…is not a non-profit organization designed to promote, support, sustain that mysterious non-entity called World Music. It’s a description of what the elemental foundations of the Orff Schulwerk gifts to people interested in expanding their musical universe beyond the narrow borders of pop and past the horizon of the harmonic European classical tradition.
Still back-pedaling on this blog to try to unpack some of the exciting suitcases we brought to the Orff Conference. James and Sofia did a session on Stravinsky that included modal improvisations, I did one looking at pentatonic melodies from northern Ghana and the southern Philippines (with an Emily Dickinson poem I arranged as a choral piece thrown into the mix) that offered unique compositional devices. But the most important thing we offered was the Middle School children’s concert showcasing music from India, Bali, Brazil, Cuba, Ghana, Philippines, Spain alongside the work of two contemporary European/American composers and the American genius, Duke Ellington. (See "Culture Bearing" post for the actual concert set list). Not your standard fare for an Orff Conference and I remember thinking during the show that the audience reaction seemed lukewarm. I’ve heard folks cheer so loudly for kids who did cute things passably well partly because the kids deserved it and partly because it all was comfortably familiar for the teachers attending the conference. I think for some, our presentation was a bit of a surprise, showing material and expertise and dynamic kid energy that was a bit outside of people’s frame of reference and thus, received in a different way. (And, by the way, there was significant cheering by the end and all of it much appreciated.)
We have presented 6 concerts like this at Conferences between 1991 and 2019, so from our point of view, this was nothing new. But as I mentioned in “A Shift in the Wind,” there was something about the timing of this that made it precisely what people needed to see and hear to consider how to move forward into the greater diversity that we’re starting to hunger for. The audience was prepared to look at it with new eyes and hear it with new ears and consider it with a new mindset and feel it with a new heart-feeling. Or at least, that’s what I’d like to think.
In a meeting on the last morning with the teachers teaching the summer courses and giving workshops around the country, we looked at the beginning of the next 50 years and considered where we wanted to go. In my break-out group, I gave the concert as an example of where I hoped we might be heading and laid out how the Orff approach is the perfect foundation for this work. We just need to start framing the building and filling in the details.
This is a book in itself and indeed, my next project with my colleagues James and Sofia. But the short version of the marriage between “World Music” and Orff is as follows:
• Instruments: The Orff instruments themselves were initially inspired by similar models in West Africa, Indonesia and Germany. What a pleasure to mix the original grandfather Ghanaian gyil with its grandchildren. And in general, Orff Ensembles integrate recorder and percussion instruments worldwide— a perfect foundation to study further the technical demands of the conga, gourd rattle or triangle as practiced in Cuba, Ghana and Brazil. Additionally, our program integrated traditional Western instruments— a string quartet, piano, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and flutes.
• Elemental composition: Most of the pieces we presented were based on pentatonic or modal scales, layers of ostinato, color parts and drones, exactly the elements of Orff and Keetman’s compositional style given new—and old—voice.
•Tradition: The Bobobo dance and drum patterns of the Ewe people we learned in Ghana and passed them on to the children in their traditional form. Likewise, the Coco dance and song from Brazil. Passing on the tried-and-true is part of our responsibilities as music teachers, alongside giving a taste of cultural practices as they have been and continue to be in diverse communities.
• Innovation: At the same time that we honor tradition, we take seriously Orff’s invitation to innovate and create something new. Making body percussion patterns from South Indian drum syllables in the context of a “West Side Story” drama, combining Balinese kecak with ball-passing routines, adding new instruments like Thai angklung to a Philippine kulintang piece are just some of the ways we used our creative license.
• Integrated arts: Following Orff’s axiom that “elemental music is never music alone, but forms a unity with movement, dance and speech,” virtually every piece had movement and many had props—balls, fans, sticks, bamboo poles. There were choreographed dance routines, a film, body percussion and a bit of story and drama.
• Child-centered: The show was crafted around the particular talents of the students who signed up. Some were featured as singers, as dancers, as solo viola players, as dancers, always with a sense of each child’s particular strengths. The kids mostly crafted the particular dance routines and the energy throughout was playful, as children are.
• Repertoire: The show was also crafted around our unique Middle School curriculum—World Music in 6thgrade, European (and beyond) classical composition in 7th, American (and beyond) jazz and improvisation. Besides mastering examples of these diverse genres, our students also study a bit of history, geography, culture, learning the context of where a particular music come from and often touching on themes of social justice.
• Composition: “Let the children be their own composers” Carl Orff (theoretically) said and through exposure to diverse compositional styles, children begin to compose their own music from a broad palette of sonic possibilities.
In short, the whole concert was a model of the kind of foundation a good Orff program offers for further study and development. The bad news is that it isn’t easily packageable and transmitted through a mere book of pieces. It requires a fiery curiosity and determination to study, imagine and apply new ideas to one’s old pedagogical habits. The good news is that there are plenty of courses—many of them under the umbrella of the San Francisco International Orff Course I direct—that open these doors to the willing teacher. Many of these courses flow two ways, helping people with a background in a specific cultural music to experience how the Orff approach can help communicate, introduce and extend the material, while simultaneously helping those with a background in Orff pedagogy learn some culturally-specific music to widen the playing field of their repertoire and expand their own musical skills. Both the Orff-Afrique Course in Ghana and my Jazz Course in New Orleans/ San Francisco/ Newark are examples of these unique opportunities.
The foundation is laid. Now comes the building. And then the housewarming party. Finally, the life lived in these marvelous rooms.
And if you're not yet convinced, look how happy these children are in their post-concert joy!!!