“Art is an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
– Franz Kafka
“Why Improvisation in Orff Schulwerk?” was the theme of the Panel Discussion I was part of in the recent Orff Conference and the topic alone revealed the problem. Improvisation is the very heartbeat of the Orff approach, and yet, here were American practitioners having to both defend it and remind each other that it was important. What had happened to that transplanted wildflower (Carl Orff’s favorite image for this work) when it crossed the seas from Germany all those long years ago?
Ah, there’s a topic. In a nutshell, it found a home in American schools and grew—numerically, at least— far beyond the bounds of its counterpart in Germany. To this day, Orff programs in German schools are few and far between while many American schools throughout the 50 United States have music teachers trained in Orff Schulwerk and have had for almost 50 years. By some standards, it's an impressive success story.
And yet, American schools are far from the robust, hearty outdoors where such plants prosper. That once vibrant wildflower thriving through adaptation to local light, soil and water got brought indoors, genetically modified by the narrow mentality of schools with their insistence on limited, tangible, measurable results obtained by dull mathematical methods. And so the dynamic verbs of making music and dancing dance slowly congealed into brick-housed nouns of performable products with the children as mere players wielding xylophone mallets attached to the strings of the puppet-master teachers. Improvisation in these contexts is a tiny window of roaming around for 8-beats on five-notes, movement is a little spice to be “added,” usually with stiff bodies and bored faces, something quite different from what Orff and his fellow visionaries had in mind.
Take movement. Out of movement, music. Out of music, movement. This was the credo of the original Guntherschule back in the 20’s — the impulse for the creative act often came from improvised movement. And such movement included shaped patterns on drums and xylophones, kinesthetic impulses that produced enchanting sound without any pre-set theory to box and package it. Likewise, language could provide the spark for musical phrase and contour. The work began with young adults, but with the childlike atmosphere of playful exploration, it was only a matter of time that its core ideas were applied to the music and movement education of young children. Put a scarf in the hands of a young child, gift her with a bubbling, babbling phrase of poetry to play with, let mallets search for some secret song inside the five-notes of a prepared xylophone and you’ll see the child’s flowing imagination at work and witness improvisation in its conception.
But the adult teacher in us looks at Orff’s printed music and imprisons the flowing notes in an uninspired text, drills the unsuspecting student with a contrived body percussion pattern, asks the kids to make up steps to the right and left, to the center and back and then ticks off the Orff National Standard “Include improvisation.” Well, I do all of the above and a little in its place and with the right spirit and with some care and attention can indeed be part of that thing we call “Orff process.” But let’s dig deeper. “Real improvisation” is pure play, has a child’s energy to it, has a musical flow to it, is rife with surprise and driven by faith in the genius of our intuition.
We in the West are vulnerable to the sacrilege of turning the verbs of dynamic living to all nouns, to dam up life’s flow and freeze it so we can control it. America especially is probably the most thing-oriented culture in the history of humanity, everything—and I mean everything— open territory to box, label, commodify, sell. We put stickers on apples, turn cooking into televised competition, stick labels to complex psychologies (I’m ADHD, you have Defiant Authority Syndrome, etc.), notate music inside systems of carefully measured boxes and exact pitches. The entire lexicons of verbs that describe life as a living, changing, growing, flowing, dynamic process harden to obedient and measurable nouns. How could Orff’s deep pedagogy gain a foothold in such an atmosphere?
To my way of thinking, the deep radical roots of Orff Schulwerk were Carl Orff's attempt to unthaw music from its frozen state of music as a specialized subject— “put this finger on this fret,” “compose according to these rules” “read this note as written”, to unchain music and dance and let it run a bit freer, to bring the verb of music (which doesn’t exist in English, despite Christopher Small’s attempt to introduce “musicking”) into the world of children’s —and adult's— music education. And since young children are almost pure verbs— no crystallized egos or hardened habits yet (though both beginning to form)— any music education worth its salt has to proceed from the child’s world of play and possibility.
I suspect this has always been a problem in the American (and other) interpretation of Orff Schulwerk, this tendency to confine it inside the nouns of uninspired Orff process. And as Orff predicted, this is not only a cultural problem, but an individual psychological one. People in all cultures run the spectrum from the rock-brained Immigration Official to the fluid Theater Sports Improviser and this way of working—and playing— won’t appeal to all equally. As Orff himself said:
“Spontaneous teaching that comes totally from improvisation is and remains an excellent starting point. Experience has nevertheless shown that not everyone is capable of teaching in this way; it can therefore not be expected from everyone …Most methodical, dogmatic people derive scant pleasure from it, but those who are artistic and who are improvisers by temperament enjoy it all the more.”
But housed within a noun-driven culture, those with an artistic temperament will have to struggle on behalf of life lived as a verb. They’ll have to defend it to a non-comprehending school board or even at an Orff Conference! And so a note to my fellow Orff practitioners:
We have work to do. Keep Orff practice as an ax to unthaw the frozen seas, beware of nouned teaching and keep verbs at the center, let the music flow, let the children play their way into discovery. We need so much more than carefully-prepared Orff lessons that can fit on a Smartboard. We need to learn how to release the artist in ourselves yearning to cavort in the wildflowered field, to let go a bit of control and ride the rapids, to spend some time drifting aimlessly downstream, to renew our child spirit in our own improvised music and dance. Yes, we need clever structures that help invite and shape the creative impulse, but none of it can come wholly to life without our own living model as a teacher who lives the improvisatory spirit, who brings to every situation an ability to respond to the needs of the moment with all the tools and knowledge at our disposal. That’s what the children, those verbed creatures of the living, breathing moment have to teach us. Let us be worthy of their trust.