Today we’re joined by David Row of the Make Moments Matter website and podcast. David is an elementary music teacher in the US who specialises in the Orff method of music teaching.
Orff is something we’ve mentioned a couple of times on the show before because it’s one of a few approaches that really puts musicality at the heart of music learning. And although these days it’s mostly used for early music education and David’s experience is predominantly with young children, we think you’ll find there’s plenty of interesting ideas here for the adult music learner too.
In this conversation we talk about:
- David’s two quite different experiences of learning music growing up, singing harmony in church and taking piano lessons, and what he learned from each
- Why David chose to study the Orff approach to music education even though he had already qualified and started working as a school music teacher
- The specific benefits of the Orff approach for children and for adults.
We found this one really enlightening – so whether you’ve wondered about Orff or never heard of it before we hope you’ll enjoy it too.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, David. Thank you for joining us today.
David: Thanks so much for having me.
Christopher: So you specialize in early music education, and I would love to know a little bit about what your own early music education looked like. Were you taught with the Orff Method that you now use in your own teaching?
David: No. I grew up in a very small town in rural Nebraska in the middle of the United States. And we learned sort of a different way. I mean, I think my music teacher growing up just did what she thought was best. She didn’t really have any training in early childhood music education. And so she just sort of crafted together whatever she thought was best from her own tradition. So it was very interesting going to school for formal music education to figure out, “Oh, this is the right way, or a right way to teach,” and how that’s differed so much from my own background. Because I learned a lot in school, but I also learned a lot about being a musician at church, and singing with my family, and taking piano lessons at a young age. I think as I was growing up, I got music education in a lot of different ways from a lot of different places, and all of those sort of came together to make me the musician I am today.
Christopher: Terrific. Paint a picture of what did it look like. What was that experience of learning music like for you?
David: Well, like I said, it was a lot of different things. So it was singing in the car with my family and having music on at home and making music with my family at home. It was taking piano lessons, which was a more formal aspect, and learning how to read music. I think probably the biggest influence was when I was at church. I went to a small Mennonite church, and we sang, every week, four part hymns acapella. That’s intimidating for anybody walking in when you hear this really beautiful music, and if you don’t feel like you’re trained to be a part of that, it’s a little scary, because, what do I sing? Do I sing the men’s part? Or I sing the melody, or what?
And as I was growing up, it was a lot of watching along in the hymn book and seeing people, hearing the music and seeing what was on the page and following that. And as I was young, I could pick out the melody part. And then I would stand next to [Roxy Schlagel 00:02:31] and she would sing the melody part and I would sing along with her. And then I would stand next to [Shirley Kempf 00:02:37], and she would sing the melody part, and I’d sing with her. And then as I grew up and as my voice changed, I would stand next to an alto and I would sing her part and follow along, and then a tenor, and then played with baritone but then came back to tenor.
It was learning how to sing by following along and standing next to people in my community who sang that part and represented that part. To be a part of a community that sang like that really helped me to learn to do that myself and to be able to read, and follow along, and join in, and know what my part was doing. It was just being in that community that taught me how to make music the way that I do.
Christopher: Interesting. And outside of that choir, what were you getting up to musically?
David: I started in second grade, so that would be age eight or so, to play piano. I basically had to read music and play right away. It was not an approach where you did improvisation or anything early on, it was you’re reading, and you’re playing, so I had some of that. At school, we also were integrating reading music and reading lines along where there were chords and things going on. I was getting the sight reading and sight singing and church, I was getting sight reading and playing, and piano, I was getting a little bit of playing and creating at school, so it all sort of melded together. But a lot of it was the sight reading at an early age and making that, that was a big part of my upbringing, even though as a teacher now, I don’t know that I would intentionally make that happen, but that was what happened for me.
Christopher: And church music’s something that’s come up several times with guests on the podcast, and I think it can be such a tremendous environment for enjoying the process of learning music and creating music. And it sounds like you really enjoyed that choir singing. Was your piano learning as joyful?
David: No. Not at first. I was excited at first about playing piano because it was an instrument. My mom and my band teacher, who I would later be in band with, both lied to me basically, and said, “If you want to be a percussionist, you have to have at least four years of piano,” which is not true. Even at my own school, I don’t know anyone else who took piano who was a percussionist, so that was a fun lie. But they got me to play piano. I struggles definitely for years, and my mom would have to pay me to practice. I would get like a quarter for a half hour of practice, which is hilarious. But it felt like a chore. And then at some point it stopped feeling like a chore. I think that I hit a place where I was at a level where I understood enough, and that I could maybe play what was given to me, but then also move along and find my own things, and felt like I had enough that I could go and sight read other things, or play other music that was also interesting.
