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Transforming Jazz Bands into Versatile Ensembles with Vocalists

As a professional vocal coach who has worked closely with jazz bands, I invite band directors to consider integrating vocalists into their ensembles. This decision can transform your band’s musical journey, enriching your student’s educational experience and enhancing your performances’ overall impact.

Over a decade ago, I was approached to consult with a junior high and high school instrumental program seeking to incorporate vocalists with performance training. Witnessing the growth of that program, from just three singers to over 60 vocalists across 20 groups, was nothing short of inspiring. It’s a testament to the potential and benefits of integrating vocalists into jazz bands.

Jazz bands have long been celebrated as hubs of instrumental learning and performance. However, adding vocalists can open a world of musical and educational possibilities. Here’s why you should consider taking the plunge:

Enriching the Repertoire: Jazz boasts diverse stylistic branches and vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole have left an indelible mark on its history. By incorporating vocalists, your band can explore a broader range of jazz standards, delving into nuanced phrasing and uniquely vocal expression.

Educational Opportunities Beyond Instruments: Vocalists bring a fresh perspective to the ensemble, challenging instrumentalists to listen and interact in new ways. For vocalists, singing within a jazz band setting cultivates invaluable skills in timing, phrasing, improvisation, and microphone technique.

Developing Ensemble Skills: Playing alongside vocalists demands a heightened sensitivity to dynamics and timing, fostering a deeper sense of musical cohesion and responsiveness among band members. These skills are essential for jazz performance and transferable to other musical genres.

Fostering Community and Collaboration: Music is inherently collaborative, and integrating vocalists into your ensemble can foster a stronger sense of community among your students. The shared experiences of rehearsals and performances forge lasting bonds, enriching students’ social networks and professional prospects.

Enhancing Performance Appeal and Audience Engagement: Vocal pieces add a familiar and engaging element to jazz performances, drawing in audiences and making concerts more accessible. The visual impact of solo vocal performances can also elevate the overall concert experience, leaving a lasting impression on listeners.

Incorporating vocalists into high school jazz bands is about expanding musical horizons and fostering innovation, collaboration, and growth. It’s about honoring jazz’s tradition while pushing its boundaries forward, ensuring its continued evolution and inspiration for future generations.

Many resources are available to help you in this journey.  In his book, The Real Jazz Pedagogy Book: How to Build a Superior Jazz Ensemble, I collaborated with Dr. Ray Smith on his chapter, Helping the Vocalist in Your Band. We cover such topics as finding charts that can work or be adapted to work with a vocalist, finding the right vocalist through auditions, vocal improvisation, microphone technique, and learning the art of fronting the band. 

So, to all the band directors considering integrating vocalists into their jazz bands, I encourage you to take that leap of faith. The rewards are boundless, and the impact on your students’ musical journey will be immeasurable. Together, let’s embark on a musical adventure that transcends boundaries and celebrates the transformative power of jazz.

Jennifer Madsen, a luminary in vocal jazz, boasts over 45+ years of experience as an award-winning vocalist, instructor, musical director, and education committee member of the Jazz Education Network.

The Art of Jazz Programming

One of the most important and exciting aspects of cultivating a thriving jazz program begins with intentional programming. Whether you are directing a middle school, high school, or collegiate ensemble, the goal is to find repertoire to showcase the strengths of your group. Ultimately, you want to select tunes to spark curiosity and encourage musical growth and development. This article discusses the challenges of jazz programming while offering insights, resources, and strategies to help educators in their quest to elevate their respective programs.  

Assessing Your Ensemble
Before digging into the abundance of jazz repertoire available, it’s crucial to assess your ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses. Having a strong understanding of the current skill level of the group and its musical limitations can set you on a solid path to selecting appropriate pieces for your group. 

A good way to assess your group is to have a reading rehearsal/session that includes charts of a variety of styles at different grade levels. Areas of strengths and weaknesses will quickly become clear.  Make note of these areas as you are working through your assessment. After the assessment, rather than focusing solely on the weaknesses, use them as strengths in your selection process by choosing charts that will help them strengthen their deficiencies. Conversely, reward them with charts that showcase elements they excel at. This provides a good balance and keeps the ensemble in a state of constant development, always working to improve fundamentals and overall performance outcomes.

Strengthening Jazz Fundamentals
Given that most of your students probably started most of their instrumental training within the Western European classical tradition, it is crucial to establish new habits for navigating the nuances of the jazz language to help with overall musical expression. This begins with codifying articulations and ensuring a solid grasp of essential jazz elements like syncopation, swing, and overall jazz style. For example, singing as an ensemble is a great way to reinforce these concepts.  As the director, you can hear what concepts are solid and which ones are still developing. By instilling a deep understanding of these fundamentals, students can gain the necessary skills for musical expression and cohesion within the ensemble. Building upon this strong foundation not only fosters technical proficiency but also cultivates a shared musical language and understanding that enhances the overall growth and “tightness” of the group.

