The Modern Band Movement: Accessible, Relevant, and Student-Centered Education
The term modern band may sound somewhat familiar, particularly to music education faculty, as modern band programming currently exists in over 400 school districts and 50 higher education institutions in 45 states (Little Kids Rock 2019). What is modern band and why is it something that tertiary educators and administrators should be paying attention to?
Modern band was coined by David Wish, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Little Kids Rock, after consulting with K–12 music teachers. It is a kind of music class, like marching band, jazz band, or choir. Unlike most music classes, however, modern band uses popular music as the central canon—including rock, pop, reggae, hip-hop, rhythm & blues, electronic dance music, and other contemporary styles that K–12 students prefer. Just like choir, band, and orchestra have a typical set of instruments that are a part of the ensemble, modern band has a typical set of instruments: drum set, bass guitar, electric/acoustic guitar, vocals, and computer music software. However, other instruments can be included in modern band ensembles (Little Kids Rock 2019). There have been modern band programs that include ukuleles, bucket drums, or vihuelas. Modern band is not a program for music education that is set in stone. It is not just “garage band.” It goes far beyond that and is much more flexible. Teachers who want to include modern band programming are encouraged to start where their students are. What music do students like? What skills do students already have? How can the teacher start with these interests and skills and help move students beyond that?
The pedagogy used within modern band classes is Music as a Second Language (MSL), an approach to music education that was adapted from Krashen’s Five Hypotheses of Second Language Acquisition. As a learner-centered, participatory approach, MSL shares many characteristics with other active approaches to music education common in the United States, such as Orff Schulwerk and Dalcroze. Core tenants of MSL include: (1) learning music informally (aurally and collaboratively, with opportunities for self- and peer-directed learning); (2) learning the “rules” and thus how to monitor one’s own learning and creating; (3) learning holistically and non-sequentially (the teacher allows students to take different pathways to acquiring skills); (4) being surrounded by fluent speakers (i.e., the music teacher and other music professionals as models and guides); and (5) learning in a safe, low-anxiety environment that builds student confidence (e.g., with affirmations and lots of group playing before asking for solos or sharing).
The purpose of modern band is to make music making more accessible to all students in K–12 schools (Little Kids Rock, 2019). The goal of including programming like modern band is not to replace choir, band, and orchestra. It is to serve as a compliment; it is an option for students who cannot afford to purchase or rent instruments or who do not have the preliminary skills on instruments to join a secondary school band or orchestra. Since participation in modern band does not require that students already know how to read music staff notation or understand rhythmic notation, students without prior experience in school music ensembles can immediately participate in a meaningful way. Modern band is for students whose interests lie beyond the Western European art music canon. It is for those students who “mess around” making beats on their computer, or who have been riffing on their guitar at home all these years. It is also for those students who never had the confidence to continue with music because they simply felt that they were not musical. While non-auditioned choirs may also fulfill this role, they are not typically offered as much as auditioned choirs at the secondary level.
Instead of pulling students away from traditional secondary music programs, modern band programs can actually bolster enrollment. Once students have a little bit of confidence or see their musical interests reflected in school music through modern band, some become interested in furthering their musicality and broadening their musical experiences by signing up for choir, band, and orchestra. Likewise, some students in traditional large ensembles became interested in the modern band programming. Both kinds of classes can support and complement each other. While there is only anecdotal evidence of this happening in schools so far (no one has completed a research study on this yet), it makes sense that if students are feeling more confident in their music abilities, they will search to broaden and challenge themselves in those areas.
The modern band movement is a relatively new phenomenon, but the call for such programming is over 50 years old. In 1967, the Tanglewood Symposium marked the beginning of a concerted effort to accept popular music as a suitable subject for music education in the United States—“music of all periods, styles, forms, and cultures belong [sic] in the curriculum. The musical repertory should be expanded to involve music of our time in its rich variety, including currently popular teen age [sic] music” (as cited in Mark & Gary 2007, 365). For over twenty years, the content of curricula changed to include popular music, but there was a failure to make appropriate changes in pedagogy. Modern band took root in K–12 schools first and only recently has it gained a place in higher education institutions.
The recent inclusion of modern band program in tertiary programs is important and addresses the recommendations set forth in the 2014 College Music Society document, Transforming music study from its foundations: A manifesto for progressive change in the undergraduate preparation of music majors. Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major (Campbell et al. 2014). Authors who contributed to the manifesto recommended revising undergraduate music major programs to (1) include the practices and traditions of contemporary musicians in American society, (2) shift from teacher-centered to student-centered pedagogy, (3) change content from Western European art music to world and popular music, and (4) restore the balance between the role of musicians in contemporary society and the development of musicians in higher education institutions.
Modern band programming currently exists in college curricula in a variety of ways. Some courses embed a unit of Modern Band within the curriculum, for example, a few lessons on Modern Band within a general music methods course. Existing courses, such as a secondary general music methods course, have been entirely revised to center on Modern Band. Similarly, new classes on Modern Band are offered through the use of course numbers without titles, meant to be used for specialized seminars. Some schools create new ensembles, such as ukulele groups or student rock bands, that do not require course numbers and are open to all music majors. A few schools have revised their undergraduate music education curricula to include Modern Band programming under a different name; Ithaca College, for example, uses the title Contemporary Ensembles in the Public School.
Modern band is accessible, relevant, inclusive, and student-centered. It can co-exist with music courses currently being offered in higher education institutions. If one is interested in learning more about this kind of programming, there are plenty of professional development opportunities to take advantage of—from the modern band workshops offered at a variety of colleges and universities to the Modern Band Summit conference that occurs every July in Fort Collins, Colorado. Professors may consider applying for the Modern Band Higher Education Fellowship to receive intensive training in how to prepare preservice music teachers to teach ensembles like modern band. At the least, one can peruse the Little Kids Rock website to access free materials and videos of what modern band is all about. In the end, the goal is to tap into the musicality of all students. Through modern band programming, tertiary educators can help make music education more accessible for all.
- The Modern Band Higher Education Fellowship: http://www.littlekidsrock.org/modern-band-fellowship/
- The Modern Band Summit https://www.littlekidsrock.org/mbsummit/
- Little Kids Rock website: https://www.littlekidsrock.org/
- Modern Band workshops: https://www.littlekidsrock.org/for-teachers/apply/
Campbell, P. S., Convener, T. F., Sarath, E., Chattah, J., Higgins, L., Levine, V. L., Rudge, D., & Rice, T. 2014. Transforming Music Study From Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors. The College Music Society. Accessed February 25, 2020. http://www.music.org/pdf/tfumm_report.pdf
Little Kids Rock. 2019. https://www.littlekidsrock.org/
Mark, M. L., & Gary, C. L. 2007. A History of American Music Education (3rd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Martina Vasil, PhD, is assistant professor of music education and director of the Modern Band, Orff Schulwerk, and Dalcroze Summer Institute at the University of Kentucky. She teaches collegiate courses in general music, popular music education, and qualitative research and music preK–6 at Lexington Montessori School.