Teaching Music With The Orff Method

Teaching Music With the Orff Method

Mr. Rob

Even if you are not familiar with the life of German composer Carl Orff, there is a very strong chance you have heard his famous cantata Carmina Burana, the one that leads off with “O Fortuna” and gracefully moves through various stages until a grand and glorious final movement. The lyrics of Carmina Burana were not composed by Orff; he chose them from a series of medieval poems that were considered slightly profane and perhaps even vulgar at the time.

Carmina Burana was the background music chosen by sports talk show hosts when NBA legend Lebron James announced that he had chosen to play for the Miami Heat in 2010. When the Toronto Raptors won the NBA title in 2019, “O Fortuna” resonated across sports talk radio stations in Canada. You have probably heard this 1937 composition on modern films, television commercials, comedic skits, and movie trailers. If you want to see a good performance of Carmina Burana, search YouTube for the one conducted by Andre Rieu with a full orchestra, which includes about a dozen woodwinds and even more percussion instruments; it is a triumphant experience that can last between 90 minutes to more than two hours for the ballet version.

Who is Carl Orff?

Carl Orff was also a notable music educator, and the reason we bring up Carmina Burana is because Orff insisted on speech and movement along with the syncopation of rhythms and singing. He did not put too much value in making strong distinctions between chamber music, opera, and ballet. Orff was a man of rhythm, but he was also interested in ancient art history, particularly with regard to Greek feasts that incorporated music, poetry, dance, and speech.

During World War I, Orff served as a trench soldier in the German Army, and he barely made it out alive. After the war, Orff tried to make a living arranging and adapting Baroque operas with his own signature rhythms, but European audiences were not quite ready for this kind of musical innovation. Fortunately, Orff’s wife Dorothee Gunther founded a special school that taught dance and music along with gymnastics in Munich, thus allowing the composer to get into pedagogy, and this is when he wrote and published Orff-Schulwerk.

What is the Orff Method and Where Did It Come From?

In a nutshell, the Orff system of music education is an ingenious approach that incorporates many different kinds of learning elements, like dance, acting, singing and the use of various percussion instruments.

Perhaps the single concept behind the entire method is play, not perfect pitch. Carl Orff, the creator of the system, was a firm believer in the power of children’s minds and their ability to learn while playing.

Orff is an often-quoted man, and one of his most interesting comments pertains directly to the idea of using play to help children learn about music:
“Since the beginning of time, children have not liked to study. They would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play.”

In classes, all children are encouraged to compose, improvise and use percussion instruments. The idea is to fully learn to engage in play, without worrying about theory, ideas and pre-set lesson plans. Of course, as children age and their brains begin to mature, lessons become more advanced but always include the key element of playfulness.

The basic facts about the method are:

  • Was created by German composer Carl Orff during the 1920s and 1930s
  • Uses rhythm and movement as the two key elements of teaching
  • Incorporates all elements of play into learning
  • Uses dance, singing, drama, movement and chanting
  • Allows teachers to build their own lesson plans
  • Employs percussion instruments like xylophones, metallophones and cowbells


Understanding Orff’s Teaching Philosophy

Orff-Schulwerk is more than just a book explaining a music teaching method; it has quite a few academic observations about the various processes of pedagogy. The English translation of Orff-Schulwerk is titled Music for Children, and it is a must-read for parents and educators.

Countless music educators use the Orff method to a great extent, but mostly if they teach music in general. Finding piano teachers or guitar tutors who apply the Orff approach is not so easy, and this is quite unfortunate. The Orff method is great when it comes to early music education because it focuses on providing a playful experience that can later be intellectualized by students.

The Orff method can be broken down to the following elements:

  • Listening
  • Moving
  • Dancing
  • Speaking

The pedagogic intent sought by Orff was to facilitate a connection between children and music through play; this is something that the maestro knew from experience because he attended kindergarten as a child. We can’t reasonably expect children to get into music automatically unless they first develop an emotional connection, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is through playful involvement.

