process teaching

Making It Work: What is Process Teaching?

Let’s Start at the Very End

In the beloved movie “The Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews’ character, Fraulein Maria, taught us that, in order to learn to sing, we should “start at the very beginning.” When we think about process teaching in the Schulwerk, however, we might do better if we start at the very end. Why? In order to know how to get anywhere, we must know first where we are going. If I plan a road trip to Chicago, I might ask myself questions like: How many miles is it from my home to Chicago? How many miles can I drive reasonably within a day? If it takes more than one day, how many miles should I drive in a single day? How often will I have to stop along the way? What supplies will I need, and—most importantly—what is the route that will take me there with the least amount of time and expense? Successful teachers who employ the Schulwerk in their instruction with children think similarly about answers to such questions when planning a unit of lessons or when deciding how they might teach a particular song or instrumental piece. We typically refer to the steps that comprise the answers to these questions as process. When Orff teachers talk about process, this is what they mean.

A thoughtful process that is considered from the end also helps teachers assess their students more accurately. Modern thinking on assessment in the music classroom asserts that—rather than thinking of assessing students only after a series of lessons or rehearsals have taken place—we assess along the way by integrating assessment into our instruction while it occurs (Duke, 2005; Fautley, 2010). The steps of our process represent “mile markers” where we can assess whether the students are learning what we want them to learn. Effective teachers do this already in myriad informal ways through observing and mentally documenting whether the students are ready to progress to the next step in the process. If the students are ready, the teacher moves on, but if students are not yet ready, reteaching or reinforcing needs to take place before moving forward. Assessing in this way helps ensure that most, if not all, students can progress through the process together and, hopefully, reach the same destination—a rewarding and meaningful musical outcome.

How do teachers develop a process they can use to teach a unit of lessons or an instrumental piece to students? First, we look to the very end, which means: what do want the final product to be, and what do we want the students to learn from the experience? Let’s examine the melody of a well-known selection from Orff and Keetman’s Music for Children, Vol. I (Murray Edition)—Rondo No. 31, pages 111–112. I first consider the skills and concepts I want to teach or reinforce through this piece, and I always try to integrate student creativity into the lesson in some way. Potential musical skills and concepts in this piece could include, but are not limited to: (a) reinforcing triple meter, (b) reinforcing literacy with pitches of the authentic (do to do), do-centered, C-pentatonic scale, (c) orchestrating and arranging the various parts, and finally (d) improvising simple melodies using the C-pentatonic scale. That’s a tall order, but for the purpose of this article, let’s just focus on developing a process for learning the melody!

Everyone should learn the melody before any accompaniment parts are taught or developed. Before introducing the melody to my students, I should be certain I can play the melody successfully myself. I would play it several times at various tempi, noting the most natural sticking patterns and whether I begin each phrase with the right or left hand. Next, I consider the steps necessary to move the students from no prior experience or familiarity with the melody whatsoever to their being able to perform it confidently. I consider the range of the melody—in other words, its highest and lowest pitches and all pitches in between that comprise the melody—and arrive at the pitch set below.

Next, I decide what the most basic skeletal outline of the melody might look like.  It should be basic enough that it represents the final melody without ornamentation. I would isolate the skeletal outline below. If we analyze this basic melody, we find an elemental form: abac.

The first phrase I would teach is the a phrase since it is simple, and it repeats. To teach this phrase, I ask the students to use only one hand (right or left—doesn’t matter) to play all the bars from high C to low C on their instruments. Then, they should switch hands and play the sequence with the other hand.

Playing first with each hand alone better prepares students to perform a sequence of notes using alternating hands (Keetman, 1974, p. 70). Once this is secure, I introduce a simple game I call “who’s left out?” I play the sequence once again omitting the A, after which the students identify the missing pitch as A. I return to the original sequence, this time omitting only the D, and the students identify that the missing pitch was D. On the third time, I omit both the A and the D. The students identify what was missing and practice playing the new sequence with each hand separately.

