Looking Back – Looking Forward

Paper presented at the 2000 Traunwalchen Symposium

Fifty years of Orff-Schulwerk: Music for Children gives us time to feel again the intentions Carl Orff expressed in 1963 as “ideas placed in time” and to give critical thought to ideas that have been developing, growing and in flux. At a conference at the newly founded Orff Institute in 1963, Orff gave a speech entitled: “The Schulwerk Past and Future”.1 What are the underlying intentions that Carl Orff, well ahead of others at that time, expressed with his collaborators including Dorothee Gunther and Gunild Keetman and Maja Lex that led to the development and publishing of the volumes Music for Children ? What did Orff “wish”? How was it possible that such a concept of music pedagogy unlike any other spread and extended all over the world?

In the speech mentioned above, Carl Orff described the Schulwerk as a “garden of wildflowers”, as ideas that lay in the times which effectively found their suitable ground. He meant that it was a well known fact that wildflowers flourish strongly while carefully laid out gardens are often disappointing. Such insight captures the advantages of the Schulwerk. Those people preferring pure methodology would have little joy but the artistically inclined and impetuous improviser would grow. Orff continued: The Schulwerk wants, in all its phases, to promote self-reliance, to strive to “activate the student through his own music making, through improvising, discovering and designing his own music”.2 Music that is closely bound with movement, coming from the unity of speech sound and movement, should reawaken the need for expression.

To make this effective, Orff set up a suitable instrumentarium consisting of instruments that were “indigenous and exotic”. The way music was composed for these instruments came from playing them. 3 In his 1931 publication, Music from Movement, Orff spoke about improvisation coming from “playing with the instrument”. This penetrating insight describes a back-and-forth dialogue between the player and the instrument, a dialogue that relates to expressive playing and the creative process. 4 The only possibility Orff saw for a new pedagogy was for music education to emerge from movement with their combined roots of rhythm. It should above all achieve “a strong influence on building a personality,” attainable through a special form of transmitting a “mode of accomplishment”.5

The first volume of Orff-Schulwerk: Music for Children was printed in 1950, the result of practical work with children at the Bavarian Broadcasting Company. However, in 1931 an earlier Schulwerk was given to Schott for printing, based on the experiences at the Guntherschule (founded in Munich in 1924). It was intended to “introduce a revolution in music education”. This planned edition could not be published because “the political wave flushed all the ideas in the Schulwerk away as undesirable and some misunderstandings were washed up as flotsam and jetsam which delayed its coming into being.6

In the auturnn of 1951 Gunild Keetman began her work with children’s classes at the Mozarteum. Here, according to Orff’s report, she could develop the movement aspects that were not possible in the radio broadcasts. “Now, for the first time, it was possible to teach the Schulwerk as we wished to present it”.7 Orff’s starting point was that “the unity of music and movement is natural to children”. This fact gave him the key to his work: moving, singing and playing come together as a unity. This kind of new child-oriented music education fascinated him. Searching for the lost unity between movement, music, speaking and singing led Orff to take hold of the impulses from other cultures in which spontaneous forms of music had developed with styles of playing in which the physical attachment to the music was still vivacious. These impulses came to fruition in both his pedagogical and compositional works.

