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Orff Instruments

History of Orff


In addition to speaking and singing with the voice, instruments used in Orff-based teaching include pitched and non-pitched (or “unpitched”) percussion and recorder. Orff wanted children to be able to play high-quality instruments that fit their size and abilities.

Special pitched ( or “barred”) instruments for children began to be developed in 1928 by K. Maendler under the direction of composer Carl Orff. They were modeled after a wooden instrument from Africa and a bronze instrument from Indonesia. A unique feature of Orff instruments is the removable bars. This way the bars that are not used can be removed and the student has a greater chance for success. Orff said, “Experience first, then intellectualize.” A successful and creative musical process provides the basis for a positive learning experience.

Why use a mixed set of Orff instruments?

Using pitched Orff instruments (tone bar instruments) is part of an entire learning approach. The instruments all possess unique timbres, which make all parts clear and well defined. Their use helps children become sensitive listeners and considerate participants as they play together in an ensemble. Used as a large group or a small one, the teacher can create an “orchestra” or ensemble. The parts played in an Orff ensemble may consist of layered rhythmic and/or melodic patterns to accompany singing, storytelling, and movement/dance to create unity.

Types of Orff Instruments

In addition to a variety of small percussion instruments, a complete music room should have a combination of soprano, alto, and bass xylophones and metallophones, and soprano and alto glockenspiels, with appropriate mallets. Contra bass bars are also available. Diatonic instruments with chromatics are available. Recorders are also used by older elementary students widely in the Orff approach as age appropriate.




From the beginning: pre-mallet preparation

Mallets can sometimes be tricky for students. They need to bounce off of the bars so that the vibration can occur.

Before students use mallets, it is helpful to practice some exercises using body percussion, focusing on:

  • Patching hands together (“jumping”)
  • Alternating hands (“walking” or “running”)
  • Contrary motion (hands out and in/in and out)
  • Crossing over
  • One hand still, the other hand moving (this is a more advanced technique)

Basics – Pieces and Parts of an Orff Instrument.

Mallet Technique

Each player should begin with one mallet held comfortably in each hand. Elbows should be out, index fingers in, and arms and hands should be relaxed. Hold mallets as if you were riding a bike. Make sure that your index fingers are not out and resting on top of mallet sticks. If they are, the mallets will not “bounce” easily off the bars.

Playing the Instruments – Process

  • It is helpful to remove bars not included in the desired pentatonic scale to ensure success. (See Care of Orff Instruments for the correct way to remove bars.)
  • Each student should have two mallets.
  • In the beginning, you may be able to have two students at each instrument. You will need to limit your pitches so that the students can each play an octave. The given drones in Level 1,2 and 3 are all written so two students can play on each instrument.
  • Drones can be played in a variety of ways: broken, moving from octave to octave, crossing over, hands together (“jumping”), alternating hands (“walking” or “running”), contrary motion (hands out and in/in and out), rhythmic patterns, etc.
  • Let students create their own ways to play drones, or pedal points, and create their own ostinati.
  • Starting with any instrument, add one instrument at a time until the ensemble is complete (layering).
  • Be creative and have fun. Let your students explore different combinations/groupings of instruments.

Care of Orff Instruments

  • When removing bars, instruct students to use two hands, one on each end of the bar, and lift straight up so as not to bend or break pins.
  • Replacement parts (pins, tubing, etc.) can be ordered from companies that make the instruments. Use soft yarn or felt mallets on xylophones and metallophones.
  • Rubber mallets are usually reserved for metallophones. On occasion, hard mallets may be used on xylophones but care should be taken to avoid scratches or other damage to bars.
  • Any type of mallets may be used on glockenspiels but small hard plastic or wood mallets are usually preferred.
  • Never use anything but fingers and mallets on tone bar instruments.
  • Avoid stacking instruments on top of each other.
  • Metal bars may be washed with soap and water.
  • Wood bars may be oiled with lemon base furniture oil (not polish) to aid in moisture retention.
  • Sound boxes should be dusted occasionally.