Eclectic Application of Major Music Education Methods

Version 2Elsewhere in this blog I have written about the strengths and weaknesses of Kodaly, Orff, and Gordon approaches to music education. Those articles assumed that it is beneficial to grab strengths from each approach, mixing and matching them into a teaching method that is better than strictly adhering to any one of them. In this post, I will discuss in more practical terms how those methods, and the practices of Dalcroze also, can be combined in a complementary fashion.

Regardless of the method used, music education involves teaching students to sing, play instruments, move and dance to music, create music, perceive, understand and respond to music, and connect music to the other arts, other disciplines, and to their daily lives. These are included in the national standards under the artistic processes of create, perform, respond, and connect. As we examine the major methods, it is helpful to determine how each approach goes about teaching each of these. Of them, connecting is arguably the least often addressed. Connecting sometimes gets lost in preparing performances for presentation or teaching concepts through listening activities. A careful look reveals that both Kodaly and Orff valued the connecting piece.

Kodaly insisted on using folk song literature from the children’s own culture as the basis for developing musicianship. This immediately brought cultural and structural familiarity with the music, and fostered connections with the everyday musical experiences of children who heard and sang this literature often. Beginning tonal training with the descending minor third is well known among Kodaly teachers, yet it was not so much that there was something intrinsically preferable about that interval, but that it was one that the children were most often exposed to and most often were



heard singing intuitively. Those who have debated over the supremacy of the descending minor third have pointed out that it is not so prevalent in musical cultures that are not primarily pentatonic based. American folk literature, for example, has many more instances of ascending major thirds than descending minor thirds, and for that matter has many more instances of the sub dominant which is completely absent form pentatonic songs. That is why successful American application of the Kodaly approach such as Feierabend’s First Steps in Music and Conversational Solfege early on use “do re mi” songs which of course feature that ascending major third.

Orff’s approach to rhythm makes fundamental connections to language. Orff took the natural rhythm of words, and transposed them into musical patterns to teach with the words. Learning poems, rhythms and chants that feature targeted rhythm patterns and meters is a natural way for children to progress musically. Those targeted patterns and meters can then later be read and notated using standard music notation. Movement,



dance and speech are all melded together as the way children experience music, develop creativity, and become artistically literate. As with intervals, it is best to use rhymes, chants and poems that are products of the child’s own culture, so that the patterns are familiar. Translations of texts from other countries and cultures can at times be awkward, creating rhythmic dissonance that makes learning more difficult. Again, grounding music education in culturally familiar contexts is the key.

The Dalcroze approach has not gained the popularity in the United States that those of Orff and Kodaly have. This may be due to the emphasis on the dance and movement aspects of the approach in a setting where singing and playing of instruments is more highly valued, or it may be that when it comes to singing, Dalcroze championed the “fixed do” type of solfege which has largely been ignored in the United States especially by Kodaly specialists who maintain a strong preference, for the “moveable do” system. Even so, Dalcroze’s emphasis on movement and dance can easily be found in Orff’s method because Orff also regarded movement as crucial to music learning and understanding. Orff practitioners use of body percussion and the playing of barred instruments with movements that transfer over from body percussion are rooted in Dalcroze principles. Dalcroze Eurythmics were built on the belief that movement gave meaning and depth to ear training and improvisation experiences. Those movements are put in motion in the form of playing percussion instruments in the Orff method.

The eclectic practitioner will seek out the cultural and musical context in which he or she teachers, and choose those portions of each method that are the best matches. My own teaching has developed over the years into a blend of elements from all of the methods I have discussed so far. After Kodaly, I regard the singing voice as the primary instrument through which music education takes place. After Dalcroze, I regard the body as the primary means through which rhythm and meter is understood, and freely have my students use movement, and prefer the fixed do system of solfege. As I have discussed elsewhere, I have found my students develop better pitch with fixed do, and it is helpful in transferring notation to instruments, substituting solfege syllables for note names. After Orff, I enjoy creating opportunities for children to improvise and explore their own creativity, especially through vocal improvisation from age 4 and upwards, and of experiencing movement to music through the movements used to play barred instruments. Movement, singing and playing instruments are all useful in teaching each of the musical elements, which I regard as rhythm, beat, meter, pitch, phrasing and timbre. The use of movement in particular also is useful in teaching musical expression, as the body naturally becomes expressive when moving to and interpreting music.

I have found much success using Feirabend’s First Steps in Music to combine elements of Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze. While primarily a Kodaly application, Feirabend’s work also integrates improvisation (arioso) and movement into the lessons of First Steps. Learning from the sample lesson plans, I have learned to seamlessly include singing, movement and exploration in every lesson. Also, using First Steps in Music as an entry, Conversational Solfege continues this work, but with a greater emphasis on the Kodaly



elements, presented in a way that is consistent with Music Learning Theory (MLT). Music Learning Theory was developed by Edwin Gordon out of his research into how people learn music. He found that music is learned in a way similar to that used to learn language. While there is much more to MLT than what I will present here, the elements presented in Conversational Solfege reflect the sequence of teaching patterns by rote on a neutral syllable, teaching the same patterns by rote with rhythm syllables (not words as in Orff, or Curwin syllables as in Kodaly), associating patterns learned with syllables to notation, reading familiar patterns from notation, reading unfamiliar patterns from notation, writing familiar patterns, and writing unfamiliar patterns both in ear training activities and in creating music. Like Orff and Dalcroze, Gordon also found that rhythm and meter cannot be learned intellectually, but only though movement.