The Hands-On Orff Class

Orff used to give himself 30 minutes to teach a lesson, and he often chose a short story or children’s poem to set the tone and kick off the listening element of the class. The students are then asked questions about what they heard before being encouraged to provide interpretations using the instruments. Let’s say the story or poem involved a rain scene; in this case, some students can use tambourines to make rain-like sounds. If the story had happy passages, children can be encouraged to play joyful sounds on the xylophone.

The next segment of the lesson involves a second reading of the poem or story, but this time around the students will be playing sound effects, which may require a cue from the reader the first time around. Even though this is supposed to be a music lesson, some fun can be added by having students voice the sound effects.

Now comes the more academic part of the lesson: The teacher takes the lead on a pitched instrument such as the xylophone to indicate a couple of notes, let’s say C and G. By playing these two notes repetitively, a simple rhythm can be created, and they can serve as the background of the story. One student can take care of the xylophones while another grabs a bell to accentuate certain passages, but the notes played will need to either be different or melodic in order to enhance learning.

The next time the story is read, the students will have to provide the musical score as if they were playing the accompaniment to the screening of a silent film. Smaller classes with just a few instruments can be like a jazz combo; larger classes with plenty of instruments would be like orchestras. Subsequent readings of the story or poem will have students switching on instruments, and other notes can be introduced as well as rhythms. As can be expected, children should be allowed to improvise as they please; should they be off-key or not in rhythm, the teacher can make the needed corrections or suggest that they try something else.

How the Orff Approach Works

Basically speaking, the Orff method of music learning is holistic. By turning lessons into playful activities, Orff was fostering creativity, which we all know is crucial when learning music. Let’s break down the academic elements managed in the lesson above:

* Rhythm: To introduce this element, the teacher will need to inject it while reading the story or poem. Some parents who are teaching music to their homeschooling children may feel that they do not have the right cadence for reading; if this is your case, you can pick a children’s song instead. A bonus teaching trick would be to choose a poem or some hip-hop lyrics that you can actually rap because the rhythm would be included.

* Melody: Ideally, a parent with a single student will have at least two instruments so that a melody can be created. If you have Prodigies Desk Bells, they can be split between teacher and student. Before getting down to playing instruments as musical backgrounds of the story, be sure to inject melody into the reading, so you will be singing and applying intervals in the parts where children will be playing their instruments. Students who do not catch the melody at the beginning can sing or hum along with you before they perform it on the instrument.

* Improvisation: This is the easiest part for teachers because they do not have to do anything other than encourage students to play variations on what they have learned. If you notice off-key situations or rhythms being messed up, this will be an opportunity to guide students in the right direction.

If you take the time to read Orff’s Music for Children, you will notice that he mentions children being natural learners but only if they get to experience their topics of study. Orff was right; early learners need to be highly involved before they can be expected to sit in classrooms or follow practice lessons assigned by their tutors.

Many parents wonder about some of the specialized systems that are used to teach music to children. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around, so it’s best to dispel some of them right off the bat.

In the realm of early childhood musical education, dozens of techniques and approaches exist for teaching young children to sing, play instruments and even dance to music. Perhaps you’ve seen tiny tots who play the violin at advanced levels or five-year-olds who are exceptional pianists. Those children are rare exceptions but demonstrate a key point: children can and do learn music and often thrive when they are exposed to a good teaching system.

Of course, not every child will master the violin or piano by age five, but any youngster can learn the rudiments of music in a fun, enlightening way. The Orff system is one of the best methods for teaching young minds about the many aspects of music, from singing and dancing in rhythm, to playing instruments and reading melodic notation.

Orff Instruments

Because lessons are based on music composed by the students and on traditional folk songs, the instruments tend to be in the percussion family, including drums, tambourines, gongs, bells, cymbals, xylophones and others.

Whether tuned or not, the instruments are at the center of many lessons because every child in shown how to use them and make different kinds of sounds on them.

After that, the young composers are left to themselves to see what types of melodies they can come up with. It’s a true example of learning by doing and embodies one of Carl Orff’s most famous sayings, “Experience first, then intellectualize.”

