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.