Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ruth Doris Alexander (1914–1999)

by Suzanne Robinson

This article was published online in 2023

Ruth Doris Alexander (1914–1999), music educator and administrator, was born on 29 April 1914 at Wellington, Kansas, United States of America, youngest of eight children and only daughter of David Hartzler Kurtz, builder, and his wife, Jemima Elizabeth, née Kauffman (d. 1925). After schooling at Wellington, Ruth won a scholarship to the State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas, where she trained as a music teacher. Graduating in 1939, she taught in public schools at Newton, Kansas, then Detroit, Michigan, where she met Geoffrey Newman Alexander, a Melbourne-born engineer overseeing the manufacture of tanks for the Australian Military Forces. After marrying in Philadelphia in 1943, the couple settled at Belgrave, near Melbourne.

Alexander taught piano privately, worked as a music teacher (1944–49) at Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, and presented recitals of folk songs and African-American spirituals. By 1947 she was teaching music education at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and writing school broadcast scripts for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). She produced a musical puppet show for the National Fitness Council (NFC) Youth Theatre in 1947 and published a collection of songs for children titled See-Saws and Swings (1948).

An invitation from the director of music at Scotch College, John Bishop, to speak at a meeting of the Victorian School Music Association in October 1943 sparked an enduring friendship based on their mutual interest in ‘music for every child and every child for music’ (Symons 1989, 136). In a series of six lectures (April–July 1944) for the VSMA on music teaching in American schools, Alexander described the National High School Symphony Orchestra, established by Joseph E. Maddy in Detroit in 1925, and the summer music camp he founded at Interlochen, Michigan, in 1928. Soon afterwards, the VSMA created a Junior Symphony Orchestra under Bishop’s leadership.

In association with the NFC, Bishop and Alexander planned a music camp to be held over a fortnight in January–February 1948 at the NFC’s camp at Point Lonsdale. Working in an honorary capacity, Alexander selected students, engaged tutors, arranged fares, and supplied music scores. Her participation at the camp itself was limited as she was expecting her first child. Bishop was the camp’s director of music and chief conductor. Sixty-five students aged fourteen to twenty-five attended the camp and numbers doubled for a second camp in 1949, which was the subject of a documentary film made by R. Maslyn Williams for the Commonwealth Department of Information. Alexander’s role expanded when Bishop left for Adelaide in 1948 to become director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music, their collaboration continuing by correspondence and in meetings snatched when Bishop visited Melbourne.

After an interregnum in 1950–51, a third camp was held in 1952 at Geelong Church of England Grammar School. In 1954 the organisers parted ways with the NFC, establishing the National Music Camp Association (NMCA) as an independent entity, with patrons including the ABC chairman Sir Charles Moses and the managing director of Allans Music, Geoff H. Allan. Alexander’s home became the hub of the organisation, her passion, initiative, dedication, and concern for the students complementing Bishop’s considerable energy and charm. The first national camp was held at Geelong Grammar in 1955 and was the subject of a second film by Williams, The Music Makers. As entry standards became more rigorous, the number of orchestras expanded to three and specialist instrumental tutors were recruited from the ABC State orchestras.

Bishop resolved to create the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO), which presented its inaugural concert in Sydney on 9 March 1957. Alexander was responsible for arranging auditions, scholarships, billeting, and scores. By 1962 she was also organising smaller-scale non-residential camps held in the State capitals. The music critic Kenneth Hince wrote enthusiastically about the camps’ success in grooming ‘emissaries’ who ‘will upgrade the standing of music in the Australian community, will form an audience for music and will develop pressure for higher standards of taste and professional performance’ (Loughlin 1967, 40–41).

After Bishop’s death in 1964 the principal orchestra at the national camp took his name, and a few years later a second orchestra was named after Alexander. She continued as the camp movement’s executive secretary, known universally as Auntie Ruth, until her retirement in 1974. As well as travelling and spending time with her family, she continued to visit the music camps and maintained friendships with a large circle of former students and tutors.

In his biography of Bishop, Christopher Symons wrote that the music camp movement would not have prospered without Alexander’s ‘indefatigable, incisive and meticulous approach to every aspect of the work’ (1989, 158–59). In 1986 she was awarded the inaugural Sir Bernard Heinze memorial medal for her outstanding contribution to music in Australia. Predeceased by her husband (d. 1975) and survived by her daughter and son, she died in East Melbourne on 8 January 1999 and was cremated. A celebration of her life was held on 21 February at Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University. The AYO’s Ruth Alexander memorial scholarship was later established in her honour.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Epstein, June. Concert Pitch: The Story of the National Music Camp Association and the Australian Youth Orchestra. Melbourne: Hyland House, 1984
  • Epstein, June. ‘Innovator Nurtured Talented Young Musicians.’ Australian, 19 February 1999, 14
  • Loughlin, John. ‘The Music Camp Movement.’ Australian Journal of Music Education 1 (October 1967): 40–43
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7979, Records of the Australian Youth Orchestra, 1948–2012
  • Symons, Christopher. John Bishop: A Life for Music. Melbourne: Hyland House, 1989
  • Symons, Christopher. ‘Obituary: Ruth D. Alexander.’ Age, 15 February 1999, 18

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Robinson, 'Alexander, Ruth Doris (1914–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 13 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ruth Alexander, 1961

Ruth Alexander, 1961

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L40989

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kurtz, Ruth Doris

29 April, 1914
Wellington, Kansas, United States of America


8 January, 1999 (aged 84)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

respiratory arrest

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.