opportunity to observe a one-room school in Cedar Falls. As the teacher began the music lesson it was obvious that she lacked the necessary skills for such a task. From this experience, Mr. Fullerton recognized the need for a music education program that would equip instructors with sufficient musical knowledge and provide an inspiring learning experience for students. Through the use of a phonograph the “Choir Plan” provided teachers with a course of study that standardized lessons and motivated students by requiring active participation.

    His aptitude for music education and his ingenious development of the “Choir Plan” garnered Mr. Fullerton global recognition. Invited to the Anglo-American Music conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, he had the opportunity to present and explain his methods. In addition, schools throughout the United States implemented his “Choir Plan” and utilized many of his publications and recordings, which included: Choir Songs and Practical Instruction in Public School Music (1900), New Song Book and Music Reader (1910), Glee Club Songs (1908), One Book Course in Elementary Music (1925), and New Elementary Music (1938). Until his death on December 2, 1945, Mr. Fullerton remained active as a professor emeritus – an honor he received in 1934 – and in the extension department. As his accomplishments suggest, he was successful in attaining the following goal: “I want all the children of America to come into possession of their rightful inheritance – the rich song literature that has come down to them from the past, and I believe that the only way to have them really inherit these songs is to have them learn to sing them accurately and beautifully.”

Choir Plan

    The Fullerton Choir Plan proved to be such an effective music education tool that teachers throughout the United States began implementing the system in their classrooms. Before teachers and students could embark on the Choir Plan, four components were required. One of Mr. Fullerton’s publications containing lessons plans such as New Elementary Music (1910) or One Book Course in Elementary Music (1925), a dependable phonograph, the 24 records made specifically for the program, and forms including the choir membership chart and choir membership diplomas. Once these items were acquired, learning could begin. Consisting of four stages, the Choir Plan aimed to help students:

   1. To learn a song through listening and then singing with the recordings
   2. To learn more songs by participating in the school choir
   3. To study rhythm through buoyant movements – clapping, swinging arms, etc. – which would help students naturally develop a sense of rhythm
   4. To master a few minimum essentials of theory and musical notation, which would contribute to the enjoyment of music

If followed, the Choir Plan had the potential to foster “beautiful singing in every school.” Mr. Fullerton’s efforts to standardize music curriculum revolutionized music education. Now teachers with little or no musical talents could simply follow the Choir Plan and produce a well-rounded group of musical students.

Rural School Choirs and the Minnesingers

    A unique feature of the Choir Plan involved the formation of rural school choirs. Students above the third grade who had demonstrated the ability to sing selected songs accurately with the phonograph were allowed to join. Rural school choirs often displayed their musical prowess at school programs and graduation exercises. Implemented on a county-wide basis the formation of county choruses was not uncommon. These students would participate at music festivals and state-wide competitions. In a stunning display of organization and talent, several county choruses joined forces and formed a group of 6,000 students that performed at the 1950 Iowa State Fair.

    In addition to his involvement with rural schools, Mr. Fullerton was also very influential in the Department of Music at the I.S.T.C. During his time as a student at I.S.N.S., he and his brother Robert organized The Minnesingers, a men’s glee club, during the 1888-1889 school year. The Minnesingers were known for their spectacular performances at the I.S.N.S. Baccalaureate ceremonies, literary society presentations, and benefit concerts. In existence until 1941, the group even went on tour in Iowa. Mr. Fullerton continued to play a central role in The Minnesingers during his career at I.S.T.C.


Additional Resources

Course of Study in Music for Rural Schools – Music Educators National Conference, Music Education Research Council, 1936
"Less Corn and More Culture:" Vocal Music Activities in Iowa's Rural Schools and Neighborhoods, 1900-1940 – Erin Anne Kaufman, 2013
Music Education Research Council Bulletin – Music Educators National Conference
Music in Rural Education: A Program for the Teacher in One- and Two-Room Schools – Osbourne McConathy, W. Otto Miessner, Edward Bailey Birge, and Mabel E. Bray, 1933
Music in the One-Room Schools of Iowa, 1920-1945: Curricula, Methodology, and Recollections – Martha A. Ratcliff, 1986
School Music – P.C. Hayden, 1908-1935
School Music Monthly – P.C. and M.R. Hayden, 1900-1907
Teacher Preparation, Methods and Materials for Music Education in Rural and One-Room Schools in Selected Areas of the Midwest, 1890-1950 – Pamela Jo Stover, 2003

For more information on Charles A. Fullerton see The Charles A. Fullerton Papers, 1900-1945 made available by the UNI Special Collections and University Archives.

Charles A. Fullerton and Rural Music Education Image

Museum Objects in this Exhibit

No objects could be found matching this description.

Objects may have been recently deaccessioned; use this site's search function to view similar objects.