Interpreting the Schulwerk

Looking back, could it have been the publication of the volumes Music for Children that led to a misunderstanding that the music was a completed “work” in the sense of “opus” by Orff for teachers? Moreover, the word “school” in the word Schulwerk (school work) was not considered in its original meaning of “quietness” and “be at leisure” but was interpreted as “boring school business”.
These pieces are designed to be understood as models that came from improvisation and should lead back there again (to one’s own improvisation). However, this idea did not take hold because, among other things, this demand could not be fulfilled by many teachers.
Whoever looks at the volumes to find something contemporary must be disappointed. However, the volumes remain a document – a sort of protocol of results – that can be seen as a basis for improvisation and elemental music making with an abundance of material.
If the Schulwerk were to be assessed only on the basis of notated material, the resulting physical orientation of forms for transmitting it all would die along the way.
Orff-Schulwerk is not a method. Except for the remarks at the end of each volume of Music for Children the teacher does not get any advice for the pedagogical handling of the material. However the sequence of the volumes uncovers the approach: coming from simple elements, from rhythmic and melodic “building blocks” leading to the whole; from the simple to the complex; from the pentatonic through modal progressions advancing to cadential harmonies.
Metric pieces predominate in the volumes but that does not mean that rhythm is to be understood as a “rhythmic pattern”. Similarly, the use of bordun and ostinato do not imply that repetition is always the same.

It is valid to “resume gestures of searching” as Rudolf zur Lippe said exquisitely at the symposium “A Continuing Heritage” in 1990. To be involved with Orff-Schulwerk and to accept Music for Children is to investigate phenomena in sound and movement. This means a study of sources, examining the social and cultural requirements of the time. According to Orff, “Time needs its time”. This involves having time, granting time needed for all procedures, and allowing a suitable amount of time for quietness and perceiving one’s own time. And what does Orff mean when he says, “Don’t strike the drum, be the drum”? Are not such words alone reason enough to reflect, to take on these “gestures of searching” for the context?

Perhaps you might take a moment and reflect. You are a drum… You even feel perhaps the nature of the material; you feel the weight, hardness, pointed or rounded forms, the edge of the frame. Maybe you are a bass drum, the inside a hollow place; you feel the movement of air, the vibrating membrane; perhaps you are waiting first to be put in motion, awaiting the vibration physically; or you feel locked in, cut off from the outside, anxious about being hit. Perhaps you are thinking about how much strength will be used for the impact. At this moment you are activating and bringing forth an enormous treasury of unspoken experiences making them newly available. You feel rhythmically moving energy, diving the waves of the vibrations, diving into a pulsating time. According to Orff, rhythm cannot be taught. Rhythm is life itself. Rhythm can only be born. 8

Expressions like “being a drum”, “being a flute”, or “being a cello” initiate my activity and produce a response with sound, showing a new perspective from this background. Orff speaks about being absolutely united with the instrument. 9 This means to be completely involved with body and soul, diving into the pulsating process of vibrating, the undulation of movement. For Orff and his collaborators, movement and sound, along with the materials for making sounds, were the starting points for one’s own experiences, just as works for newer music took their sources for compositions and improvisation directly from the structure of sound materials.

Today, are we able to support the ‘unity of speech, music and movement’ commanded by Orff’? Is it still as Orff meant, natural to children?

Living through elemental worlds

Even today we start with the premise that the child catches hold of objects, grasps them with his/her hand, and “holds on to them” also in an intellectual sense. We imagine a child who investigates blocks, sand, mud, dirt, one who investigates his world, searches for information, fights with problems and resistance, a child who persists toward practical usage, who wants to work out and try out his cognition. New research especially in the areas of brain research, embryology, prenatal psychology and developmental psychology – acknowledges, supports and confirms our endorsement: the child adapts his/her view of life in the real world in which unalterable physical laws are valid.

Our ideal child builds on her cognitive growth in logical sequences from simple to complex structures building successively on her view of life. She experiences that time passes, that divisions of time (getting up, dressing, going out…) are not exchangeable, that the way from the kitchen to the garden means a spatial change that also needs time. In the real and tactile environment she learns, with no trouble at all, how to establish spatial references, to walk and run through space. She can “scuffle around with material”, can shape it, reshape it and change it.

