Supporting healthy Waldorf music education everywhere!


Quite frequently, we receive questions about various aspects of Waldorf music education and many look to AWME as a source of information and clarity about certain topics regarding the pedagogy and practices found there. Several experienced members of AWME strive to answer these questions clearly and succinctly, so that the reader has a greater understanding of the topic, and is left in freedom to make a more well-informed choice and/or pursue deeper study. Many of the following FAQs have brief answers, followed by a link to read other helpful information or to a more in-depth explanation or reference. Please do not hesitate to send us your concerns and questions—one of AWME’s hallmarks is to provide a resource for our continued work in Waldorf music education. We hope we can answer the ‘burning’ questions and guide you to explore further on your own! And don’t forget, as a member, you can always post a question or comment on our forum, Colleague’s Corner, and take part in a lively dialogue with other members about topics of interest.

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Accordion FAQs

Like the main lesson curriculum for Waldorf music education, there is great creative freedom within the curriculum. It is, however, based on indications given by Rudolf Steiner in the light of the developing child and follows the stages of development in age appropriate blocks of study. In bringing music education, there is also a curriculum that meets the developing child according to his or her stage of development. This acts an an outline, a skeleton, to form the basis of what and how we bring the music content and pedagogy to the children. For an overview of the Waldorf music curriculum, click here.

In Waldorf education, we strive to bring our students authentic human experiences and do not rely on technology to bring these experiences. We try to bring live music examples, inviting singers and instrumentalists, ensembles and groups to perform for our students, as well as, encourage them to attend live musical performances. Acoustic music is very different than replicated (recorded) music, and the element of human 'imperfection' is highly valued in an acoustic, live musical performance. During folk dancing, for example, we try to have a small ensemble playing the music or the students sing while they are folk dancing. In Grade 11 during the History through Music block, it may be possible (but not necessary) to bring in several recorded examples of various historical music styles. However, the ideal would be to bring examples of these musical styles to the students via their own performance of pieces from these periods. It is a very different soul experience to perform music rather than simply listening to others perform it.

We can glean much information by looking at the indications by Steiner of the developing child. Generally, we recommend waiting until the child has gone through the 9-year change, a stage of development in which the child shifts dramatically in his or her own awareness of self and its relationship to the world. For traditional, formal, individual music lessons, waiting until the child has come to a this stage of development allows for a healthier integration of the focused practice, conscious self assessment, abstract reading (sound to symbol) and the structure of self-discipline. When brought too soon, these things can harden and hinder the natural and organic development of certain forces in the child. It is best then, to let the child freely play at the piano, improvising, creating and experimenting with the sounds and activity of playing. If the child consistently asks and/or shows interest in lessons, one can then support this around the 9-year change. It is crucial that this be initiated by the child's interest and not simply the desire of the parents. Steiner has this to say about the piano:

"...each child should learn to play an instrument...the children should come to feel what it means for their own musical being to flow over into the objective instrument, for which purpose the piano, which should really only be a kind of memorizing instrument, is of course the worst possible thing for the child. (Another kind of instrument should be chosen..."
(The Kingdom of Childhood, Lecture 6)

This indicates that the piano is clearly not the best instrument for the younger child, but does have its rightful place later on if certain qualities in its creation can be be overcome.

On another occasion, he states:

"The musical instruments are derived from the spiritual world; the piano, however, in which the tones are abstractly lined up next to each other, is created in the physical world by man. All instruments like the flute or violin originate musicianly from the higher world. A piano is like the Philistine who no longer contains within him the higher human being. The piano is the Philistine instrument. It is fortunate that there is such an instrument, or else the Philistine would have no music at all. The piano arises out of a materialistic experience of music. It is therefore the instrument that can be used most conveniently to evoke the musical element within the material realm. Pure matter was put to use so that the piano could become an expression of the music al element. Naturally, the piano is a beneficial instrument - otherwise we would have to rely from the beginning on the spiritual in musical instruction in our materialistic age - but it is the one instrument that actually, in a musical sense, must be overcome. Man must get away from the impressions of the piano if he wishes to experience the actual musical element."
(The Inner Nature of Music and the Experience of Tone, Lecture VI)

While he may have had rather harsh words regarding the piano, he does go on to say that it is the task of the player to transcend this challenge and bring his own deep innate musicality to the piano, in order to overcome its materialistic origins.

