Friday, September 21, 2012

"This Was My Music!"

Many years ago, a colleague Susan Kennedy and I gave a workshop at a national conference combining jazz swing music and dance with the pedagogy of Orff Schulwerk. By the end, teachers were jamming on Jumpin’ at the Woodside on Orff instruments while others were dancing the Lindy Hop. I noticed that in the back of room, a special invited Conference guest was also dancing so joyfully. Her name was Liselotte Orff and she was Carl Orff’s fourth wife. When it was over, I commented, “You seemed to enjoy that!” and with an ear-to-ear grin, she replied, “This was my music! This is what I listened to and danced to when I was young!” As the movie Swing Kids testifies, jazz did indeed capture Europe by storm in the 30’s and 40’s and though it was outlawed by the Nazi’s, it went underground and like all worthy things, found the cracks and crevices where it could surface and bring its message of liberation.

Some time later, I met Frau Orff again, along with 16 Special Course students studying at the Orff Institute, in her home in Diesen, where she had lived with Carl Orff before his passing in 1982. (As you might surmise, this was a May/December wedding). It was a beautiful home and all of us were a bit in awe as we sat in Orff’s study and browsed his library. She pointed out the piano where he had composed Carmina Burana and I sat down and spontaneously began to improvise and sing “The Wheel of Fortune Blues.” When it was over, fearing I may have been just a trifle irreverent, I asked her if it was okay to play that and she gave me a big smile and exclaimed, “Carl would have loved it!”

I will carry these two poignant memories and affirmations of my work combining Orff and Jazz for as long as my memory holds out, now made yet more poignant having received the news yesterday that Frau Orff passed away at 82 years old. This is a great loss to the world of Orff Schulwerk and yet another moment of shock to feel that there will be no more meetings with this warm, wise, witty, spirited and generous woman. She has carried forward Orff’s work with great dedication and intelligence, creating and overseeing the Orff Foundation to further disseminate both the artistic and educational legacy. From royalties from Carmina Burana and other works, the Foundation has been able to sponsor teachers to give workshops in economically-challenged countries. I myself have taught in Russia, Estonia, Iceland, Colombia and other places because of this fund.

The last time I saw Frau Orff was summer of 2011 when she attended the performance of the SF School kids my colleagues and I took to Salzburg to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Orff Institute. She seemed genuinely delighted by the show and was so warm and welcoming to the students. And the Fall before that, I had the honor to attend her 80th birthday party (where the photo above was taken).

There are people in our life who are a near or distant presence, immovable mountains that give us pleasure when we see them and comfort when we don’t just knowing they’re there. I simply can’t imagine the Orff world without that living presence of Frau Orff. I’m grateful beyond measure for every encounter we had, for the tireless and dedicated work she did and for her constant generosity and infectious good humor. The only proper response beyond allowing some quiet moments of grief is to re-dedicate myself to our shared mission of continuing what her husband had started. With particular emphasis on helping teachers learn how to teach and play jazz. I believe that when the music is swingin’ and the dancing exuberant, I’ll catch a glimpse of her whirling and twirling in the back of the room.  

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