Esther Tuttle Munroe
1896 - 1991
Esther T. Munroe
Shirley Ann Munroe (1924-2009)
Esther T. Munroe (or Esther T. as she was fondly called) began her career in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, at the age of 19 when she was appointed church organist for the Caledonia Street Methodist Church. About six months later, the choir director became ill and Esther Tuttle was appointed choirmaster, conducting the choir from the organ bench. Even in her early 90's, she was still very active in church music.
After finishing college, Esther T. became a public school teacher in Minneapolis and immediately also became involved in church music. When she and her husband, Laurence Munroe, became Seventh-day Adventists in 1921, she became the choir director at the Minneapolis Seventh-day Adventist Church. After a move to New York City in 1929, she became the choir director at the New York City Temple Church.
From 1915 to 1935 Esther T. was an organist of note in the Midwest and on the East Coast, often being called to play the large pipe organ in the Convention Hall at Elizabeth, New Jersey. She also appeared on early radio programs in New York as both an organist and contralto soloist.
When the Munroes moved to Glendale, California, Esther T. became the director of music for the Glendale Seventh-day Adventist Church. She became a force in the development of the Musicians' Guild of Seventh-day Adventists of Southern California which organized in 1931 (no relation to the later SDA Church Musicians' Guild). This was an extremely active group with the purpose of providing performance opportunities for Seventh-day Adventist musicians.
Esther T. organized the first concert of the combined choirs of the Seventh-day Adventist churches in Southern California. Under her direction, during the 1930's as program chairman and as president of the Guild, she brought visibility to the Musicians' Guild with the introduction of public concerts. These choir concerts were held at the Glendale Church and drew very large audiences of more than 1,000.
Following her husband's death, Esther T. went back to teaching in 1940 in the public schools and was appointed the supervisor of music for the public school system of Ventura, California. Even after moving to Ventura, she continued to commute on weekends for Friday night choir rehearsal and the Sabbath choir at the Glendale Church. Choir members had a hard time explaining how they couldn't get to choir practice or why they were late when every week she commuted 88 miles from her home to the church door and was never late. In addition to being the supervisor of music in Ventura and the director of music at Glendale and the Van Nuys Seventh-day Adventist Church, she also continuously had a Sunday choir.
During the years that she was supervisor of music in Ventura (1940 to 1956) she was responsible for music education in the public school system's 129 classrooms. In addition, she had a glee club and an orchestra at each of the nine schools. She developed the music department of this public school system so that its nine glee clubs and nine orchestras were in popular demand for appearances before service clubs and at special community occasions as well as school programs. She was responsible for introducing a formal music department into the school system and expanding it to include an instrumental department with a qualified instrumental teacher and orchestra leader.
She had the ability to design and put together excellent costumes with seemingly little effort or expense. Perhaps her most famous costume was that of the bleached flour sack choirboy surplice. It was wartime, and supplies and budget were extremely short. She was faced with the dilemma of having some type of uniform for these nine glee clubs. It was out of the question to try to buy choir robes. The children's families could not afford the purchase of any type of special dress, shirt, or blouse.
Esther T. was able to get a large supply of white bleached flour sack dishtowels, each measuring 36 inches square. She got a group of mothers together and had them cut a hole in the center of each towel for the child's head. She purchased red crepe paper and cut it in four-inch widths, tied big red bows, and attached them to each towel. These now become choirboy surplices the children wore with one point in the front, a point over each arm, and a point in the back.
The children were instructed to wear dark skirts or pants and a white blouse or shirt with the surplices. When they marched out in their new costumes, the audience gasped and burst into applause. The choir looked picture perfect. She had been able to costume the glee clubs at a cost of less than 25 cents per child. These costumes were used for years with the only additional cost being that of occasionally replacing the red bows.
One of the problems Munroe had as a music supervisor was upgrading the quality of music education in the school system. Early on she had written lesson outlines for every grade, thus producing a textbook for each of the grades, which were distributed to all of the teachers. Many of the teachers did not have any musical ability and simply were unable to carry out the portion of the music class that included singing.
Without singing, much of the music lesson and theory were lost. Right after World War II tape recorders were introduced. Immediately, she recognized the possibilities and persuaded the superintendent of schools to buy a tape recorder for each of the schools.
She then sat down at her piano and with her two daughters, Shirley Ann and Emily Mae, prepared singing lessons for every grade. With the microphone on the piano music rack she would start out by cheerily announcing, "Hello boys and girls, please open your music books to page . . . . " She would then strike a chord on the piano and say, "Ready, sing". Then Shirley Ann or Emily Mae would sing the songs with Esther T. playing the piano.
These tapes were circulated at the schools and the teachers loved them because now there was a good piano accompaniment and clear voices leading the singing. The children loved it because they could sing right along and learn the songs that were so important to their growing knowledge and enjoyment.
In 1956, Esther T. retired for the first time and moved to Ukiah, California. Within a matter of weeks the superintendent of schools learned of her presence in the community. She was immediately appointed supervisor of music for the Ukiah public school system, with the mandate from the superintendent to develop a music program for the Ukiah schools as she had done for the Ventura schools. This she did very successfully, organizing and setting up an ongoing music program for the school system.
In 1959 at the time of her second retirement, the education department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists became acquainted with the work that she had done in the development of the music program in the public school systems. They were looking for a music textbook and a way to assist the church schools in providing a music education program. Esther T. was invited to Washington, D.C., and over a period of two years, she worked as a co-author of the textbook Singing Time and the development of the selections for the "Taped Music Education Program for the Seventh-day Adventist Elementary Schools." That book and tape program was used throughout the SDA schools for more than 25 years.
Throughout her life, Munroe never stopped studying. She had an outstanding musical education and continued this with serious summer sessions every year until she was nearly ninety.
Her choirs had an unusual sound quality. She believed that volunteer choirs should sound like professional ones, and through the years, they did become professional under her direction. Her premise of more altos than sopranos and more men than women in even volunteer choirs was very successful. For the doubters who thought that it was not possible, she pointed out that the only trick was to control the number of sopranos. The rest of the parts were happy to participate because they could be heard. A soprano who really wanted to sing could apply, provided she brought with her a tenor or bass recruit. She featured the men's voices and they took great pride in their contribution to the choir.
Choir practice was hard work combined with lots of fun. The thousands who sang with her through the years remember two things, the delight of choir practice and the satisfaction of producing well-performed, beautiful music. In a recent letter, Wayne Hooper observed that "her musical leadership has been a great blessing to thousands of people. She is surely one of a kind!"