The Pathways to Lifelong Music Making: Classical vs. Popular Styles

Ask a former concert band learner if they still play their instrument after high school. Chances are 80–90% of them will tell you that they don’t play anymore. Of that 10–20% that do, half of them are likely studying music in university and the other half have found a community group to play with. Ask a rock band learner if they are still playing their instrument after high school or even after elementary school (when music is no longer required) and 80–90% of them, if not all of them, will tell you that they still play in some capacity. I know this because every time I ask a former rock band kid if they still play, even years after they have been at my school, their answer is yes even if they never went into concert band or quit shortly after joining. Learning to play a rock instrument in school is a directly applicable skill to real-life music making. It is also an extremely relatable genre for your learners. It is on the radio and all around them all the time. Concert bands only exist in a military setting outside of school with the exception of community bands. Community bands, however, only exist because of school concert bands. There is no directly applicable or life-long skill learned in this setting without years of additional training.

Ask a former concert band learner if they still play their instrument after high school. Chances are 80–90% of them will tell you that they don't play anymore. Of that 10–20% that do, half of them are likely studying music in university and the other half have found a community group to play with. Ask a rock band learner if they are still playing their instrument after high school or even after elementary school (when music is no longer required) and 80–90% of them, if not all of them, will tell you that they still play in some capacity. I know this because every time I ask a former rock band kid if they still play, even years after they have been at my school, their answer is yes even if they never went into concert band or quit shortly after joining. Learning to play a rock instrument in school is a directly applicable skill to real-life music making. It is also an extremely relatable genre for your learners. It is on the radio and all around them all the time. Concert bands only exist in a military setting outside of school with the exception of community bands. Community bands, however, only exist because of school concert bands. There is no directly applicable or life-long skill learned in this setting without years of additional training.
The Pathways to Lifelong Learning After School

I am not suggesting that schools cut concert band because I think it definitely has its place in education. I love playing in concert bands and still do when I get the chance but they are only directly relevant for those planning to study music in university. This means, if you want your programs to thrive and to stay relevant in this current educational climate, rock bands or popular music ensembles should be included. I am not talking about learning concert band or big band arrangements of rock and pop tunes because that is not an authentic way to learn popular music. Just like concert band music cannot be played authentically with a guitar, a bass, and a drum kit, popular music cannot be portrayed authentically with concert band instruments in a concert band setting, reading music with a conductor.

Even learning an instrument in the way that popular musicians learn can definitely help to encourage lifelong learning and enjoyment of any musical instrument. Learning by ear is the way music has been learned since its creation but we have lost this essential art. Teaching kids techniques to learn by ear or simply giving them free reign to learn a song on their own, by ear, will give them the skills they need for lifelong enjoyment if starting a rock group is not in the cards right now. However, you can’t afford not to start a rock group. The instruments are cheaper, the music is more relevant, and it promotes creativity naturally. Just check out some of my reasons for starting a rock group at your school!

Here are a few ways you can add in some of these techniques into your classroom (band, choir, or general):

  1. For a warm-up have your learners do a jam session. Put on a jam track or play a chording instrument in the key you are working on that day and “mosh” some solos. This means that everyone plays at once so that nerves don’t get in the way of making their own music. Then ask for solos or duets. Shouldn’t take any more than 5 to 10 minutes of time. You can even set the parametres and add instruments if you like as they get better. What a fun way to learn a key signature!
  2. Find a song with a repetitive riff and have them pick out the parts by ear and rearrange it as a class. Learn it on Orff percussion first, then have them transfer what they know to other instruments. It takes time but the educational value in this project is amazing. Here is an example of the end product using the song “I Love Rock n’ Roll” with my Grade 6s.
  3. Invite learners to create a piece of music together in a simple form such as ABA. Simply begin with repetitive riffs and patterns and then put them together to create a composition. This can be done with any combination of instruments and at any level. Yes—even band. I did it with a Grade 2 and 3 class and they loved it. I have my unit plan on Steve’s Music Room that includes a link to the finished product.
  4. Give learners opportunities to learn popular songs by ear. If they can sing it, they can play it. For a wind instrument learner it is helpful to give them the first note in a key that is comfortable for them. Fretted instruments such as guitars, but also percussion, and keyboards are not like this. All the the pitches for the instrument are in front of them and do not need to be transposed. If you have a nice set of practice rooms, you could have groups learning different songs or individuals doing that as well. Giving them a place to start, such as a first note, is still extremely helpful. I recently had my entire class of recorder players learn a Christmas carol in about 10 minutes by ear. They just needed the first pitch and one new note (Bb) and they were able to get the gist of it in that short time. This could be a warm-up activity or a series of short projects to practice by-ear-learning.

Classical music in school has traditionally been taught in a way that hinders life-long enjoyment in a particular instrument. Rock and popular styles do the opposite. Most of us are not trained in how to teach a rock band, nor in how these musicians learn their craft. If you aren’t quite ready to start a rock band, you can at least begin to incorporate more pop and rock influenced learning techniques using some of these ideas. My book, “Rock Coach” instructs teachers on how to incorporate more creative and by-ear practices into their teaching as well as directly instructs teachers on how to coach a rock band from step one at their schools. I am also available for presentations and if you like, I can set up a Skype or Google Hangouts meeting with you to help you through some of this stuff! If this is something you are considering or you would like to ask a question, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Happy Musicking!

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