Lesson 01
Lesson 02
Lesson 03
Lesson 04
Lesson 05
Lesson 06
Lesson 07
Lesson 08
Lesson 09
Lesson 10
Lesson 11
Lesson 12
Sight Reading

The Cowling Institute

Many years ago The Cowling Institute published a series of exercises which were designed to impart flexibility and strength in the fingers and hands. Although primarily intended for musicians they were, and can be, used with benefit in any profession or hobby where supple fingers are required: apparently they are particularly useful as warming-up exercises for magicians. They are often described as Isometric exercises although this term didn't come into use until the 1960's.

I purchased my course in February 1974 and the letters duly arrived over the following twelve weeks or so. The sheets were a mixture of rather poorly printed and duplicated texts in a variety of fonts and styles. The photographs seemed to have come from the turn of the century - the twentieth century. Unfortunately I was not so diligent in my practising so the full benefits of the course were not completely bestowed upon me. All these years later I still do lesson one from time to time, and despite their age the exercises can still be practised with benefit today.

I know little of what the Cowling Institute was, its origins, what it did from its establishment in 1910 onwards, and its eventual demise. The office (at least up to the 70's) was in Bloomsbury alongside the many enterprises related to the burgeoning pop recording and music business of that era. I suspect that it was little more than a room or two and was perhaps even at that time a little out of place with the changing world. I do not know when the doors of the Cowling Institute finally closed, or if 60 New Oxford Street still exists.

The Cowling Institute's heading names two people, the Principal K James and the Founder Ernest J Pickles, FRCO (Fellow of the Royal College of Organists). The 1902 Census for England records an Ernest J Pickles, born about 1876, living with his wife Frances M in Yorkshire, although it can't be ascertained that this is the Cowling Pickles - there are a lot of Pickles in Yorkshire. Ernest J Pickles was musical Director and conductor of the Bradford Old Choral Society in the early years of the 20th Century, and the Manchester Guardian advertises a concert at the Picadilly Picture Theatre (now long gone), with Ernest J Pickles at the organ, in February 1924. There is at least one of his compositions published, the Kashmera March, which is undated but is circa 1902. It appears, from the delightful coloured cover, to be a paen to the merits of Kashmera Cloth (of which I can find no trace today) and the only copy I have seen is stamped on all its pages with J. W. Hodgson, Draper, Penrith. Whether this is the Ernest J Pickles of the Cowling Institute I don't know, but I suspect they are one and the same. This does, however, see Mr Pickles getting on for 100 years old when I received my signed letter from him. Unfortunately I can find no record of the principal, K James. There are far too many James's on Google.

Below is the Kashmera March with its lovely cover, and also the letter I received when I sent in my enquiry about the Cowling System.


The letter mentions a 16-page booklet titled Finger Magic, an altogether far more professionally produced product which contains, along with many testimonials, an explanation of the system in detail and an outline of the course which is reproduced below. Alongside is a small piece by Ernest Jay (I wonder if his surname is Pickles?) taken from the Billy Mayerl School magazine of October 1936, lauding the mertits of the Cowling System. The address is Albion House, New Oxford Street, which is numbered 55-59, adjacent to the later number 60. This thinly disguised advert appreared many times in The Musical Times and other publications, all under the name of Ernest Jay FRCO. Was Pickles deemed to be too northern, or was it simply a not very sophisticated attempt at deception?

Further on the right are two lineage adverts in musical publications from 1948 and '49. I can only presume that the income from sales of the Cowling System was enough to sustain the business for more than forty years, although I doubt if anyone became wealthy on the proceeds.


As for Cowling itself, I have no idea what or who Cowling is, or was. Cowling's System implies a human presence, and The Cowling Institute a formal association if not actual bricks and mortar. I have seen a reference to a Mr E J Cowling, who ostensibly devised these exercises in 1904, but I can find no further evidence of his existence. In any event both Cowling and Pickles having the same initials is a noticable coincidence, to say the least. Back on terra firma, there is a village of Cowling in Yorkshire with a Pickles family going back to at least the mid-1800's, but the connection there is rather tenuous.

The course consists of a Foreword and twelve lessons, and two additional papers on octave playing and music sight-reading. Most of the lessons are compact enough to be held on one side of what is now A4.

This revised and edited version of the Cowing Institute's finger dexterity exercises follows as closely as possible the original text. There are some rather archaic phrases and suggestions - a cold bath would find favour with few these days - but I have included them as they reflect the charmingly old-fashioned style of the original writer, who lived in a world that even at that time had been swept away by the brash manners of emerging popular culture. The photographs however were variable and very poorly produced even by 1974's standards, so a new set, of my own left hand, has been taken and published here.

Transcribing, editing, formatting and producing this edition of the Cowling System has taken many, many hours of work. It is free to use for any personal and educational purposes and I hope that many will benefit from both the system and my labour. If you feel you would like to make a small contribution then a donation of a pound or two to my PayPal account (kes at kcall.co.uk) would be much appreciated, but it is not in any way obligatory.

This edition is my own work and is free to use for any personal or educational purpose. On no account may all or any part of it be used for any commercial purposes, or authorship of any part passed or claimed by any third party, or all or any part be sold or used for any commercial benefit whatsoever.

Images on this page not owned by me fall within the fair use research and educational provisions of the UK copyright act.

If you have any observations, news or experiences with The Cowling Institute then I'd be pleased to hear from you. Mail me Thank you.

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