Henry Farley Courter
1847 - 1923
Although primarily a mathematics teacher, Henry Courter was also a singer who taught music in the opening years at Healdsburg College, forerunner of today's Pacific Union College. A tall, thin man with a walrus mustache, he dressed in the well-tailored high-buttoned suits of that time and was a striking figure on campus.
Courter was born in Farmington, Michigan. At age eighteen, he enlisted in the Union Army and fought briefly in the Civil War. He attended the state normal school in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and a business college in Detroit. When he was 26, he moved to California on the recommendation of his physician that he move to a warmer climate.
Four years later he married and began teaching. In 1885 he attended a series of evangelistic meetings and became a Seventh-day Adventist. He was hired to teach mathematics and vocal music at Healdsburg the following year and would be there for the next fourteen years.
In the beginning years of HC, students had quickly gained a reputation for their singing. Courter was troubled when he arrived, however, by their ignorance of music theory. Brilliant and demanding, yet cheerfully persistent as a teacher, he invented a mathematically based teaching device called the Abacus Harmonicus to teach sightreading and the singing of intervals.
The instrument, six feet long and three feet high, utilized the circle of fifths and demonstrated how transposition of keys could be easily done if one understood how the scales were related to one another. He described how he would use the device in a school publication in 1888:
I will make a very great issue concerning the lack of training in theory. They can learn the relationship of tones, triads, intervals, scales and transposition, chords, and inversions, and be shown their applicability to sight singing with the Abacus Harmonicus. By its use the voice is trained to execute the various intervals of the various scales and chords understandingly; and the ear is trained to perceive the greater and less intervals with great precision.
He continued, lamenting how students spent money on lessons and still could not read music, many seemingly lost in a fog when it came to learning new music. He was convinced that his invention would solve the problem. Using this aid and his innate ability to give clarity to complex concepts, Courter went over each lesson with varied explanations until it was clear to every student.
In 1899 he left to enter the ministry. He served for a time as president of the Georgia Conference and then worked in evangelism in Arizona and California. Following the General Conference Session in San Francisco in 1922, he settled in Hollister, California. The following year, Courter was tragically killed while trying to pull a stalled automobile off the railroad tracks. An oncoming train struck the car, knocking it into him.
Sources: Obituaries by J. L. McElhany, Pacific Union Recorder, 15 February 1923, 6,7 and Review and Herald, 1 March 1923, 22; Walter C. Utt, A Mountain, A Pickax, A College, 24; Melvin S. Hill, A History of Music Education in Seventh-day Adventist Western Colleges, 25-27 (description of Courter, his comments about the preparedness of the students, and details about the Abacus Harmonicus).