Programming Essentials
As you embark on the journey of programming for your jazz ensemble, prioritize selections that are grounded in the jazz tradition, while encompassing a diverse range of genres and styles. Jazz tradition refers to tunes that include elements of blues, syncopation, swing, and creative freedom. As you rehearse your pieces, be sure to infuse historical context into rehearsals and concerts, providing insights into the origins of tunes and the legacies of jazz artists being played. By offering a well-rounded repertoire that reflects the rich history of this art form, you create a dynamic learning environment that fosters musical appreciation, exploration, and curiosity.

Programming Pitfalls
Although it might be tempting to select pop charts, I urge you to resist programming tunes that are not grounded or at least linked to the jazz tradition. While pop charts are great, they are more suitable for different groups such as pep bands. Strive for a well-rounded mix of both traditional and contemporary pieces to help your ensemble establish a solid foundation in jazz basics and swing while also welcoming innovation and creativity. Incorporate charts that focus on improvisation, which will encourage the development of improvisation skills as well as artistic and individual expression. 

Securing Your Repertoire
Finding the perfect charts for your ensemble requires dedication and ingenuity. Dedicate time and effort in finding suitable repertoire, collaborating with colleagues, and exploring a variety of online resources and other platforms. Expand your search beyond your “normal” outlets to discover hidden gems that resonate with your ensemble’s unique style and abilities. For instance, collaborate with colleagues outside of your social circle. By compiling a diverse repertoire that challenges and inspires your musicians, you lay the groundwork for musical excellence and growth.

Composer, Arranger & Repertoire Ideas
Determine a thoughtfully selected collection of repertoire ideas across different genres and styles, ranging from blues and ballads to Latin and swing tunes. Tailor your choices to match the skill level of your group, providing a well-rounded program of challenging and rewarding compositions. Explore compositions by established and emerging arrangers to offer your musicians exposure to various musical styles through multiple lenses. If you are still having trouble finding appropriate charts for your group, consider engaging a composer or arranger who can tailor pieces to your programming needs. You could choose to commission a composer or arranger to create an original work or form a consortium with other jazz directors to collectively fund the work of broadening your repertoire. This joint effort promotes collaboration and fosters a sense of community among programs looking for similar repertoire expansions in the jazz genre.  

Organizations such as Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Jazz Education Network offer a variety of resources for bridging the gap for jazz educators. You can find valuable guidance in textbooks such as Jazz Pedagogy: The Jazz Educator’s Handbook and Resource Guide and Teaching Music through Performance in Jazz Volumes 1 & 2. These texts can be transformative for those building their jazz program from the ground up. It is important to seek out conferences, educational programs, webinars, and online discussions dedicated to supporting jazz educators in elevating their program. As the instruction of this art form has transitioned into intermediate, secondary, and higher education levels, rather than solely relying on hands-on, lived experiences and learning from masters of the craft, directors need to acknowledge our roles as “keepers of the flame.” This involves creating an environment that fosters ongoing learning, listening and the building of community, with the goal of pushing forward this art form while preserving its core spirit and essence.

Elevating your jazz program requires strategic planning, thoughtful selection of repertoire, and ongoing professional development and education on the style, and tradition. The music you program holds great significance for many students. These examples may serve as the first introduction to jazz for many, shaping their perception of the art form. By setting a level of excitement and passion for the artform, and showcasing a strong commitment to the tradition, you can establish a jazz program that inspires future jazz musicians.

Joseph L. Jefferson is a Yamaha Performing Artist (trombone), an associate professor of music / director of jazz ensembles at St. Olaf College, and a member of the Jazz Education Network Education Committee.

Punk Rock In(vades) the Classroom

You’ve all heard of punk rock – The Ramones, The Clash, mohawks, attitudes, piercings, et cetera. But did you know there are certain traits from punk culture that can be beneficial to our students? But isn’t punk rock inappropriate? This belief might get you pushback from administrators or parents. The same was said about hip-hop, and there is currently a big push for hip-hop’s inclusion in the curricula; so why not punk? Punk rock is a style of music, yes, but it also has a rich culture (fashion, art, community, and philosophy) that should not be ignored. 

Punk Culture exists at the intersection of music, visual art, fashion, community gatherings, and dancing. Punk art exists in the form of punk ‘zines, flyers or album art usually created by the bands or fans. It’s not uncommon to see a range of punk clothing from jeans and band shirts to mohawks and Doc Marten’s. Punks gathered at landmarks like CBGB in New York where The Ramones, Blondie, and Patti Smith got their start; The Church in Hermosa Beach, California where Black Flag lived, 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, where The Replacements played alongside Hüsker Dü who recorded Land Speed Record there, the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., where Minor Threat and Bad Brains played, 924 Gilman Street in Berkley, California where volunteers opened an all-ages venue where Operation Ivy and Green Day got their start. Punk rock is very inclusive and conscious about representation. All you need to do is look at Punk Island NYC, a purely DIY festival that strives for true representation of the punk community.

