Sounding Orff: How children can accompany singing in church

The children's hymnal Songs for LiFE makes frequent reference to Orff instruments. It even includes an index devoted to "Orff and Rhythm Instruments." At first glance, one might assume that "Orff" is a special brand name or type of musical instrument. In reality, the name refers to Carl Orff (1895-1982), a German music educator who was devoted to helping children interact with music in active, meaningful ways.

Even as a child, Carl Orff was interested in the performing arts. He would often entertain family and friends with puppet shows, incorporating music, scenery, and costumes in original "musical plays." He began studying piano at an early age and was composing songs by age thirteen. Orff was always fascinated with poetry and rhythmical speech. As a composer, he perceived music as a form of movement—sounds that moved through time, moving up/down, fast/slow in rhythmical patterns. This holistic view of music was brought to fruition when he collaborated with dancer Dorothee Gunther. Together they founded the Gunther School, an innovative ensemble of dancers and musicians that developed and trained teachers in new forms of movement and musical improvisation.

Reflecting upon his work in music education, Orff concluded that many musical skills are best learned during childhood. With Gunild Keetman, his lifelong associate, he began to test his ideas in nursery schools and kindergartens. Together, they experimented with "elemental" music-making—simple patterns of sound, explored through rhythmical speech and movement, transferred to simple instruments. A radio broadcast series in 1948 led to widespread interest by other music educators.

Today, many music educators in schools and churches use the so-called Orff instruments, along with Orff's philosophical principles of pedagogy. The results can be magical!

Orff Instruments

Perhaps Carl Orff's greatest contribution is the development of "user friendly" instruments for young children. In his travels throughout the world, he carefully observed how children naturally contributed to making music in their particular culture. He noted that singing and chanting were universal activities. Playing instruments, however, was a more complex activity. He realized that young children succeeded more readily in playing instruments that

utilize large-motor skills. In applying this knowledge, Orff worked with a German instrument maker to develop drums, cymbals, woodblocks, and rattles that could be easily played by children. They also designed child-size xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels to provide pitched percussion instruments. In addition, the recorder (a fipple flute with eight holes) served as a melody instrument.

The instruments were designed to be extremely durable, portable, and maintenance-free (they require no tuning). Best of all, they are very accessible—children are able to immediately generate beautiful sounds, using basic, fundamental hand/finger movements. The barred instruments (played with mallets) fall into three categories:

  1. Xylophones (derived from Africa) have wooden bars.
  2. Metallophones (adapted from the gamelan bands of Indonesia) use metal bars.
  3. Glockenspiels (from Germany) utilize small metal plates.

These instruments come in various sizes, corresponding to "voice" ranges—soprano, alto, or bass (for example, a soprano metallophone is pitched several octaves higher than a bass metallophone). The cost varies according to size, the least expensive being the soprano glockenspiel and the most expensive, the bass xylophone. How much? Again, it varies according to brand name. Years ago, it was only possible to obtain these instruments from Germany. Now, there are many manufacturers of Orff-style instruments. The original German Studio 49, and more recently Sonor, produce wonderful, high-quality instruments, but because of the rather poor exchange rates between the German mark and the U.S. dollar, these instruments are quite expensive when compared to a "domestic," economy brand, such as Lyon. The Lyon instruments are actually made in Asia but are assembled and tuned in North America. (The sound quality is excellent!) A price comparison reveals that an alto xylophone (Studio 49 or Sonor brand) costs more than $400; the Lyon brand of that instrument costs around $220.

Again, it pays to shop around. Individual vendors will differ in prices on the same brand-name instrument. The Midwestern sources I'm familiar with will be glad to send a catalog:

General Music Store (South Bend, IN), 1-800-348-5003
Lyons Music Products (Elkhart, IN), 1-899-292-4955
Meyer Music & Christian Music Center
(Grand Rapids, MI), 1-616-396-6583
Music Is Elementary (Cleveland, OH), 1-800-888-7502

Where Do I Begin?

Not everyone is able to purchase a full set of Orff instmments immediately. As when building a set of handbells, one should begin with the basics, adding to the range as money allows. With Orff instruments, I suggest that a church begin with an alto xylophone, which is pitched in the "singing range" of children (the lowest note, C, equates to "middle C" on the piano). This instrument is very versatile. It can play a simple "bass-style" accompaniment, an ostinato pattern, or a melody. Sonor manufactures a tenor-alto xylophone with two full octaves. This instrument will easily accommodate two small children. The child positioned in the lower octave might play the bass part, allowing the other child to play an upper accompaniment pattern.

Next in the collection, one should acquire a bass xylophone. The low resonance provides a rich, foundational accompaniment for singing. After acquiring the basics, it is time to add some color to the sound palette. Glockenspiels provide sparkle! Consider also adding a metallophone, since they are the least expensive of the Orff instruments. The metal bars on these instruments provide long, sustained sounds in "orchestrations."

No Orff instrumentarium is complete without the "subwoofer" tones of the giant contra bass bars. Like the bass bells in a handbell group, they are an optional, but much appreciated sound in the ensemble. And don't forget the percussion instruments: triangles, woodblocks, hand drums, rain sticks—fun stuff that greatly assists in making a joyful noise!

Finding Literature to Perform

Songs for LiFE is a great place to begin exploring Orff-style arrangements. Several speech pieces and hymn accompaniments provide excellent examples of how the instruments can be utilized. The basic principle is an ostinato pattern—a repeated pattern, rhythmic or melodic in nature.

