Strengths and Weaknesses of Orff Schulwerk

2011 Symposium2

Today I will discuss the advantage and disadvantages of the Orff Schulwerk Approach to music education. At the outset, I should mention that no single method of teaching music is sufficient for meeting the needs of all children, or for teaching all aspects of music. Each method bring valuable perspectives into the music classroom, and the wise music educator utilizes the best of each in an eclectic approach. That said, let us take a look at the Orff Schulwerk method.

The Orff method is fundamentally a blending of music, speech and dance. Because rhythm is common to all three, it tends to be more prominently featured throughout the approach. The earliest teaching is done through speech, and movement. For example, a kindergarten class might learn the concept of high and low  using speech and movement. The teacher might play in the high and low registers of the piano and have the children change their body level to show which register they are hearing, high or low. For speech, the children might recite a story with a high voiced character, perhaps a boy or girl, and a low voiced character, perhaps a giant or a talking pig. Beat is taught with movement to the pulse of music played on the piano or from a recording. Locomotor (such a walking) and non-locomotor (such as conducting) movements are used. Through these kinds of activities, children build proficiency at recognizing and performing basic musical concepts from a reference point of familiar things they already do–speaking and moving–which are then applicable to singing and playing musical instruments. This progression, from familiar to new is a strength of the Orff approach.  From the speaking voice, children are introduced to other kinds of voices, including a singing voice, whispering voice, and calling voice. When children learn the difference between a singing voice and the others, they are able to focus their singing activities on basic good singing.

The combining of rhythm, beat and movement is not unique to the Orff approach. Laban and Dalcroze are well known for their use of movement to teach rhythm and beat. Orff’s substantial investment in movement make it a good choice for teaching students to rely on their bodies to understand enjoy rhythm and beat in music. Movement is also Orff Quoteimportant to playing instruments in the Orff approach. The method famously includes using barred instruments to play ostinato, harmony, and melodic parts. Because barred instruments are played with mallets on an instrument on which the notes are laid out horizontally, both vertical and horizontal movement is required to play. When the entire arm is used for striking the instrument, the body naturally counter balances itself with each stroke, thus infusing each note played with a physical experience of the rhythm being played. For this reason, it is important that students not be allowed to play from the wrists, but to engage the entire arm while playing barred instruments.

Further uses of movement can be added to the playing of these instruments. For example, if a child has a rest as part of the rhythm pattern in the ostinato, the mallets can be struck together on the rest, or they can be moved silently but rhythmically in the air to give motion to the rest. With slower rhythms, gestures reflecting articulation and resembling conducting motions can be made between notes. For example, if the song being accompanied is legato, then the children can move their hands with fluid, smooth motions from the wrist. All of this engages the body in music making and interpreting beyond what singing only can accomplish.

One aspect of the Orff approach that is frequently overlooked in music education in general is improvisation. Perhaps it is because most music teachers are trained using the Western art music model of studying an instrument or voice with classical music, and receiving nearly all musical training through notated music traditions that many music teachers without experience with jazz or other traditions that feature improvisation, are uncomfortable improvising or teaching improvising to others. This is troubling, because improvisation, to my way of thinking, is essential to developing music literacy and fluency. Improvisation is the musical equivalent to conversation. Imagine how dreadful our communication would be if we could only talk to each other from what we read. On their website, the New England Orff Chapter offers that “improvisation permeates all aspects of Schulwerk activity. Children who regularly improvise and create their own dances and musical settings are uniquely prepared to solve problems in many other contexts.” Notice that even here, improvisation includes not only music, but dance as well. This focus on improvisation is another strength of the Orff approach.

Whereas the use of movement in teaching rhythm is a strength of  the  Orff method, the method of teaching rhythm for singing and chanting is problematic. Orff believed that speech was a natural way of teaching musical rhythm. He used the rhythm of words and Orffthen transferred those word-rhythms to drums in order to teach rhythms. Chanting words, phrases and nursery rhymes is a common practice among teachers using the Orff approach. While using words to learn rhythms is indeed natural to the child, the words chanted cannot easily be generalized to notated rhythms like rhythm syllables can. Also , because words have their own meaning apart from their rhythm, they are difficult to dedicate to a particular rhythm in memory. In other words, “du de du” means nothing apart from two eighth notes and a quarter note, whereas “lumber jack” means both a person who cuts down trees for a living and two eighth notes and a quarter note. But it only means the latter when associated with music. Also, “lumber jack” tells the student nothing of the function of any of the notes. Where as “du” is always a macro beat, “lum” could be a macro beat or an anacrusis. Also, “lum” and “jack” are both on macro beats, but are given entirely different labels. Because of this, the way in which rhythm literacy is taught in the Orff approach is a weakness of the method. It is greatly strengthened by abandoning the speech-to-rhythm aspect, and replacing it with rhythm syllables that make functions clear and consistent.