And that in and of itself was exciting, that I was able to take a little bit more control. And after that, the piano, I was able to play what was given to me, and play other things, and it just became a lot more exciting. I would spend hours at a time practicing and playing. But for a long time, it was not that. My parents joke later that when I got a scholarship to college for music, that all of those hours of giving me quarters at a time paid off, because they got their investment back. But for a long time, it was not fun. I don’t know exactly when the switch flipped that it changed, but it was just I think lots of hours of doing it, and sort of slugging through the stuff that did not seem fun at the time, but provided a framework for me to be able to be successful later.
Christopher: Do you think that’s inevitable? Do you think that slog is required for the eventual payoff? Is that how music learning has to be?
David: No, but I think for some people it’ll feel that way. There are some people I feel like who are maybe more naturally inclined, or feel a little bit more at ease in the learning process. And there are some people who do not. I have 1,200 students at my school, and I know that for some of them, they love coming to music, that it is easy for them, that they just like the process, and other students do not. I understand that, and I feel for them, and so my job, seeing that from the outside, is to say, “What can I do to scaffold in? How can I make this exciting> How can I help them see the steps so that they take more ownership early on?”
I think for anything, there’s going to be a level of this is not fun, for a while. If you’re a runner, running is not fun at first. You have to build up that muscle and you have to get used to the process. My nephew is learning to try new foods, and at first, you don’t like them. They say it takes like seven or eight times trying a food to decide whether or not you like it, and to acclimate to it. I think with all things, there’s a level of this is not fun, for a while. There might be fun things about it, but if you abandon the difficult parts, that’s too bad. I feel like that difficulty helps you gain a lot, and learn al to.
Christopher: I’m glad I asked. I have to admit, I was half expecting you to give an easy answer of, “No, I was taught in the wrong way, if music is taught in a creative way, it’s super fun and easy all the time.” But no, I appreciate your honesty there that there is hard work involved in learning a skill, and some days are not going to be fun, some exercises aren’t going to be fun. And hopefully you design it in a way that it keeps the student engaged, whether that student is a five year old or yourself. But at the same time, you do have to keep your eye on the prize, and expect that the payoff will come.
David: Yeah, and I think talking to young music educators, they have this idea that it’s going to be unicorns and butterflies, and everyone’s going to love singing. That’s not true. As a music teacher, you go in thinking that’s the easy part. Some kids just don’t like singing, or they’re not comfortable with it. Or they’re learning English, and so in your class, singing is an extension of that difficult process of learning English, so they don’t want to do that because they’re afraid they’re going to mess up. Even the most basic things, you go in thinking, “This is going to be so much fun and so easy,” and it’s not always. For the more difficult things like improvisation, or composition, that is an extension of the difficulty. I think keeping your head that yes, there are some really fun bits, but there are some process to it, and that’s good to know going in.
Christopher: I want to come back and talk more about your approach to teaching. But first, I wanted to pick up on something you mentioned there ads part of the eventual payoff of all of those paid piano lessons, or paid piano practice sessions, which was sight reading music. You said once your sight reading got to a certain level, it kind of opened up music that you could pick up and play. Tell us about that, because sight reading is so often a huge barrier for people. It feels like an insurmountable thing to go from carefully figuring things out note by note, to just sitting down with sheet music and magically paying it.
David: Right. Again, I think that it’s a process. And as a music teacher now, I can look at the end steps and I can say along the way, “Here are the ways we can break down, and here’s what you should do first, and here’s what you should do next.” I think that’s true for any process. I was in jazz band in high school and there was a time where the teacher said, “David, why don’t you play a solo on the piano?” And I was petrified. I know that there were other people that would be like, “Alright, let’s do it,” but I was so scared because I didn’t have the scaffolding that it took. And so in the same way that in improvisation you have to learn something, and then build on that, and build on that, sight reading’s the same way. In my classroom, we start by just reading icons.
In the youngest grades, six, and seven, and eight year olds, we read icons and see how they’re grouped with one icon, or two together. You’re sort of seeing groupings of sound, and then you move on and read actual notation. What do you call them, crotchets? Wavers? Quarter noted, eighth notes, all of those different …. We use different terminology, but it’s reading those actual icons, those notes. And reading them in basic patterns, then reading them in longer patterns, and then finding patterns, “This has four bars of this, and then four bars of this,” and then eventually, you move on to reading the notes on a staff, and reading a melody, and going up and down. In my classroom, that’s sort of how it works. I think for someone who’s sight reading, and they’re doing it on their own at home, it’s the same sort of process of how can you take on little bit and figure that out, and then move on and do it in increments?
