What is this “Orff” stuff anyways? You may have heard about the “Orff instruments” or heard the term at school. It’s very much a part of your child’s music education, and I’d like this chance to explain. Orff is sometimes mistakenly thought of as an acronym, but it is actually the name of German composer and educator Carl Orff, who is perhaps best known for his massive work Carmina Burana f(1937). (If you think you don’t know this piece, you probably do. It’s in spades of movies and commercials!)
Lesser-known is Orff’s approach to music education. Developed later in his career, along with his poorly credited female colleague Gunild Keetman, it is a child-centered approach to music education that draws on a young person’s natural inclinations to play, move, and explore. The Orff motto is “Sing, say, dance, play!”
What does this look like at AVS? Let’s begin with exploration. In the younger grades, each music class begins with individual students answering a simple question in their singing voice. In a recent class, first graders shared an example of a landform (mountains, valleys, rivers), a subject they are studying in their classroom. Without a set melody or rhythm to get “right” or “wrong,” the students are able to explore their singing voice on their own terms and often with their own style. It is also endlessly entertaining to hear the students riffing about what they did over the weekend or their favorite book as if they were doing recitative in an opera.
Also key to the Orff process is movement, because it is a natural mode of expression for young children. Students are given scarves to extend their gestures to match high and low pitches. They are asked to choose an animal to emulate that might match the tempo of a piece of music. When Junior Kindergarteners learn the rhyme Peas Porridge Hot they say the words, “jump, hop, step and flap.” After these rhythms are firmly in their bodies, the students are able to accurately play them on drums or woodblocks. Notation is introduced gradually after the students have a strong grasp of the musical elements that will be symbolized.
The “play” in the Orff motto can mean a few things. It might mean simply exploring one’s voice. It might be one of several games or dances that introduce or reaffirm a concept. Play might be as simple as getting a sound out of an instrument. Speaking of which, what is with these expensive things everyone calls “Orff instruments?”
Anyone who has tried to learn a more traditional instrument as a child will probably remember moments of frustration. Moments of frustration can be great teachable moments. Several minutes or hours of practice that bear minimal fruit may not beget much growth. Unlike traditional band and orchestra instruments designed for adults, the xylophones used in an Orff ensemble were created for young bodies and developing motor skills. While they still present challenges, they offer more opportunities for creating music the student will easily recognize as beautiful. Anyone who has had the chance to compare the sound of a beginning band with a beginning xylophone ensemble will attest to this fact! Most importantly, so do children.
This is just a very brief introduction into the world of Orff. Hopefully it conveys the basics of how music is being presented at AVS and provides a framework to think about music with your child. Mastery of music can be challenging, but it is intended to be joyful. The Orff approach intends to keep that spirit alive in each music class.