Think of music as a language. It can express all of the emotion, meaning and pathos of language. Some believe that music may be even more expressive than language, such as Hans Christian Andersen, who said, "Where words fail, music speaks." Recent advances in neural imaging have even revealed that the brain processes both music and aural language in very similar ways. These insights help explain the approach of a Waldorf music teacher, who approaches teaching music to a child in the same way that one might introduce a child to a second mother tongue.

The Waldorf music classroom in the early years focuses on developing a solid musical sense. The teacher ensures that the children work their way through every aspect of music: melody, tempo, rhythm, beat, meter, melody, timbre, form, and so on. These are experienced experientially, through activity. Essentially the children learn to speak the language of music fluently, it almost becomes a second mother tongue.

Once the children are highly musically competent, the teacher will begin to introduce music literacy concepts. This follows the same pattern in which reading is taught in the Waldorf schools: the children learn to write and then gradually to recognize what they have written. In music they are taught concepts through activity, and then the teacher helps the children to recognize those concepts in notation. The children not only experience a real joy as they recognize in the notation that which they already know conceptually, they also feel that notation is completely intuitive and familiar. There is no struggle to learn to read music, no discomfort.

This joyful recognition that the children experience in reading music is also possible because a Waldorf music teacher will wait until after a developmental mile-marker Waldorf teachers sometimes call the 9/10 change. Children around this age naturally begin to see the world a bit more abstractly, and they become ready to have more of an objective relationship with their surroundings. This is a natural time to delve into notation, which is after all an objective representation of a body-soul-spirit experience.

Children learn language by listening, imitating, and doing. They are helped by loving adults who correct mistakes and teach them how to connect new words to concepts. Eventually, but not at first, the adults will help the child to understand how the language they’ve learned is represented symbolically. Fluency first, and then literacy. Waldorf music teachers simply approach teaching music in this same way. Music is our language.

Music in the mood of the fifth is a special type of pentatonic music. Generally speaking, pentatonic music is based on any of several 5-tone musical scales in which the tones are usually arranged like a major scale with the 4th and 7th tones omitted. Most traditional pentatonic music moves in linear patterns that weave up and down the chosen 5-tone scale, often over more than one octave. A simple way to experience a traditional pentatonic melody is to play freely over the black keys of a piano, which happen to be arranged in a pentatonic sequence.

Although music in the mood of the fifth also uses tones that have a pentatonic relationship to one another, this special type of pentatonic music uses only the 5 specific tones of D, E, G, A, and B, followed by the higher octave of D and E. These 7 tones are then used musically in a very distinct way. Instead of being based on the lowest tone, like a traditional scale, the main tone of a mood of the fifth scale is the tone A, which lies in the exact center of the 7 tones (DEGABDE). Instead of moving up and down in scalar patterns, like the traditional pentatonic, music in the mood of the fifth is characterized by melodic movement around the central tone A, generally in mirrored patterns, which creates an experience of melodic balance.

A pentatonic melody using just the tones GAB, (e.g. BBAAG), can have a strong major character with the quality of an answer, because of its linear movement toward the lowest tone of G. Those same tones used in a mood of the fifth melody and ending on the central A (ABAGA), are not at all suggestive of a major (or minor) mode, and rather have the quality of a question. All music in the mood of the fifth is technically pentatonic, but not all pentatonic music is in the mood of the fifth.

