Orff Evangelism

For those of you who saw the title, but not the content, of an essay I posted, then deleted, yesterday: I'm looking for a new job. I'm not going to air the details of what happened here. Rather, my goal is to articulate the importance of something I've never done well, but need to start doing much better in the future: advocating for the way I teach music. From the responses I've seen to that short-lived post yesterday, I'm not in the only one with this problem. Throughout North America, and very likely around the world, music teachers are being marked down by their administrators because they teach in ways that, while engaging, effective, and transformational, are so radically different from what those administrators are looking for that they find themselves under fire, marked down in evaluations, and potentially unemployed.

I'm speaking, of course, of Orff.

Teaching the Orff way means engaging students in making music from the moment the lesson begins. Children speak, move, sing, dance, play rhythms on their bodies, play instruments, improvise, create, reflect, grow. Learning is carefully scaffolded, complex pieces developed elementally, and every child learns every part. Along the way, they learn the elements of music at a deeper level than they ever would sitting at desks and listening to a lecture. Rather than learn musical facts that can be regurgitated for a quiz, they learn music itself by performing it. Music time is much less a class than it is a rehearsal or, better still, a workshop in which the children's own ideas are incorporated into the music and developed, taking the piece, and the curriculum, in new directions that could not be imagined at the planning stage.

An Orff music lesson looks and sounds nothing like a reading or math lesson. A child engaged in those subjects will be listening intently to the teacher, eyes fixed on whatever visual aid the teacher is using. If oral reading is taking place, the engaged child is listening to the text while following along in his or her own book. And of course, during silent reading time, the engaged child is doing just that. An administrator can easily tell what percentage of children are following directions, are engaged in the lesson, and, at assessment time, have learned the concept.

Contrast that with the Orff music lesson. Children may be learning a piece by echoing the teacher one short phrase at a time. They may be collaborating noisily with partners in creating rhythmic ostinatos on their bodies. If they're sitting or standing with instruments, they may be excitedly playing those instruments long past the time to stop so a rotation, or some new learning, can take place. They may be playing over the teacher's instructions--"practicing," Rick Layton calls it--necessitating some kind of loud signal to get their attention. This doesn't mean they're disengaged; quite the contrary, they're so fully engaged in learning the part, in playing the instrument, that getting them to stop long enough to learn the next part of the lesson can be a challenge. When they're creating with partners, or watching other children perform, they may be laughing with delight or amusement at what they've come up with. It can be a noisy environment, and if the teacher's pacing is off,or she or he doesn't nail a transition, it can quickly devolve into chaos; but to some extent, there has to be an element of chaos present in every Orff lesson for it to succeed, for the learning to be deep, thorough, and lasting.

Data-driven administrators who are not themselves musicians can find such lessons jarring. They may have a hard time figuring out how to assess them using the one-size-fits-all district criteria. If they're honest, they'll cross many of those criteria out as not applicable, and wait for a debriefing session for the teacher to explain the importance and meaning of parts of the lesson that didn't seem clear to the administrator. Ideally, administrators would be assessing specialists (and I include PE teachers in that category) using different criteria, and they would be trained in how to use those criteria. It's a disservice to them, and to those of us who teach outside the general education classroom, to expect them to be able to assess what we do when they don't even know the first thing about our subject, let alone the foundations of our pedagogical techniques.

The reality, unfortunately, is that administrators with a musical background are few and far between. I've had ten principals, and not one of them had any musical training. The open-minded ones have been delighted about what they saw happening in my classrooms, and in our post-observation debriefings, have asked me to explain what I was doing, and how it related to the concepts being taught. I remember one in particular who, introducing me at the beginning of a school concert, said, "I remember nothing from my childhood music classes, because they weren't taught the way Mr. Anderson teachers. If they had been, I'd probably be a musician today."

Yes, there are administrators like that. Yours may very well be one of them. If so, count your blessings; because of the ten I've had (all non-musical), only five have come into my classroom with a genuinely open mind.

You and I could sit here all day fuming about the unfairness of this. Or we could do what I'm finally, after thirteen years, realizing I need to do for however many I have left: advocate not just for our programs, but for how we teach them.

