Summer Teacher Training

circlegroupSummer break for teachers can be a time to try something new, to challenge themselves musically, and to grow their teaching skills.  Many music teachers are inspired to take  an Orff Schulwerk course.  There are three “Levels” of courses, each of which introduces new materials.  When I took these summer courses years ago, it was a life changing moment.  I rediscovered the spark that had connected me to teaching music in the first place; I found a way to nurture creativity in both myself and in my students; and I found a community of like-minded teachers who became my friends and colleagues over the years.

This summer I taught Level I courses in the Denver area and in Los Angeles.  One student in the LA course posted a reflection on her blog.  With her permission I am re-posting it here.  For anyone who is curious about what the Orff Schulwerk Levels training is all about, this is recommended reading.

~ Liz

Click HERE for the article.


A Thousand Choices

ribbonsinairThe annual Winter Performance at my elementary school has come and gone.   The floor tape has been pulled up, the ribbon sticks and coconut shells are tucked away in the closet, and the kerchiefs and tee-shirts have been washed and folded.

Every performance is the result of a thousand choices.  What songs should the children sing?  What dances should they perform?  Should the kids stand on the floor or use risers?

Every performance also reflects a set of values.  These values may be conscious or not on the part of the music teacher, but they drive the result.

Here are some values that inform my student performances:

kerchiefs◊  The performance is mainly for the benefit of the children.  It is an age-appropriate experience that allows them to work on some materials to a more polished degree than usual, and to share these activities with their families.

◊  The children get to sit in the audience and see different grades perform.  This allows them to grasp a continuum of learning.

◊  The materials are child-centered, that is, they fit the age and interests of each grade.

◊  The children help to create some part of the performance.  For example, they might help to create dance movements, or an accompaniment pattern on the xylophones, or a new verse to a song.

◊  The children perform with as much independence as possible.

sing&xylos◊  The children learn to move confidently from one activity to the next. My 2nd graders recited poems, played instruments, sang songs and performed dances. We worked not only on each section, but how to move from one section to the next in a seamless way.

◊  Everyone learns all of the parts and only when the performance is near are the parts divided.  If there are solo parts, then everyone in the class gets to try them out.  The solo parts are chosen in a way that feels fair to everyone.

One more thing: children love to dress up.  Even a simple tee-shirt or a kerchief can create a special feeling for the child and a wonderful visual effect for the audience.

Performances are part of every music teacher’s experience.  What are some of the values that underlie your performances?



The Happiest Place in Kabul

A young girl who was selling gum on the streets of Kabul to survive is now learning sitar and will play in Carnegie Hall this month as part of an Afghan youth orchestra.  It’s almost a fairy tale story, but it’s true.  As described in a recent New York Times article, Afghan music students, age 9 – 21, will travel to the U.S. and perform in both traditional ensembles and Western-style orchestras.  They are all students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, founded in 2010. This music school is a small step toward recovering from the Taliban years when music was banned, instruments were destroyed, and girls were not allowed to go to school.

William Harvey is an American violinist who conducts the orchestra at the school.  Both Western and traditional Afghan styles of music are taught, so students are learning violin, saxophone, tabla, sitar and electric guitar.  When it came time to create an orchestra ensemble, Harvey included them all.  “There are all these Afghan instruments,” he said, “all these Russian instruments plus Western instruments that aren’t usually in a western orchestra…the pianist wants to be in the orchestra, the saxophonist wants to be in the orchestra….So I take a masterpiece like the Four Seasons of Vivaldi, add Afghan instruments, Afghan rhythms, Afghan melodies, improvisations and then it becomes the Four Seasons of Afghanistan.”

Now that is a piece I would love to hear!

~ Liz

Click below for the New York Times video.

Afghan Youth Orchestra


Educating the Parents

It can be discouraging to remember that music teachers need to continually justify their existence.  They are vulnerable to budget cuts where their jobs or hours are cut, and if they are lucky enough to have a dedicated music room, they know that it could be snatched away in a minute if the school’s enrollment increases. New teachers or seasoned veterans, no one is immune.  I am grateful that my own situation is secure, but the harsh reality is that music and the other arts are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to economic decisions.

Frequent, clear communication can only help.  Most parents focus on the reading and math skills of their children, and have only a fuzzy-headed idea of what goes on in the music room.  Information can be distributed through teacher websites and school newsletters, but a premium time to communicate the goals of the music program is at a performance.

