By Sarah Richardson

“Sing, say, dance, play!” Coming from a theatre background, the Orff mantra has always held a double meaning for me. “Play,” which typically refers to playing instruments, the sense of play with which we approach our work, or perhaps even playing games in a classroom, has always been a call for me to create a PLAY. Carl Orff was, after all, a theatre artist – one of the reasons why, I imagine, chant and the spoken word has always held such primacy in his work. At the time, Orff’s compositions were cutting-edge musical works for the stage. 

Setting the stage

Knowing Carl Orff’s theatre background is well and good, but is it justification for including theatre in music class? Don’t we have enough on our hands just trying to teach music? Theatre is important to me because I interpret our charge as more than simply trying to teach music. In an Orff context, my focus is on the child as artist. My goal is not simply to fill an “empty vessel” with songs and musical know-how. We provide a framework within which children can create their own work, and theatre is an important way for children to both access and present their own creativity.

Amidst our culture of standardized tests, it is essential children have avenues for ownership, agency, and authentic creation. This use of multiple media reflects the world of professional performance. The lines between music, dance and theatre are becoming more blurred. Actors play instruments and use dance to tell stories, musicians are asked to move, and dancers to speak.

Movement and Speech

The beauty of the Orff approach lies in how we help children uncover their creativity using tools that are readily accessible to them. Movement and speech are tools which children already have and use daily. Just as the post-modern dancers of the 1960’s drew from everyday movement that did not require prior technique, students make sequences out of their daily routines, handshakes, and sports, which becomes the raw material for dances. Children feel at ease creating with their everyday movement vocabulary because it is comfortable and familiar. Since so many elements of movement have a counterpart in music, the transfer from creating with movement to creating with music is natural.

The same is true of speech. By the time they come to our classrooms, most children have not been using music or participating consciously in musical activities daily, but are adept at moving and speaking. With prompting and a bit of structure, speech, like movement, can become malleable, a non-threatening material with which to make something new.

Greetings, onomatopoeia, names of classmates, types of flowers or trees or vegetables can turn into chants and rhythms. We show children the underlying connections to music and rhythm inherent in movement and speech, and invite them to create with these media. We provide students with a clearly defined framework in which to “improvise toward composition” using the uncomplicated materials readily at hand – their natural “languages” of movement and speech. This transfers to their work with elemental music, using instruments that require no complicated technique or preparation within musical structures which are easy to manipulate.

Elements of Theatre

So how does theatre fit in to my understanding of Orff, and what are the elements of theatre that we play with in my classroom? Movement and speech are also essential parts of theatre, but in addition, we play with observation, relationship, ensemble, emotion, character, and eventually staging. Storytelling, pretending, imagining, and acting things out are as natural to the child as are movement and speech. As humans, we make sense of our environment through narrative, story and sequence. We feel empathy and connection through our capacity for experiencing emotion and imagining the emotions of others. Not only are these elements natural and easy for children to understand and play with, they are inviting and fun!

Like elements of movement and speech, elements of theatre offer parallels to music concepts and can help deepen musical understanding. Connecting drama and emotion to music makes for more sensitive and effective composers and performers. Skills developed through playing with theatrical concepts are essential to effective ensemble playing. Theatrical improvisation and musical improvisation have much in common, and can be adapted for the classroom. Exercises that are traditionally played as games or warm-ups in drama or improv class can be reimagined for the the music classroom with extensions into musical activities that highlight the shared skills and vocabulary. These exercises can be used alone, or in sequences with other activities that lead to mini performance pieces.

Theatre in Practice

To practice observation, introduce sound and movement games that require the precise reproduction of the actions of others, for example, sound and movement games, or cumulative ostinati in lines of 5. Mirroring and shadowing fit in to this practice as well. Ensemble skills are developed through group activities requiring focus, quick reaction, rhythm and dexterity. Zip Zap Zop, The Machine Game, and games involving real and imaginary balls are excellent for building these skills. Even in the context of a game or short activity, there is room for agency, and students are invited to contribute their own ideas. Relationship is another key element of theatre which involves listening and being able to focus on another. Spoken conversation games like absurd conversations, empty scenes, and drum drama, lead directly into musical “conversations”  including Question and Answer improvisation.

Character is something children love to explore. Using rhythm to suggest ways different characters might walk offers students kinesthetic opportunities to analyze, interpret and create, reminding students there is no right or wrong answer! Two students might use the same rhythm for two VERY different character types. The movement activity of leading with different body parts, or using images found in paintings are useful to develop character, as well as having each student silently act out all of the characters as a story is told

As we play with elements of theatre, staging becomes key. Asking students to consider stage picture and focus builds awareness. Perhaps most importantly, however, try to find ways for students to explore emotion. Not only are emotions essential for theatre, but students need to practice and name emotions in safe and controlled environments. Emotion cards and neutral masks can be used to inspire  the students’ imaginations. 

Download and Use this Free Lesson Plan!

Here is a lesson idea for using a familiar rhythm from Volume One of Orff’s “Music for Children” to inspire emotion, imagination, and ostinato.  

Creating the Performance

After playing with elements of drama, and in the process isolating vocabulary that deepens understanding, students move toward the “composing” phase: creating performance pieces that draw from all of the elements they have practiced. Individual activities are often re-purposed and used in performance, in the same way that the proverbial “piece we learned way back in October” may make an appearance in a new context later in the year. Our culminating activity is to use these exercises in the context of creating a PLAY – a play that incorporates movement, speech and music. Students choose from traditional myths and stories which become our framework. Within that scaffold, students create theatre using the elemental tools at their disposal. They make connections between the arts and are thus given a greater range of possibilities in all aspects of their creative work. In this way, the elements of theatre are an essential component of my elemental music pedagogy.  


Sarah Richardson trained at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre before attending St. Olaf College. She acted professionally before receiving Montessori certification and completing Orff Schulwerk training at the University of St. Thomas. Sarah is the music/drama specialist at Lake Country Montessori School in Minneapolis, and teaches movement in the Orff levels course at the University of Kentucky. She is an active clinician and has presented at many national Orff conferences.



The Communications Team at ACEMM works together through a collaborative process with expert content authors to bring outstanding articles filled with possibilities and reflection to our community of friends, followers and supporters. This article was coordinated by Ardith Collins.

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