When I was singing in church, it was listening to my part and following along with the music to see, “When it goes up, Dave Schlagel goes up when he’s singing tenor,” or “When this goes down, he goes down.” That first process for me was just watching and listening, and then sort of joining in a little bit, or in parts, or in the chorus, that I knew I’d get right. It’s those incremental things of, “I can feel success with these four bars,” and then I’ll try on the next. And then I could put those eight bars together. It’s building from one thing that you know you’re successful with to another, to another. But along the way you have to keep stretching. “I will try this first this time,” or “I can try this chorus,” or ” I can try this rhythm that feels difficult slowly, and then quickly.”
With all musical things, it’s finding what’s that you can do just a little bit first, and then add on, and then add on. I think a lot of people jump to, at least with my students, I know that when they go home and do things, if they don’t have that process in their head, they try and sing along with the radio or jump into something that maybe is much too difficult, but they don’t realize that. They try and then then they fail, and they’re like, “Well, I’m going to stop.” If you can figure out how to break it down, that makes the whole process a lot easier. Instead of just jumping in saying, “I’m going to sing this song, I’m going to play this part,” that’s a lot. But if you can find a smaller process, that males everything a lot easier.
Christopher: That’s fantastic advice. We see that in a couple of big areas with our students musically. One is playing by ear, where people come in thinking it’s all or nothing, and so they hear a song on the radio, they sit down on the piano and try to play it, and they try and play all of the notes, everything. And of course, it’s incredibly difficult, and you have to explain it’s about building blocks, let’s pick out a very small piece of this that you can figure out by ear. And the other is singing, where as you say, I think the great failing of a lot of singing teaching is assuming people can sing and then throwing songs at them. And if you can’t sing, if you’re struggling with [inaudible 00:14:38], that’s a huge leap, in fact.
A lot of the people who come to us, we’re putting in place those foundation steps. Can you sing one note in tune? Can you move from one note to another? And now let’s try some very simple songs. If you try to leap to what you eventually want to be able to do, of course you trip, and stumble, and fall. I love that advice and I think you’re right. It’s so easy once you’re out of the careful guidance of a teacher, to lose sight of that fact. You want to do this, so you leap straight in and try and do it, and you forget that you need to give yourself those little stepping stones a long the way.
David: Yeah. As a music teacher, I can say it took me a while as a music teacher to say, “I can see the steps,” and then lead my students through them. Even music teachers who are listening to this might say, “I’m just leading them through songs.” My music teacher in elementary would probably say, “We’re just going to do it, and we’re going to sing together.” And that ended up working for some of us, but even music teachers have to look and say, “What are the steps? What are some building blocks? What are some things that we can break down?”
If you’re teaching yourself at home, you’re right. It’s finding the places where you can feel successful, or finding the places where you can break it down, so that you can then build on that and become successful. In education we call that scaffolding, where you go from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next. And as you’re successful, those scaffolds help you be more successful the next step too. You learn one thing and you become good at it, and you use that as you implement it into the next step and become better, and better, and better.
Christopher: Excellent. We have touched on a couple of times your approach to teaching. And you clearly have a very structured, mindful approach to the way you impart skills to your students. And that hasn’t come from nowhere. You use a particular methodology and approach, and I’d love to hear when did Orff come into the picture for you and what was it like for you to learn that as an aspiring music teacher?
David: I went to college as just a music performance major. And I decided about halfway through that I wanted to be a teacher, but the way certification and everything works in the United States, you have to have so many years, and so many courses to be able to be certified to teach music. And I had sort of missed the boat. I was just a little bit late. If I had started over, it would have added a year or two years to my college, and I didn’t want to do that. And so I finished, and I studied abroad in Australia, and I did all these great things in my undergrad, and then went on to my master’s degree where I studied music education. It was a process along the way of all these different experiences led up to me wanting to be a music teacher and get certified. And I went and I did it for a year. I was teaching kindergarten through 5th grade, which is about six through 12 year olds. I felt pretty good about it.
I had a lot of great training as a … I had a voice degree and I had a music education degree, and I had all these experiences. And then I went to an Orff Schulwerk workshop. In the Unites States there are local organizations of local, we call them Orff chapters. In my area, there was a chapter where a bunch of music teachers who had this training would get together once every month, or two months, and would bring in a clinician and would go through topics and songs. I went to one of these workshops, and after all these experiences, I was like, “This is the thing.” It sort of seemed to pull everything together. All these different threads in my life that I had experienced, it was sort of saying, “Yes, you’re right, you did have that great experience, and this is what we call it. And this is how we use it.”
