Celebrating Anniversaries – AOSA’s and Isabel McNeill Carley’s

Fifty and One Hundred

In 2018 we celebrate fifty years of the American Orff-Schulwerk Association (AOSA), as well as a hundred years since the birth of Isabel McNeill Carley, one of the founders of the AOSA and a respected leader in American music education. In recognition of this happy coincidence, we’d like to share “On Changing Your Life,” a key chapter from IMC’s book, Making It Up As You Go: Selected Essays (Brasstown Press). In it, Carley recalls her first encounters with Schulwerk co-founder and composer, Gunild Keetman. They both attended the first North American Orff gathering, in Toronto, in 1962. Read all about it:

Isabel McNeill Carley Meets Gunild Keetman

I shall never forget my first encounter with Gunild Keetman. It was in Toronto in the summer of 1962, the evening before the first Orff Conference and courses in North America. Both of us had gone to the University of Toronto campus to get the lay of the land and to check out the building where we would be meeting the next morning. She walked slightly ahead of me. I was too shy to speak out, yet we were very much aware of each other as we continued our explorations.

Earlier, I’d seen several provocative articles about the “Orff Approach” in professional magazines. Two German friends in Chicago had shown me the first two volumes of the German edition of Musik für Kinder and also let me doodle on the alto xylophone and metallophone they’d brought back from abroad. With no notion of how to proceed further, I was ready and waiting when the Toronto conclave was announced. Immediately, I decided to go. I was attracted to the course by the opportunity to find out about the whole approach directly from Orff and his colleagues, since what little I’d seen was definitely not self-explanatory. Also the emphasis on ensemble in the Orff Approach from the beginning seemed like sound psychology, to me, since it’s always more fun making music with other people than doing it alone.

To Toronto!

I rode up to Toronto from Indianapolis with Candace Ramsay, who was then teaching Music Education at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. At my next encounter with Keetman at the conference, I somehow had the temerity to give her a copy of my just-issued first book of piano pieces for children, Eleven Miniatures. The next day, she stopped me in the hall to say that she and Dr. Orff thought my pieces ideal for children!

The conference proved extraordinarily stimulating. Standout events were Professor Keller’s classes in arranging and composition in the Orff style, with repertoire from Volumes II, III, and IV. Keller gave us advanced students a taste of repertoire and techniques well beyond the introductory level, so we were able to get a wider view of the whole approach. I remember writing my first Orff arrangement, a setting of Richard Chase’s version of Cock Robin, and reading through and analyzing pieces from my brand-new Orff-Schulwerk books.

The Recorder Ensemble sessions with Arnie Grayson, Mimi Samuelson, Isabel Shack, and a good bass player from Montreal were outstanding. I’d never encountered really good players before, so it was a singular treat. I was also quite taken with Dr. Orff’s lecture-demonstration. He included recorded examples of Orff-Schulwerk repertoire by Margaret Murray’s children in England, using examples of body percussion, speech play, songs and dances from the first three volumes – the first opportunity to hear Orff repertoire actually performed by children. (Later there were demonstrations by Lois Birkenshaw’s students and others as well.) Dr. Walter’s stimulating lecture about the background and importance of the Orff Approach was later reprinted in Orff Re-Echoes I, a valuable resource.

Johnston: The Pentatonic Is More than a “Gapped Major” Scale

Dr. Richard Johnston’s stunning lecture-demonstration used many of our North American limited-range folk songs and rhymes as convincing examples of what could be brought into the Orff Approach. (He contrasted this to what he referred to as the “gapped major” scale as used in Volume I.) Johnston’s sessions underlined the need to study, analyze and collect relevant folk material from our own traditions – which I started to do as soon as I got home, building an appropriate pentatonic repertoire for my own classes. (Let me suggest that you do likewise, or at least order Louise Bradford’s wonderful collection of American pentatonic songs entitled Sing It Yourself as an inexhaustible resource.) Orff and Keetman did set us a bad example, by inventing all the pentatonic songs in Volume I, but they had good reason, since there is no tradition of pentatonic song in Western Europe (except in Scotland and Ireland). And Orff was a great composer, as most of us are not.

In Gunild Keetman’s general session she suddenly asked for volunteers to improvise on the recorder. No one responded for what seemed a long time. Then my friend Candace whispered, “Let’s do it,” and before I knew what was happening, there we were up on the stage in front of this huge crowd. Keetman asked us to improvise to the C-F tetrachord, without any accompaniment at all. We obliged in Question-and-Answer form, ending on F, and the crowd applauded our temerity. Keetman said quietly that she’d hoped we would use D as the tonal center. So at my first brush with this great teacher, I learned that the obvious is only the beginning.

Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, Live and in Person

The final session of the conference was the most memorable of all. Carl Orff read aloud his folk play Astutuli to an audience of about three hundred American and Canadian music teachers. Few understood German – let alone a medieval Bavarian dialect – but all enjoyed it enormously because of the magical use of his speaking voice. He assumed different roles, playing with the “tune” and tempo of each word. Dr. Orff’s presentation hit me as a revelation of the possibilities of musical speech, bringing to vivid life the inner meaning of language.

At the end, Keetman gave the whole audience an unforgettable experience. She led the entire group from all over North America in a C-Pentatonic vocal improvisation, while she played recorder above us. Like me, these were people – kindergarten teachers, classroom teachers, a few full-time mothers, music teacher specialists – who had been waiting for an opportunity to find out about the Orff Approach. We came from elementary schools, colleges, graduate schools. Keetman gave us no rules or talk of form, of solo and group, of question-and-answer, except we were to stay in the pentatonic. With that the hall burst into song, following Keetman’s gestures tentatively at first, then with growing delight and confidence.

Imagine, making music together with no notes to decode, no instructions, nothing to distract and hamper us. Just our ears and our voices – our instruments – and her beat to guide us. For me, that was the decisive moment. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. To make music that involved the play of language, the beauty and accessibility of the ensemble of instruments, and that elusive element I’d already been pursuing in my own teaching – Improvisation.

So I’ve been at it ever since.

In 1963, IMC attended the Orff Institut in Salzburg, and in 1964 became the first American honors graduate of the new program. Learn more about the history of the Orff Schulwerk in North America in her collection of essays.

From Making It Up As You Go: Selected Essays by Isabel McNeill Carley
Copyright © Brasstown Press, 2011-2015. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.


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