Thursday, June 9, 2022

Let Them Play!

Sometimes I read a short passage by Carl Orff and think, with my tongue only partly in cheek, “Wow! This guy would have been a great Orff teacher!”


The fact is that he hardly ever, if ever, taught music classes to children and beyond one book describing the history of the Schulwerk’s development, probably wrote a total of five to ten pages about the core principles of his vision. Yet I’m still amazed at how clear, articulate and visionary one paragraph of his writing is and captures the essence of so much of what I consider important about both music education and human development.


I’ve been thinking a bit lately about regret, both the kind where I wish I could apologize to people for something I did or said and the kind when there was a missed opportunity. In the latter category, my soon-to-be wife and I took a trip around the world in 1978-79, three years after I began the Orff program at The San Francisco School. One thought I had was to include a visit to the Orff Institut in Salzburg and I have a dim memory of even writing them a letter. But although we were relatively close visiting a friend in northern Germany, we opted to skip that part of the itinerary. 


Had we gone there, there is a chance I might have actually met Carl Orff and/or his colleague Gunild Keetman, taken a class or had a chat with them. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? Alas, it never happened, Carl Orff died in 1982 and when I did finally get to the Institut as a guest teacher in the summer of 1990 and still had hopes of meeting Keetman, she was suffering from dementia and not available and indeed, died later that year. I’ll never know what it would have meant to me had I had the opportunity to meet Orff (or Keetman), but re-reading some of his short articles, I’m struck again by the kind of conversation we might have had. Oh, well.


Here are some of his gems from an article titled: Thoughts About Music with Children and Non-Professional written in 1932. (This article reprinted in full in the book Texts on Theory and Practice of Orff Schulwerk edited by Barbara Haselbach and published by Schott Publishers). This was written some 15-20 years before the Schulwerk actually came into flower, 90 years before its present state of bloom. In the same way Picasso said, “I don’t develop. I am,” so does vision come to us whole and intact and the life that follows is simply doing the detail work that gives feet to the vision. Here are a few gems from that vision:


 • Musical instruction for a child does not begin in the music lesson. Playtime is the starting point. One should not come to music—  it should arise of itself. What is important is that the child be allowed to play, undisturbed, expressing the internal externally. Word and sound must arise simultaneously from improvisatory, rhythmic play. 


• One can also start from play with adults and indeed with play that arises from movement. In any case the drive to play that is still alive in most of us is of cardinal value and should be made use of, released through such instruments as rattles, drums, xylophones and recorder. …The adult student comes in this way to a totally new world of sound and thus loses all ideas about concepts, formula and standards and with these, all inhibitions.


• We must above all understand that which is latent within us, or that lies ready in us, as yet unconsciously. …When we again make “primitive” music for ourselves, this can only ever be an expression of the primitiveness that is still alive in us, the re-awakening of the germinal in us that wishes to express itself in our re-awakened physical enjoyment Our primitive music is in this respect the ‘music of childhood,’ the music of the non-professional. Its pedigree is not to be sought overseas but in the child in us. We discover new forms and new possibilities in this bodily music and through these we gain a new spirituality. 


Not just food for thought, but a veritable banquet. Thank you, Carl Orff. 


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