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.

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

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


“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.


Transition and Distraction

It’s that time of year.  It’s the next to last week of school and everyone is distracted.  Not just the kids, but the teachers too.  In  between classes I’m online, planning my summer travel.  I’m in a slow panic about being ready to teach my summer university courses.  My classroom needs to be organized before I leave for the summer, and with all the piles of random stuff here and there, it looks like a whirlwind hit.  As I look out at my young students, I feel like I’m trying to keep a pot from boiling.

An activity I call “Weird Percussion” comes to the rescue.  I drag out a large box that contains instruments that I’ve collected over the years.  Shekeres are there, along with plastic tubes, tiny tambourines, clusters of kola nut shells, guiros, cabasas, and oddly shaped sound-makers that my sisters brought me back from their vacations. These are instruments that the students haven’t seen before.  Each student takes one and explores them, looking for interesting sounds.  This is not a day to be concerned about playing the instruments correctly.  We are simply looking for a variety of sounds.  The students are encouraged to play them inside out and upside down, with a stick and without, tapping them on their legs and on the floor.

Each child shares three sounds, one at a time around the circle.  Then we create question and answer phrases, using the instrument as our voice.  Even my 2nd graders can grasp the idea of “speaking” through the instrument, and they play expressively.  We add a game of secretly deciding how two partners will play – happy, sad or angry.  The two students play their conversation, and the rest of us guess which emotion they were expressing.

On another day, these same instruments can be used for categorizing and conducting – an activity I first learned from the Orff maestro Susan Kennedy.  Three hula hoops are placed in the middle of the circle and we sort the instruments into those played by hitting, scraping, or shaking.   Each type is placed into one hula hoop.  Some of the instruments could be in two categories and interesting discussions arise as students defend their choice.  Then students reclaim their instrument and gather on the section of the circle that is closest to “their” hula hoop.  Then the conducting begins.  A student steps in and out of a hula hoop to start and stop the sound of that section of instruments.  The students soon discover that they can “play” one, two or three sections at a time, and can create nuances of slow and fast, long and short, sound and silence.

This is a lesson that had a cluster of boys say on the way out, “That was really fun!”  Yeah, it was!

I’m curious to know what other ideas teachers pull out to bring order to the last few weeks.  Please share some ideas if you like.  Happy summer vacation!



The Discomfort of Creativity

I’ve been trying out some new projects with my students.  At a recent workshop I learned some great movement activities, and I’m adapting them to the needs of my classes.  The past few lessons have been a time of slight confusion as some ideas are tried and discarded, and other ideas stick. I have a clear idea of where I’m going, but I still need to work out the in-between steps to create a satisfying experience.

There is a distinct feeling of discomfort during this time because I am venturing into unknown territory and have moments of truly not knowing where I am going. No children are harmed while this is going on, surely, but I often feel awkward, and the lesson might seem disjointed or incomplete.

John Cleese (yes, the Monty Python guy) gave a succinct talk a few years back on the subject of creativity.  To my delight, he actually celebrates this messiness and discomfort as an essential part of the creative process.  He even states that the most creative people are those who can tolerate this confused state the longest.  He suggests that the person who simply grabs at the first solution to a problem, even though it ends the discomfort, will not be the most creative.

During this awkward in-between time, he urges an attitude of light-hearted play, and of non-judgment.  He advises patience.  If you stay open, he says, the answers you need will eventually come.

~ Liz

Click HERE to see the whole speech by John Cleese (about 30 minutes).