5 Tips for Beginning and Maintaining a Successful Orff Ensemble

When I first began teaching elementary music, I was fresh out of college and had never set foot in an elementary classroom. When I fell in love with teaching elementary, I knew I needed to gain some more experience and naturally gravitated to the Orff process. If you want more information on the Orff Schulwerk you should check out the AOSA webpage. After teaching for about six years, I decided it was time for me to start an Orff ensemble at my campus. I have learned a lot over the last 7-8 years and would like to share my experiences with you. Here are the top 5 things I learned when beginning and maintaining a successful Orff ensemble.

1. Choose a really good name

You thought I was going to start with something pedagogical or about recruitment, didn’t you? Nope. Choosing the name for the ensemble is pretty important. When I selected the name of my ensemble, I thought of several words that were synonymous with music or sound. You’ll want to choose something that maybe has some alliteration with your campus name or mascot, something that your students can connect with. As the years have gone on, the name of my ensemble, Resonance, has become harder for the children to pronounce and relate too, but I believe that is the lapse of two years of performing.

2. Hold Auditions

I choose to hold auditions to narrow the number down to about 30. I have found that more than 30 is really difficult to manage, especially when it comes to writing parts. I use a rubric that looks like this:

I give the students a packet with the music and links to videos (on my YouTube channel) to watch to prepare for their auditions. On audition day, I have the instruments set up and ready to go with copies of the music, on music stands (or they can use their own) and my iPad set up to record their audition. I record for two reasons, one, for me and my ADHD so I don’t miss anything, two, in case a parent questions their child’s ranking and acceptance. I can show the video and discuss what the weaknesses were. I listen to their audition, rate their score, and select the top 30 students. I do take into consideration their grade level to a small extent. If number 30 is a third grader and 31 a fifth grader and their scores are neck and neck, I may choose the fifth grader, since I want that fifth grader hooked on music before leaving for middle school. I do not always consider their grade level, but on rare occasions I do. I have a different scoring system for each grade level and adapt the rubric to reflect their grade level and skill level.

3. Be prepared to write arrangements

In my Orff levels I learned how to write arrangements for folk songs to fit the needs of my students. Now, with that said, writing for your percussion ensemble is kind of a different beast. I’ve had to write songs to go with books, arrange pop-songs (which means getting the appropriate permission), and add percussion parts to existing orchestrations to fill out an ensemble. It is incredibly time consuming, unless choose to use other people’s arrangements, which is fine, but gets expensive, too.

When I first started my ensemble, I used pieces we had done in class and just added more unpitched percussion parts and some contra bars. I basically take what they’re already learning and level it up. Now, I tend to choose a theme or book to structure the performance around and choose music to fit those ideas.

4. Prepare Rehearsals Ahead of Time

Anyone who runs an ensemble knows how crucial planning your rehearsal time is. When running a rehearsal, you have the parts of the music you want to work on, the parts the ensemble NEEDS to work on and then the parts that neither of you knew would fall apart and need to be worked on. I create a loose timeline of how and when I want things taught, and then I work around what the ensemble needs. Planning is great but be flexible. I teach one to two songs at a time so as not to confuse the children and bounce around between 4-5 pieces.

If you plan ahead enough, you can create practice videos for your students to watch and prepare at home. I give my students a paper xylophone to practice on and show them how to practice on body percussion or found sound objects so they can practice at home.

5. Comparison is Not Pretty

Do not compare your current chapter in your story to someone’s finished novel. If you are just starting out, or you’re having funding issues, or instrument issues, or whatever the case may be, comparing your group’s success to someone else’s will sink your ship before it ever sets sail. I work in a district that is very diverse. My ensemble is not going to perform to the same level as someone who has been performing for 20 years, my ensemble struggles with parent commitment/involvement, therefore a lot of the work goes on during rehearsal. We don’t all have access to devices at home all the time so expecting the children to practice at home does not always happen. I try to celebrate our strengths and highlight things we can do really well and work with the strengths of the ensemble. I am a firm believer that kids are kids and socioeconomic status should not change how we teach kids, however the hard truth is that it does. Access to materials, parent involvement, and the like, are all going to contribute to your ensemble’s success. I strongly believe you can find their strengths, write/arrange music to fit those strengths and create a dynamic Orff ensemble at your school.