However, we have overlooked the fact that the video media creates a second world, a second reality in which the child becomes more and more distance from the “Alpha world” that is described above. A generation is growing that is developing its world view rather passively through the media rather than through active participation in events. According to Michael Millner, 10 the whole new world of multi-media creates a second reality for the child, a so-called “Beta world”. Conquering the world physically and intellectually ends abruptly when the play-pen is too small. It is then that sitting in front of the screen starts. Very early on, the child becomes accustomed to the racing flood of pictures, ultimate snatches of time. The experience of three-dimensional space is missing. The movement of one’s own body through the room is missing. The two sensory canals of seeing and hearing are wide open, the perceptive senses of touch and smell are turned off. “Centered looking” is activated. Missing are the movements of the eye to the periphery of the field of vision, as well as adapted movements of the head and body in space.

In stories, children miss the sequence of the plot; the time and space continuum is chopped up. Computer games reduce play to an exciting reaction-training game. The computer plays its game with the child.

In a documentary that was broadcast in 1992, “Walking Backwards Has To Be Learned”, German television brought attention to the “declining senses” in children of preschool and kindergarten ages. Children who have never been rocked and who have not balanced themselves or learned how to manipulate objects are of course in the minority. However, about one half of all the students in the first grade are sent to special classes in order to learn the simple basic movements of skipping, sliding or rocking from side to side. The goal is not only to master the body but to co-ordinate the senses, the parallels of physical and mental basics. The most important thesis of this film is that the coordination of the senses is required for important intellectual skills.

The latest edition of Orff Schulwerk Informationen (June 2000) 11 is dedicated to the theme “50 Years Music for Children”. The challenge of Orff is the challenge for “many-sided demands” on the child and adult: many-sided being the transference, from the movement to the music, from the movement to dance, to speech and then to language of pictures, to the imagination, the systematic building up of technique as well as opening the artistic potential; spirit and soul, “head, heart and hand”, the majority of the senses which grasp the human being in all her/his dimensions.

In addition, Orff encourages a special “mode of accomplishment”, a special kind of transmission. In my opinion, this aspect has not been given enough attention up to now. Ultimately, it falls to the teacher whose role it is to guide processes, to solve them or even to accept them. The main challenge to teachers must be to develop their own abilities to play, to play with the child and not to “drum around him”. Children are the most wonderful playing partners if we can let ourselves be involved with them. It is with them that we learn. It is not in their interests for children to be subjected to constant “‘spoon feeding” according to a pre-structured plan. “Knowing how not to know” is a part of guiding processes in Orff pedagogy.

Educating people feeds on being attentive to all that is alive, and is nourished by turning to the child and her possibilities for expression, his needs, the objects of her strong willed insistence on having her way, his feelings for form, spontaneity and for what is creative. Teaching according to the Schulwerk must take seriously the desire of people to shape their own nature. Teachers must be ready to relinquish their needs for security and for absolute control. What Orff pointed out as “wild flowers” – as ideas that “lay in the times” that “found suitable ground” – are to be transplanted “knowingly” by us.


1. Carl Orff: Das Schulwerk – “Ruckblick und Ausblick” (Looking Back and Looking Forward), in Orff-Institut und der Akademie “Mozarteum Salzburg Jahrbuch 1963. Mainz (Scott) 1964. pp.13-20.

2. Carl Orff, 1964, p. 13 ff

3. Carl Orff, 1964, p.14.

4. Carl Offf, “Music from Movement” in Deutsche Tonkunsterlerzeitung, 1931.

5. Carl Orff, Memorandum, Wien 1974.

6. Carl Orff, 1964, p.15.

7. idem, p.17.

8. Carl Orff. Documentation vol.3

9. Carl Orff. “Elementare Musikubung, Improvisation and Laienschulung” in Die Musikpflege, vol 6, 1932

10. Michael Millner, Das Beta Kind. Fernsehen und kindliche Entwicklungaus kinderpsychiatrischer Sicht, Bern, 1996.

11. Universitat Mozarteum in Salzburg, Orff Institut und Orff-Schulwerk Forum Salzburg (ed.), Orff Schulwerk Informationen, Nr. 64. Summer, 2000.