I first heard about the Orff method about 25 ago, when The Goethe Institute in Bangkok sponsored a special workshop and they brought over Dr. Hermann Regner from the Orff Schulwerk Centre in Salzburg. After that, Regner led several workshops over a period of years and we developed together the beginning of the Orff system in Thailand. At that time we were unable to achieve the goal that we had set for ourselves; that was to make an Orff system as you see in so many other countries.
The basis of the idea behind the Orff System has to do with children’s songs and it’s very attached to a language and a culture. Carl Orff was German so he used many local nursery rhymes, folk tales and fairy tales to form the Orff system in Germany. It was such a magical system and it worked so well and gave children an early and rich understanding of music, that it spread immediately to other countries.
Very soon there was a whole series of English text books overseen and controlled by Orff himself, and this was followed by French, German, American and Spanish. Up until now we’ve never been able to achieve this in Thailand.
So one of the things that we are doing in BaanGerda is not only giving the gift of music and encouraging musical sensitivity, but also doing research and working very hard to develop the Orff system by using Thai nursery rhymes, folk tales and children’s songs that have been in the Thai tradition for hundreds of years.
The reason the Orff system is so applicable and so appropriate in Thailand is because we have the same way of looking at things as Karl Orff did, and that is, you teach children to start with percussion instruments such as xylophones, metallophones and glockenspiels. This means that you use your two hands to make melodies on bars which, if you think about it, is much easier than worrying about where your fingers go. If you look at the history of music all over the world you’ll see that people tend to start playing with two hands alternating back and forth in a kind of hitting gesture.
We take these percussion instruments and bring them together to have a symphonic sound; an ensemble, in which the children, even the very young children can immediately have some success in playing together. The other very convenient point, and certainly the genius in the Orff system, is that if you make the percussion instruments in a way that you can take the bars out, so that with the remaining bars the chance of making a mistake is manageable even for small children. You don’t have to worry like you do with a piano where you have so many black and white keys and much more chance of making an error.
With Thai instruments, the bars can’t be removed so you always have to choose between lots of notes to get the ones that are right. Using the Orff instruments, you take many of the bars away and the children can achieve something instantly. It’s a wonderful way of introducing the children to music and making it successful right from the very beginning, so the very first hour you start studying Orff you can have musical joy.
Preparing our opera always involves smiles. Not that happiness is the goal of our work, but it is the modus operandi. Too often, music is thought of as a leisure activity and that only leads to re-creative results.
“No proper music education?” I hear you ask. Well, I admit that I do require the children to memorize aspects of musical theory which is so basic to Thai classical music. However, it is only one part of the overall approach which is centered on creative music making, and placing the children in situations where they learn for themselves.
By the way Fong Naam, my Contemporary Thai Music Ensemble, is celebrating our twenty fifth anniversary this year, and the production of this opera with the children is part of our celebrations. They have been enjoying working with the children over the last months. They were rather surprised the other day when I had our first rehearsal alone without the children. Up until now they have only been playing along with the kids to encourage their rhythmic skills. But during the rehearsal I gave them some fairly difficult tasks which were quite independent from what the children were doing. They suddenly realized that this children’s opera was going to require more of them than they had first thought. They did not complain because they know that you cannot ask your students to strive to go beyond themselves if the teacher is not also ready to do the same.
‘First’ doesn’t always mean the beginning of something. The music project with the children of BaanGerda has been going on since April. In subsequent weeks I will be telling some of the stories about the children’s musical adventures in that early period.
But for now, let’s begin in the present. Since the children are on a vacation from school for about a month or so, we have brought fourteen of them down to Bangkok for intensive study in music, singing, dancing and acting. As you may already know, we are going to perform a children’s opera. The plan is to stage it during the first part of next year, and perhaps even take it to Germany.
The Opera emerges from various methods that I have developed over the years (this is my third children’s opera), whereby the children’s creative input is an important part of the finished product. The work is centered around the Orff Schulwerk method, although I modify the approach considerably so that the music relates more to the Siamese musical heritage. For singing we use Kodaly Method; for dancing and acting I rely on names like Dalcroze, Laban, Slade, Spolin, Littlewood, Heathcote, Johnstone and in the area of theatre education, I am perhaps most indebted to Augusto Boal. Forgive all these names, but it just a habit among Thai artists to remember their teachers at the beginning of every new endeavor.
The story is based on Yann Martel’s wonderful novel, “The Life of Pi”. It’s not an easy story and certainly not a children’s book. I shall have more details in future postings.