Inclusion in Our Curricula. Another key component of the culture of punk rock is the DIY (do-it yourself) ethos, which helped hardcore bands flourish in the early 1980s. It would benefit our students if they knew kids their age took it upon themselves to learn how to play, write their own songs; they created record labels to record and release their own music. They learned how to book and promote tours, and even figured out how to create their own record sleeves from paper.

Punk’s aggression is a healthy outlet for letting out energy and emotion, something your students need. Bands like Bad Religion whose lead singer Greg Graffin has a PhD. in zoology introduce a higher level of vocabulary in their songs in addition to playing with vigor. Punk rock bands are known to have anti-establishment leanings that reject the music, culture, and norms of their modern society – a counterculture. This component will help your students think critically about the world around them.

Punk Rock Music. Punk rock is a rebellious music genre characterized by fast, raw, and often political or humorous lyrics. This section is by no means the be-all-end-all of defining punk rock, but serves as a reference point using the elements of music – rhythm, melody, harmony, form dynamics, timbre, texture, lyrics:


Fast, straightforward rhythms; agile.

Driving, relentless beat. 

Simple, repetitive drum patterns.


Simple, straightforward, memorable, and catchy hooks.

Could be amelodic in the form of screaming or yelling.

Countermelodies can happen on guitars or background vocals.


Minimal harmonic complexity, I, IV, V, and vi chords.

Power chords and/or dissonant intervals. 

Modern punks have started to expand their harmonic vocabulary.


Simple, linear song structure with verses, choruses, and a bridge. 

Short and concise. 

Minimal instrumental solos or complex arrangements (an antithesis of this is “The Decline” by NOFX). 


Loud, and limited dynamic range. 

Consistent loud volume and intensity. 

More contemporary practices incorporate a wider range of dynamics. 


Raw and distorted guitars.

Aggressive, hard-hitting drum sounds. 

Snarling or shouted vocals. 

The instrumentation can be minimal but impactful.

Recording quality substandard in the early days.


Straightforward and dense, homophony.

Tight rhythm section and prominent guitar work. 

Commonplace – all instruments to play at full throttle. 


Addresses themes of rebellion, anti-authority, social and political issues, personal experiences; confrontational or rebellious tone.

Humorous lyrics. 

Straightforward and direct, emphasizing the message

Punk in Modern Band. Take some liberties with the arrangement of a non-punk song using the elements of punk music as a guide – speed it up (rhythm), add distortion (timbre), crank the volume (dynamics). You could also choose a punk song and change the style and feel – slow it down (rhythm). instead of power chords, make everything a seventh chord (harmony). A great example of this is the song “Straight Edge” by Minor Threat and the NOFX cover. Use the elements to write a 30-second song. Guide them through the process with a series of choices and limitations. Pop punk, ska, or hardcore? Chord progression – I – V – vi – IV, or choose your own. Writing lyrics can be done with sentence starters or a worksheet. Ask questions like “What are you upset about today?”, “What about it makes you upset?”, “What will make you feel better?”, “Use four words to describe how you feel.” I don’t like my lunch today, it’s the same gross thing everyday, I wish I had a grilled cheese or a PB and J. I hate my lunch.”  

Incorporating punk music in your classroom opens the door to new possibilities of experimentation with your curricula. Introducing students not only to punk, but its culture and ideals can yield many rewards for your classroom and, more importantly, our students’ lives.

John M. Licari is a modern band director, concert band director, and upper elementary general music teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 

Modern Band and Beyond: Building Community in Your Ensemble-Based Classroom

Take yourself back to grade school for a moment. You’re navigating changing social relationships, growing awareness of your identity, a changing body, and increased academic pressures. Everything feels chaotic and unknown. Where do you find your community? The music room, of course! Cultivating this community is imperative to making music with our students. But it can be hard to create space for direct social emotional learning (SEL) activities when we have concerts to prepare for and a rigid rehearsal plan. My approach to this issue uses a combination of both direct SEL instruction and community-driven ideals embedded throughout my teaching. 

One way I create a brave, community-focused, musical environment in my classroom is through positively-worded classroom expectations (rules). 

My classroom rules are simple:

1. Care for the space.

2. Care for each other.

3. Care for yourselves.

4. Have fun!

I intentionally keep these statements open ended and worded in a way that centers community care. When asked what it means to “care for the space, each other, and ourselves,” my students always land on the same messages; take care of the instruments (don’t break them), one speaker at a time, follow the Golden Rule, and “speak kindly to ourselves even if we make mistakes.” That last one is my favorite. Speaking kindly to ourselves and allowing ourselves to make mistakes is a lesson most of us continue to navigate into adulthood! 

From day one of music class, my students know they can feel safe to make mistakes and are encouraged to be brave and bold in their mistakes and to learn from them. I always say, “if you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one so we know you meant it!” By saying this, I am constantly imparting the message that mistakes are encouraged and celebrated as important parts of the learning process. This message comes in handy particularly when you ask students to take the mic to sing or to perform a solo. When they lead with community care in mind, they know their musical skills will be celebrated even as they are evolving.