It was sort of like you’re doing a puzzle and you’re feeling around and putting everything together. This was like stepping back and looking at the picture and going, “Oh, that’s how you put it together. That’s what that thing was. That blob is actually a car, or whatever.” Going to that workshop opened my eyes to say like, “This is another way to do it, and here’s a more formal approach to it.” That led to going to more workshops, and then we have what we call levels training. The national organization of Orff Schulwerk teachers, the American Orff Schulwerk Association, puts on Summer courses where you can go for two weeks at a time and take training. I did that, and that led to more training. Now I’m officially Orff certified. I’ve done all the trainings, I’ve done all the things, and I feel a lot better as a music teacher.
I look back on that first year and think, “What did I do? How did I make it through?” I just did what I thought was best, and I think now I’m a little bit more informed as I go into that, to know what is the right next step with my students.
Christopher: I think some listeners might be surprised to hear that you didn’t feel that way before discovering Orff. You had trained as a music teacher, you’d been teaching for a year, but the way you describe it, it’s like Orff gave you the tools, and the structures, and the mental models to feel like you knew what you were doing in the classroom. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but that sounds like it. Why did you not have that before, if you had been qualified as a music instructor?
David: Well, in music education there are a lot of views about how to teach, and what to teach. And the way I was certified was I was certified kindergarten through 12th grade. That’s al of our educational levels save college. That’s a lot to learn, so even in my education at college, I was officially qualified, but I had a little bit of a lot of different things. I had a little bit of instrument methods, and I had a little bit of choral methods, and I had a little bit of elementary methods. And so even though I had all this training in theory, and on paper, I didn’t have all the experiences I needed, and I didn’t have the in depth learning that I really needed. Like I said, I grew up in a situation in my school that was not …
My teacher wasn’t an Orff teacher, wasn’t a Kodály teacher, or a Dalcroze teacher. She didn’t really have specific training like that. My personal experiences weren’t really as focused as maybe someone else’s were, so when I had that experience of seeing focused elementary music education in a full process with the Orff approach, it really did feel like I’m now getting that training that I’ve always wanted, even though I had a lot of great training. It’d be like an artist who’s had a ton of great experiences, but if you’re going to do just expressionist full time, that experience with modernism and all these other things is great, and it informs what you do, but learning the expressionism way, it really would help you do that better later on, if that makes sense. It’s just focusing from that world of music to be one specific track.
Christopher: That makes perfect sense. It reminds me too of a previous guest on the show, Jimmy Rotherham, who has had great success bringing Kodály into his school in the UK. He is really campaigning now for early music education to be recognized as its own thing. Because here, you get your teaching qualification in music, and like you described, it’s kind of all music to all ages, and actually when you focus in on just that age group, it’s quite a different animal, or at least it can be, in a useful way. Tell us what characterizes Orff or what were you learning, or discovering, or putting frameworks around that was so different to how you might have approached it before.
David: I guess my elevator speech of what is Orff Schulwerk, I would say Orff Schulwerk is an active music making approach. And it combines singing, and playing, and movement in a holistic experience where creativity is of the utmost importance. And so to be in an Orff experience, as an Orff teacher, you are encouraging creativity, you are encouraging students to move, and to sing, and play instruments, and to explore. And then showing students a way, or guiding students in a way so that they’re taking that exploration and formalizing it. For instance, with some of my students, it’s giving them an instrument, and letting them play around, and find all the different ways you can make a sound with that instrument, and maybe playing it the wrong way, like playing on the handle or playing somewhere else, or playing on the floor.
And then showing the “right way” or showing them another way, and then showing them how they can make patterns, and showing them how they can put that together, and maybe doing that while they’re moving, or doing that with a partner. It’s sort of guiding them after exploring, and trying, and playing with the instrument, it’s exploring how can you do more with that? What else can you do? And sort of leading them to a more formalized approach. But it all starts with that creativity and trying. And then alter on when you’re asking them to improvise, they’ve had all those experiences of trying new things, and exploring, and it leads pretty naturally into that.
Christopher: That’s so interesting. And what you said before about how there are so many different opinions and approaches to how teaching to be done sticks in my head, because I think we’re in an age where there are a lot of conflicting views about what education should look like ff it’s not the kind of industrial age model of developing factory workers. I just want to underscore a point you made there, which is that this is not let’s entertain the children with music for half an hour. You mentioned a couple of other traditional approaches, Dalcroze, and Kodály, and I think all three are notable because they aren’t just more enjoyable, they are provably more effective. You’re talking about developing child musicians who feel comfortable improvising, and creating, and understanding the music they play.
