Music education always & always looking forward.

What is Orff-Schulwerk...and What Is It Not?

I had to part with the tenor recorder, but I definitely bought the frog & brought him home.

I had to part with the tenor recorder, but I definitely bought the frog & brought him home.

This past week, I completed my Orff Level 1 certification. Having been involved in the inside baseball of Music Education Education for my entire adult life, I have always known that "Orff" in a music education context didn't simply refer to Carmina Burana

But a lot of people have no idea what the Orff Levels training refers to. As per usual, I'm here to help you out. 

What is Orff-Schulwerk?

Carl Orff was a German composer who, it should probably be noted, rose to fame in 1930s Germany and possibly sought fame more than he sought justice. At least, until the mid-1940s. His level of cooperation with the Third Reich government is controversial to this day. He is best known for his cantata Carmina Burana, the first movement of which ("O, Fortuna") has been widely used in popular culture and college football. 

While Carl Orff continued to compose and get married until his death in 1982, he continued to spread his "schulwerk", translated from German as "schooling." Orff had a Güntherschule (that was bombed & destroyed by Allied forces in 1945) where students ages 12-22 studied music using his approach. Orff worked with his former pupil & music educator Gunild Keetman, and the original Orff-Schulwerk approach to learning and teaching came about. It involves body percussion, pitched & unpitched percussion instruments (including specially made xylophones), recorders, and solfege-based singing. The approach includes not just musical performance, but also incorporates movement, storytelling, and natural speech patterns in order to further musical understanding. In 2018, teachers and trainers still use and adapt exercises from the Original Orff-Schulwerk (said in an extremely over-the-top head voice) book.

In 1968, the American Orff-Schulwerk Association was formed, and for the past 50 years has exerted a massive amount of influence over elementary music classrooms in the United States. Their website can tell you a lot more about what they do. 

The Levels are designed to introduce the Orff approach to teaching in phases. Courses for certification purposes are offered every summer, as the AOSA requires a certain number of hours to be spent doing coursework. There are three levels of Orff training, as well as a Master Class, designed for those who seek to write curriculum. Every year, the AOSA has a national conference where members share pedagogy & success stories, as well as have a recorder consort after midnight.  

In my Level 1 class, we had not only locals, but several international students. One student came to our course in Miami directly from Quito, Ecuador. He told me that he had read a book about the Orff approach, but that he was glad to have taken the course, because it has to be experienced to be believed. I think he summed it up pretty well. 

Sounds great, Emily. What are some of the things that people know or don't know about Orff? 

 We'll tackle misconceptions about the approach first. 

Isn't Orff just a book, like the beginning band Standard of Excellence?

There are Orff books. Some of them were written by Orff & Keetman themselves and hundreds more have been written by other accomplished elementary music educators. But there's no requisite method book. There's no gospel. Just an approach. Just resources available. There's nothing you *have* to do regarding Orff, except that teaching the Orff way involves a great deal more doing than talking. 

NGL though, this book is p. good

NGL though, this book is p. good

Isn't Orff just a bunch of keyboard instruments that you can take keys off of?

Many of the veteran Orff teachers that I met during this course expressed huge frustration with people who think or say those exact words. Orff instruments, which are often expensive and get a lot of wear, are designed to work within the Schulwerk methodology. The original Orff-Schulwerk focuses on singing in four different major keys (C, G, F, and D), based on the developmental needs of elementary school aged children. The removing of keys on the specially designed Orff xylophones allows for students to achieve greater success playing in these keys. It also allows students to make xylophones that include only the pentatonic scale, making them outstanding conduits for improvisation. 

But Orff training involves a lot of playing recorder -- for me, it involved playing tenor recorder and falling in love -- and singing and dancing and playing with manipulatives and adding musical content to children's literature. That last item is, to me, the most convincing feature of the approach. There are some genuinely amazing lesson plans that coordinate with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day, to name just one book that is often used in Orff-based lesson plans.

Aren't elementary school teachers lesser musicians than secondary directors?

This was possibly the biggest thing I learned during my Orff training. Elementary teachers have a level of musicianship that secondary directors don't often think about -- to their own detriment. Having taught secondary music for my entire career I can tell you with confidence that, as much as we don't want to cop to it, ensemble directors are always competing against each other. We're always looking prove our chops or our ears or whatever. And we almost always underestimate the musicianship of elementary teachers. The Orff approach requires full-body musicianship, so much that professional gigging musicians who teach elementary (as there are plenty in those circumstances) still find themselves challenged by the course. 