Another way I center community and bravery in the classroom is through the creation of musical affirmations. There is power in our words, and teaching students to speak words of support, success, and bravery into the musical space creates a joyful environment. At the start of the school year, after we go through the classroom expectations, we create musical affirmations. These affirmations build on the community care elements of my classroom rules and allow students to start thinking about how they will put our musical community first when they step into my classroom. 

I like to spend a full class period engaging in a musical affirmation lesson. While this does take away from rehearsal time, this is one of those moments when creating community can take precedent. To teach about affirmations, I follow a simple process: 

1. Define + Brainstorm: What are affirmations and what role can they play in our lives? What are some examples of affirmations?

2. Create: What would a music-focused affirmation sound like? Independently write a musical affirmation on an index card.

3. Share: Capture the responses on chart paper, slide show, or whiteboard.

4. Connect: Identify common themes and create a classroom set of music affirmations.

After this lesson, we practice speaking our affirmations out loud by sharing them with each other. For this activity, I ask my students to stand in a circle and present a talking piece. Students toss the talking piece to another member of the band and speaks an affirmation to them. For example: “you are an important member of the band” or “you are brave,” or “you can do anything you practice.” 

This activity is powerful. It’s one thing to say an affirmation to yourself. It’s quite another to hear your peer say it to you. In these moments, students are breaking down social barriers between each other, and affirming one another’s value to the musical community. After the day is over, I capture the musical affirmations and post them on the door inside my classroom. They are visible and central to the room, so students are always reminded of how to be kind to themselves and others during the learning process. 

Yes, rehearsal strategies are important. Getting the right notes and rhythms and building musical skills is important. But so is creating a musical community that is supportive, kind, and brave. We love to rock out in the modern band classroom, and the music always rocks 10X harder when it is built on a strong classroom community.

Laura Del Rosso is a middle school modern band teacher in New York City.  

Starting a Conversation – Exploring Improvisation in the Modern Band Rehearsal

As a teacher who came from a background in traditional music education and shifted to teaching modern band, I observed that musicians skilled in popular styles are adept at learning and playing both familiar and unfamiliar songs quickly. Whether they’re handling chords, bass lines, or diving into solos, their ability to adapt their playing to any song often appears extraordinary. However, as I’ve delved deeper into this musical realm, I’ve learned that developing this adaptability isn’t as challenging as I once believed. The key lies in consistently dedicating time to practice and rehearsal, focusing specifically on improvisation skills.

Musical improvisation is a core aspect of the modern band approach as well as national and state-level music standards. Developing proficiency in improvising fosters students’ creativity, critical thinking, musical fluency, and performance confidence. Despite its recognized importance, integrating improvisation into music classes and ensembles can be challenging for educators. The good news is there are straightforward ways to regularly incorporate teaching improvisation in the modern band classroom.

Start Small
Students can start improvising with as few as two notes. For guitars, the 3rd and 5th frets of the high E string are a great starting point, keyboards can use any two white keys, while bass players can copy the guitars. Even beginning students will quickly grasp switching between these two notes and be ready to use them to create music of their own.

Apply it Immediately
Once students are comfortable with switching between two notes, it’s time for them to create music with real musicians. For the notes given above, a recording of any song in the keys of G or C will work well. Play the recording, and all students can improvise simultaneously, in a glorious free-for-all of sound. For beginners, I have found it best to play a section or two of the song and then take a break. Students often enjoy singing along while resting their fingers during breaks, especially to familiar songs.

Add Complexity Gradually
As students get comfortable adding their own sounds to songs, you can introduce more complexity. This can include adding rhythmic elements or incorporating additional notes. To add rhythm, start by having students match their playing to repeated words or phrases. These words can be freely chosen, or they can be sourced from the lyrics of the song. An excellent example to reference is the way Chuck Berry echoes his lyrics with his guitar playing in the opening bars of “Maybellene.” 

Adding more notes takes a bit more time and practice. Start by expanding from a two-note solo to an adjacent string creating a box shape, then experiment with finger spacing e.g., playing on frets 5 and 8. These boxes can then be combined into full fretboard patterns like the pentatonic scale. (See Illustration 1) The diagram shows an example of the progression from 2 notes to “solo boxes” to the pentatonic scale. For major and minor scales, repeat the process with single-string patterns before combining them into full scales. (See Illustration 2)

Make it Routine
Consistent repetition is key to progressing from two-note improvisation to improvising with rhythm and scales. Include time for improvisation in every class or rehearsal, ideally as part of the warm-up routine. For example, use improvising as the bell ringer activity at the beginning of each class, playing a recording immediately and having students improvise along. While beginning students may need breaks, students will quickly become comfortable improvising for an entire song. This activity is a fun and low-pressure way to start class while giving students practice and building their confidence.

