Denise Bacon had already been a piano soloist with the Boston Pops at 22 and head of the music program at the Dana Hall private girls’ school in Wellesley when she encountered the teaching concepts of Hungarian composer and philosopher Zoltan Kodaly.
“This was serious business,” she told the Globe in 1997. “I knew if I wanted to help my students, I had to drop everything to study in Hungary.”
Upon her return from Hungary, after receiving a Kodaly diploma in 1968 from the Liszt Academy, Ms. Bacon became a pioneering proponent of the composer’s method in the United States, founding the Kodaly Musical Training Institute and the Kodaly Center of America, both in the Boston area.
“She was an amazing lady,” said Sandra Mathias, professor emerita of vocal music education at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, where she founded the Kodaly Institute in 1980. “Her original dream of bringing something special in music education to children in America is certainly alive, and I think will last a long time.”
Ms. Bacon, whom New England Conservatory honored with outstanding alumni and lifetime achievement awards, died Nov. 11 in the Briarwood health care center in Needham. She was 93 and had lived in Wellesley for many years.
“She was fervent,” said Jonathan Rappaport, codirector of the Kodaly Music Institute in Boston. “It was almost a religious thing with her. She would do almost anything to promote what she thought was important.”
The Kodaly concept takes a comprehensive approach as it emphasizes singing and draws from songs specific to each culture as ways to help children gain musical literacy through ear training and other methods.
“Kodaly said that you should start with where the child is, in his backyard if he lives out in the country, or the city streets if he lives in the city,” Ms. Bacon told the Globe in 1977. “You should start with his little chants and calls to his playmates. . . . Then you let them play games associated with their childhood ‘singing’ games wherever they happen to be. And the next bridge is the folk song of the mother tongue, then go to the folk songs of neighboring countries, and that is a steppingstone to the classics.”
She was 45 when she met Kodaly in 1965 when he was visiting Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. That encounter changed the course of her musical career. Ms. Bacon had been a soloist with the Boston Pops on and off for two decades, performing pieces such as a Tchaikovsky piano concerto in 1942 and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in 1962.
Having set aside that career to advocate for the Kodaly method, she returned to performing in 1997, at 77. Ms. Bacon gave her first public concert in three decades in the Pickman concert hall at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, from which she had received a soloist diploma decades earlier.
“Nobody knows me as a pianist,” she told the Globe in April 1997, “but in the ’40s and ’50s I had my career.”
Born in Boston, Ms. Bacon attended Dana Hall School in Wellesley and graduated from what was then Pine Manor Junior College, a part of Dana Hall in the late 1930s, according to Dana Hall’s website.
“Whenever Dana girls lock arms and sway as they sing the School’s Alma Mater, they are honoring the legacy of Denise Bacon,” the school said on the site, adding that “among her many musical accomplishments, Bacon wrote Dana Hall’s current Alma Mater in the mid-1950s, and her name is synonymous with outstanding musical training at Dana Hall.”
Ms. Bacon joined Dana Hall’s faculty in 1944 and became head of the music department four years later. She founded the Dana Hall School of Music in 1957.
She graduated from New England Conservatory in the 1950s with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In addition to the honors from New England Conservatory, Ms. Bacon received an outstanding achievement award from the Organization of American Kodaly Educators in 1989 and the Dana Hall distinguished alumna award the following year.
After studying in Hungary, Ms. Bacon used a $184,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to establish the Kodaly Musical Training Institute in Wellesley in 1969. She founded the Kodaly Center of America in 1977. Through summer programs that she established, scores of teachers from across the United States and around the world learned the Kodaly method.
“That’s a pretty significant impact, and many of the teachers she trained are now the leaders of the Kodaly movement around the country,” Rappaport said.
“It revolutionized those people’s teaching, because it showed them how you could bring the joy of music to children and teach them music literacy,” Mathias said.
Ms. Bacon could be curmudgeonly at times in her focused approach to promoting the Kodaly method, but was just as well known for the joy she took telling stories about her own missteps. One time a police officer stopped her car because she kept slowing down and speeding up erratically. It turned out she was driving with snow tires and trying to find a speed that matched the whine of the metal studs to the bass line of the classical music playing on her car’s sound system.
“She also was known for making verbal faux pas, and she would retell those stories with great glee,” Rappaport said. “She had the ability to laugh at herself, which is a very endearing trait.”
A service will be announced for Ms. Bacon, who leaves no immediate family.
“Denise Bacon’s life work is now an invaluable part of the overall development of musical education at large,” wrote Peter Erdei, a longtime colleague who helped her launch programs in the United States, on the website of the Kodaly Institute of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Hungary. He added that “she will be remembered by many who loved and respected her in the US, Hungary, and many other countries all over the world.”
For Ms. Bacon, music and teaching were twin pursuits that never ended. As she prepared for the 1997 concert late into her 70s, Band-Aids decorated fingertips sore from practicing, and she massaged her hands while speaking with the Globe.
“This crazy woman in her seventh decade, trying to make a comeback,” she said with a laugh. “Fortunately, I have good ears and a good memory. And I love all the music I’m playing.”
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