Carl Orff (born July 10, 1895; died March 29, 1982), the prolific German composer, is perhaps most famous for his secular oratorio Carmina Burana, based on medieval poetry. Listen to the opening chorus, O Fortuna:
If you’re an elementary general music teacher, you’re probably familiar with, and possibly using, his Schulwerk, the process he devised for teaching music.
The music he composed for Schulwerk uses layered repeated patterns that make it possible for even young children to play parts in ensembles.
From 1924-1943, Orff served as the music director for the Güntherschule, a training school for dancers and gymnastics teachers which he cofounded with Dorothee Gunther. His goal was to help dancers become more musical in their movement. After the school dissolved during World War II, he began synthesizing his technique as a way of teaching music to children.
Orff Schulwerk employs a combination of improvisation, ostinati (repeated rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic patterns), speech, rhythm, play, singing, movement, and use of instruments such as recorders, xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels, drums, and other percussion. It is used in music training from preschool through junior high and beyond, and in music education programs in colleges and universities world-wide.
Four well-known quotes from Carl Orff help illustrate the ideals at the heart of Orff Schulwerk.
Tell me, I forget, show me, I remember, involve me, I understand.–Carl Orff
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; they will find that what they have mastered is child’s play.–Carl Orff
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.–Carl Orff
Experience first, then intellectualize.–Carl Orff
In Schulwerk, students learn musical principles by first making music, then generalizing what they’ve experienced over time. It is guided discovery.
Listen how simple musical motifs are layered to create a complex piece. This approach lends itself beautifully to student composition. Dance is also a part of the full performance.
Variations on Hot Cross Buns:
Here are some older children performing at an Orff Schulwerk convention:
Though he passed away more than forty-four years ago, Carl Orff’s legacy lives on through his own compositions and through the millions of musicians who learned how to play, improvise, and compose as a result of the process he founded.