Explore Extensions
Once students are comfortable with improvisation, you can explore these two ways to extend their learning. First, encourage them to notice moments when their improvisation matches elements in the recording, progressing from matching single notes to complete phrases, riffs, and melodies. Reinforce this skill by having students make notes of these moments so they can recall them and begin to expand on them. Second, have students record their improvisations and use their recordings to generate ideas for songwriting and other compositions.

By embracing improvisation in your teaching and playing, you open a world of musical possibilities for your students and yourself. This approach will enhance adaptability, foster creativity, and build confidence in exploring diverse musical styles and expressions.

Joe Campbell is a music teacher in rural Nezperce, Idaho. 

Elevating Singers in the Modern Band Classroom

“Fly” Nicki Minaj (feat. Rihanna) 
I came to win, to fight
To conquer, to thrive
I came to win, to survive
To prosper, to rise
To fly, to fly

Modern band teachers across the nation are helping their young musicians win, fight, conquer, and thrive. One of the challenges of the modern band classroom is working with both instruments and voice in the same setting. Below are a few practices to help elevate the singers in your band to make them stronger musicians and vocalists. Here’s to helping our young vocalists fly! 

Microphones and Equipment
Make sure there is a microphone available for rehearsals and performances. Microphones do more than just amplify the voice, you can use a different tone that usually would not carry, like soft and breathy. Ensure there is a monitor (a speaker that faces the performers) on stage for performances and rehearsals as well. It’s very important that vocalists can hear themselves, so they do not overuse their voice. If your vocalists are over singing, it is likely they cannot hear themselves over the rest of the band and need to be turned up in the monitor. 

The microphone should be close to your face, about one to three fingers away. When singing higher, typically you pull the microphone away to avoid peaking. Mics need to be angled directly towards your face, not straight up and down. Make sure you as the instructor model proper mic use and monitor your vocalist so that they are consistent with practicing good mic technique. 

Vocal Technique
Singing is an incredibly vulnerable act, and I am sure we have all faced the challenges of boosting our students’ confidence when it comes to singing. There is an added pressure to singing because your body is the instrument, and for young musicians, that body changes daily. Students who are already comfortable with singing are ready to identify mistakes – it is what leads to progress. Celebrate and accept all the sounds that come from your vocalists! 

Vocal cracks are one of the most embarrassing vocal mistakes that can happen, especially with young ones with changing voices. In layman’s terms, a vocal crack typically happens in the middle of the range where the head voice and chest voice would “mix.” I frequently describe it as a woodwind squeaking on their reed. Lean into that crack and continue to let your airflow through that range of difficulty. When the vocalist is self-conscious and pulls back airflow, they are less likely to successfully sing through the range. Signs of vocal health issues are going hoarse and losing your voice- not usually vocal cracks. That is a normal part of getting comfortable with your voice, just like a squeaky reed.  

Making Lyrics Secondary
Beginning singers can get over-focused on the lyrics and how the original recording of the song sounds. Help them understand the song beyond the lyrics by having them take time to sing the roots of the chords. This is a great exercise the whole band can do! For more complex songs, give your singers a lead sheet (as opposed to just lyrics with chords overtop) so they can follow the rhythm and melodic contour of the notes. 

When you are learning a song, encourage your singers not to get caught up in being perfect – keep going. Keep singing, keep exploring, keep listening. Step in and model some improvised riffs, lyrics, and melodies with your vocalists to show them the different things they can do. Stress the importance of listening and singing along with the original and other recordings of the song. Looking at covers on YouTube can be insightful for how other singers have interpreted the song. Again- another great exercise for the whole band. 

Vocal improvisation is such an important and challenging skill in popular music. To start, have your vocalist focus on a small musical idea by giving them a short lyrical pattern to sing. For example, if you are working on “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, use the phrase “lean on me” and have them explore different melodic ways to sing that phrase while the instrumentalists jam on the chorus. The notes can go up, down, inverted, double time, drawn out. Below are several ways to riff on this phrase that you can provide your vocalists. 

Help singers rewrite the melody with these tips: invert the melody, repeat the same note, change the articulation, use neighboring tones, and use other notes in the chord (such as singing B instead of D in a G major chord). Rewriting melodic phrases is a great way to overcome range issues as well if the song is ever too low or too high. 

Implementing some of these techniques with your vocalists will have them soaring high along with the rest of the band.

Laura Ferguson is a general music and choir teacher at Marine Park JHS 278 in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from Ithaca College and is currently pursuing her Master of Science in music education from Queens College. 

It’s Elementary

Have you ever thought, “Modern band sounds great but I don’t have the time, instruments, or patience to do modern band with my younger students”? Your littles may not be ready to rock out independently, but the modern band ideas of using popular music can add some pizzazz to elementary music classes. Here are some easy-to-implement ideas you can use this week!

To count rhythm flashcards, use a drum loop from Garage Band or other music creation software, a backing track from YouTube, or even a drum setting on a keyboard.

Use the song every kid is singing in the hallway to play “copycat.” 

