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.

What Are Different Kinds of Movement Used in Music Classes?

2011Symposium_1_2Regardless of which methods you use to teach music, movement figures into it, though perhaps in varying degree. Laban and Jaques-Dalcroze in particular have influenced the use of movement as an indispensable component of educating children musically. Though one could go into great detail about the various kinds of movement, four general types of movement are useful for music educators. These are, moving to the beat, moving for expression, moving to form, and moving to events. Each of these types of movements helps children understand, experience, and express the many facets of music.

Moving to the beat is perhaps the most frequently done movement. It is an integral part of Kodaly, Orff, Dalcroze and Gordon philosophies for music education. Early formal music training always includes moving to a beat, often using patsch, clap, walk and snap as primary movements. Of these, walking is particularly helpful because it includes a shift of weight with each step, and is a silent motion, so the beat is felt but not heard except in the music itself. Walking also leaves the hands and arms free to do rhythms or subdivisions of the beat. Earliest attempts involve the student performing a beat and then the teacher performing music to the child’s beat. This shows the child the relationship between beat and music, but does not require the child to determine the beat from music she is hearing, which is a more difficult skill. Later, the child learns to do this as well.

Movement to the beat when done in the arms leaves the feet free to move to the 101rhythm. Students can “walk the music” while keeping the beat with their arms. A more advanced version of this is to walk forwards for ascending pitches and backwards for descending pitches. Students can also do a predetermined motion whenever a specified event is heard, such as an accent, syncopation, or motive. For example, they might jump whenever they hear a staccato event in an otherwise staccato melody, or squat down whenever they hear a descending motif they had learned before. None of these movements make any sound, so listening to the music is unimpeded. This is important, because these movement activities are as much about listening (hearing ascending or descending contour, for example) as they are about keeping a steady beat. Movements that make sound, such as claps or snaps, add to the music, and should be used in situations where the sounds made are helpful to the students in achieving the instructional goal of the activity.

Movement for expression is very different. With this kind of movement, motions synchronized to the beat are avoided. Instead, students move to what they think or feel from the music. They might make smooth motions with the arms for legato, or jumpy motions for staccato. They might flick the wrists for an intervallic leap, or slouch forward for a dark or somber chord. As they do these motions, they bring out feelings of joy, or sadness, or agitation, or relaxation. The motions help the students discover how they feel when they hear the music, because the motions express those same feelings. Students can learn things about the music from their bodies by moving for expression. Having them move this way and then describe how they felt when they moved is a great way to start a discussion of what they already know about the music, before teaching them anything about it directly.

Movement for form requires students to listen for things that are repeated and listen to things that are new. It is a type of same-different learning. Students repeat a movement for things that are repeated, and create a new movement for things that are new. By tracing the pattern of same and different movements, students can learn the form of the music through their actions. As with stepping the music, where, as one of my students put it, they “become the notes,” when moving to form, the students become the form. Moving this way in a class also enables students to see the form as they watch other students make same or different patterns of movement. The specific movements can be pre-arranged for each theme or section, or they can be personal to each student. As long as each child is accurately showing same and different, they can use their creativity to use whatever movements they can imagine and do. Movement is important to understanding and experiencing music, and should be used often in our music classes.