Monday, September 5, 2016

Orff for All Ages

(NOTE: Just wrote this for an Orff workshop of the same title I'll teach next week. Hopefully interesting to non-Orff teachers as well.)

The Orff approach to music education did not begin as an approach to music education. It began with a composer—Carl Orff—with an intuitive feel for a compositional style that required a different relationship with making music than the traditional Western way. Instead of choosing an instrument, learning to read notes and playing the works of others, Orff’s emerging ideas asked the young musician to begin in the body, in the voice, in the listening ear and improvise, create and compose every step of the way. It was a radically new idea, yet reaching as far back as ancient Greece and as far wide as the musical practices of the entire sub-Saharan African continent, much of Asia, the folk cultures of of every continent. As Orff himself said:

“Music begins inside human beings, and so must any instruction. Not at the instrument, not with the first finger nor with the first position, not with this chord or that chord. The starting point is one’s own stillness, listening to oneself, the ‘being’ready’ for music,’ listening to one’s own heartbeat and breathing.” (Source unknown)

Working first with 17-year old dancers at an innovative dance school in Munich in 1924, it took some 25 years before the work began to turn toward young children. After over a decade of this work with children (all of it done by Orff’s colleague Gunild Keetman), the Orff Institut in Salzburg was opened as an international training center. In a speech given in 1962, Orff said:

Year in, year out, many Schulwerk courses are given for teachers of all kinds. Schulwerk is taught alongside other subjects in various schools of music, in schools for gymnastics and dance, and in private courses. Useful as all these efforts may be, they do not alter the fact that Schulwerk has not yet found the place where it belongs, the place where it can be most effective and where there is the possibility of continuous and progressive work, and where the connections with other subjects can be explored, developed and fully exploited. This place is the school. ‘Music for Children’ is for the school.” (boldface mine) (Carl Orff: The Schulwerk, Schott Publishers, p. 245)

1962 was the same year that Orff and Keetman and a young Barbara Haselbach came to Toronto to drop this wildflower seed in North America. In both Canada and the United States, there was a function for music in the schools and most schools had a general music program for young children. It was here that Orff’s vision found its place and how it came to be that every state in the U.S. and every province in Canada has music programs taught by Orff teachers. (In terms of public schools, it is more widely used here than in Orff’s native country of Germany!)

As a result, most people associate Orff-Schulwerk with elementary-age children from kindergarten to 5th or 6th grade. It has become an engaging and clever way to teach the rudiments of music and dance, help kids learn to improvise and compose, connect them to their classmates in group work, give them ensemble experience early on with Orff instruments and more. Many teachers have also taken these ideas and practices into the preschool age and a few into Middle School as well. Generally though, Orff is seen as a warm-up to the ‘real music’ of band, orchestra, choir and/or modern dance class.

If we miss the deep pedagogy of the Schulwerk, it indeed doesn’t seem to make sense for hulking high-school kids to improvise pentatonic melodies on the tiny glockenspiel and compose pieces based on nursery rhymes. Yet the fundamental principles of beginning in the body and voice, learning through the listening ear, exploring a hundred variations of any given melody or piece or series of dance steps, creating alone and in groups, learning to speak music and dance like a home language far beyond pushing down the right notes with the correct fingering, these are for all ages, all people, all cultures. Properly understood, Orff Schulwerk classes in high school, colleges, conservatories, adult workplaces, senior homes would brighten the lives and expand the musicality of all. Orff principles can animate jazz bands, orchestras, choirs and dance troupes, from the starting ones to the professionals.

This is not mere conjecture. I have been fortunate to work with Middle School in my own school, high school in the International School teaching I do, college as a guest teacher, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for six years, adults in Zen Centers, business retreats, food store workers and seniors for eight years at The Jewish Home for the Aged. And then at the other end with my two grandchildren and an occasional babies class. The Schulwerk is so much more than a “cute method” for elementary school children.

And Orff knew it. He wisely knew it needed to begin young, but the gifts of the work he understood were ageless. In that 1962 speech, he continued:

“Elementary music, word and movement, play, everything that awakens and develops the power of the spirit, this is the ‘humus’ of the spirit, the humus without which we face the danger of a spiritual erosion… We expose ourselves to spiritual erosion if we estrange ourselves from our elementary essentials and thus lose our balance…”

Our work has just begun. The wee ones, the teens and young adults, the working adults and the elders all need what we can offer to restore balance and feed the spirit. Let us dig deeper into the roots, the fundamental ways of being the Schulwerk offers far beyond learning sweet little pieces so that the branches may grow higher and wider.

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