Why elemental music (Orff) works

A few things before I start this eulogy to Orff-Schulwerk. First, I’m calling it “elemental music” because Orff-Schulwerk has multiple problems in today’s society. It really should be called “Orff-Keetman” if you are going to name it after a person as Gunild Keetman was absolutely vital to its development and spread. Elemental music is not the greatest of terms either, but for want of a better word it’s what I’m going to go with. I’m not suggesting that elemental music is the best way or the only way to teach music well but I will be explaining why it particularly works in primary schools. Finally, I’m not setting myself up as an expert – I have done Orff Level 1 and have desperately been asking to do Level 2 but finding a course at the moment where I am is like gold dust. I am just going to write about some experiences doing this type of teaching and why I think it works well.

People are very confused about what elemental music is. They think it is something to do with playing xylophones and it’s a bit old-fashioned. That was my attitude up to five years ago and so the first thing I will say is that it is a tragedy that we have not been teaching about elemental music in Music teacher training. I heard the term “Orff” but that was as far as it went in the UK. Other countries have different systems and I think North America and Australia are quite successful but in the UK I learned next to nothing about elemental music. Even now, despite many attempts to convince Orff UK, there is still no accredited Level course. I had to go to Kuala Lumpa to get mine. What people call “Orff” can mean very different things but my trainer told me the main premises are singing using solfege, dance (both structured and free), recorder, tuned percussion and turning everyday objects into musical experiences. If I have missed any out please tell me! It is child-centred in that learning experiences are developed by children but there is a framework of teacher authority and explicit guidance. It is more sage on the stage to guide on the side at the beginning of lessons but the sage gradually disappears as the lesson develops. The basic idea is that you take a small idea and develop it, first as a whole class and then into more complex and creative ways individually, in pairs and in small groups. I have always been sceptical about the way we try to teach small group work in music as it is so hard to get right and at its very worse ends in a chaotic classroom. Orff is the only way I have successfully seen youngish children work in groups and this is due to the high level of direct teaching in the initial stages. So it both highly teacher-directed and yet highly child-led as what the children come out with at the end is often very different to each other.

Elemental music can start with any small idea. It could be a short song, a dance move, some words, a musical idea, a rhythm or even a movement using a newspaper. It’s the development of the idea that makes it interesting, creative and musically educational. I have seen so many music lessons where many of these techniques are discussed or taught but I think the reason why they aren’t as effective for younger children is because they often deal in the abstract whereas elemental music certainly starts in the concrete. You would probably not do a lesson on “ostinato” in an Orff-based classroom but you would certainly have ostinato in it. There are learning objectives but in a typical lesson you would be developing so many at the same time it probably would not be beneficial to write them all down. This is one of the criticisms of this type of music lesson, as Orff-Schulwerk is not a curriculum but an approach to teaching music. It certainly does get progressively harder but proving it is quite hard – we can produce detailed lesson plans, intentions and predicted outcomes but when you are starting with a small idea and developing it, it doesn’t always come out the way you might expect or intend. And that is why it is creative and possibly why so many teachers and managers are scared of it in today’s classrooms with insane levels of teacher accountability.

I will try to go through a lesson I did the other day that was successful. I didn’t even teach it that well and mixed up some of the steps but the children still came up with some stunning performances. I used the Nigerian (or possibly Sierre Leone) peace song “Fungai Alafya” and we started off by singing it by rote. When they got the hang of the melody I moved onto a djembe and stopped singing so they were pitching by themselves. We then sang the whole thing using solfege and hand signs (that they are used to) and commented on why the two phrases end differently. I thought of using the words “cadence”, “perfect” and “imperfect” but decided not to – we will do that another time! We then moved onto playing the whole melody on tuned percussion. We are fortunate to have enough instruments for one each so this wasn’t a problem. Some practitioners would possibly have put an additional stage of body percussion in but one of my weaknesses is that I get a bit impatient so dropped this to get to the instruments quicker. We then proceeded to learn a type of drone using two notes, what we call a bordun. We learned three types of bordun where I played the melody and they played the bordun and vice versa. I then split the class into two (by houses as we have a four house system at our school) and had half playing the bordun and half playing the melody. The point of this is to get two parts working simultaneously without teacher assistance. The next step was to make up two ostinati that would fit the melody and bordun. There are two obvious examples and some children put up their hands to suggest them. I then had them in their four houses doing either an ostinato, the melody, the bordun or the other ostinato. Now we had four parts working well together we explored structure and played some different arrangements of the same piece, perhaps starting with the bordun, or repeating parts or having a symmetrical structure. This has all resulted in a very high level of teacher direction almost entirely led from the front. It is only then that I put the children into groups where they had to make their own arrangement of “Fungai Alafya”. Using the Class Dojo group function it immediately put the children into groups of four and they all made their own arrangements. The only new thing I added was that one of the members of the group had to play a djembe drum. All the different performances were all different but used similar material. There were no problems with keeping time with one another, they needed no assistance to play together and they all organised themselves with no teacher assistance. We listened to all the performances and gave praise for all the really good bits of each performance. The children were very encouraging of each other and I just loved how the whole class came together in appreciation of each other. This is community music as far as I am concerned. Next week, we will do the same activity but add improvisation and canon as well as recording and assessing. The task will be to make a longer arrangement of “Fungai Alafya” but it will need to have a new ostinato, a section for improvisation and a surprise. The surprise could be anything but it needs to be surprising!

It’s so hard to grade this type of work for each child and it really does not fit with many of today’s assessment systems. Yet children performed, created and responded to so much material in an hour’s lesson. I think the reason it went really well last week was because I just got the balance right between teacher direction and letting go. Too much teacher direction results in too much scaffolding, leading to less opportunities to be creative, Too much group work results in poor performances and lack of direction. And that is why I think elemental music is so powerful – when you get it right you have a balance that is truly creative and educational yet within a boundary enforced from the teacher.

I won’t just teach elemental music in my lessons. Children still need to learn theory, perform music, learn about music from different ages and different places, compose music on their own and use music technology. But in terms of learning, I would argue that what is known as “Orff” is probably the most effective way to bring musical creativity into the classroom for young children.