Today, millions of children in the US receive no music education whatsoever. This happens in spite of the fact that a mounting body of scientific evidence demonstrates the myriad benefits of music education. Ongoing funding cuts propel that dangerous trend forward.
Many concerned people are working hard to preserve what little remains of public school music programs and, for the sake of our kids, thank goodness they are!
However, at a time when the conversation of concerned citizens and educators often centers upon the simple conservation of existing programs, Little Kids Rock is pushing the envelope by expanding these offerings and pioneering an entirely new kind of music program in the nation’s public schools.
Our program focuses on teaching children to play the popular music of the past 60 years. We are the first and only entity in the US to both advocate for and launch such programming in our public schools on a national level.
The response from students, educators and administrators has been overwhelmingly positive. Demand for our services is very brisk. In the space of just eight years, Little Kids Rock has grown to become one of the largest, free instrumental music programs in the country.
I want to shine a bright light on what children, teachers, administrators and school districts are so remarkably ready for — a fifth stream of music education.
Traditionally, public school instrumental music programs have consisted of four distinct “streams”: orchestra, jazz band, marching band and chorus. At schools with robust music programs, all four of these streams may exist harmoniously under a single roof.
Other schools may have any combination of these offerings. The teaching of these streams emphasizes prescribed content and focuses on the learning and playing of genre-based music through note reading. Recitation of music composed by others is common.
The most recent stream of music education to entrench itself in the US public school system is jazz band which rolled out on a national level in the 1970s.
Forward-thinking educators of the day saw that music education was in need of a refresh. This happened at a time when the commercial appeal of jazz music was waning but recognition of its importance as a cultural treasure was beginning to grow.
Jazz reached the apex of its commercial appeal in the 40s and 50s – 30 years before the introduction of jazz into school music programs. However, as it was initially being integrated into schools, the newness of the approach led its proponents to call it by the less threatening (though more confusing) name of “stage band.”
Forty years have passed and jazz is no longer a threat. However, in the 60 years since jazz was at the top of the US charts, an awful lot has happened in the broader world of music. The advent and triumph of rock ‘n’ roll music has fueled the development of a spate of seemingly disparate sub-genres, including rap, heavy metal, punk, top 40, funk, disco, hip hop, electronica, reggae, country and more.
The last three generations of pop composers and performers have changed the face of music profoundly and dramatically influenced the tastes of youth and adults alike. The commercial landscape is now dominated by the work of these newer artists.
What does all this mean for music education? Here I will echo the words of famed piano man Billy Joel when he astutely pointed to the answer in a clever lyric: “Whether it’s hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk it’s still rock and roll to me.”
Joel is saying that, despite the surface differences between these genres, they are all built on the same musical foundations. The defining instruments of these genres are the same: guitar, piano, drums, bass and vocals. The chords used are diatonic and songs center around a single key or just a few keys. Most importantly, this music is usually taught by non-traditional teachers, and this is done outside of the public school system.
Naming and NEEDING The Fifth Stream
The concept of a fifth stream of music education is so new that, like jazz band before it (aka “stage band”) it lacks a definitive name. I have taken the liberty of naming it, for the time being, “Contemporary Band.” Contemporary band can and does bridge the unnecessary chasm existing between the music our children experience in schools and the music they experience in their communities.
However, it is not only our students who can experience the disconnect between what they listen to at home and what they learn at school. Increasingly, music educators themselves feel the strain between their own experiences of music in the world and music as they have been trained to teach it. Such is the impact that popular music has had on our culture for more than half a century.
Newly minted (and not so newly minted) music teachers are also the products of the same cultural shift that has transformed the face of music. Simply stated, they are part of one of the rock ‘n’ roll generations. I emphasize the word “generations” because there are now at least three of them. Apologies to Roger Daltrey…
Each of the four existing streams of music education has pedagogical underpinnings and teaching techniques that stem from both the cultural practices of each stream’s founders and teachers as well as the specific demands of the genres they embrace.
The classical music stream teaches a group discipline and rigor necessary for large ensembles performing elaborate pieces with many precise parts. The jazz stream (ideally) teaches improvisation, as this is a central part of what constitutes jazz music.
What unique or special skills and values can a fifth stream music program bring to our children?
The “Contemporary Band” stream re-imagines music education from the ground up. Drawing liberally from the teaching practices and learning dispositions of the rock ‘n’ roll laity, we have codified an approach that is replicable in public schools and yet maintains the core value of the “pop approach” to music making. Think of the long-haired guitar teacher at the back of the music store or the older sister in a band or the Beatles or Nirvana or the legions of people who play, learn and/or teach contemporary music. How do they pass on the knowledge?
The fifth stream emphasizes the act of creation over that of recitation. Although there is an emerging pop canon, pop musicians frequently compose their own music. By teaching children to do the same, they are empowered to use music for its primary, inherent purpose — as a communicative tool.
This stream integrates composition and improvisation at the beginning of children’s educations as a means of ensuring they experience the confidence building and self-esteem raising benefits that come with authorship. Currently, all other fields of a liberal arts education afford such opportunities to young children: music education is often the sole exception.
Focusing on music that is familiar to our students allows them to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. By validating and leveraging their cultural capital, we can forge stronger bonds between traditionally marginalized students and the schools that serve them.
The results have been nothing short of astounding. In addition to reaching an ever-expanding student body and transforming their lives, it has also unleashed the nation’s largest teacher-led, educational reform movement in the music education space.
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Guest Author Profile
About David Wish
The founder and executive director of Little Kids Rock, David has distinguished himself as a dynamic and visionary educational leader. In 2005, he was awarded a fellowship by the Draper Richards Foundation to support his work as social entrepreneur at Little Kids Rock. Before founding Little Kids Rock in 1996, he spent 10 years as an elementary school teacher, during which time he served his peers as master teacher, clinician and trainer. He has also worked as a Spanish bilingual teacher, a school music teacher and a professional musician. David is a credentialed teacher in the state of California and holds B.A. in Sociology and History from Brandeis University.
All photos Courtesy of Little Kids Rock flickr Photo Stream