How we do that is the challenging part, the part we need to put our heads together over. The Orff world is insular: we gather for workshops and conferences that are like great celebrations that are like ashrams, with all the faithful singing and dancing the praises of our faith. Our workshops are taught using the very methods we espouse. Once we've learned the Orff way, we can't imagine teaching any other way. Learning with our whole selves--bodies, voices, ears, eyes--is so obviously superior to listening to lectures that I've found myself morphing into one of those rude students I always used to hate, the ones who can't sit still, who fidget through presentations, drum incessantly on their desks, so obviously want to be anywhere but this conference room, listening to this presenter.

Because Orff can be cliquish, even a little cultish, it's not surprising administrators may view it with distaste and suspicion. For this reason, it's essential to invite administrators to Orff workshops, and to encourage them to plunge in as readily as all the other participants. Get down on the floor with a partner to play a clapping game. Sit down at a xylophone and improvise in la pentatonic. Discover through line dancing that you can, in fact, move to music. And sing! See how easy it is to learn a song when it's lined out properly?

You may have a hard time getting your administrator to a workshop. It didn't even occur to me to invite mine until it was too late. Building administrators are the most overworked professionals in education today, frequently the first to arrive at school and the last to leave. Their jobs are year-round, and every state and federal legislative session lands a new set of mandates in their laps that must be implemented under threat of losing funding. Their work is often thankless, and in contrast to the rewarding experience of opening young minds to new learning, is often mired in the unpleasantness of disciplining high flyers and pleading with parents to attend to their children's needs. With so much already on their plates, giving up a Saturday to learn how to teach a music class can be a hard sell. Of course, getting them in for free (administrators are always free at my chapter's workshops) helps, as does a few hours of professional development credit.

But the best way to get your administrator there is to advocate for what you do in your own classroom. And that, I readily confess, is where I've fallen down miserably throughout my career.

To be fair, it's only been ten years since I was first exposed to Orff magic through a local workshop. Where I fault myself is in not sharing how revolutionary I found it to be with my principals. I didn't evangelize the gospel of whole-child music education, and as a result, I found myself marked down for not narrowing my approach to make it look more like a general education class.

So here's what I'm going to do in my next job: as soon as I've landed the position, I'm going to get my hands on the district assessment manual and go over it in excruciating detail, marking it up whenever I encounter a criterion that doesn't apply, or that needs to be reinterpreted in an Orff setting. Then I'm going to schedule a session with my new principal to talk over my concerns about being evaluated on these criteria. When it's time for a pre-observation conference, I'm going to share with my principal exactly what she or he will be seeing during the lesson, and how engagement in the lesson will look different from other teachers being evaluated. During the post-observation session, I'm going to be rigorous about talking through any areas in which I believe I was marked down for the wrong reason. Conversely, when I know something didn't work, I'm going to be honest about that--Orff teaching is always a work in progress, and every time I reteach a lesson, I try to make it better--and graciously hear out any ideas the principal may have about improving classroom management, or differentiating instruction for those children who, for one reason or another, aren't able to engage as fully as their classmates. At the same time, I'm going to challenge data-driven generic techniques that I know, from experience, are a bad fit for music taught the Orff way.

The most important thing I'll be doing is promoting Orff. I'll be dispelling any wrong ideas the principal has about it. (We've all met the layperson who knows what "Orff instruments" are, and assume that using them is what Orff is all about.) And if, as is very possible, the principal's had a bad experience working with an Orff teacher, I'll put all my persuasive skills to work insisting he or she give it another chance. I am, after all, a preacher as well as a teacher.

Teaching the Orff way changes lives. It gives children an experience of music that is engrossing, pleasurable, and memorable. We're not just laying down a foundation for lifelong musical appreciation: we're creating the superstructure. Orff-educated children grow up to be adults who, however little additional training they pick up along the way, can experience music with their whole bodies, souls, and spirits. We know this to be true. More than that, we believe it. It's time we came out of hiding, and started making converts of the administrators without whom we can't practice our beliefs.


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