Or use that song to alternate walking with a steady beat to standing still while keeping a steady beat with tapping on a neighbor’s shoulder. Use a fun instrument, like a slide whistle or vibraslap to signal when to switch from walking to tapping.

Use special events like kindergarten graduation to use a popular song with alternate lyrics. A quick internet search will yield these. Lyrics can also be changed to be personalized for your school and teaching situation.

To find out what is popular for students at your school, you can create a survey for your older students to complete or just ask what their favorite songs are right now and if there are any you can use with the younger students. Look up the lyrics because students don’t always know what is appropriate. Even if you only come up with two or three songs this way, you can vary the activities by grade level and get a lot of mileage out of a few songs. Almost any activity you do with classical music can be done with popular music.

Another way to find out what the students are listening to outside of school is to make an anticipatory set or exit question. 

Since introducing popular music in my classes, I have found my students to be more open to different kinds of music. There are rules about opinions and kindness that are explained and enforced, such as “even if you do not like something, it might be someone’s favorite, so we keep our opinions to ourselves.”

These are just a few of the easy-to-implement ideas and activities for elementary general music.

Krista Carney is a music teacher in Winfield, Pennsylvania. 

Everyday Advocacy

What have you done to advocate for your music program today?
This question feels strange as I write it. I have been in my current position for 23 years. My program feels established and supported by both my school district and community. As I think about my school year beginning to wind down, advocacy is not necessarily my primary focus. However, if I really ponder it, none of my current support and warm feelings of program successes happened overnight. In fact, my job looks and feels very different than it did when I first walked into my classroom all those years ago. 

In August 2001, I walked into a large, empty room. Only six tables and 30 maroon chairs were stacked like small leaning columns. There was no piano, guitars, keyboards, classroom percussion, amps, ukuleles, or anything to make the space feel like music had ever been made in it. Those items did not come in overnight; they had to be found, fundraised for, and sometimes begged for. Trust had to be formed between the new young teacher and her new students, the parents, and the school board and community. The right colleagues had to jump on board. So how did we get here? And more importantly, how do we stay here?

Everyday Advocacy Efforts
Building support for your classroom happens every day in the little things you do. It starts with your most important clientele: your students. Happy students who are excited to make music will always be your greatest asset. Having an advocacy army of happy students who are ready to go home and talk about how much more fun music class would be if they had a better bass amp takes a vision for what a total music program looks like. How available are you to your students? Is your classroom a welcoming safe place for students to hang out and jam in at lunch or after school, or do you, understandably, need a little self-battery recharging time on certain days? How many ensembles does your school offer, and can everyone find at least one where they can belong? What do general music courses offer students to make non-traditional ensemble musicians feel just as at home in the music department as your most committed chorus or band members? Creating a culture where the music rooms are alive with opportunities is vital to your advocacy army, leaving them ready to spread the good news of your music program to all who will listen.

The school I first walked into in 2001 had no extra music in the halls or after school. Kids did not ask to leave lunch to go jam with the band director, and no one was trying, sometimes in vain, to teach new dances to the chorus teachers. There was no culture of community. Students do not talk fondly and build excitement for non-events. Something needs to be alive and happening to build a second home for anyone who wants to belong in the music rooms.

New Ensembles That May Have A New Look
It has been reported that nearly 80% of high school students do not participate in traditional bands, orchestras, and choirs. Reaching these remaining students is a great way to build your advocacy army. In 2001, students who wandered into my school’s music hallway were questioned why they were there and told they didn’t belong because they were not signed up for band or chorus. Today, they are much more likely to be handed a cowbell or tambourine and told to join the garage band-like atmosphere that pops up every day at lunch. 

These scenarios are not just found during non-instructional music-making times. Incorporating modern band units in elementary and middle school music classes and offering modern band courses in our high schools is an effective and growing tool in building advocacy armies across the nation. Modern band classes incorporate contemporary music genres such as rock, pop, hip-hop, and electronic music, which are highly relevant and appealing to today’s youth. By teaching music styles students enjoy and connect with, modern band classes can increase student engagement and participation in music education and reach a broader audience. 

Gather Evidence
Once you have happy and engaged students creating, performing, and loving music, you need to document it! Use social media to your advantage. Videos of classes singing while strumming the ukulele or a rock band accompanying the 8th-grade choir during their spring pops concert not only are fun to watch, but they show the passion these students have to perform and build musical communities with others. It proves how students can still come together to create something meaningful with others in an ever-shrinking, isolating world ruled by technology. It is hands-on and real, and people still love to see that. 

Make sure everyone in the video is wearing an official music department t-shirt and you have miniature walking billboards to advertise your music department’s pride. Even better, take a few of those performing members on a tour to the local elementary schools and show your future students how much fun they have ahead of them making music! 

This is how we will continue down our current path and create everyday advocacy. It is just an everyday part of what we do now.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Rebecca Sensor is a middle school chorus and classroom music teacher in DuBois, PA. 

Help Students Develop More Musical Ability by Expanding Their Shared Language

Language is one of the most important parts of any culture. It is the way people communicate with one another, build relationships, and create a sense of belonging and community. 

