Music PHOTOS: Children learn to feel the beat at Pasadena Conservatory, Ilsa Setziol

The Sounds of Joyful Abandon

What do the thundering cantata Carmina Burana and early childhood music education have in common? A musically literate mom investigates at Pasadena Conservatory of Music.

By Ilsa Setziol 10/01/2009

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When my son was about six months old, I enrolled him at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music and announced the move to my father, a college music professor at De Anza College in Northern California. He laughed at the idea of an infant studying music. But I wasn’t trying to crank out a prodigy; I just thought exploring music, even at a young age, would enrich his life.  

As things turned out, it enriched life for the whole family. In the conservatory’s infant classes, parents sing — often echoing the teacher’s simple phrases — chant nursery rhymes, bounce their babies rhythmically on their laps or dance them around in sync with a musical phrase. The babies might shake little maracas and bells or pound on drums. As the children grow, they begin to take the lead.

When I asked our teacher about the curriculum, she said it was rooted in the philosophy of Carl Orff. Reaching into the recesses of my grey matter, I recalled Orff as the composer of Carmina Burana, a scenic cantata based on earthy medieval poems and songs. The minor German composer’s thundering O, Fortuna is familiar to audiences of many popular films, from Speed and Excalibur to Jackass: The Movie, and also from commercials and sampling by pop musicians like Ozzy Osbourne and rapper Sean Combs. And now I find its composer was also the progenitor of kiddie tunes such as “Way up high in the apple tree/Two little apples smiled at me”? Intriguing.

I’d spent a couple years as a music major and never known that, and yet Orff is a giant in music education. Indeed, take your young child to a music class today, and chances are she’ll experience something akin to what he envisioned when he developed his approach, known as Schulwerk, nearly a century ago.

In a recent toddler class at the Pasadena Conservatory, eight fidgety youngsters and their parents surround a large drum. Two-year-old Keon’s big brown eyes gaze intently at the instrument as he sits on his dad’s lap, playing along to the nursery rhyme “Higglety pigglety pop” with steady drum beats and claps at the ends of phrases. When the verse changes, the students rub the drum, exploring a new timbre.

Later, teacher Sally Guerrero tells me, “Speech is a core learning step to singing. Chanting — using our voices in musical and rhythmic ways rather than having the added complexity of a musical melody — teaches them to use their voices in a way that’s pre-singing but still musical.” Plus, nursery rhymes are packed with fun and silly sounds. “There’s something about human nature that is attracted to the ancient ways of using voices that are poetic and playful,” Guerrero says.

Schulwerk arose from Orff’s search for “elemental music” — music that was simple, spontaneous and visceral. After World War I, he was among several European artists looking to break out of complex 19th-century forms. “There was a culture of experimentation,” says Doug Goodkind, an Orff-Schulwerk teacher at The San Francisco School and author of several books on music education. “It was the time of the Bauhaus, Joyce’s Ulysses and [modern dance pioneer] Isadora Duncan. Orff was trying to get away from the virtuosic Romantic tradition and arrive at something more simple.”  

Orff was inspired by German expressionist dancer Mary Wigman to experiment with a new way of teaching music: one focused on creativity and musical exploration, where music was united with dance and drama. In 1924, Orff put his ideas to work at a dance school for young women, the Gunterschule in Munich. A teacher at the school, Gunild Keetman, was his principal collaborator. Twenty years later, Orff and Keetman tailored Schulwerk to the needs of younger school-age kids. In the years since, various contributors and disciples have continued to shape the Orff approach, which has become intertwined with that of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who emphasized singing.
An Orff-based class explodes with movement and percussion, especially “body percussion,” where parents tap on tiny tots’ body parts and older kids pat themselves to internalize rhythms. Children also dance in patterns that illustrate musical phrases or move about freely — swirling scarves, for example.

On this day in Guerrero’s class, parents and kids tap and clap a pattern of slow and then fast beats to a recorded mariachi song: Nose. Nose. Nose. Clap, clap, clap.

At the end of some songs, Guerrero sings pitches that define the songs’ musical key: Do Mi So Do (think Julie Andrewssinging Do-Re-Mi in The Sound of Music). Two-year-old Sage Billock echoes the teacher and touches her waist, shoulders and bobbed blond head as the notes ascend. This exercise, Guerrero explains, “gives the children the kinesthetic experience of going from high to low, or low to high notes.”  Sage’s mom, Christy Billock, says the girl frequently plays with melody and rhythm at home. “It gets integrated into our daily life, all the little things we do. We say, ‘Put. The. Toys away.’”