The big music performance at my K/1/2 school is at the end of January.  Every 1st and 2nd grader performs on this marathon day: four 1st grades and four 2nd grades for the 8:30 AM program, and four 1st grades and three 2nd grades for the 10:30 AM program.   This is a chance for the parents to see the variety of activities and music skills for both grades.  (Kindergarten has a more informal Music Sharing Day in early March.)

I want the parents to have an aesthetic and heart-felt experience at the performance as they watch their children sing, play instruments, perform dances and recite poetry.  But I also want them to appreciate the learning that has taken place.  It would be dreary for me to interrupt the beautiful energy of the performance and talk at length about all the music skills involved, so this year I decided to create a parent letter that will accompany the printed program.  My hope is that this clearly communicates a few simple ideas, and will give parents more reasons to strongly support the music program.

I’ve attached a copy of the parent letter.  It’s in Word so it could be used as a starting place for a new letter.  This of course is only one of many possibilities for good communication.  I’d be interested to know how other teachers help to educate their parents.

~ Liz

Click below for the Parent Letter.

Parent Letter



Life is precious and mysterious.  Everything passes.  Only light, love and beauty endure.  In this holiday season I had the thought to share this video by Louie Schwartzberg.  I’ve watched it numerous times, and it always brings me back to a place of gratitude.  Happy Holidays to one and all.



Creativity & Health

“If I’m not creative, I get sick.”

I heard this provocative statement a few days ago at the American Orff-Schulwerk Association National Conference. Eleven hundred music teachers gathered this week in St. Louis for an intense schedule of workshops, concerts and evening folk dancing. These annual conferences are great opportunities to see teacher friends from far away and to grab some new ideas and inspiration for teaching.

Mary Alice and Peter Amidon are two of my favorite workshop presenters. They are former classroom teachers who these days devote themselves to community dance and song writing. They presented a song writing workshop at this years conference. I found that it was great fun to brainstorm rhyming verses and to write some simple melodies to nursery rhymes. I thoroughly enjoyed their workshop, but I was especially struck by the opening story that Peter told. He described how when he first started teaching he was doing a number of creative projects on the side. He noticed that when he was doing the side projects he was healthy and full of vitality. But when he was teaching in the classroom, he was often sick. He finally came to the realization that it was the creativity of the side projects that was making the difference. His personal experience was, that if he wasn’t being creative, he actually got sick.

This is a radical thought that perhaps could be dismissed. But looking at a less extreme version of the idea, it rings true. When I am challenging myself to try new things, when I allow time in my day for curiosity and exploration, when I’m writing or arranging a new piece for my students, I am full of good spirits and good energy. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see how this positive energy could lead to more well being and yes, even better physical health.

I think about my Dad, who at age 93 is learning new ukelele tunes and taking drawing lessons.  Could this be part of the secret of his longevity and good spirits?

What about you?  Do you feel a release of good energy when you’re involved in new projects and are stretched to create new ideas?  How does creativity affect your health?

~ Liz




When I introduce the xylophones to my young students we do a wide variety of activities:  we play follow-the-leader games, we listen to the differences between the metallophones, xylophones and glockenspiels, and we do echo patterns with two hands together and with glissandos.  On other days we play sound effects for stories about wind and rain, or we play notes on the special words in a song.

We also play a game called Noodle Doodle.  This is a free-choice time where they can play anything they want.  Even on the first day the students sit at the instruments they get this improvisation time.  It’s a welcome relief from the strict control found in many of the other activities.  But in the past there’s been a problem.  Some of the children would simply bang on the bars as hard and fast as they could, completely forgetting the earlier experiences of light bounces and slides.  I tried several different ways of re-directing them, but wasn’t successful until I used the word “interesting.”  The new rules of Noodle Doodle for this year are 1. to play quietly and 2. to make it interesting.  This works even better if I model beforehand what I want.  Ms. Keefe gets to play the game and they watch.  I play my xylophone with great curiosity, wanting to know what this note sounds like, or what it feels like to sweep my mallets together and apart.

With the addition of this one word, the improvisations in Noodle Doodle time have completely changed.  There is a quality of attention and focus that is quite lovely to see.  The inner expressiveness of the students is connected to their hands and to their instrument.

Interesting – it’s a powerful word.

~ Liz


A Summer Dance

The birds put on a dance this morning.