In his lectures about music and music education, Rudolf Steiner gave indications to bring a wind instrument to the children upon entering their school years (after the change of teeth). "You should choose a wind instrument, as the children will learn most from this..." (The Kingdom of Childhood, 1924). He did not specify a recorder, per se (which was never meant to be played by more than 4 or 5 people at a time, usually in a consort of different voicings, and was primarily a solo instrument in the Middle Ages and Renaissance). The bore of a recorder is conical, giving it a very bright, focused, overtone-rich tone quality. This is why adults like it - if they are healthy adults, whose hearing has developed as it should and when it should, they should prefer this tone color. However, this is not the way the younger child hears (which is peripherally), and the overtone-rich timbre can actually cause inner ear damage for younger ears, especially if there is a group of them playing at the same time and the overtones are slightly out of tune with each other. This was of great concern to a group of teachers and people working in European Camphill communities in the late 60s and early 70s, and they wanted to take this up as a serious study. In observing the handicapped villagers and children in their care, they began working with different tone colors of wind instruments (taking up Steiner's indications of bringing a little flute) and after much work, they concluded that the tone color most appropriate for younger ears (because they hear peripherally) needed to be specific to the needs of the children and to how they actually hear. It needed to be gentle and more connected to the life forces of the plant realm (wood) rather than to that of the more formed mineral realm (metal). As adults, we would even say this tone quality is 'breathy' or not as clear as, say, a recorder's timbre. This led to the development of the Choroi flutes, first starting as a therapeutic instrument, then one that would best suit the children pedagogically, based on the understanding of child development in the light of anthroposophy. The bore of a Choroi flute is completely cylindrical and gives this kind of unfocused, 'surrounding' tone - so nurturing for younger ears. All true flutes (transverse flutes, Native American flutes, etc.) have a cylindrical bore. Choroi created a whole progression of wooden flutes to be used sequentially for specific pedagogical reasons. The interval flutes progress to the pentatonic, the pentatonic to the C-flute and so on. The pentatonic flute is probably the most familiar and widely used in Waldorf schools; it not only uses the pentatonic scale, but the tone color is perfectly suited to the way a young child perceives music at this stage of development. The Choroi pentatonic flute is unique, as is the interval flute - there are no other flutes like them. There are pentatonic recorders, but these have the recorder's conical bore and therefore, the brighter and more focused tone quality. Most adults do not prefer the 'breathy' tone color of the Choroi flutes and this is perfectly appropriate! Many adults struggle with the fingering of the pentatonic flute because it is so different from any other instrument. For the children, they have nothing to compare it to in order to judge it to be difficult or easy. In regards to the fingering, Steiner is clear that one of the things we are to do as teachers is to bring awareness "right down into the fingertips". While this can present a challenge, it is certainly not insurmountable and it gives the children an opportunity to do just that - bring awareness right down into their fingertips. Often, teachers choose to bring the recorder as soon as possible because that is what they used when they were in school; it is familiar and it is just easier for them. But if music is about LISTENING, which is most certainly is, and if we are striving to bring the right thing at the right time (one of the hallmarks of Waldorf pedagogy), then we have the responsibility to hold paramount what best serves the children. For more on what Rudolf Steiner had to say about music, click here.

If the teacher doesn't like them, or has some antipathy toward them, the students will develop this same relationship. It is important to remember that it is not about us, but about the children, and sometimes, we have to do something or learn something very difficult for us, as adults, knowing that we are not bringing the music to other adults, but to children. This is an area that, time and time again, is the most misunderstood aspect of music education in the light of anthroposophy (this along with Mood of the Fifth!). When changing to a C-instrument, we then progress to the Choroi C-flute in grade 3. The same quality of sound, same tension-free embouchure, and the fingering is absolutely and kinesthetically sequential and logical. There are no forked fingerings or skipped fingers. Then, around the 12-year change, we move to the alto recorder in grade 6, which is when the recorder actually came into being as relates to the main-lesson curriculum. It is a new instrument, new tuning (in F) with new fingering and everyone learns it quickly. The alto is also where their voice range is at this time and does not have the same harsh effect of an entire class playing soprano recorders! Again, I've never had a 6th grade that didn't have the alto 'down' by Christmas! In the Association for Waldorf Music Education, we have been working with this deeply, especially in the past few years, as more and more people simply do not understand what is behind the Choroi flutes and how they were developed to meet the children where they are developmentally. And if music is about listening, which is most absolutely is, then we have to consider how the child hears and what best serves this.

Sometimes these things require us to relinquish our own sympathies and antipathies and live into why we do what we do for the children pedagogically.

The Choroi instruments are made by hand at a Camphill community and do cost more. Just like quality beeswax crayons, good paints and brushes, silk versus synthetic and wood over plastic. It is a challenge....