At the Günther-Schule administered by Orff’s wife, students were expected to actively participate in their gymnastics, dance, and music lessons; to this effect, Orff provided playful instruments such as:

The reason Orff chose the instruments above is because they make it easier to play C D E G A on the C pentatonic scale.

What Do Children Do In Orff Lessons?

Instructors are more like facilitators in Orff classes. They use various books that suggest different activities for groups but are not tied to any specific plan. In fact, Orff teachers are told to make up their own lessons as they feel the need.

Most often, teachers take a bit from the books and adapt their own ideas for activities to the classes. Of course, with an approach like this, no two classes are exactly alike.

A common free-form type of exercise begins with the teacher reading a passage from a folk story or poem. After that, the students are asked to re-enact the story while playing various instruments in the classroom. If a child doesn’t want to play an instrument, it’s alright to simply act out the story or passage.

The goal is to play, to listen to the passage and incorporate music, acting and movement into the re-enactment.

In many Orff lessons, the central teaching tool is a poem that the teacher reads at the beginning of the class. Everyone will be asked to recite the poem together while the teacher taps out a simple rhythm appropriate for the poem.

After everyone has gotten accustomed to the rhythm and beat of the poem, the teacher might select several students to play instruments and hit specific notes when a particular word is read.

There’s serious learning going on here because the kids are doing several things at once. They’re learning to listen and hear the internal beat of poetry, to match musical notes to key words in the poem and time their playing of the instrument to match the way the teacher reads the passage.

But kids love the challenge, they aren’t worried about making mistakes and, above all, they’l have fun while they’re learning.

Most teachers show students how to read very simple musical notation along with other basic elements of music, like form, rhythm, texture, harmony and melody. In the Orff method, these concepts aren’t learned the tradition way, but through “experience.”

That means a typical class will include singing, playing instruments, acting, dancing, movement of all kinds, chanting, speaking and improvising.

Elemental Music is the Centerpiece of Orff Education

Carl Orff referred to “elemental music” as being the core of his method. His idea was to use the whole body, a range of emotions and parts of the mind to create a unique learning environment.

Orff’s ideal music class was one in which students weren’t passively taking in data from a teacher but were participants in the entire lesson. The notes played on the instruments were just one part of the entire learning puzzle, as far as he was concerned. In fact, a particularly revealing quote from Carl Orff is this one:

“Elemental music is never just music. It’s bound up with movement, dance and speech, and so it is a form of music in which one must participate, in which one is involved not as a listener but as a co-performer.”

If you are looking for a mallet instrument, take a look at our C Major Resonator Bells. This colorful and durable xylophone is a high quality mallet instrument for kids. The coordination it takes to play with a mallet is more difficult than the Deskbells, so it works as a slightly more challenging alternative and as an introduction to mallet technique.

Complete with a durable carrying case, the C Major Resonator Bells are an excellent addition to your music room.

NOTE: Currently, there isn’t a Chromatic or Bass/Treble Expansion for the Resonator Bells, so you should plan on using it for C Major material (the vast majority of our curriculum is in C Major)

Let Your Child Thrive With the Orff Method

At Prodigies Music (prodigies.com), our professional teachers can help your child acquire all the advantages of a music education. Whether kids take lessons in the Orff tradition or some other method, they have the advantage of learning about music early in life.

That’s the key for building a better memory, a stronger mind and enjoying more academic success. The Orff method has a few unique advantages, including the following:

  • It’s fun for kids of all ages
  • Children participate in lessons
  • Many elements of music are taught
  • Instructors are competent professionals
  • Youngsters are exposed to instruments, notation, melody, rhythm and harmony

Here at Prodigies, we lean on principles and ideas from Orff as we build our library of colorful video music lessons. This way, your child can benefit from this time-tested system of learning that is preferred by many music educators around the world.

Make the decision to put your child on the road to musical success by finding a music class near you, or enrolling in Prodigies!