Teaching rock bands in schools is a passion of mine. The kids really gravitate to it and can really impress me. They blow me away at every concert. The following is an excerpt from my soon-to-be published book called “Rock Coach” where I take you through how to set up and successfully teach a rock group at your school. It is altered slightly to fit the context of this blog post but is essentially what you would find in the book.
Rock music focuses on different skills and is learned differently than more traditional genres of music. From my experience performing rock music on various instruments there are skills that are given different emphasis. For example, reading and understanding written music is not as important or even expected as much as a good ear and the ability to fake it are. For the most part, reading and understanding written music is not needed to be a world class rock musician. Creativity occurs much more organically and naturally with this genre of music as well. You would be hard pressed to come across a rock musician that hadn’t at least dabbled in composing their own music either on their own or in a group. If you are reading this post, you are already partly convinced that rock bands are a viable option in music education but if you need further reaffirmation or perhaps you need to convince a colleague or administrator, here it is:
1: ROCK BAND ENGAGES THOSE STUDENTS WHO WOULD NOT NORMALLY BE INVOLVED IN ANY OTHER MUSIC ACTIVITY IN SCHOOL
Throughout my time coaching rock bands at my school, there is one aspect about their group composition that stands out. Most of the students involved in these rock ensembles are not engaged in any other extracurricular ensemble. What is particularly striking about this is that boys are more likely to be hooked on playing music if this type of ensemble is offered. For anyone who has spent any period of time teaching in public schools, engaging boys in anything school related can generally be quite a challenge. Rock bands provide equal opportunity for both boys and girls to be successful in music.
There is also in-class guitar instruction at my school that includes students of all skill levels but does also grab those kids who would not normally be involved in choir or rock band, or any traditional ensembles.
2. ROCK BAND ACTS AS AN ENRICHMENT PROGRAM FOR GIFTED CHILDREN
We all have them, those high achieving students that do well in all areas at school. There is just one problem—they aren’t challenged. A rock band can easily provide that challenge students are looking for. I have had a student in the past that would be considered a model student who excelled in every aspect of school and life. She also happened to be taking piano lessons outside of school. Any concepts or skills we learned in music class were beneath her. She was always one step ahead of me and many times seemed to understand music better than I did! She became a piano/keyboard player in the band when she was in grade 4 but easily could have made it in before that if auditions were available to students in grade 3. I challenged her and picked very keyboard and piano heavy tunes for her to play that year. There were times where we would do a tune that required her to play two separate keyboards at a time, while switching sounds on both without missing a beat. It was a challenge that she craved, and she loved it.
3. ROCK BAND EFFECTIVELY ENGAGES STUDENTS IN LEARNING
There have been at least two students that jump out to me as easily being poster children for music education. They found their niche through the rock band at school. Other ensembles can do this but they never found their niche in any other school activity—curricular or extracurricular. At least one of them went from comepletely unengaged in school with behaviour problems to very polite and completely engaged due to his membership in the rock band at school. The best predictor of future success is past success—any success. You can read about this student in my article titled “Why Our Work Matters.”
4. ROCK BAND IS MORE RELEVANT TO STUDENTS (AND AUDIENCES)
Rock music is everywhere. When we turn on the radio, it’s there; when we go to a sporting event, it’s there; when we go a concert, it’s there. We can’t get away from it and because of this, students know rock music even if they don’t realize they do. It’s hardwired into all of our DNA. When we think of music in schools, the last type of music that comes to mind is rock music. Should it not be one of the first? Think of it this way: A typical physical education program in a school includes exposure to many different sports. Most of these sports are easily found outside of school and most are part of our society. Most activities and sports they play are extremely relevant and relate perfectly to personal enjoyment outside of school. For example, hockey, at least in Canada, is considered our national winter sport and is engrained into our society. It is played in school, and out of school. A physical education program that does not include at least floor hockey would be considered blasphemous. Think of dodgeball—there are no or very few professional leagues for dodgeball and the only place it really exists is in schools. The reason recreational leagues exist now outside of school is because we all had it in school. Now, relate this to a music program—replace the word “Hockey” with the words “Rock Band” and the word “Dodgeball” with “Concert Band.” If we exclude music that is regularly played outside of school, how is school music relevant for students? With the exception of army bands, there are no or very few professional concert bands outside of school and the only reason community bands exist is because they did it in school. So not only are rock bands extremely familiar to students, they directly relate to rock music outside of school. By including it in our school music programs, we ready our students to better compete in the real world of music making after they graduate.
On that same wavelength, student rock bands can connect with an audience better than other ensembles can. Audiences love to hear music they know. This is one of the main reasons cover bands do so well and the starving musician persona that plagues original bands exists.
5. ROCK BAND NATURALLY FOCUSES ON CREATIVITY, MEMORY, AND BY-EAR-LEARNING
Rock music is, by nature, creative. Having played in many types of ensembles throughout my career, I never feel more creative than when I play rock music. There are no written parts, no chord charts, no score, and no conductor. There are many opportunities for writing your own music and improvising solos. Keep in mind, students don’t have to create entire songs to be creative. They can simply present form and arrangement ideas within a song; I call these musical choices. I have had students make a musical choice to change the bass line at the end of “Eye of the Tiger” because they felt it sounded better that way. They were right, it did, and it didn’t change the integrity of the song. Sometimes, students at my school have to make creative musical choices just to finish a song. Some extended outros (opposite of an intro) are often impossible to recreate because they were created in the studio or they just don’t sound right in a live setting, and it is always impossible to recreate a live fade out. Instead of worrying about how to do it, the students and I figure out a way to end the song that makes sense. Essentially, they create their own ending for most songs that they play. These creative opportunities present themselves regularly when teaching rock music and students can do this quite naturally and with little thought or hesitation.
When I perform with The Sidewalks (my own original band) or with other rock ensembles everything is performed by memory, forcing the musicians to listen to each other more and create a tight sense of groove. Composing songs greatly helps in developing this skill because the composition literally becomes a part of you. I have had students in the rock bands over the years who had developed such advanced memory skills that they would only need to run a tune once or twice to get it.
Many if not all of the students in my school rock bands over the years developed tremendous aural skills that any university music student would be envious of. One of the piano players that I had could read music very well but had very little need to implement that skill with the band. Her ear, by grade 6, had become so developed that she could listen to something once and play it back. I have had many other instrumentalists over the years that developed ears like this. This is mostly due to the fact that rock music is naturally learned by ear or by imitation.
I will have more reasons for starting a rock band at your school in the coming months. Right now, you can bask in these. Do you have any other good reasons to start a rock group at your school?
EDIT – Here is PART 2!