This isn’t a cop out, easy, fun option, this is genuinely a really effective way to teach some substantial musical skills. I wonder if you could share a little bit about how you see those three approaches, comparing and contrasting, because I know that you can easily get into religious arguments online if you mention one against the other. I’d love to hear how you think of the three and how they compare.
David: I would say, I have the most experience with Orff and Kodály. Dalcroze in the United States is still developing, so I have a theoretical approach. I have the understanding that I gained in college of what Dalcroze is, and I’ve seen a few Dalcroze presenters. I’m not sure I’m really qualified to speak about that. But as far as Kodály and Orff go, I think that they really are hand in hand. They’re a different approach to get to the same sort of objective. I think that they’re both great approaches and I would love to do Kodály training, just to see how they compare and contrast ina very specific way. But I think at their heart, Kodály and Orff approaches are just a way to guide students to feel more comfortable making music. While Orff does that through exploration, and through improvisation, and creation, and imitation, all of those things are basic to what we do. Kodály is a little different in that there’s a lot more singing, there’s a lot more singing.
Where an Orff teacher might take a song and develop it, and add things, and expand the universe of that song, a Kodály teacher might take a song and then bring in a related song, and then a related song. Instead of teaching a concept by teaching how to play that same thing on an instrument, or to do it with body percussion, or to sing it, a Kodály person might say, “We’re going to do it in this song. And then we’re going to do that same concept in this song. And then that same concept in this other song.” It’s just a different way to get at the same goal. But Ultimately, I think that we want our students to be creative, and to be literate, and we want them to be able to participate actively in the music making process. I think there is a little bit more of a push on literacy in the Kodály world.
Not that Orff teachers don’t teach literacy, but I think that we focus maybe a little bit more on the improvisatory side, and movement, and exploration, whereas Kodály folks do a little bit more of a formalized choir, or formalized singing, or just singing in general, and also music literacy. It’s just slightly different focuses, but the heart is still always the same. It’s getting students to participate and to feel comfortable that they have the skills later on to participate in whatever they want to. I think another approach that wold be interesting for listeners, or anyone out there, is the work of John Feierabend. In the United States, he himself was trained as a Kodály teacher, and has sort of taken all of that training and added sort of an American twist to it. Because Kodály is very based in Europe, originally from Hungary and all of that, and so Feierabend takes all of the Kodály training and adds a little bit, and then also Americanizes it.
So instead of take maybe a So Mi approach to singing songs, which is what Kodály did because of the folk songs in Hungary, Feierabend does a Do Re Mi approach, which is just … That’s getting into the weeds a little bit, but it’s just taking a slightly different view of things and then building on that. Again, he is very similar to Kodály and Orff in that he says, “I want people to, in 30 years, be able to sing their children to sleep, or to tap their toe along with music, or to join in in any musical way that they want.” And I think all of the musical approaches ultimately want that. Yes, it would be great if you could read music, but we want you to be able to participate in your own way when you’re older and you leave our classroom.
Christopher: Wonderful. That’s such a different mindset than, “I want to pass my grade five theory so that I can take my grade six saxophone exam next year and get a distinction.” Isn’t it? Which unfortunately, I think is the experience a lot of learners have in music.
David: And I think it’s true here too. I think a high school musician, a high school band teacher would say, “We’re striving for all state,” or, “We want you to go be a music major.” But as someone who teaches all the students, I don’t get just the students who have signed up for saxophone, or clarinet, or whatever. I teach all those students, so my goal ultimately is years down the road when you don’t have a recorder in your hand, or don’t have a xylophone at your disposal, can you still participate in music? I hope so.
I hope that you can feel that you can pick up a guitar and at least have the understanding of the process of how to try and explore that. Or you can join in your church choir, or you can sing lullabies to your kid. Those are my ultimate goals because you will not probably have a cabasa in your home in 20 years. And you won’t use it in the same way you did in my class room, but if you take those skills you learned and you could feel like you could be a part of that process, then that’s really valuable.
Christopher: Yeah. I think there are two reasons I find Kodály, Orff, and Dalcroze so fascinating in the context of what we do at Musical U and the way we try to help adult musicians. The first is what you just said, that inclusivity. It’s not, “Let’s pick out the one kid in the class who can play amazing trumpet and make sure he reaches his absolute maximum potential and ignore the rest.” It’s, “Let’s get everyone to a point where they can feel some ownership of the musical experience, and participate, and collaborate.” And the other reason is I feel like even when we focus on that one kid in the class, we’re not doing them a good service. We focus so much in the instrument technique, and ticking boxes, that even that one kid doesn’t really feel like a true musician a lot of the time.