Overall, the Orff approach t music education has much to offer music educators and students. It’s emphasis on improvisation and extensive use of movement are strengths, while the less extensive use of singing (compared to Kodaly method and Music Learning Theory, and the approach to rhythm literacy are weaknesses. When the strengths of the Orff method are combined with the strengths of other approaches, the result is a solid, well founded, and comprehensive music education.


5 thoughts on “Strengths and Weaknesses of Orff Schulwerk

  1. It sounds like Orff + solfege might combine the best of both worlds for teaching children (and people like me).

    My wife & I watched a documentary on steel drum/steel pan music from Trinidad (which is where my parents are from, but they’re not into it, they grew up with Indian music) 2 weeks ago on WNYC. I think it was part of the Afropop series. Reading about Orff’s association of rhythm and motion and about moving the body (the whole arm) when playing instruments really makes me think about how the steel pan players moved. There were Japanese players as well as Caribbean ones, and its interesting to see how their body movements differed.

    • Very interesting connection with steel drumming. I think much of the excellence of drumming from that part of the world is due in part to how they move as they play. I agree solfege and Orff are a winning combination.

  2. Thank you so much for this.

    I’ve taken on a grade 1-4 post with 3-5 choir this year, and have been working on how to combine Orff ( which I took training for) with use of the Kodaly sequence informed by MLT. When I did my cert year my cooperating teacher, who was both Kodaly and Orff level 3 trained recommended use of the Kodaly sequence with the Orff process for lesson planning saying she found them to be, “the right and left hand of each other; one growing the literacy and the other, its creativity.” (I’d been introduced to MLT separately in my prior work in early childhood music & movement programming.) As I certified as both a classroom generalist and music specialist, my postings where I’ve taught music up until now have always been in combination with a home classroom and involved sharing partial music duties with a itinerant or in-house music specialist who’s set the tone/agenda for the overall program. (E.g. I do grade 4&5 music and grade 1-3 choir; the specialist does K-3,6 and 4-6 choir.)

    This year is the first time I’ve been in a position to craft a block of programming where I get to decide how it should run, before handing off the students to the grade 5-7 music specialist. Where I worked before was Orff dominant and this is my current students’ first exposure to either Orff or Kodaly based instruction (some barred Orff instruments were purchased for the program during the summer) though their singing development was very well cared for and emphasis was placed on sight and part singing. So, I’ve been very much feeling my way through this year with my originally planned trajectory, and my modifications as I’ve uncovered aspects of my students’ musical development requiring growth. (If only I’d anticipated how much time I’d be focusing on developing steady and macro-beat competency!)

    The reason I’m posting is because, based on my brush with MLT and work early on in the year, I’ve found it more productive to focus almost exclusively on the du’s and du de’s of rhythmic language, basing my arrangements on the folk songs I’ve selected for to support the sequence. And I’ve realized that after October, I’ve progressively done very little that is poetry or poetic chant based. Until some reintroductions this week, rhythmic use of verbal language had fallen off of my radar (with the exception of a couple of numbers on the Christmas concert). And I’m concerned that an informing source of creative inspiration and creative movement are becoming less available to my students when I either jump directly to a form of non-verbal rhythmic speech or provide the pre-worked out ostinati chants to accompany the gross and locomotor movement I’ve choreographed. How do you manage to put all of this together, without the experience becoming so exclusively teacher dominant? I feel like I’m the one being creative, but that it’s not leading to a lot of improvisation on the kids part.


    • In MLT rhythms ate first learned on a neutral syllable by rote while the children keep the pulse with the heels of their feet and the 2:1 divisionvofcthe beat with a patsch. Once they have learned rhythm patterns thus way, the same patterns are taught again, but this time with rhythm syllables. That way, the children can associate the syllables with the patterns. Speech chant in the Orff method assumes that children will associate he rhythmic pattern of the words with a learned rhythm pattern, so the chanted language functions similarly to rhythm syllables, except tgat different words may becused for identical rhythms, so rhythm syllables should be used first. As for movement, walking to the beat while you chant or play is good. I like to have children walk while I play a phrase, and then have the children clsp the rhythm bsck to me while continuing to walk. Eventually I begin to change meters from one phrase to the next so thst the children have to adjust and thereby experience different meters. Other times they can move for expression without moving to the beat or rhythm while I play through, improvising on the piano. I suggest you look into how Dalcroze taught with movement. I think you would find that helpful. Best of luck. Robert Adams

  3. Probably the biggest roadblock to my ever implementing an Orff approach seriously is simply that I have always been an itinerant teacher in schools that had neither the budget nor the interest in investing in Orff instruments. I’ve had no piano. Obviously I use non-pitched rhythm instruments and bring in a few xylophones, and my third graders (and sometimes fourth grade) play recorder. I am returning to teaching after many years hiatus this year, and the administration has made it clear that my third grade recorder class is an instrumental class, not a general music class. Thank you for your article. Very informative.

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