“The Orff approach is based on things that come naturally to young children,” says Lynn Kleiner, a Redondo Beach creator of Orff-based curricula, CDs and DVDs used around the world. If that sounds obvious, consider the difference between the Orff style and traditional private lessons, like the ones I plodded through as a child.

At age 5 or 6, I would squirm on a large piano bench belonging to a stern and ambitious pianist. He insisted I perfect scales before playing a single song. So I did what any sensible young lady would do: I quit. A couple of years later, I picked up a pint-size violin made for children. An encouraging teacher ensured I stayed with it — at least for about five years. I enjoyed playing in a youth symphony but couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for practicing alone. From the beginning, I was taught to play from written music, not by ear. I was never encouraged to improvise or compose. In my teens, I took up voice lessons. I was a good singer but lacked confidence.

“Conventional training is not setting a child up for success,” says Kleiner, who founded the Music Rhapsody school in Redondo Beach. “To show a child a quarter note when the child hasn’t walked to the beat, marched to the beat, is like showing a young child the written language before they can speak. They cannot keep a steady beat.”

Kleiner and Goodkind were among the first Americans to tailor the Orff approach to children under five. “The children I see really loving music,” Kleiner continues, “are the ones who start musical education through movement and singing. They understand musical concepts through things that come naturally. Then later you start them in their private lessons, and they pass the kids who’ve been solely in private lessons.”

In accord with this line of thinking, Pasadena Conservatory does not recommend children begin string instruments until age 5. The school’s instructors don’t teach piano to kids under 7, in part because the keyboard is just too big for little fingers to play safely and proficiently. Kids who start earlier, says Guerrero, often get discouraged and quit. They can also develop hand and arm injuries similar to carpal-tunnel syndrome.

Guerrero designed the conservatory’s Young Musicians curriculum based on the theories of Orff and Kodaly. (Both are considered general approaches to music, not specific methods; accredited teachers use them as guides for their own lesson plans.) The conservatory offers this curriculum to all pre-K through fifth-grade classes at Jefferson Elementary School in Pasadena. Pasadena’s Walden School and St. Mark’s School in Altadena also provide Orff-based music classes. (Three decades ago, many public schools in California launched similar programs, only to cut them in the wake of Proposition 13.)   

The Pasadena Conservatory’s classes for the youngest children are fairly similar to the trademarked music classes offered nationally by the Music Together and Kindermusik companies. Teachers from these music programs often study in the Orff accreditation system. But unlike Music Together, Orff/Kodaly programs (including some Kindermusik classes) are age-specific, so older children can work at more advanced skills — such as more difficult rhythmic and melodic patterns, and playing in small ensembles.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of Orff’s approach, according to Goodkind, who wrote Play, Sing and Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (Schott; June 2004), was the composer’s creation of “a child-size orchestra.” Inspired by an African xylophone, Orff invented a range of xylo- and metallophones (with aluminum bars instead of wood) and glockenspiels (with steel bars) pitched from bass to soprano in range. The 13-note instruments have removable bars, so students can play and improvise together using simpler five-note pentatonic scales. (Western classical music’s seven-pitched diatonic scales are harder to harmonize.)

In another of Guerrero’s classes, first graders sit before these instruments. They sing the traditional children’s verse “Hot Cross Buns,” plunking out a bordun — a steady-rhythmed, two-note accompaniment — on the instruments. Next, some players continue the bordun (or “drone’’) while others play the melody.

“Kids ultimately learn to improvise and compose their own melodies,” says Goodkind. “If you’re only taught to play an instrument, you’re missing a whole component. Composition is the highest level of cognition of music. Orff said, ‘Let the children be their own composer.’”

Goodkind says his classes at The San Francisco School aren’t designed to produce virtuosos or boost academic performance — although that may happen. They’re about fostering social connections and nurturing creativity and emotional experience, “Music is ultimately the language of the heart. [People listen] for how it speaks to the heart, the nuances of emotion. I just got photos back from our spring concert, and what I see is the look of absolute joy, joyful abandon.”  

Pasadena Conservatory’s Guerrero echoes his sentiment. “I want children to come away with a sense of comfort with music,” she says, “so if they go on to take piano or violin lessons, they don’t feel overwhelmed. Or they take comfort in music-making in their daily lives, whether it’s singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or dancing at a wedding.”

That’s evident when I watch her students squeal with delight as they ride on their parents’ legs, bouncing to the beat of a song about a pony. After class, I hear my 2-year-old making up his own lyrics for one of the songs. Later, he burbles a cadenza of sound patterns: ducka-lucka ducka-lucka duck. To some it might sound like mere babble. But it’s music to my ears.

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