When it comes to learning a musical instrument, learning to read music becomes one of the key shared language skills a teacher can help a musician develop, which brings them together to share in music making. The relationship is built around all the technical aspects of counting rhythm and playing the right notes, at first, until there is little need to speak about these things anymore. Shared language is further built between a student and a teacher, as the student learns from the teacher how to express what is written on the page in similar ways—like learning to crescendo and decrescendo, to articulate as written, and to play with emotion and expressively as suggested. 

In both examples the shared language created is nonverbally expressed and as the understanding grows and the connection between teacher and student becomes stronger, less is spoken, and more is felt or implied because the student now KNOWS what the teacher wants or expects. 

Self-expression provides a powerful outlet for emotions. Learning to express these emotions through the shared language of reading music is powerful. A musician who can verbalize the feelings those sounds create in their face, their hands, and their breath support, and what they are hearing and feeling when they make different kinds of sounds on their own instrument can realize an even higher level of shared connection to music. 

The power of learning to talk about how we perceive what we hear and feel when we play a musical instrument, and what we like in the sounds we hear and what we don’t, allows us to make real the invisible relationship we begin to have with this instrument we play but don’t ever talk directly about beyond the shared language to facilitate it.

Most wind students struggle with the vibrations they feel from the instrument and hear them differently than someone sitting in front of them. This often translates to their perception that they sound brighter or darker, play louder or softer, as an example, than they do. Without increasing our awareness of what really is being heard versus what we feel, musicians have no language skills to better express to others what they hope to hear in the future or how they might imagine improving because they are left to process all the nonverbal feelings’ they have to themselves instead of talking to their teacher about them.

It was because of this very issue I created what I call our Color Ring System, which was created to be able to talk about color and shape of sound for any woodwind, brass, or string instrument in a way that creates common shared language to connect the nonverbal world of performing and playing to the verbal world of describing those experiences in meaningful ways that allows for meaningful discussions to be had.

Learning to communicate about what sounds please us and what sounds shut down our ability to want to further listen, what we hope to hear, what we need to play better, and what motivates us when we hear it, opens more awareness for both educators and their students to grow and provides an even stronger understanding of what inspires us to play and what doesn’t. What we hear, how we hear it, and how we feel it all make a significant difference in how much we want to participate and improve.

Behind every musician’s desire to grow on a musical instrument needs to be their desire to play the instrument because they fundamentally like how it sounds when they play it enough to play more and try harder. The more a musician can effectively communicate about this topic, the more likely they are to realize their abilities at a higher level.

First comes a basic understanding, which they achieve through all the nonverbal skill building that comes from learning to read music and play with expression. Next comes the ability to evolve and change and grow their musical ideas and concepts as they learn how to speak about how they sound and how it feels to play their instrument.

To develop shared verbal skills to advance concepts of sound and music making, ask open-ended questions like: 

What exactly do you like about how you sound?

What is it about the section—that piece—that we just rehearsed that makes you feel happy, sad, excited, anxious?

If you could change one thing about how you sound, what would it be? 

Nonverbal shared language is key to developing basic musical skills and the ability to verbalize what we are learning as we play allows us to rise to an entirely new level of shared understanding. Be sure to help your students get comfortable with sharing in this new way. Our Color Ring System will make it easier for you to help them do it and its free to use.

Are You Making the Most of Your Life?

This month, UpClose puts the spotlight on modern band and jazz from our partners at MusicWill and the Jazz Education Network (JEN). The modern band articles are previews of what you can experience at the Modern Band Summit, July 10-12, 2024, at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, CO. This national teacher conference will gather educators from across the nation for a transformative experience of workshops, artist talks, jam sessions, and more. Engage with experts and connect with peers who share your passion for using music to make a difference in children’s lives. Whether you’re a seasoned educator or just starting, you’ll leave with valuable hands-on experience, new tools, and innovative techniques to elevate your classroom and positively impact the lives of your students.

I recently had an experience I will not soon forget. Colonel (USA Ret.) Hal Gibson has had one of the most extraordinary lives of anyone I’ve ever met. He was an Army bandmaster in WWII in the South Pacific and over the years climbed the ranks, leading numerous bands in extraordinary musical performances. He preceded me (by many years!) as Commander of The U. S. Army Field Band and in 1976 was named Commander of the Armed Forces Bicentennial Band, an all-star group that toured the nation celebrating the 200th year of America’s birth. He then went to Columbus College in Georgia and built the Columbus State University band program into one of the finest in the region. His third career involved founding and leading many community music groups near their retirement home in Melbourne, Florida. At the age of 98 he was still flying a plane after many years as a flight instructor. This week, he celebrated his 100th birthday by conducting at a concert by the Melbourne Municipal Band, joined by retired Army Colonels Jack Grogan, Bryan Shelburne, myself, Tim Holtan, and Jim Keene along with Dr. David Gregory.