What I found in taking Orff was that I had musical skills I'd never before used while teaching middle school. It also reinforced to me that there are other ways to be a great musician other than shredding on an instrument. The methods we were introduced to during Orff will make me a better singer, a better percussionist, and a better teacher on every level. The approach used in Orff is advantageous to teaching music in any circumstance, and I think that middle school (or high school!!) teachers who teach Beginning Band would all benefit from Orff training. 

Lots of folk songs, though, right? Is Orff culturally responsive?

It is a priority for me to be as aware and considerate of my students' needs as I can be. While I don't believe in creating my curriculum entirely based on my students' tastes, if you've read my blog for even just a second, you know that I believe in making modern music education more relatable & equitable for the general populace. I definitely found some of the songs we sang in my Orff class to not be ones I would repeat for my kids, for a wide variety of reasons. My instructors talked about using the songs they did because they were folk songs, and that changing them would change the long-standing folk traditions. There are a few that I plan on bringing back, but changing still. Whatever you find during your Orff teacher instruction, you can make your own. You can have students write lyrics. The biggest message conveyed to us during our class time was, "Don't get hung up with what's written on the page."

There were some things we came across during our training that caused me some concern and that I spoke to my instructors about. That being said, I have a strong feeling that the curriculum that many Orff practitioners use will continue to evolve. Many of the lesson plans involved Spiritual songs. We did discuss that most Spirituals (which were also early predecessors to Gospel music) contain coded messages that American slaves used to communicate and eventually escape. This could absolutely tie in to classroom lessons about slavery. (For more resources on this, you can check out more on coded spirituals here, an outstanding lesson plan by PBS here, a tie-in to a 3rd/4th grade lesson provided by the Kennedy Center here). There were Native American songs sung, and accompanied entirely by Native American instruments (that were bought directly from Indigenous people who made them). That part was pretty cool. 

Could you incorporate hip-hop music & culture into the Orff approach? I bet that you could. I intend to report back with my findings. I will say that I loved hearing some Herbie Hancock during some of our movement exercises. 

The adaptability of the approach, to me, is the real beauty of the Orff tradition. It was intended to be improved upon. It was created with built-in flexibility so that traditional methods could be amended to fit a specific situation. Instrumentation can be changed -- this was huge for me to see, having spent so much time in band-based professional development where we spend a lot of time talking about creating "correct" instrumentation in our groups.

Maybe that adaptability was a result of the Güntherschule being bombed, after which Gunild Keetman said that she and her students only had their recorders left to play their sorrows on. After that, after losing everything they had built, is it possible that Keetman & Orff had the foresight to imagine a future where students & teachers would need to make constant classroom adjustments?

Is there anyone who has taken the Orff approach and updated those practices?

I'm so glad you asked that! Several of the members of the South Florida Orff Chapter actually left our training to attend the Little Kids Rock Jam Fest in Colorado. It seems that there is a huge overlap between Little Kids Rock and Orff folks. And it makes sense. Being a secondary ensemble teacher who is also interested in popular music education, and myself a proud Little Kids Rock teacher, I have witnessed a little bit of pushback from traditional secondary ensemble teachers regarding popular music education and Little Kids Rock. They don't want popular music instruction to eek in on their "program". Whereas elementary teachers see an approach that is similar in many ways to what they already use and they jump on it. When I completed my Little Kids Rock training in February, my facilitator, Dr. Burstein, actually said that a lot of the LKR pedagogy had a lot of basis in Orff training. The Jam Cards alone, used to assist in teaching piano "comping", look a lot like Orff xylophone playing. 

In some ways, Little Kids Rock is almost the cooler cousin of Orff, new to the scene. And both ideologies are not perfectly prescribed, but rather open to interpretation and provide a great framework for musical teaching. The biggest difference is that Little Kids Rock is also a charity, and will also provide instruments for your students once you take their training. 


In any circumstance, on any educational level, I really believe that teachers and students can make a good deal of the Orff approach work for them. I got the opportunity to speak to teachers who use Orff pedagogy with a full complement of instruments and teachers who teach Orff from a cart. I would recommend the training to anyone who has the opportunity, and I can say I'm honestly thrilled that I got the opportunity. 


Additionally, I felt the need to embed the recording of "O Fortuna" that I linked to earlier, mostly because the tympani player shown here best represents how I felt when I got picked to go play the contrabass bars during Orff training. 

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