The lyre—or "lyra", as it was formerly called—is one of the most ancient stringed musical instruments known. Its roots go back over 5,000 years to the Babylonian period. The "modern lyre", however, is a very young instrument, created only 87 years ago in Germany. The hand held, full sized chromatic lyre has a double row of strings, much like the strings inside a grand piano, and it is used in performance, in therapy, and for pedagogical purposes.

The strings of the lyre are stroked, rather than plucked, and its unique construction allows the resonance of each tone, once sounded, to be freely sustained into the surrounding space. This phenomenon creates an unparalleled opportunity to experience the quality of a pure tone.

In the 1960s, German music educator Julius Knierim created a 7 string lyre for the young child based on the 5 tone pentatonic sequence of D, E, G, A, and B, followed by the next higher octave of D and E. He called it the kinderharp, or children's lyre. This instrument gives a child immediate access to the possibility of creating a beautiful, pure tone, which invites the experience of deep listening.

In the decades since its creation, the children's lyre has been incorporated into the music curriculum of many Waldorf schools in the U.S. and abroad. Most children first encounter the listening experience of the lyre in Waldorf early childhood classes, and then, where instruments and teachers are available, they are introduced to playing the lyre during the early grades.

In addition to listening activities, children stream the lyre to accompany their singing as well as learning to sound individual tones. Besides helping to nurture the child's innate listening discrimination, working with the lyre helps to regulate breathing. Additionally, the experience lays a foundation in form, as the young child learns how to properly handle a musical instrument and to respond appropriately to musical gestures.

Above all, the ideal goal should remain that we wish for our students to have the experience of making music with one another. This is an act of empowerment (I experience my own competence), self-validation (My part is integral to the whole), socialization (You are not in "my circle" but we can have a relationship through playing together) and creative expression (the ultimate experience of our humanity) all through a medium that is the very substance out of which we have been created. And Rudolf Steiner makes a real distinction about the role that musical instruments play in this regard, above and beyond what can be experienced through singing. (See the 5th to last paragraph of Lecture VI, "The Inner Nature of Music and the Experience of Tone") The ideal goal here is that each and every student leave our school with an experience of him or herself as a musician, a creator of music, which is the birthright of every human being!

The experience of instrumental music is a perfect example of the holistic value that Waldorf Education places on the equal emphasis of head/heart/and hands as a path to the development of balanced and healthy human beings. This balance is being threatened everywhere in life today, so we should assume as a given, that this kind of activity that used to be considered an expected experience for a cultured person, is becoming more and more foreign to people in general, which makes our job more challenging, to be sure.

The arts are being cut everywhere because it is just becoming too hard to educate parents as to why supporting artistic work is so important for their children's development, and among the students, it is becoming to hard to fight the alarming increase and addiction to the consumption of recorded music. Doing, all together, is becoming a chore, especially doing anything that involves a daily discipline. In most Waldorf schools, the students begin an orchestral string instrument in grade 4; some schools bring this grade 3, but it is ideal for the children to be firmly established in the 9-year change, which is a watershed landmark for the developing child. Other aspects of the instrumental music curriculum have been preparing for the introduction of this orchestral experience. (View an example of one school's instrumental music program, which includes a comprehensive string program.)

Because of this significant stage of development, starting lessons sooner can bring certain awakening forces that do not support the younger child's stage of development, or can bring activities that ask more of the child than is developmentally appropriate. Starting the activity with the group has the benefit of working together on a common goal, starting the task together, and cultivating an ensemble. Since it is not so much about individual performance or excelling as a soloist at this time, it is best if the class begins together at the same starting point. This also allows the teacher to bring the same curriculum and approach to the class as a whole, as they set out to experience the joy of creating music together.

True tone deafness is actually extremely rare; it is attributed to a condition neurologists call “congenital amusia”. When people speak of tone deafness they are generally referring to an inability to sing in tune, which has to do with one of two shortcomings. Those who cannot sing in tune generally have not learned to hear pitches accurately, and/or they have not learned how to control their vocal apparatus in order to reproduce pitches accurately. Both of these difficulties have to do with a lack to training and practice.