And I know a lot of listeners to this podcast may have been that musical kid in school who, “musical,” but actually now as an adult feels like they don’t have that instinct for music. They can’t maybe tap their foot a long with a song. And that to me, is a areal failing and opportunity to improve our way of doing music education in the UK, and I think in the US too. I was saying to you before we hit record that I am really encouraged and excited to see that there is a greater prevalence of these approaches in the US school system. Maybe not to the extent we’d like, but a lot more so than in the UK, where it’s really few and far between where the kids actually get this chance to experience the creative way of learning music.
David: Yeah, and it’s fun, especially speaking as an Orff Schulwerk teacher, you were saying about all the students in a classroom … The way we teach in an Orff Schulwerk classroom is that all students learn all parts. Any student should be able to sit down at the xylophone and play part of that song, or any student should be able to take on a specific part of the lesson. Students can be interchangeable, you can do different parts, so that each student can say, “Well, I’ve done all five of the part of this song, I didn’t really like this part or this part. I didn’t feel as good about that. But I did do it, and I like this other part too.” And I think that’s interesting because learners are so different. Some people learn just in different ways, or feel naturally inclined to certain things, and it’s good to know I feel good a bout this specific thing, but I also have experience on these other things.
Even if you’re like, “I am most comfortable playing guitar,” “Okay, great. Can you also sing? Can you also keep a rhythm?” Those things are valuable too. In an Orff classroom, you take part ina ll of it, and then maybe you’re placed in a part that you’re more comfortable for a performance, or a sharing session, but you get to experience it all. And so that’s sort of a fun thing that it’s great to encourage, that even if it doesn’t feel most comfortable, try it. You might be good at it. It might take a couple times, then you’ll feel great about it. It’s that experience that I think is really interesting.
Christopher: Fantastic. I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but there are two things that drive me crazy when it comes to children’s music education. The first is when a kid is told they can’t sing, and for the rest of their life, they spend their life thinking they’re not a singer. And the second is when a kid is forced to study one particular instrument, they don’t enjoy it, they don’t feel they’re good at it, and again, they spend the rest of their life thinking, “I was rubbish at piano, I’m not musical,” when actually, maybe if you’d handed that kid a xylophone, or a trumpet, or something else, they would have tapped into a different part of their musical being. I love the idea that is fundamental to Orff that every kid gets to experience and try everything. It’s not that they need to be equally good at everything, it’s just that they get the opportunity to see where are their natural inclinations, what do they enjoy, where do they fit in.
David: Yeah. And another thing that’s sort of interesting that is specific to the Orff Schulwerk world, is that we put a big emphasis on movement. Creative movement, folk dance, expressive movement. And that’s not something you find everywhere. And a lot of people would say, “Why are you including that, that’s not music. That’s movement, that’s dance,” or whatever. But the way it developed in Orff Schulwerk, and with Carl Orff and his contemporaries, was that music and movement were inextricable linked. In their school in Germany, so many years ago, the musicians would improvise for the dancers to create a dance. Or the dancers would improvise to the musicians. And they found that there were all of these very important links, that music and movement are tied together. For a lot of kids in my classroom today, movement is scary. The singing part is, they might feel uncomfortable, but movement, that scares them. But the more that they can see how they’re connected, the more that they can do a little bit of all of those things, the more comfortable they feel.
And especially in the American culture, I can say we are not always very comfortable with our bodies, or very comfortable moving, or very comfortable doing that. And so to experience that early on in elementary music, and to see how you can be a part of music, and dance, and make all that sync together, that’s really encouraging for later on in their life when … Being in music class might help you have a better body image, or feel more comfortable with movement, or feel more comfortable in a space with other people. That’s a fun little eccentricity about Orff that’s different from the other approaches, that is also so cool when you see it in a holistic approach all together.
Christopher: Yeah, it’s funny. You label it as an eccentricity, which it is from the traditional viewpoint of music means singing or playing an instrument. But hearing the way you just described it, of course there should be a part of learning to be musical, because what great musician wouldn’t be able to dance in a musical way? It should be part and parcel of that instinct for music.
David: Yeah, and even if you look at a great orchestra, a violin, or a flute, or no matter what instrument you’re looking at, they don’t just sit there and just play very strictly. They’re moving and they’re expressing as they play. And even just that little movement is a part of music and movement being linked together. You can’t really have one without the other. As someone who grew up with maybe a little bit more of we’re singing and standing in choir, that felt foreign to me at first. But the more you experience it, the more you’re like, “Yes, they are linked together.” They are together, there are a lot of ways that they connect.
