Modern Band
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One of the larger challenges modern band teachers face is not only how to incorporate new repertoire, but also facilitating improvisation and composition, all while teaching students to play multiple instruments.

In the heart of Los Angeles, at Miramonte Elementary, modern band teacher Jose Vergara has found a way to simplify this process.

“Every teacher is different and has access to different instruments, but I have found what works best for me after a lot of trial and error” he says. At the outset, he encourages all students to play multiple instruments instead of limiting them to one. Before they get settled in on one instrument, they have an opportunity to explore a variety and often times will lean towards playing drums on one song and guitar on another. “I find this helps a ton with motivation, plus they understand the struggles of their fellow band members as well.”

In the early class sessions, he focuses on one instrument at a time with just the basics, providing the groundwork for full band stations.

“It takes a lot of management at the beginning to get the stations and rotations together, but soon it becomes very natural.”

He uses a couple drum sets and percussion in the center of the class, some keyboards on the right, some basses and electric guitars on the left, vocal mics in front, and acoustic guitars filling in the rest of the spaces (Figure 1). Since students have the basics learned on the instruments, they will do simple two-chord vamps for long periods of time. Then some students (group A) will rotate between the instruments while the others keep the jam going (group B). Then the others (group B) will rotate, until every student gets an opportunity to play every part.

“I will use something like “Oye Como Va” - which they all know and love - and with just the Am and D chord we can play it at a very early stage. It’s also perfect for learning improvisation.”

Like most of the early instrumental skills, improvisation starts with modeling simple and manageable tasks, then expanding as students feel comfortable. First, he will teach them to use just two notes, and do ‘repeat after me’ with onebar motifs. At first they will just follow my fingers, so when they get facility with those notes, I’ll turn my back on them so they can’t watch and just have to use their ears.” Soon, students can lead the riff creating, at which point Jose will expand the two notes to four notes and finally a full minor pentatonic scale. Then it’s time apply to jam.

There will be one guitar and one keyboard that are for soloists, so when students rotate to them, it’s their turn to shine. This also helps with musicianship skills that are so important in bands such as listening to each other, knowing when to come out and be heard, when to not trample on the vocalist’s melody.

Finally, this is a great bridge towards composition, since now they are comfortable playing not only harmonies on multiple instruments, but also have practiced playing multiple melodic riffs and phrasing. This turns into melodic lines, and students can work individually or in groups to put songs together. “Sometimes they will use the riffs they played on the guitar to make vocal melodies and write lyrics. Or they can take those riffs and keep them as instrumental melodies for intros or other sections of songs.”

This approach has not only helped Jose’s students succeed in growing as musicians and improving their instrumental skills, but also has helped them be creative and express themselves musically. It has paid off greatly, as his students have now performed with Carlos Santana, Taboo (Black Eyed Peas), recorded with Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), and others, and more importantly, they have become a fixture of their community.

“Our modern band has become a direct reflection of our community: hardworking, humble, vibrant, and constantly striving to be successful. These are the reasons why the modern band is a source of pride and has been embraced by the community.”

Scott Burstein is the director of teaching and learning at Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization that transforms lives by restoring, expanding, and innovating music education in schools. Jose Vergara is a full-time music teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles.



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