Training and practice are exactly what goes on in a Waldorf music classroom. Waldorf music teachers put a lot of emphasis on learning to listen. Class time is spent doing special exercises and activities that help train the students' ears so that they can accurately discriminate between tones. The children are surrounded by opportunities to develop the ability to develop a discerning ear that can hear pitches accurately. Singing in a Waldorf school is likewise taught through practice and repetition. Working incrementally over time and with many repetitions is what Waldorf teachers may call “rhythmic” work. (Not to be confused with musical rhythms, rhythmic learning refers to an approach that allows students to try an activity again and again over a long period of time, gradually improving toward mastery.)

Waldorf music educators believe that every child can learn to sing. If you as an adult feel that you cannot sing in tune the chances are very good that you’re not actually tone deaf, you’re simply “developmentally delayed”. You missed the chance as a child to develop a discerning ear and to gain fine control over your voice. A Waldorf music classroom will ensure that your child doesn’t miss out on those opportunities. Although not all children develop these abilities at the same pace, it is very unusual that a child in a Waldorf school never develops the ability to sing in tune. Some can do it in kindergarten, some may take until fourth grade or even later. What matters is to give your child the opportunity, and a Waldorf music classroom will provide just that.

For more about this subject, read Michael Deason-Barrow's insightful article on the children's singing voice.

Students' work in the grade school (1-8) should be about connecting them with experiences of beauty. Hopefully music performances give the students that feeling. When we work with our performing groups and especially our choruses, we hope for the students to be really engaged with an active, inner activity of feeling. Ensuring this happens is one of the most important tasks grade school teachers have. (Educating the etheric, right?)

Making a recording and then listening to that recording can shatter that inner experience for the children a bit. The children's experience and memory of the music they made during a live performance is far more vivid and lively than what they hear in the recording. Even if the choirs are very capable and the recording is a fine one, the students' ears gravitate toward the one voice that didn't blend well, the small mistakes, etc. One can feel that the process can kill something that has been alive. If occasional recordings are made from time to time, perhaps they could be solely for one's own use, and it is never really a thing that we would want our students to be too aware of.

By acknowledging the developmental stages of the child, and bringing the appropriate ‘soul food’ for them at the right time, we are seeking to cultivate free-thinking human beings. Free-thinking people are not so motivated by outside, external influences, therefore, able to make their own decisions and well-informed choices based on their own experiences and concepts. Propaganda, proselytizing and other factors do not manipulate free-thinkers. After WWI, those who asked Steiner if there were an educational system that could help prevent this from ever happening again, he responded with the foundations of Waldorf education. Healing and wholeness are results of free-thinking human beings, who act out of their will forces in consciousness and connection to the larger world around them.

All human beings are musical beings. Our very bodies were created out of musical principles. It is our birthright to experience music and music making. Music can only exist in the physical realm through the human being, since it has its foundation in the spiritual realm and requires the human being to bring it into physical manifestation. By engaging in the experience of music, we are experiencing our soul life and our connection to the spiritual world. Music education includes these experiences, as well as, other intellectual and will forces to bring it form and provide an understanding of its nature and its laws.

Storytelling brings a living imaginative aspect to the lessons and meets the children where they are developmentally. Children live in imagination and can digest and take in truths, archetypes and content via imagination that is living, versus a dry, abstract or intellectual explanation of things. Stories can greatly contribute to every subject taught in Waldorf education, including music. Songs themselves contain a ‘story’, and imagination. Stories can prepare a song or activity, allowing the child to receive it etherically and then take it into their soul life to foster the making of their own concepts and arriving at understanding. Even after the 7-yr change (“change of milk teeth”), storytelling has great value in the curriculum. Even in the telling of biographies in the upper grades (6-8) employs this use of living, imaginative storytelling.

Since all children are musical, simply because they are human beings, one cannot be anything other than musical. The teacher can observe the relationship to music and the activities presented in the classroom as relates to intonation, rhythm, listening and recognition skills, social interactions through music, etc. None of these assess ‘being musical’; rather, they assess the relationship to the elements of music in the physical world, which includes their physical body, etheric body, astral body, and ego body (or one's sense of 'I').

Most Waldorf impulses can be utilized in the public school setting however, the parameters set forth by school districts may limit or hinder this (e.g. there may be requirements and dictated skills expected at certain ages or grades that would not be age- appropriate in the light of Waldorf education). Since most public schools do not acknowledge that children are whole human beings (body, mind, and spirit), they do not address all aspects and therefore, do no necessarily support the nurturing and education of the whole child. The Milwaukee school district took up certain Waldorf methods in some of their schools years ago, and as far as I know, they are still being used.

