Breaking Down The Orff Schulwerk Approach
Keeping children engaged in the classroom is no easy task, especially when it comes to
music education. Between the seemingly boundless energy kids possess and the difficulty
of keeping a child’s attention long enough to actually teach them something, most
teachers have their work cut out for them. Luckily, there’s a revolutionary educational
approach out there that provides a solution by working with a child’s innate energy and
imagination instead of against it. Orff Schulwerk might look like a hip new cutting edge
teaching method, but it’s actually been helping kids learn about music for nearly a
The Orff Schulwerk approach, which is sometimes referred to as the Orff approach, was developed by the German composer Carl Orff and educator Gunild Keetman during the 1920s. The approach was designed to celebrate and leverage the natural imaginative state of children as a way to develop musical skill and intellectual concepts. Play and imagination are often seen as obstacles instead of vital assets in education, but Orff Schulwerk is groundbreaking in how it uses a child’s creativity in instruction and experiential learning.
It should be noted here that this is an approach and not a teaching method with strict rules and procedures. The Orff approach offers models and fundamental ideas to help guide educators naturally and in ways the prioritize spontaneity and creativity.
Embracing imagination and play
The Orff approach is markedly different than conventional music education methods because it puts so much agency and creative freedom into the hands of kids. With a focus on developing musical literacy, Orff Schulwerk effectively teaches music by seeing it as an innate language that every child is born with. Rather than bringing a child out of their natural state of play to introduce new intellectual concepts, the Orff approach instructs children by celebrating imagination, playfulness and experimentation.
Gentleness and friendliness are crucial to this approach in order to help children feel supported and accepted. Children sometimes perform in front of their peers under this approach but without the stress and pressure that students often experience during conventional music recitals.
How it works
Orff Schulwerk is employed by using a mixture of improvisation and music education pedagogy. Instructors invite their classes to sing, play instruments and dance as a means for inspiring and educating students. Kids are sometimes asked to create music in groups or to perform and experience music individually. Adults including parents and caretakers are encouraged to take part in the process. By design, Orff leverages the unique talents and methods of each instructor, so no two educational approaches are the same.
At its heart, the Orff approach is a method of instruction that breaks down tasks and ideas down to their most basic elements. Concepts are learned and mastered by doing. The songs typically used with this approach are short, simple and built on memorable ostinato note patterns. Catchy melodies and predictable song forms such as ABA are used to help introduce children to music. To make things easy, the Orff approach invites instructors to borrow musical ideas from familiar music traditions found in the area of instruction. This can include anything from popular music found on the radio to regional folk music.
What makes Orff Schulwerk so impactful is the way it encourages children to explore music own their own terms. Rather than explain musical concepts first and encourage engagement and creativity later, the Orff approach builds a strong musical foundation and interest in kids by prioritizing supportive and creative musical experiences. The result awakens a child’s full awareness of space, time, form, line, color, design, and mood.
Benefits of the Orff Schulwerk approach include:
- Builds confidence in children
- Increases motor skills
- Improves social skills and group coordination
- Promotes creative thinking and problem-solving
- Improves memory, dexterity and agility
- Assists in various physical and cognitive therapies
- Promotes an open and nurturing educational environment
Music as a language and gateway to learning
Something music educators often forget is how primal the subject of their work is. The Orff approach believes that music is a natural part of every human being and therefore can be used as a universally recognized linguistic tool. Simple instruments as well as body percussion and vocal patterns are used to communicate through the musical language with the Orff approach. In this way, children learn by communicating and experiencing first hand rather than from a distance.
To aid in introducing the musical language, simple modes, major and minor pentatonic scales and tonal drones are used. When students become accustomed to basic foundational musical elements, more complex melodies and harmonies are introduced. Because the Orff approach isn’t a strict method, it’s open to children of all ages and experience levels. This means that older students will inevitably be able to master complex concepts that classrooms of younger students won’t be able to. All Orff materials and methods can be customized to the unique needs of each classroom.
Orff Schulwerk is considered to fall into the category of music education, but the benefits it delivers make it ideal for helping students feel supported and ready to take on other subjects. Recent studies show that students exposed to the Orff approach often enjoy gains in literacy, social skills and speech. Because Orff provides educational benefits extending far outside the realm of music, it doubles a primer ideal for preparing children to take on 21st century skills as well as STEM/STEAM lesson content.
In addition, the Orff approach excels at getting young students acclimated to new educational situations and environments such as the beginning of a new school year.
Simple instruments and concepts translate to big results
The instruments used in the Orff Schulwerk approach are easy learn and play and are designed for compact storage within a classroom. Melodic instruments like xylophones with removable bars are used for lessons, exercises and introducing basic musical concepts. Basic percussion instruments such as hand drums and congas are used to help students perform simple ostinato rhythm patterns. The magic of Orff Schulwerk shines the most when every student in the classroom participates. To ensure this happens, equipping classrooms with a complete Instrumentarium (set of Orff Schulwerk instruments) is recommended. Not every instructor has the means to purchase an entire Instrumentarium all at once, so many build their arsenal of instruments up over time.
Students experience a myriad of social, physical and intellectual benefits no matter the instrumental configuration of a classroom with the Orff approach. From sizable boosts in creative thinking to improved group coordination skills, children win with the Orff approach, as do educators. Educators who use Orff Schulwerk tend to spend more time instructing and encouraging than dealing with behavioral disputes.
Incorporating the Orff Schulwerk approach into your own program
This is merely a brief introduction into the world of Orff Schulwerk. Great tools and curriculum tips can be found on the Music & Arts website, such as this Orff approach primer.
Here’s a few things you’ll need to bring the Orff approach to your unique program:
- A variety of pitched and percussion instruments. Music & Arts is a terrific resource for Orff-friendly instruments.
- A classroom big enough for kids to dance, move around and create music in. Tiny rooms simply will not do! To get the most out of this approach, you’ll need to have a bright and clean room prepared for your students that’s big enough for them to move around comfortably in.
- A detailed lesson plan. Yes, the Orff approach relies on a great deal of improvisation and spontaneous thinking, but you’ll need to write out a week-by-week plan that details concepts covered as well as your goals. We encourage you to do more research on the Orff approach by reading blogs and literature.
If you’re completely lost when it comes to the Orff approach and don’t know where to begin, you can always rely on the expert team of educational representatives here at Music & Arts for help. Our representatives have the knowledge and passion you’ll need to bring the Orff approach to your program in an effective way.
Tips for getting the most out of the Orff Schulwerk approach
- Prioritize fun over everything else. In order to get the biggest bang for your Orff buck, you’ll need to make sure fun is at the centerpiece of your instruction. The Orff philosophy is about giving children the means to express themselves musically through play and creativity, so make sure your students are having fun.
- Let the lessons play out naturally. Yes, you’ll want to have goals for your Orff lessons, but it’s important to not take them too seriously. This is an approach where instructors should guide their students without rigidity, so if the natural way a lesson is playing out isn’t what you’d planned for, don’t sweat it.
- Create a nurturing environment for your students. This is a crucial aspect of Orff Schulwerk. Children thrive when they’re supported. Therefore, it’s up to you to set up an environment for them to feel comfortable and free to be creative in. This often means encouraging shy or hesitant students or pumping the breaks on a lesson plan when someone in the class expresses doubt.