Many music teachers find that marimbas revolutionize their teaching. Children come bounding into the marimba room, racing to their favourite instrument, pick up their mallets and start to play. Sometimes they are reminding themselves what they learned in the last session, sometimes they are picking out the notes of some new hit. Friends collaborate, teach each other, and music seems to bubble out of students like water bubbling out of a spring. Carl Orff was a German musician and composer who had ideas about musical learning that were quite radical in his day. Born in 1895, he started exploring his ideas between the two World Wars with friends Dorothee Gunther and Gunild Keetman. He believed that music was already INSIDE people, and that it had to be freed to come out. This idea turned traditional classical music education on its head because classical music education focused on pouring (and occasionally banging) knowledge and technique into learners. Orff was striving for what he called an ‘elemental’ approach – something original, something instinctive that reflected our musical nature. If learners were to play their own music – to improvise and create, they needed instruments that would facilitate this task. He turned to Africa and Asia to look for inspiration and found it in the xylophones and metallophones found on both continents. It wasn’t just about playing instruments, Dorothee Günther was a dancer and movement was a central part of Orff method from the start. Their idea was to draw out students’ inherent musicality.
The process that Orff, Keetman, and Günther developed reinforced musicality by layering musical learning in bodily experience rather than in abstract information about music, instrumental technique, or music theory. Here are the basic principles: Imitation develops listening and memory. Speech rhythm draws on all the body’s autonomic connections for speech: in the language centres of the brain, in the mouth, the tongue, the lips. Body percussion puts rhythm into the hands, the chest, the feet. This way, rhythm inhabits the body and is centred in the world of feeling, not counting. Untuned percussion takes those embodied rhythms and places them one step beyond the body. Tuned percussion gives melody to rhythms that have already been layered in the body and in untuned percussion. Singing binds melody, speech, rhythm together and movement brings life, weight, feeling to the sound.
These processes have parallels in traditional African musicking, forming an embodied approach to learning where singing, dancing, and playing go together. Learning is led by the ear and the body – not by notation.
If this all sounds a little romanticised, let me come down to earth a bit and talk about how teachers can plan lessons and stay sane at the same time. The Orff method has some simple but powerful teaching principles. First – shut up. As far as your imagination can manage, teach non-verbally, but teach by making music. Leave out the talk, and use the musical sound. Nothing is more fascinating to children than a teacher who stops talking and uses non-verbal ways to communicate. It teaches them to use all their senses to learn. Second, working in layers, go from simple to complex. Parts introduced first as speech rhythms, body, or untuned percussion allow learners to get deeply familiar with the musical material. Third, teach all parts to all learners. This is partly a class management tool, as everyone is kept busy all the time. It is also a way for learners to know ALL of the parts and to understand how the arrangement fits together, deepening their understanding. When this is the case, they are more likely to be able to find their place if they get lost and to understand the music beyond their own part.
Another Orff technique is using short repeating phrases, ostinati and bourdons, that are simple to play, but effective when combined with other musical fragments. They are easy to memorise and give learners a sense of security. The principle echoes a common structural principle in African music where short phrases combined result in something that is more than the sum of the parts.
Dance was central to Orff method from the very start. Expressing or responding to sound with body movement builds musicality and affirms our deep instinct to move to music. But combining arts goes beyond music and movement. Visual art and poetry are also incorporated into learning, spark creativity and build connections between music and other artistic expressions. There are strong parallels here with the concept of African musical arts. African music is most often accompanied by other forms of creativity, whether dance or body movement, poetry, costumes, or masks.
The links between Orff and African music have been noted before. Back in the 1980s William Amoaku wrote about the connections between African music and Orff education (reference below), and his book ‘African Songs and Rhythms for Children’ added to the Orff repertoire. Orff method done well is transformative. Marimbas, which are really supercharged Orff instruments – louder, groovier and much more cool to play, accommodate the method extremely well. Part of what makes marimbas work is that they bring a paradigm shift to school music – and it’s a paradigm that is more akin to African musicking than to Western. Straddling the two is Orff method – a structured approach that uses emancipatory principles also found in African musicking. It’s an ideal match that many teachers have discovered can re-energise and to diversify their programmes.
The best way to learn more about Orff method is to join your local Orff Society where you will find support from colleagues and practical help in the form of workshops and teaching material.
P.S. Whilst I am a big Orff enthusiast, I have to have a moan about the fact that the method bears his name, but most of the work was done by the women – Gunild Keetman and Dorothee Günther. It was typical for their era, but it’s up to us to make sure it’s not true of our era.
P.P.S. Orff method is not the only way to teach marimbas! There are lots of teachers doing amazing work that have never heard of Orff.
Amoaku, W. K. (1982). Parallelisms in traditional African system of music education and Orff Schulwerk. African Music: Journal of the International Library of African Music, 6(2), 116–119. https://doi.org/10.21504/amj.v6i2.1120
Amoaku, W., U. (1971). African Songs and Rhythms for Children. Schott.