Norwich music teacher who put the Sound in Music

A plaque on Sarah Glover's former home on Pottergate, Norwich. 

A plaque on Sarah Glover's former home on Pottergate, Norwich. - Credit: Archant Library

Born in Norwich 235 years ago she was a kind and generous woman who devoted her life to teaching others to sing. Derek James remembers Sarah Glover.

Right. Settle down, clear your throat and join me as we sing….

Let’s start at the very beginning

A very good place to start

When you read you begin with A-Be-see

You may also want to watch:

When you sing you begin with do-re-mi


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I suspect most of know the rest of the words.

And we can almost hear Marie (Julie Andrews), the governess to the seven Trapp children in The Sound of Music, singing so sweetly.

Sarah Glover inventor of Norwich Sol-fa, a system of musical notation designed to improve the standa

Sarah Glover inventor of Norwich Sol-fa, a system of musical notation designed to improve the standard of singing and simplify the reading of music. - Credit: Archant

Made back in 1965 this, of course, is the world-famous version of the stage musical with such wonderful songs.

Mind you...

I remember the former manager of the much-loved old Gaumont cinema on All Saint’s Green in the city, Ray Cossey, telling me the film ran for 27 weeks.

“We screened it 432 times and, frankly, I came to hate it. I was fed-up with hearing the same songs repeated over and over each day.”

Back to the music….and a certain Sarah Ann Glover, an extraordinary and talented music teacher who reached out to those who needed support more than most.

Sarah Glover's house in Pottergate, Norwich

Sarah Glover's house on Pottergate in Norwich. - Credit: Archant Library

It is wonderful to think that had it not been for this woman from Norwich the song could never have been written.

Sarah was born in 1786 in The Close and her father was the curate at St Lawrence Church where she loved to sing in the congregation with her sisters Christina and Margaret. The family lived in Pottergate in the city.

She invented what became known as the Norwich Tonic Sol-fa system. A way of improving the standard of singing and make the reading of music easier.

Apart of being a pioneering musician she reached out to help others in the city. At one time she was governess to the family of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton MP, the highly respected anti-slavery campaigner.

Cathedral Close in Norwich

Cathedral Close in Norwich - Credit: Archant Library

In her 20s she ran a school for poor children in an upper room in Black Boy’s Yard off Colegate, almost opposite Calvert Street, in the city.

It was while engaged in this work she felt the need of a simpler method of teaching sight-singing and in 1812 she embarked on a new way of teaching singing using doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh.

Sarah went on to teach at many places in Norfolk and Suffolk including the Norwich Workhouse, Lakenham School, at Pakefield and the Central School where teachers were trained.

And back at her father’s church, she trained the choir using tonic sol-fa and people would come from far and wide to listen to them.

She wrote books and manuals explaining her methods and invented the glass harmonicon, an instrument she could display her system to train the ear and establish the pitch. Her Musical Ladder was published by Jarrold at three pence.

Black Boy’s Yard in Colegate, Norwich

Black Boy’s Yard in Colegate, Norwich, where Sarah Glover and her sisters taught poor children - Credit: George Plunkett Archive

Then, in 1841, the Rev John Spencer Curwen, a young Congregational minister was commissioned by a Sunday School conference to find simple means how to teach schools and congregations to sing to music.

He heard about Sarah through an old college friend, the Rev Andrew Reed, at the Old Meeting House in Norwich, and he visited her school at Colegate.

And so it took off.

Sarah must have been so proud when, in 1857, she was present when at Crystal Palace to hear a choir of 3,000 children, using her notation, singing faultlessly, to an audience of 30,000.

A far-cry from that little upper room in a dark Norwich yard….and, as our columnist A P Cooper wrote many years ago: “Long may the world’s children go on singing, helped by the invention of Sarah Ann Glover, of Norwich."

She went on to live at Cromer, Reading and Hereford. She died of a stroke in 1867 at Great Malvern…but her memory lives on in timeless songs.

Remember OUR Sarah.

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