This is a tricky subject in that there are many situations and circumstances which might precipitate these kinds of responses. It mostly has to do with how the teacher holds the activity, if it truly living in the teacher, if it is true for the teacher and the teacher has a living enthusiasm for it him or herself. Also, if there is a culture of singing in a school from the very early grades, it is not so difficult to invite singing in the older grades. For instance, I have had my students from first grade, so that in eighth grade, neither the boys or girls have any issue with singing. They have always been asked to sing, they have always sung and they continue to sing. They have developed a love for music and for singing and have no issues with it. That is not to say that there is no self-consciousness in the older grades. this is very natural, but there are ways to meet it and meet the children respectfully as individual human beings. For the older grades, and for the changing voice in particular, it is crucial to continue singing through this important threshold. They need more singing, not less. The changing voice must be acknowledged, honored, and met. If a teacher is a bit intimidated, or lacking in self-confidence in any way, or if the teacher is reliving one’s own middle school struggles, these all affect and color the students’ experience, as well.

Not so much a tool, as much as a genuine reality - we as the teacher have reverence for the work and especially for the children themselves. The verses said in earnest reverence, the instruments handled and cared for with reverence, the form and structure of lessons and presentation brought with care and reverence - all these can cultivate and support reverence without ever talking about it. Again, it is mostly how the teacher him or herself holds the content and the process. Inappropriate ‘buddy-buddy’ relationships between teacher and student, sarcasm, put-downs or judgements, and arrogance have no place in the classroom and will destroy respect and reverence very quickly.

It is of the upmost importance. This is not the same same as saying one must have a ‘beautiful’ voice. That is a subjective judgment. Steiner says that when we speak or sing, the vocal mechanism of the child literally emulates what our own voice is doing. So the way we use our voice - with tension, harshness, unhealthy stress or with a relaxed, light, free quality - actually develops the child’s voice in the same way. It goes without saying that a music teacher should be able to match pitch and have impeccable intonation, and be able to use his or her voice with fluidity and flexibility, keeping the range high and light as is appropriate for the songs being used. There is much that can be said to respond to this question, and a good book to begin understanding what Steiner says about the voice, its future role (the larynx) and how we might work with it in these times, can be found in the book, “Uncovering the Voice” by Valborg Werbeck-Svärdstrom.

See #15.

I have found, having taught in public schools for years before teaching in Waldorf education, that many things should be brought later than we would in the public school setting. According to Steiner, there are certain things that should be introduced at certain stages of development for very specific reasons and so the curriculum is based on these indications. Also, where Waldorf music education looks most different from mainstream music education is in the early childhood years (pre- nine-year change). There is much to say about this, too.

Also, see #15.

This is a common concern and something that came up for me decades ago in my own teaching situation.

I asked a doctor, who was a parent at our school about this. He asked me if I remembered my own biology classes in high school - and reminded me that bacteria can ONLY live in a moist environment, and if the flutes are dry, they do not harbor germs because the germs cannot live without moisture. Even when the flutes are used by different children during the same week, they cannot carry germs if at least 24-36 hours has passed since it was played. For a music teacher who visits the classes twice per week, any shared flutes that are used, are played several days apart. So this means there would be no possibility for the flutes to carry live germs, as they would have dried out and died.

Your question refers to flutes passed down from grade to grade. I assume you mean from year to year. There is no way germs could survive through the summer holiday. They don't even survive a few days later after being played.

Disinfecting a wooden flute is not necessary, and an attempt to do so with a strong alcohol-based solution would be detrimental to the flutes themselves, drying them out terribly. We oil our flutes occasionally to keep the wood from drying out. Oil on a flute is different than one's breath condensation moisture inside a flute. Germs do not live in oil, but rather in water. So a flute kept 'moist' from oil, is not a threat to anyone's health in terms of harboring germs.

Children have many opportunities to share germs, but unless a child plays someone else's flute immediately afterwards, while it is still moist from the first child's breath condensation, there is no need to worry or hold the flutes responsible for infecting someone.