Last summer I participated at the International Orff Course “The Singing Garden” in Pilsen, Czech Republic with the generous support of the Sistema Fellowship Resource Center. Why Orff? At the Take a Stand conference in Los Angeles in 2014, I was very impressed by the performance of Youth Orchestra of Salinas, an El Sistema-inspired project in California that uses Orff instruments in their pre-orchestras as an introduction to music making before students attempt a more complex orchestral instrument in their second year. I wanted to explore how far the Orff Approach can be used as an entrance into ensemble playing in an El Sistema-inspired program.
About eighty people—kindergarten and music teachers, musicians and dancers, Orff specialists and novices from all Eastern European countries, Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Hong Kong and Australia—met in Pilsen for this weeklong course. The Orff Approach is much more than playing with Orff instruments. It is a holistic approach which combines music, movement, drama and speech similar to a child's world of play. The German composer Carl Orff founded it in the 1920s. There are Orff associations all over the world now.
The course included workshops in all areas of the Orff Approach. I was really fascinated by the playfulness of the different activities. Many of them were simple but there was a beauty inherent in this simplicity that was stimulating. I was impressed with how these activities were able to overcome not only the cultural differences but also the differences of experience of the participants. A professional violinist was having fun with a kindergarten teacher or a folk dancer, all doing the same movements or patterns. The Orff Approach enables people to create art with rudimentary elements. My experience was that, unlike playing my instrument, I didn't have to worry about technique at any point. There was a natural flow in every action that was liberating.
Can you integrate Orff in your El Sistema-inspired program? I would say yes and no. Yes, because it's a wonderful experience to do workshops like these only using elementary forms of expression without feeling the pressures of being judged or of performing. There are other approaches in the El Sistema-inspired field, like Creative Connections, that aim to develop the creative and improvisatory aspects of artistry which tends to come off badly in the daily practice of Sistema ensembles. Orff workshops can open spaces for your students, parents, and teachers where they can create art all together no matter their musical background. Furthermore, you can use Orff instruments as a starting point for your beginner students.
On the other hand, my conclusion at the end of the week was that I couldn't think of a way to include the Orff Approach into the heart of El Sistema-inspired programs, which is the orchestra or choir work. I found that you get stuck at some point in the joyful playing. The forms always stay simple. You can't find the complexity and richness of a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony; you don't get the satisfaction of mastering a great composition after many hours of rehearsals, perfecting your technique, getting to know your part and slowly growing together with all the other instruments leading into a great performance.
I will keep exploring how to build high quality ensembles in Arpegio, my El Sistema-inspired program in Peru, without leaving out the spontaneity and creativity that Orff and other approaches offer.
Tatjana Merzyn, Sistema Fellow '14