Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Radical Foundations of Orff Schulwerk

Reflective thinking has been my lifelong companion and when it comes to any success as a music teacher of young children and a trainer of other music teachers, it has served me well. Deep into the online learning world— some six courses this past month alone for teachers in Canada, Russia, Hong Kong, Iran and two more for anyone within a reasonable time zone, the thinking side of what we do, how we do it and why we do it works well in the online format. Singing in canon, folk dancing, playing instrumental parts together is of course, ridiculous online, but good hearty talk about what sets Orff apart from business as usual and how one must be alert and vigilant when the old assumptions creep into your classroom—well, this is time well spent. So here’s my little intro. to the topic.

What is music? How does one learn it? How does one teach it?

Orff Schulwerk is nearing its 100thyear as a radical approach to music education. At the beginning of an Orff workshop, it’s worthwhile asking the above questions. By considering what music education had become when Orff set out with his revolutionary experiments, and what it mostly still is in traditional Western music teaching, we might better understand the far-reaching implications of this pedagogical approach. It is extremely difficult to teach as one has not been taught. Without careful attention, those assumptions we’ve inherited from our culture will keep re-appearing. By naming them, we have a chance of noticing how they affect our teaching.

See if the following describes how your culture views music, the way one learns music, the way youlearned music and the assumptions you grew up with.

• Music is a special talent that some people have and some people don’t.

• You begin studying music by choosing an instrument you want to learn.

• You learn that instrument mostly by taking a private lesson with a teacher or going to a special music class.

• You learn musical pieces composed by other people.

• You learn the pieces by reading music notation printed on pages. 

• You practice daily by yourself anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours in order to master the pieces.

• The piece is finished when you can play it without a mistake. 

• Your teacher will be the most interested in the students who are the most “talented” and work the hardest to practice.

• Your teacher may be strict, insult you and shame you to motivate you to practice more.

• If you work hard enough and get good enough, you will perform in high-pressure recitals and concerts where an audience pays money to hear you and sits quietly while you play.

Since we go to concerts and buy CD’s and some of us enjoy playing Bach, Chopin and others, something about this system works. But not enough. 

Enter Orff Schulwerk. The Orff idea of music and music education is diametrically opposed to almost all of the above. Consider:

• Music is not a special talent, but a human faculty all possess. It is an intelligence, a language, a means of speaking before words coming and speaking beyond where they can go. 

• All levels of musical expression are welcomed. Though talent, aptitude and practice are appreciated, a student playing an inspired improvised melody on the glockenspiel deserves the same attention as the virtuoso mastering Rachmaninoff. 

• Music is learned through direct experiences in the body and through the ear. Sound comes before symbol, speaking music comes before reading and writing it.

• Music is learned in group, community experiences, not in isolated practice rooms. Playing together in the group is the main form of practicing.

• A piece is never “finished,” but is always the beginning of the next possibility— improvisation, re-composition, dance choreography, integrated arts, etc. 

• Making mistakes is essential and improvising into new territory is more important than playing perfectly notes someone else has given you.

• Love and humor set the tone of the class. The teacher can, and should, have strict standards and expectations, but creates a playful atmosphere to achieve them. No place for fear in the music class—or any class.

• Performance is part of the learning, but it is more a sharing to refresh the community than a test to pass.

• Music is not confined to any single instrument and is best learned through a wide variety of media— hence, Play, Sing & Dance.

Each set of values has their gifts and shortcomings and in the real world, both can co-exist together. But there is no question that the Orff approach is not only more inclusive, more welcoming, more fun, more motivating, more following the natural ways children learn, more community-minded, it also can help produce better musicians who can understand more fully what they’re playing, hear it more clearly, feel it more deeply and express it with more nuance. Naturally, those who choose music as a profession will often need some of the disciplines of the first—some long hours of solitary practice, reading skills, mastering note-perfect challenging compositions, but an Orff foundation will help them in their pursuits. 

It is worth noting that It is challenging for those brought up in the first set of values to try to teach the second set. By naming these principles above, we can be more aware of those times when we just teach as we’ve been taught. When your class does not go well, the students seem bored or frustrated, consult the list above and change your teaching.
Both you and your students will be happy you did.

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