From Mozart to Motown
Using Orff to Bridge the Gap between Classical and Pop Music
By NAfME Member Chelsea Cook
How It All Started
It was the fall of 2012. I had just begun my Orff ensemble, the Dynamic Dolphins of Dunaire Elementary in Stone Mountain, Georgia. This group was quite unique. The arrangements they performed were not your typical run-of-the-mill Orff pieces. They played music by the Temptations, Ben E. King, Earth Wind and Fire, and Leroy Anderson . . . and they played it well. Very well.
Their sound was so impressive that I gave the White House a call (literally). In my request, I told them that I had an amazing group of students that needed to perform for the President . . . just like that. After the representatives saw our video, we received an invitation the next day. We were in the White House two weeks later. Five years down the road with three national championships achieved at the Music USA Festivals of Orlando, Florida, we’ve continued to strive for excellence.
Setting Your Music Students Apart from the Rest
You’re probably wondering, how were you able to get an elementary Orff ensemble to play at the White House? And how did you win three national championships? Although this is not an average story, I’m willing to give you the secrets that will set you apart from the rest.
In the Orff world, we were taught regardless of age, skill, or level of experience—get the child to make music. Over the course of several Orff workshops, I was introduced to various “orffestrations” that ranged from simple to challenging. Although they were fun to learn, for me there wasn’t any real connection to them. I wanted my students to experience the music of the Greats as I did when I was in middle school orchestra. But seeing that I was a general music teacher, how was that going to happen?
Know Your Ensemble
Let’s face it. Daring to teach Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to a class full of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders on resonator bells is no easy feat. One may even say, it is border-line insanity . . . Stevie Wonder AND the Temptations? I’m adding the padded walls.
Although this may sound comical, this is how I felt. How, in the world was I going to recreate the same sounds I had been enjoying most of my life with xylophones? That’s when I had to go back to a technique I learned as a kindergarten paraprofessional called chunking.
Chunking in psychology is a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole (Neath & Surprenant, 2003). Using this strategy, I first determined the skill sets of each of my students and divided the ensemble into groups:
The Eagles were the ones who soared. They could handle the more sophisticated rhythms with dexterity and precision either alone or with another person. These students mostly played the melody. The Ducks fared well in a pack. These were the students who excelled when they were with others of like skill. They were the “meat” of the team that controlled the harmony. Last but certainly not least are the Penguins. These musicians are excellent with maintaining the steady beat and holding the entire ensemble together. Therefore, they played the bass lines.
After setting up my groups, I designated a leader from each section to “rehearse” their team. This gave me the ability to be in several places at once.
Setting Realistic Goals and Sticking with Them
My ensemble meets every day before school for 30 minutes and after school twice per week for two hours. Essentially, these kids are getting 6.5 hours of music every week! With this much practice, they are able to master complex pieces in a matter of a few months.
Vegetables First, Dessert Last
Continuing the with the Chunking method, I organize my arrangements in order of difficulty and give each piece a time frame for completion. I never teach the easiest piece first
Every year, I have always first approached the students with the most difficult piece of music. I call this music the “vegetables”. These are the songs that make them musicians. They develop their skills while simultaneously cutting their teeth on authentic classics. Later, I’ll bring in the “dessert” or “candy” pieces like “My Girl” or “Work” by Rihanna. Because of the experience these students have had with more complex pieces, simple songs like this can be learned in 10 minutes.
A Lasting Impression
One of the fondest memories I have of the Dynamic Dolphins is when we won our first national competition at the Music USA Festivals. The top prize we received was a four-foot trophy that read “Instrumental Grand Champions”. Pointing to the award, one of the students looked at me and said: “Ms. Cook, you gave us you, and we gave you this” . . . Priceless.
As I have discovered, you will find that fostering an environment for children to experience music-making at its finest is most beneficial. The training and discipline they receive over the course of a few months empowers them with an abundance of tools for future programs. The Dynamic Dolphins has impacted the lives of several students. Because of the experience, many have gone on to excel in their middle and high school bands, almost always outpacing their fellow classmates.
In my short journey, I have learned that no matter the age, if given the time and patience, children will rise to the challenge.
Watch more of the Dynamic Dolphins’ performances.
About the author:
NAfME member Chelsea Cook is a graduate of Clayton College and State University and Georgia State University and holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in vocal performance. Towards the end of her graduate studies, she discovered her passion for teaching and decided to go into elementary music education. Her “out of the box” arrangements have given her Orff ensemble a unique sound that has garnered much success, thus becoming one of Dekalb County’s premier elementary music programs. Her students, the “Dynamic Dolphins,” have been featured on several events including the holiday tours at the White House, Dekalb County Board of Education’s State of the System of Address, the Congressional Art Competition hosted by Congressman Hank Johnson, and the Sweet Auburn Music Festival. They are the three-time National Champions of the Music USA Festivals of Orlando, Florida, and achieved a rating of Gold at the Southern Star Music Festival of Atlanta, Georgia. For information on the Dynamic Dolphins or to access her arrangements, please visit Orffrageous Publications.