My next game is called “who’s doubled?” I play the sequence shown above, but I play two G bars in a row; the students identify the change. Then, I play the sequence again, but I play two E bars in a row; the students once again identify the new change. Finally, I double both the G and the E bars, after which I ask the students again what was doubled. At this point, I ask them to hold their mallets in the air and “air play” with me using gross motor movements (Keetman, 1974, p. 70). Since I would be facing the students, I perform the sequence using opposite hands so they can mirror me using the correct hands. With this process, I can teach the students to play the sequence using alternating hands to play what is already familiar to them. In the air, we play the following sequence together:

With the skeletal outline of the a phrase ready, we should now place it back within the context of the full melodic skeleton: abac. Note that in the skeletal outline, both the b and c phrases comprise the same rhythm. I ask the students to perform the a phrase (as they have learned it so far—without ornamentation), after which I use my mallets to tap the rhythm of both the b and c phrases. The students describe and demonstrate what I did, and then they perform it with me.

We now need only teach the simple melodic motives to the b and c phrases. I often prefer to teach the final phrase first—in this case, the c phrase: mi-mi-re-do (E-E-D-C). Children can imitate this pattern easily, and they readily recognize that it should occur at the end of a melody. I might perform the pattern and then ask the students whether they think it should be played second or fourth. The students will likely respond that it should conclude the melody. After they echo-play the motive with me both in the air and on the instrument using the sticking that they will eventually need for the final iteration of the melody, they can now replace the second occurrence of the mallet taps with the correct pitches.

I would repeat similar steps to teach the b phrase: so-so-so-mi (G-G-G-E) and then ask the students to replace the first occurrence of the taps with this new motive.

Once the students can perform this basic outline confidently, the next step is to add the final ornamentations that make the melody complete. First, teach the upper neighbor A that occurs in measures one, three, and five by isolating the motive. A simple, three-syllable word (my students chose an animal name) that everyone can sing while playing the motive will make it easier.

By adding this motive to the second beat of measures one, three, and five, the melody is almost returned to its original version. The last step is to ask the students to notice one final change: the teacher plays the melody, adding the low C pick-up from beat three of measure four to the downbeat of measure five. Label this note as a “connector” the joins the two halves of the melody together. Ask the students to practice the melodic jump from low C to high C in isolation first, followed by playing the jump plus measure five. When this is secure, the students can perform the entire melody in its original version in Volume I (see MFC Vol. I, pp. 111—112).

The skill of developing a step-by-step process for any teaching experience is one of the most important skills Orff teachers should strive to achieve. By first considering the overall product or musical experience we want our students to perform, and by determining the sequential steps needed to get there, we can ensure that our students will take the journey with us and that they will do it willingly and with joy.


Duke, R. A. (2005). Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction. Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources.

Fautley, M. (2010). Assessment in Music Education. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Keetman, G. (1974). Elementaria: First Acquaintance with Orff-Schulwerk. Margaret Murray, transl. London, UK: Schott Music Publishing.

Orff, C. & Keetman, G. (1958). Music for Children, Vol. I. Margaret Murray, ed. London: Schott Music Publishing.

Michael Chandler

Michael Chandler is an Assistant Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Education at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Michael taught music and movement to children in Texas public schools for 16 years and was named Teacher of the Year at two different elementary campuses. His student ensembles have performed by invitation at the Texas Music Educators Conference in San Antonio in 2013, 2007, and 2005. Michael has taught workshops and conference sessions in 38 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and has taught all three levels of Orff Schulwerk basic and recorder in AOSA-approved teacher education courses across the United States. He is the author of Everyday Recorder, Recorder Everyday! a classroom resource for introducing the recorder in Orff Schulwerk classrooms. Michael’s publications have appeared in The Orff Echo, The Southwest Musician, and Update: Applications of Research in Music Education.

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  1. Steven Calantropio on October 2, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    Hooray! Finally a concise, clear explanation of convergent teaching process that doesn’t get drawn off into a lot of unrelated areas. While this is only one interpretation of process teaching, it is the most essential one for Schulwerk teachers. Bravo, Michael!

  2. Keiko Espiau on October 2, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    Thank you for this article! It has been a while since I completed level I and this reminds me of the process to teach a melody.

  3. Jude Olney on October 6, 2019 at 7:43 pm

    Fantastic. I did my Level 2 training with Michael Chandler in NYC, and I can testify to the power of this process. Thank you, Michael!

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