Carl Orff was keenly aware that young children learn to read words by first recognizing phonetic patterns: CAT; BAT, SAT, MAT make sense because of the way the letters "sound." This principle can be applied to more complicated phonetic patterns: BLOCiC, CLOCK, VLOCK— or VACATION, RELAXATION, INFORMATION.

Many similarities can be observed in musical notation. Take, for example, the round "Go Now in Peace" (Songs for LiFE, 79). Four melodic patterns are suggested as an accompaniment. One, two, or all four of the patterns can be used. There is nothing crucial about the instrumental choices suggested—they are merely suggestions. Feel free to adapt these ideas for individual situations, simplifying or altering them as needs dictate. Since most hymns have multiple verses, consider using the xylophones for the first verse, metallophones for verse two, adding glockenspiels for the next, and playing all instruments during the final stanza.

After becoming familiar with the principles of Orff-style patterning, it is easy to create your own arrangements for simple hymns that contain only two or three harmonic changes. An example is "The Lord Is My Shepherd" (Songs for LiFE, 200). This hymn is harmonized with two different chords: F major and a C dominant-seventh. The suggested "duet" piano part can be easily transferred to a bass xylophone or metallophone. Other ostinato patterns could be created to provide a fuller harmonization:

Children should repeat the F-major pattern until they arrive at the song lyrics "walk with him." For this one measure, they should switch to the C7 pattern. Try having the children practice the triple meter pattern by first tapping the pattern on their knees— LEFT, right, right, LEFT, right, right, etc. Change the tapping pattern to the side of the legs to represent the C7 pattern needed when singing the phrase "walk with him ..." (found in measures 3, 7, 11, and 15). Once children can correctly tap the patterns while singing, they are ready to transfer the physical gestures to the instruments.

The Orff instruments are constructed in such a manner that individual bars (pitches) are easily removed. By removing the "unwanted" pitches, children can easily see the desired pattern, and that will assist them in being more accurate. (Note: Of interest is the new wide-bar glockenspiel, manufactured by Lyon. The wide-bar construction makes it easier for young children to more accurately play the glockenspiel.) Although standard Orff instruments are diatonic—using the "white" keys of the piano, instruments do come with add-on accidentals (F-sharps and B-flats) to aid in playing in other keys.

Enhancing Children's Worship with the Orff Process

God had given Reman fourteen sons and three daughters. They all served under their father for the singing in the house of the Lord; they tookpart in the service of the house of God, with cymbals, lutes, and lyres (1 Chron. 25:5-6) ... and Orff instruments?

The Scriptures invite children to praise God through music. The psalms enjoin us all to

Sing praise to the God of Jacob! Start the music and beat the tambourines; play pleasant music on the harps and the lyres (Ps. 81:1-2).

Let them praise his name with dancing (Ps.149:3).

As contemporary worship evolves, we must continue to explore music, liturgical drama, and sacred dance as meaningful avenues for spiritual expression. Children need to be included in the act of worship. And Orff instruments are useful tools for making that happen.

Refrain: Orff instruments/all children sing. Help children to "feel" the change in patterns by relating to the words of the song. When singing about the ark, play the F A F A pattern; when singing about Noah, play the E B-flat pattern (the "Noah" pattern):

Ark pattern

Noah pattern


  1. You may wish to have glockenspiels play the melody line when answering the question, "Who built the ark?":
  2. Bass xylophone/bars: Play the alternating F/C harmonies.
  3. Verses: Use soloists. In this "African American spiritual" style, children should be encouraged to use some melodic/rhythmic liberties. A simple "walking bass" accompaniment from the bass xylophone/bass bars would supply a nice accompaniment.
  4. Use animal puppets/props to "act out" the song!




The Chorister's Guild (CGA) regularly features octavos using Orff instruments. Some suggestions follow:

Carols with Orff Accompaniment, arr. Burton. CGA307
Children's Praise, R. Nelson. CGA574
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, arr. Jennings. CGA656
The Christmas Star, Carley. CGA672
Followers of the Lamb, arr. Christopherson. CGA672
God Is Love, Ramseth. CGA568
I Will Bless the Lord at All Times, Hruby. CGA452
Intradas and Obbligatos for Eight Hymns, Yarrington. CGA372
Lift Up Your Voices, arr. McRae. CGA622
Make Us to Be, Ramseth. CGA579
Mountain Carol, Carley. CGA548
One Lord, One Faith, Smale. CGA363
Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above, Lindh. CGA583
Songs from the East Wind: Four Asian Hymns, arr. McRae. CGA575
Tell All the World, Horman. CGA681
Ten Canons and Responses for Children's Choirs, Morman. CGA455
Three Mountain Carols, arr. McRae. CGA654
Twelve Canons for Children's Choirs, Horman. CGA329
Welcome Dearest Jesus, arr. H. Kemp. CGA531
You Have Put On Christ, Taylor-Howell. CGA325

Order from the Lorenz Corporation: 1-800-444-1144.



Interested readers can contact the American Orff-Schulwerk Association to inquire about local Orff chapter meetings. Periodic Saturday workshops feature guest clinicians who share ideas on given topics and demonstrate Orff techniques. Two-week summer classes in Orff certification are also offered at regional locations.

American Orff-Schulwerk Association
Music and Movement Education
Executive Headquarters
P.O. Box 391089
Cleveland, OH 44139-8089

You may also visit AOSA's Home Page on the World Wide Web:

Wesley Ball is professor of music at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, a widely published writer and clinician in the field of early childhood music, and president of the West Michigan Orff Chapter.


Reformed Worship 44 © June 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.