Christopher: You mentioned folk dance there, and we’ve been talking quite a lot about singing, and songs. I think folk music, and folk songs in particular, is something else that’s come into the Kodály and the Orff approaches. You gave a wonderful explanation in your podcast about why it’s folk music, and why you’re not teaching your class with the latest pop hit from the radio. Maybe you could just share a little bit about that. Why is folk music part of the Orff approach?
David: Folk music is a big part of the Orff approach and the Kodály approach, I think because it represents our history and dour culture. These songs have been popular for hundreds of years with a broad spectrum of people. And a part of that is because there’s something a bout that music that is inherently very good. People like singing it, there’s something that makes them just very popular, and singable, or usable, and so that music has persisted. People create music all the time, but not every song will last. And for some reason these songs, for hundreds of years have lasted, and have bene picked up by teachers, and singers, and movers all around the world. I tend to go back to folk music because it does connect my students, and connect me, with generations before us who were also in the same area, or maybe not.
Folk music in America is great to connect with because it helps connect us to our heritage, and to specific historical things. If you’re singing about the Erie Canal, or you’re singing about westward expansion, or cowboys, or whatever, those are all American elements that you can then teach students history and culture as you’re teaching the music. But also you’re connecting with that personal history. Or when I teach my students a Maori song from New Zealand, or when I teach them a song from Ghana, it helps them see a window into that culture and those people. And I think that’s really valuable. Not only just singing music that has persisted because it’s so good, but also teaching them music that has a historical and cultural context, because that makes them more global citizens, it makes them understand their own culture better, and it makes them see past their eight year old worldview. Or me, my 32 year old worldview. It helps me see into a much bigger world.
I think folk music is great. It’s public domain for the most part, so you can for sure use it. But also because it’s just stood the test of time and it is so important to so many people around the world.
Christopher: That’s a terrific explanation. And that point about standing the test of time, there’s a power there. I was listening to one of your episodes where you were presenting the song Looby Loo, which to my English memory is loop-ti-loo. And anyway, sorry, I listened to the episode and I enjoyed it. Later in the day, I was with my daughter and she was acting a bit loopy, I said she was loopy and then I launched into, “Here we go loop-ti-loo, here we go loop-ti-li,” and anyway, ever since then, for several weeks, any time I mention the world loopy, she’s like, “Sing loopy song, sing loopy song.” And clearly that has stuck in her head from one rendition. And it just shows you, not every song you hear on the radio is like that. And these songs may be 100, 200 years old, but there’s something about them that connects deeply with us. And I think when you look at it like that, it makes perfect sense that this would be the vehicle for learning the fundamental skills of music, doesn’t it?
David: And the great thing about it, for me as a teacher is to say, if I’m teaching a song where I’m teaching 16th notes, I don’t know what the English version of that is, is it-
David: Semiquavers, yeah. If I’m teaching that song, or that concept, I can find songs where that is a feature. In the song, Chicken on a Fence Post, “Chicken on a fence post, can’t dance Josie,” that’s an American song that is really fun for kids to learn. There’s a really fun dance that goes with it. They love that song, they love learning that song. And then later I can go back in that song and say, “Hey, in that song, did you notice we sang a lot of words very quickly?” And then you can lead them to notation, and you can teach that concept based on that song. And a lot of the times, that’s what I will do, is I’ll take a song that has a specific element. Maybe a held tone, or maybe a larger vocal range, or a specific dance, and I pull that out to teach that specific concept. But it’s based on a song that the kids love because they just like the song.
And then you can say, “Here’s a thing you can like about it, is this specific musical thing.” And so folk songs are great, and they’re catchy, and lead you in other places too.
Christopher: Terrific. I think we’ve touched on a lot of different reasons people should be aware of Orff, and interested in Orff, but in a recent series of podcast episodes you were asking Orff practitioners if you could tell school music teachers one reason why they should explore Orff Schulwerk, what would it be. And I’d love to hear your answer to that. Maybe thinking about an adult musician, and then a child learner. What would be one reason the Orff approach is worth a closer look?
David: I think it’s a great approach for a couple different reasons. If you are a music educator teaching children, and at first that’s not what Orff was doing. Orff was teaching adults. Orff, it was really interesting, his history, and the history of that approach. But the Orff Schulwerk approach was used to teach adults and also children. If you’re in any way going to be a formalized music educator, I think it’s a great way to give you information and processes you can use to teach other people. The training, or the experience with Orff Schulwerk helps you see what are different parts of singing, or parts of music making that you can then encourage and use later on. It helps you see the process, and encourages you to be creative in that process. As opposed to maybe another approach that is more formalized, or more structured, or strict about how you do things, Orff lets you explore, and create, and improvise. And I think that’s a really wonderful skill and it’s a beautiful thing about Orff Schulwerk.
