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Carl Orff's Philosophies


In Musical Education
While Carl Orff is a very seminal composer of the 20th
century, his greatest success and influence has been in the
field of Music Education. Born on July 10th in Munich,
Germany in 1895, Orff refused to speak about his past
almost as if he were ashamed of it. What we do know,
however, is that Orff came from a Bavarian family which was
very active in the German military. 
His father's regiment band would often play some of the
young Orff's compositions. Although Orff was adamant about
the secrecy of his past, Moser's Musik Lexicon says that he
studied in the Munich Academy of Music until 1914. Orff
then served in the military in the first world war. After
the war, he held various positions in the Mannheim and
Darmstadt opera houses then returned home to Munich to
further study music. In 1925, and for the rest of his life,
Orff was the head of a department and co-founder of the
Guenther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich
where he worked with musical beginners. This is where he
developed his Music Education theories. In 1937, Orff's
Carmina Burana premiered in Frankfurt, Germany. Needless to
say, it was a great success. With the success of Carmina
Burana, Orff orphaned all of his previous works except for
Catulli Carmina and the En trata which were rewritten to be
acceptable by Orff.
One of Orff's most admired composers was Monteverdi. In
fact, much of Orff's work was based on ancient material.
Orff said, " I am often asked why I nearly always select
old material, fairy tales and legends for my stage works. I
do not look upon them as old, but rather as valid material.
The time element disappears, and only the spiritual power
remains. My entire interest is in the expression of
spiritual realities. I write for the theater in order to
convey a spiritual attitude."(1) What Orff is trying to say
here is that he does not use "old" material, but material
that is good enough to be used again. If one eliminates the
fact that this material was written many years ago, then
there is nothing to stop that material from being any less
legitimate in recent times.
Orff's work in Music Education has been astounding. In the
early 1920's, Orff worked with Mary Wigman. Wigman was a
pupil of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, another very influential
name in Music Education. In fact, Orff's approach to music
is very similar to Dalcroze's, but Orff focuses on
education through percussion instruments. In 1924, Orff
joined Dorthee Guenther and together they founded the
Guenther School. The school's focus was coordinated
teaching of gymnastics, dance, and music. Orff believed
that music, movement, and speech are not separate entities
in and of themselves, but that they form a unity that he
called elemental music. When Orff refers to elemental
music, he means the music, movement, or speech created by
children that requires no special training, or in other
words, the things that children do without really thinking
about it. The basis for the Orff method is the belief that
the historical development of music is reenacted in the
life of every individual. This means that, when a child is
young, he is similar to a primitive human being - at least
musically - in that both are naive and rely primarily on
natural rhythms and movement to make music. Although this
theory has not been very widely accepted by most music
educators, this is where the Orff method of teaching music
begins. The Orff method was so impressive to the public
that the Ministry of Culture recommended the adoption of
the Guenther-Orff experiments in the elementary schools in
Berlin. Unfortunately, the rise of Hitler and the outbreak
of war stunted the growth of these plans. Finally, in 1948,
the German broadcasting authorities urged Orff to resume
his educational activities.
The Orff approach, not unlike the Suzuki method, begins
with the idea that music should be learned by a child the
same way a language is learned. Suzuki calls this the
"mother tongue approach". A child learns to speak simply by
listening and then imitating and then, later in life, the
child learns to interpret symbols as a written form of that
language. So, then, a child should learn music in the same
way. At an early age, a child is exposed to music and
learns to sing and play percussion instruments, then, later
in the child's musical development, he learns to interpret
the symbols on a score as music. The music a child learns
during this time of his life is very simple melodies that
involve a lot of moving. Orff believed that rhythm was the
most important part of music. This is because rhythm is
what movement, speech, and music all have in common. Rhythm
is what ties these all together to make what Orff called
elemental music. Orff uses this approach because it is
believed that children must feel and move to music before
they are asked to conceptualize about it.
Speech is one of the key elements in the Orff approach not
only because speech is an inherently rhythmic action, but
because Orff was the only one of the major educational
philosophers (Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Suzuki) to use speech
in this way. Orff's thought was that a transition from
speech to rhythmic activities and then to song was the most
natural for a child. So, the student moves from speech to
body rhythms such as clapping or tapping, and then finally
leads to the playing of an instrument. Orff's philosophy
continues on in this way even after a child has developed a
skill for an instrument. For example, concepts such as
meter, accent, and anacrusis are introduced in speech
patterns, reinforced in other activities, and then studied
in a musical context. A specific example of this is the
teaching of the concept of a canon. A simple yet varied
chant or other form of rhythmic speech is taught to the
class. The students then use the idea of a "round" to
explore how each entrance by each different part is
achieved. Finally, the teacher notates the rhythmic pattern
and shows how each part of the pattern works with the other
Orff's approach to Music Education notes that speech,
chant, and song are all points along the same line. That is
to say that one leads directly to the next. Children's
experiences with singing follow directly from speech. This
means that melody is actually an extension or an outgrowth
of rhythm. When children begin to learn to use their voices
as musical instruments, they enter another pre-planned part
of Orff's method. There is a very specific order in which
students learn to use solfege. As with most other theories
that involve singing, the descending minor third, sol-mi,
is the first interval that is taught. Other tones follow in
succession in this order: la, re, do, to complete the
pentatonic scale, and then finally fa and ti. The Orff
method uses the pentatonic scale because Orff believed it
to be the native tonality of children. This is cohesive
with Orff's belief that music history is relived in the
development of each individual because he considered the
pentatonic mode appropriate to the development of each
child. The use of the pentatonic scale also gave the
students confidence. After all, it's very difficult to
improvise and sound bad when the only notes available are
those in the pentatonic scale. This kind of constant
affirmation is crucial to a child's development.
The last part of Orff's elemental music is elemental
movement. As stated earlier, the word elemental in this
sense refers to the kind of action, in this case movement,
in which the child participates with no prior training or
instruction. Orff said that this kind of activity made it
easier for children to become expressive. This is because
children are more able to express their thoughts and
feelings through movement and painting than through words.
Allowing children to express themselves in this way allows
them to use their imagination because, as we adults often
forget, children have the most vivid imagination. After
observing these actions, the teacher then relates them in
some way to music and build musical concepts out of them.
Unfortunately, many of the activities that adults scold
their children for are the same ones that are the most
suitable for expressing feelings, such as walking on
tiptoe, hoping over imaginary obstacles, or spinning to the
point of dizziness. These are actions that adults would
react to as being 'fidgety' or 'squirmy' when, in fact,
they are simply natural movements that children use to
express themselves. The ideal Orff educator would encourage
these behaviors and use them to teach musical concepts.
The end goal of the Orff method is to develop a child's
musical creativity. Where traditional Music Education
dictates that a child must learn to read music right away
in order to be a self-guided and independent musician, the
Orff method focuses on the creative and expressive side of
The instruments that are commonly associated with the Orff
method distinguish it from other methods. Orff uses
xylophones and various metalophones that use removable
bars. This allows an educator to change bars for different
modes or to remove unnecessary bars to keep from confusing
young students. The Orff instruments are modeled after and
are closely related to the Indonesian gamelans. These
instruments allow great flexibility for children who have
handicaps. For example, students with visual handicaps or
hearing handicaps can hit just about anywhere on an Orff
instrument set up to use a pentatonic scale so he can feel
like he is being included.
In conclusion, the Carl Orff has been a very influential
person in the field of Music Education. He has demonstrated
to us that the way to teach music to children is to let
then go back to the basics, or elements, of speech,
movement, and singing. He has reminded us how much we
really expect children to learn music differently in the
traditional method than it is natural for them to learn. 



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