Looking out my kitchen window, I noticed a flock of several hundred small white birds floating on the nearby lagoon.  I was enjoying a lazy summer morning in a small beach town and was working on my second cup of tea.  When I went outside to get a closer view I saw that it was low tide, with long stretches of sand bars exposed.  The birds were clustered together on the open water in three tight groups, each shaped into an elongated oval.

Suddenly they were all in the air, flying as one being (with only one or two struggling to keep up).  They moved in large arcs high in the air, to the left and then to the right.  As they shifted direction, their color changed from bright white to dark as their wings caught sun or shadow.  Then they flew straight toward me, directly overhead, and the clear blue sky was filled with white wings.  They curved left and away, and drifted off to a distant point above the lagoon.  I watched as they gently descended and fluttered onto the water, a mad frenzy of wings and water.  With a slow diminuendo, they settled onto the glassy smooth surface of the lagoon and the dance was done.

The individual was part of the whole.  There was a balance of repetition and surprise.  There were moments of both lilting grace and power, and there was a deeply satisfying conclusion.  Perhaps all the work that we do – the dances, the words, the music or the visual art, is simply a struggle to connect with that effortless beauty.

~ Liz


Community Folk Dance

A recent picture in the New York Times caught my eye.  Couples of mixed ages were joyfully dancing together.  The setting was a small-town county fair in West Virginia.  There was a live band with fiddle and banjo, and a caller who shouted out the moves.  Apparently the Pendleton County Fair in Circleville, Virginia (pop 700) had featured square dancing in the past, but the tradition has been missing for a few years.  Through the efforts of a group called The Mountain Dance Trail, a project out of the Augusta Heritage Center, the dancing was reintroduced this year.  Since April this non-profit group has researched and promoted dances from the West Virginia heritage.  They look for the oldest square dance callers in the area, and interview them to document their vocal and dance styles.  Their mission is to “preserve and promote West Virginia square dances from the Virginia line to the Ohio border.”

At the Circleville dance that night there were people in their 60s, toddlers, young adults, elementary school kids and even teenagers from a nearby summer camp.  A “highlight of the trip,” the camp counselor declared.  Becky Hill, one of the researchers from The Mountain Dance Trail, gives a clue to the delight on the faces of the dancers in the article’s accompanying video.   “You’re not just dancing with one person,” she said, “you’re connecting with everyone on the dance floor.”

Connection, flow, laughter, joy.  For those of us who teach folk dance in our music classrooms, we know those feelings.  Perhaps we’ve also created some community events where a mix of generations can dance together.  But even within the classroom, if we include folk dance and play parties, then we can surely capture some of that magic.

~ Liz

Visit the FACEBOOK page of The Mountain Dance Trail for more information. Read the New York Times article HERE.



“I was under the impression that we were doing all sorts of very creative things in my classroom.  Turns out it was mostly me doing the creating.” 

I’ve just returned home from teaching a two-week “Level One” course.  This is the first course in a three-course summer series that introduces the Orff-Schulwerk process to music teachers.  It is an exhausting and challenging time for everyone.  The experienced music teachers taking the course spend long hours each day singing, dancing, creating, playing xylophones and recorders, discussing, reflecting, composing.  For most, it is an experience of pushing beyond their comfort zone, and of expressing their musicianship in new ways.

I found some common themes in the reflection papers they wrote at the end of the course.  One idea mentioned over and over was that they now were inspired to “get kids beyond imitation and give them the opportunity to create.”  This to me is the core of the Orff-Schulwerk and the main reason I am still playing around with this process after so many years.

What I love about teaching music is not quite knowing where we are going with the materials.  I have a broad plan in place when I begin a project, but am alert to seeing where the energy is going.  It might be that the children are really excited about creating percussion accompaniments.  Another class might be motivated to be more physical, and will want to try out movement ideas.  Excitement is generated when the children are given choices, and when their decisions become part of the project.  The artistry of the teacher is in knowing how much to provide for the children and how much to let them improvise, arrange and compose.  Giving them too much structure boxes them in.  Giving them too little structure leads to chaos.  It can be a messy, but joyful process when we get it just right.  Often it’s useful to look for a balance between form and materials.  If the children are creating the form, then it can work best to provide the materials or create them with the whole class.  If the children are creating the materials, then it usually is a good idea to provide them with a clear form.

Some days of course, we simply gather around the piano and learn a new song.  But certainly in every class there can be opportunities to improvise and to create.  And yes, this is creativity involving not just the teacher, but the students as well.