An Examination of the Life and Work of Mary Helen Richards

November 10, 2009 / By: Kari J. Todnem-Wendroth

The purpose of this study was to investigate the life, and work of Mary Helen Richards. Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Richards learned to play the piano, and cello, but was told she could not sing. This, along with her personal experiences as a child in her music classes, fueled a passion to teach music in a different way. She wrote a postcard to Zoltan Kodály in the late 1950s, who responded by entrusting her to be the first American to receive his curricular singing books. Inspired, she began to develop materials for American children built on U.S. folk songs, and published her Threshold to Music; later, after a bitter custody battle for the rights to her work, she developed Education Through Music, and founded the Richards Institute of Music Education and Research. This study is divided into four sections of Richards’s journey: childhood, marriage, and motherhood until the rights to her Threshold to Music were lost; the thriving development of Education Though Music through the 1970s and 80s; the eventual split among members of the ETM Trust in the early 1990s due to philosophical differences which parallel her slip into dementia; and the evolution of her work after the split, as well as her induction into the MENC Music Educators Hall of Fame in 2008. This study is made possible through the primary sources of the memoirs of her late husband, Ricky, detailed interviews with their adult children, and members of the ETM Trust, and documents, and personal letters from Education Through Music which were produced during her lifetime.