The impact of Mary Helen Richards on the life of contemporary education has become increasingly recognized. A life-long musician, Richards was keenly interested in the gift of the natural singing voice as the one musical instrument given to each person as a birthright. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Mary Helen had settled with her family in Portola Valley. Dissatisfied with the general state of music education in California and Portola Valley in particular, she accepted a music position in two local elementary schools.
The Portola Valley and Corte Madera Schools quickly boomed with aesthetic education and musical activity. After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, public support for school music programs quickly eroded. Richards followed the advice of the local school librarian, who recommended that she explore the unique ideas of Zoltan Kodaly, Hungarian composer and music educator. Seeking his advice in a letter, she received materials from Kodaly, which she uniquely adapted to become a music education program of her own, Threshold to Music and is widely credited with bringing Kodaly's philosophy to the United States.
Threshold's carefully and highly sequenced charts were inventive, popular, and easily used by a variety of teachers. Nevertheless, they unwittingly inverted the process of sound to symbol to feature a program of symbol to sound. Unable to lead the oldest children naturally to the music literacy she had desired, she embarked on a far different approach. Education Through Music would be based on the principles Kodaly had shared with her more than his materials outright. New songs would be needed and ways to examine them by the children had to be developed.
In 1969, in response to interest in ETM, the Richards Institute of Education and Research was founded in Oakland, CA. Based on the staple of the Kodaly philosophy, the use of native-language folk songs to set the stage for development of musical literacy, ETM expanded upon another Kodaly directive: adapt your work to the unique character and needs of American and North American children. Songs being collected, developed, and examined for their usefulness, were explored by hundreds of children in classes across North America.
The new approach greatly expanded both the repertoire and practice of Threshold to include extensive movement built around a philosophy of play, effective interpersonal interaction, and musicality, which clearly involved the whole child. Expanded, too, were the goals of ETM, to reach the entire child - all children - in their musical, communication, movement, interactive, and cognitive needs. Contemporary findings in developmental neurobiology and neuropsychology with regard to child learning and well-being have significantly validated this development and perspective. ETM now captures the attention of music educators, classroom teachers, special education teachers, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, pediatricians, neuroscientists, parents, church musicians, choral musicians and the like.
Richards died September 26, 1998 one day short of her 77th birthday, a respected, beloved, and always-unpredictable genius, wife, mother, teacher, colleague, and friend.