The most effective way to be an eclectic practitioner is to learn and practice the methods of each approach, adding in new ones as the teacher is able until they are comfortable and natural, and then to draw on any and all techniques and methods regardless of from which method they come, as the need, context, or purpose arises. Doing so equips the music educator to be maximally effective.

Musical Meter Is Everywhere

2011 Symposium2

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that meter is a concept that many of my students really don’t understand. I discovered this because of improved assessment techniques, so I suspect that this has been the case for some time. As long as I was assessing understanding of meter with head knowledge such as asking what the numbers in a time signature mean, they appeared to grasp the concept perfectly. But when I started asking them how many beats were in the pattern of strong and weak beats in music they were listening to, everything changed. Some confused notes for beats, some didn’t hear any beats stronger than others, and only about one  third could correctly perceive a pattern of strong-weak or strong weak weak. As a result of this discovery, I changed the way I teach meter. I started using movement, first prescribed to the meter, then created by the students to a disclosed meter, and finally created by the students to a meter they had to discover. I encouraged them to try different patterns until they found one that felt right in their body. I also stopped teaching time signatures until they could do all of this. Sound before sight, right? Once students have meter in their bodies, the numbers in a time signature make real sense. The big motion “heavy” motion is the beginning of the pattern. The small, lighter motions are the rest of the beats in the pattern. The number of lighter motions plus the one big motion equals the number on the top of the time signature. The number on the bottom is the kind of note they are moving to with their lighter motions.

That made meter more meaningful. Next, I wanted to connect musical meter to other things my students experience or perceive every day, but not necessarily in music. What other things that they use or hear have strong an weak beats? Though digital and computer clocks have largely replaced tic-toc clocks, most of my students still know what the latter are. Just the fact that we give different names to the two clicks suggests that they are different, and we naturally attribute more strength to the tic than to the toc. When we start a pendulum in motion, we have to exert a force onto it to produce the first tic, but it returns on the toc  to its starting position without any effort on our part at all. Many young children are pushed on the swings by a parent. The parent pushes as the child swings away, but the swing and child return to the parent with no effort from the parent–strong going out, weak coming back.

Language is loaded with meter. Orff teachers use this property of language all the time to teach rhythms. Look up any word in a dictionary, and you will find that one syllable has an accent mark on it. That is the strong syllable when the word is pronounced correctly. When the strong syllable is misplaced elsewhere in the word, the word sounds silly and wrong. The word “apple” must have a strong first syllable and a weak second syllable. The word apple is a great illustration of duple meter. The word “pineapple” also must have a strong first syllable, but that first syllable is followed by two weak ones, making the word a great illustration of triple meter. If I’m working on duple meter with my students, I might expand that out with a sentence using the word “apple” and other duple meter words. For example, I might have the children say “apple cobbler tastes so good. I’d eat more if Mama would, let me have another plate, but she says it’s getting late.” Each phrase is chanted to the rhythm of du-de du-de du-de du. The children must audiate the micro beat on the “du” at the end of each phrase.

With older children, I like to use rap music to teach what duple meter is (or quadruple meter for you non-Gordonites). Most rap phrases are four beats long and end with a one-beat rest, so patterns of strong-weak-weak-weak are easily perceived. I italicized the third “weak” because it is at least secondarily strong compared to the beats that surround it, and often common time and 2-4 time are aurally indistinguishable. Nearly any clean rap lyric works well for this. The one on my mind now is Wiz Khalifa’s rap section to the song “See You Again.”

All the planes we flew                                                                                                                         Good things we’ve been thorough                                                                                                   That I’ll be standing right here talking to you                                                                            ‘Bout another path I know we loved to hit the road and laugh                                                  But something told me that it wouldn’t last                                                                                Had to switch up                                                                                                                                 Look at things different, see the bigger picture                                                                        Those were the days                                                                                                                           Hard work forever pays Now I see you in a better place

From the rap song (or part of a song) it is helpful to extract the rhythm from the words. Depending on your class, this can either come off really silly or really fun. I start by chanting the rhythm of the rap on a neutral syllable to the class. My students are used to me doing silly things in front of them, so they either enjoy the performance, or humor me and listen anyway. Often I will draw them in with allowing them to move and/or make a “beat” (rhythm) to accompany me, and gradually students begin to join in chanting the rhythm. With the rhythm the same as the rap, if the rap had meter, the chant must have the same rhythm. From this I make the point that music without words still has meter, just as it has pitch, rhythm, tempo, and other musical elements.

Popular music is a good place to begin teaching meter, because the rhythm section (drums, bass) demarcate the metrical patterns so clearly in their repetition of a rhythm pattern and also with the use of cymbal and bass drum to mark the strongest beats, usually at the beginning of phrases or sections. There is a natural progression of less and less of this as one moves from rap to rock, rock to pop, pop to jazz, and jazz to classical. If I follow this progression in the music I present to my class for listening, then gradually they become more and more accomplished at continuing to perceive the meter, as it becomes less and less obvious. By the time I get to classical, instead of complaining that classical music has no beat, they understand that its beat is simply more subtle, and it is more up to them to catch the beat and audiate it as they listen.

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.