Many years back, I was asked to give a lecture on Orff Schulwerk at a Thai University in Bangkok. This is always a daunting task for people unfamiliar with the approach, but I hit on an idea which all these years later, seems to hold up. I gave a shorter version of the talk yesterday at the end of my workshop for the Thai Orff Association, to the delight of the participants, many taking an Orff workshop for the first time. Here’s a version of the talk.
Recent brain research confirms what we all know—when we encounter something new, we try to understand it in terms of something we already know, to fit into an existing memory pattern.
I understand my job here is to try to give you an idea of what Orff Schulwerk is, something that is very difficult to explain. It takes at least ten years of studying and working with children in this way to begin to get an idea of what it is, how to do it well, and why it is so important. So how to give you a taste of it in just a short time?
The answer struck me yesterday when I was served my favorite dish at — Miang Kum. Since this is something you all have experienced and clearly understand, it might be a good way to describe Orff Schulwerk.
The first thing I notice about this dish is that it is absolutely unique. I’ve never encountered anything like it in the whole world. And that is true of Orff as well.
When this dish is set on the table, all these ingredients set side by side, we cannot imagine how they are going to go together. But we understand them one at a time and if we think about good diet— food for the body— and good education— food for the brain— we see that they share certain things.
• SHRIMP: In one little dish, we find the shrimp. It is a little salty, a little chewy and it gives us the protein. So in good education, we need something substantial like shrimp, something meaty that gives us the protein we need. Without the shrimp, the meal would be frivolous. Maybe tasty, but not enough substance to make our minds strong. In the classroom, that means selecting the highest quality material, the tried and true classics of the culture rather than the latest pop fad.
• PEANUTS: Then we have protein here also, but now with a hard texture, something with a crunch, that gives our jaw exercise and keeps our teeth strong. In good education, each student really needs to work and exercise, not have everything like a blended drink that’s easy to swallow. We need to crunch our way through learning and hear the sound of the jaw working. So the peanuts are the students’ effort.
• ONIONS: Then we have the onions, a thoroughly useless vegetable—not many vitamins or protein, but used in so many dishes to give a pungent flavor.
• GINGER: Good education needs some spice and heat, some excitement and energy. This is the teacher’s job, to understand how to make the class enticing, with some dramatic flair, more like a good story than a boring lecture.
• LIME: Learning has its sour side as well. When we find out in history class how poorly human beings have treated each other, when our fellow classmates are mean to us, when we ourselves struggle with the things that are hard for us to do, we sometimes make a sour face like we just ate a lime. But this is just part of life and we have to learn how to live with the sourness of living and learning. So when we sing a song about the old gray goose who died and the 5 year old starts crying, we should take a moment in the class to feel the sadness and not try to hide it under the rug. The lime also has a splashy burst of flavor, like the moments when we suddenly understand something.
• COCONUT: The coconut flakes are a new texture all together, with a subtle natural sweetness. Here are all the little details of learning, each flake essential to the overall taste and texture.
• SAUCE: Then there is the sauce, a thick, sweet liquid. If living and learning and loving has its sour side, it certainly has its sweet side and all of us who love dessert know how much pleasure it gives us to have some sweetness in our life. The teacher who truly loves his or her children brings some sweetness into their life and into the classroom.
• BETEL LEAF: Finally, there is the leaf that holds it all together. It functions more like the container, not a lot of taste by itself, but necessary to hold it all together. The leaf is the connective vision that Carl Orff had that still holds all that is effective, fun and true about the Schulwerk’s pedagogy.
Whoever invented Miang Kum must have thought about it as carefully as Carl Orff thought about elemental music and movement. It really is impressive how distinct these ingredients are. Here we have something from four different food groups—seafood, vegetables, legumes, fruit. We have different textures—chewy, hard, splashy, liquidy, rough, smooth. We have opposite flavors—salty, sour, sweet, spicy.
Likewise, Orff Schulwerk draws from the major food groups of artistic disciplines—
music, poetry, dance, drama. Elemental music draws from the textures of drones, ostinato, color parts and melodies on up through shifting triads and functional harmony. Its pentatonic, modal, diatonic and chromatic scales evoke a wide variety of moods and flavors, alongside diverse movement expressions.
Why is this important? Teaching like this…
• Uses the full range of human potential and intelligence. The whole tongue.
• Allows students to understand in multiple ways instead of single ways.
• Brings joy and pleasure to the enterprise. The more joyful we are, the more open we are to learning.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Miang Kum is not simply the different contrasting ingredients, but that you put them all together on one leaf and they work!! You don’t taste just the sour lime or the salty shrimp or the spicy ginger, but all the flavors dance together on the tongue and make such a marvelous, unexpected and thoroughly remarkable taste!
And that is an Orff Schulwerk class. You don’t know where the math ends and the music begins, where the line is between poetry and song, whether the dancer is the musician or the musician is the dancer.
The metaphor of Orff Schulwerk and Miang Kum is nearly perfect, but falls short on one count—Miang Kum is an appetizer, a prelude to the main course of reading, writing and arithmetic. It is clear that schools certainly think of the arts as either an appetizer, a dessert or to be struck from the menu altogether, my experience has been decidedly main course.
And so the table is set, the ingredients set out, the drinks poured— all that’s left is to assemble them in your own way on your own leaf and enjoy!