If you’re an adult learner and you’re interested in it, I think some of those same things apply. Learning more about Orff Schulwerk teaches you a little about how we all make music and learn music. And no matter what approach you’re coming from, or what culture, or musical background you’re coming from, there are a lot of common things that we all sort of do. Orff helps you see that, and helps you understand this is a process I could take, or this is something I already do very well and could build upon. It would help even someone who has no formal training. Looking into Orff would help you see what are avenues of things I could do next? Even if I just learn about improvisation, how can I take those skills and apply that to guitar, or to piano, or whatever? It gives you some of those ideas of we’ve thought about it, and here’s what we’ve learned.
I think a great book out there is Elementaria by Gunild Keetman. She was a contemporary of Orff and helped build the Orff Schulwerk and is just really brilliant. And so the writings that she has about how they teach, and why they teach were fundamental to me as I thought about teaching other kids. But also one of the things I learned in Orff levels, was it was helping me become a better musician too. Reading her book and learning more about what she believed, and what she and Orff came up with together, helped me establish more of a worldview about how I should teach students music, and how I should interact with music myself.
Christopher: Gosh, well I think we may have gone beyond one reason, but that was a wonderful answer, thank you.
David: I’m sorry.
Christopher: You have a terrific website, Make Moments Matter, and I’d love if you could share where that project came from. And I have mentioned it’s a podcast as well. And you have a wonderful tagline, it’s “Sing, learn, laugh, grow.” Tell us, where did this come from?
David: When I first started teaching, I was in a school district with about 26 or 27 other music teachers where we met very frequently, and we collaborated, and we did a lot. And even in that district where I saw other music teachers maybe once every three weeks or so, I felt very isolated because in my area, I was the only music teacher in my building. And other teachers in my building who taught 3rd grade, well there were five 3rd grade teachers. So they could collaborate and see each other every day and say, “How are you teaching that concept?” Or, “How are you doing this thing?” Looking at it now, I was very lucky that I saw other music teachers at all in a formalized way. And even in that sort of blessed situation, I felt like an island.
And so I started blogging years ago to sort of reach out to other people across my city, and the country, and the world, and figure out how are you doing this? How can we collaborate? How can we figure this out together? And that led to sharing more ideas and sharing more topics. And it was so funny because in those years, and all the years I’ve done it, I am, sharing things but in my interactions with other music teachers, I am learning more about what it is I’m doing. It really is a bridge. It’s a way for me to connect to to other people, and other people to connect, and feel connected.
And if anyway they can read what I’ve written, or listen to the podcast, and feel like, “Yes, I do that too, ” or, “That makes sense to me,” that’s my ultimate goal. I want people to feel like we may be in different places, but we are all doing the same thing. And you should feel like you are not an island, because we are all in this together. That’s maybe what inspired me, but it’s the whole process has been so great to connect with people around the world, and to feel like a part of a community.
Christopher: And what can people find specifically on the website and in your podcast?
David: I come at music education with an elementary slant because that’s what I do every day. The podcast specifically, I’ve spent many of the episodes talking about different songs that I would use in my classroom, and how I would approach teaching those songs. Different elements, and things that I would add into a lesson. I also did a series of interviews with Orff Schulwerk master teachers from around my country. And talking with them about music education, and Orff Schulwerk in particular, and why that’s so important, and how they use that. Basically everything I do on the podcast and in the blog is about formalized music education, but also just tips and ideas on how you can go from one thing to the next.
In some posts it’ll be one specific song and all the things that lead to that, and others are more general. For instance, in one blog post I compare and contrast rhythm syllable systems, and how you can read and do that. And in another blog post I talk more generally about folk songs in general, and why you would teach that. But some are very specific. Here’s that song Chicken on a Fence Post, and here’s how I teach it. Depending on what you read or listen to, you might get a more generalized approach, or a more specific, but it’s all the same general idea of here are ways you can teach this thing.
Christopher: Very cool. And I think we have a theme on this podcast sometimes where I encourage the listener not to take things at face value. And the fact that you are writing for elementary music teachers does not mean there isn’t a ton of fascinating stuff in there for any musician. And so I’d like to just reiterate what we said before, that exploring how would an elementary Orff teacher present a song or a concept, can be hugely instructive and useful the self directed adult learner. I definitely encourage everyone listening, whether you’re a teacher or a musician yourself, to check the Make Moments Matter website, that’s at makemomentsmatter.org. And also David’s podcast, which as I’ve mentioned I’m a keen listener of myself. David, it’s been such a pleasure having you on the show today. Thank you again for joining us.
David: Well thank you so much for having me, it’s been my pleasure.