Sing! Say! Dance! Play! Care!


3 Ways to Use Color as an Accommodation in the Music Room

When our special education students or students with specific learning disabilities come into our classroom it is our job to provide accommodations for them so they can be successful. One of my favorite ways to accommodate for students is using color Before I discuss three ways to use color as a specially designed instruction (SDI) for a student, let me define an accommodation. An accommodation is a way to help students acquire the exact same content as their peers, whereas a modification changes the content. Here, I will discuss using color as an accommodation.

Color Coding A Behavior Plan

For students on a BIP (behavior improvement plan) color can be used for transitions and to stop/start certain behaviors. If a student has an SDI of high contrast materials or limited visual clutter, color can help focus on a specific behavior such as remaining seated on a colored spot or within a colored boundary. In my classroom I have a pink box in the back of the classroom that students can choose to sit inside if they need a break or need a place to just sit away. You would be surprised at how many students love to sit in the box, they feel safe there to just be themselves, move around and wiggle if they need to and not be a bother to those around them. This designated space also works well for students who have preferential seating or a colored boundary. I just used pink duct tape and created a 9X9 space on my floor, easy peasy!

Color Coding Visuals for Melody and Rhythm Instruction

ChromoNotes™ colors or Boomwhacker colors are the ones that are most popularly used in the elementary music classroom. I use ChromoNotes™ colors to color code melodic visuals in my classroom to help keep reading the melody consistent. My students begin to learn that C is red, D is orange, E is yellow, etcetera, and it carries over to all melodic instruments in my classroom. This is great for students who thrive with consistency. For rhythm, I use the

Note Knacks® colors devised my Kristen Pugliese to teach the number of sounds in a beat. For example, a quarter note is red because red has one sound, a pair of eighth notes is yellow because yellow has two sounds. My favorite in this system is terracotta for sixteenth notes!

This system works well to get students started on understanding that rhythm is the number of sounds in a beat and as the rhythms become more complex, the system adapts for that, too!

I use Magnetix for recorder which are trimmed in ChromoNote™ colors so that the students can read the color and the notes on the staff. I know that notes on the staff in “real” music is black, but the purpose is accessibility, if this makes the music more accessible, then why would I not try? If you do not want to use these branded color systems, you don’t have to. You can come up with any color-coding system that works for you and the student. The best accommodations are consistent accommodations and those that work for the student.

Color Coding Instruments  

Colored instruments or stickers on instruments are an accommodation for striking in the correct spot, holding an instrument correctly, etc. This method can be used if a student’s SDI is to identify and limit distractions by providing a “strike zone” for immediate success in playing the instrument. I use the ChromoNotes™ stickers on my Orff instruments to align with the color-coded music. I use the ChromoNotes™ bells, Boomwhackers, and keyboard instruments in my classroom to maintain as much consistency as I can. If you don’t have access to those, the stickers are a perfect option to help color code the instruments you do have.

Color is a wonderful way to provide an accommodation for all music students, especially special education students in music. By using color coding systems for behavior, visuals, and instruments special education students can learn the same content as the other learners. Color can be a dynamic way to meet student’s SDI’s in the music classroom! Give it a try!

Sing! Say! Dance! Play! Care!


I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie

One of my favorite books to use around Thanksgiving is “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie”. You could read and sing along and that would be fun, but I have included extensions to the book for classroom instruments, Orff instrument improvisation and recorder improvisation.

Use any percussion instrument you would like. Percussion clipart included.

Improvise in C Pentatonic

Improvise in C Pentatonic on recorder