I share this for a purpose, not to just brag about a great experience I had. Hal Gibson’s century-long example is one we can all benefit from. It’s not the number of years we’re each given on this earth, it’s what we do with them. Never stop learning, never stop making great music, never stop making friends, and never stop treating people as you’d want to be treated.

The superb Melbourne Municipal Band (Staci Rosbury, conductor) is one of many community groups all around America where people of all ages can keep making music together. They sponsor a free summer music camp for students in their area. The band I conduct, the Thornton Community Band, is buying new “step up” instruments for deserving high school students who have outgrown their starter instruments. These are just two examples of the incredible music making and contributions by the many community bands, orchestras, choruses, and jazz bands all around the country.

Composing for Middle and High School Choirs A Conversation with Laura Farnell and Reginal Wright – Part 2

Describe the publishing process for you. Is there anything about it you think conductors or teachers might not be aware of? 

Farnell: Once a piece is completed in Finale, I will submit it to the publisher for consideration. Something that was surprising to me, is the length of time from the initial conception of a piece to the actual availability. Once a composition is written and submitted, months may pass until an editor or editorial board review it. Once accepted for publication, a contract and “proofs” are generated. When proof corrections are complete, the piece moves to the printing and recording phase, and then is finally available for purchase. This process takes many months, even a year, and involves many people. Finally, directors and singers might be surprised to learn composers generally receive 10% of the sales of pieces. The other 90% pays the salaries of the editors, engravers, marketers, business personnel, marketing costs, etc. I wanted to highlight that to remind everyone to purchase enough copies for each singer in their choir. If a piece of music costs $2 and a director purchases only five copies and then photocopies the remainder, the composer receives only $1. 

Wright: For the most part, publishing has been good to me. I am still learning the ins and outs of the business, though. The standard percentage for the composer is 10%, therefore things like photocopying lessen the number of units sold, which hurts everyone involved in the process. This results in higher costs for printed/downloaded music. 

How would you advise conductors or teachers go about finding, perusing, or studying your work, or the work of other composers? 

Farnell: The internet has made so much music so accessible, even overwhelmingly so at times! But it’s a wonderful resource for recordings and more. I think finding the right “fit” of literature for your choir and their ability level might be the most important step in setting up an ensemble for a successful performance. Another important factor is to select music you personally enjoy. If you aren’t excited about a piece of music, motivating your singers to enjoy it will be especially challenging. 

Wright: The internet is wonderful in allowing not only the ability to learn about composers, but also the ability to communicate with living composers. Most composers would be more than happy to do a workshop or Q&A with choirs via Zoom for free or for a small fee. Also, most composers have personal websites where their entire catalogs are listed and available to sample or purchase.

What would you say to a conductor who wants to alter ranges, reduce parts, etc., in a piece that you’ve composed? 

Farnell: In adjudicated choral contest setting, I’d advise against it. But I have certainly altered other writers’ compositions and arrangements to make them work for my singers more times than I can count! I suppose some composers might not like the idea of people altering their work, but I personally view this practice as a compliment. I think, “Wow! Someone likes my music enough to spend time adapting it to use in their situation.” That said, if you find a situation-specific need for, say, a treble version of an SATB piece already in print, I’d encourage you to reach out to the composer or publisher with the idea. Sometimes these suggestions highlight a need or spark an idea that results in a new voicing or composition. 

Wright: Have at it! My primary goal is for the choir to be successful. In many cases, if they contact me, I could help with that in terms of lowering/raising keys or suggesting alternate voicings. 

What advice would you give to a conductor who has purchased a piece you have composed? 

Farnell: I think my advice would be similar for any piece of choral music: study the piece so you can help your singers find the patterns as they learn, try to help your singers find an emotional connection or learn a lesson from the message of the text and music, and enjoy the learning process. 

Wright: First, work to make the music your own. Next… TEXT, TEXT, TEXT! The words of the song are everything to me. Last, please look for every detail within music. This includes dynamics, syllabic stress, articulations, and suggested tone, and so much more. 

What would you say to other choral artists who are interested in composing? 

Farnell: “Please do!” The creative process is such a beautiful and uniquely human one, and sharing what is in your heart and mind with others is such a gift! I especially encourage directors of developing choirs, and most especially tenor-bass changing voice choirs, to try to create art that can be used with that age group. I’d also say to find ways to have choirs perform your pieces and to ask directors and colleagues you respect to peruse your work. Finally, be intentional about finding the appropriate publishing “niche” for your submission. Just because a composition is not selected for publication does not mean the piece isn’t a good one! Perhaps the piece needs some adjustments. Or perhaps the piece itself is great, but the publisher has already filled their catalog slot for the “2-part slow winter lyrical” piece for that season. 

Wright: Write as much as possible. Share your music with others. Ask friends to perform your works. Publishing isn’t the end-all, but it will allow you to get your music into places you otherwise wouldn’t be able to access. Be willing to take suggestions and change accordingly.

Reprinted from ChorTeach with permission of ACDA.

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