Modern Band
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At the end of July, over 600 music educators and arts administrators came together at the Modern Band Summit 2019 in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Yes, this is a four-day professional development conference, but like no other in music education, or for that matter, education. Attendees from 46 states and 4 countries participated in four days of sessions, learning instructional strategies and practices that unlock the music makers within their students. And, they spent the evenings unlocking their own music-making, performing on stages in various settings.

The Modern Band Summit, presented by Little Kids Rock and sponsored by several partners including Bohemian Foundation and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), affirmed the vital contribution that music teachers make to schools, communities, and the daily lives of the students we serve, while also building community among fellow educators. It drew together professionals from all walks of music teaching life – from arts supervisors at state departments of education to teachers who work at rural, suburban, and city schools across the country; from pre-service and first-year teachers to department heads with decades of experience, all there to learn, make music, and have fun.

Why is the Modern Band Summit such a unique conference? First, you experience what it’s like to participate in an educational community, consisting of kindergarten to university educators devoted to the hands-on-music-making pedagogy of modern bands. These professional learning classes hook into the culturally reflective music of our students. It features instruments such as guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, along with technology, hip-hop, and even steel drums. The sessions centered around the Little Kids Rock instructional approach, Music as a Second Language, which builds on the idea that students learn music in similar ways to those in which people acquire a non-native language. Each learning session was facilitated by an amazing educator, who knew how to convey the information, not just based on theory, but based on extensive experience as a current music teacher.

The 70-plus sessions were as diverse as you can imagine. In one room you could work on implementing GarageBand and other technology in your classroom, while next door a performer from STOMP demonstrated how brooms and exercise balls could help with group composition. Other diverse sessions included the following:

• Incorporating strings and brass into your popular music ensemble,

• Curriculum design and incorporating standards,

• How to improvise songs with your choir,

• Mashing up modern band and opera, and

• Supporting the learning of students with various abilities and backgrounds.

From conference kick-off to closing, the music never stopped. Embodying Little Kids Rock’s pedagogical ethos of “do before explain,” the high-energy opening keynote featured Little Kids Rock staff performing Panic at the Disco’s “High Hopes,” including maximum crowd participation. While the sessions focused on developing curriculum, methods, and policies, there were a multitude of opportunities for educators to make music together. From informal jam sessions, to performances by groups of teachers from various cities, to open mics with live bands, music making was open and inclusive to all conference participants. The four days and nights were filled with playing, singing, dancing, and love of making music. To help bring culturally responsive music education to as many students as possible nationwide, district arts administrators gathered with state and city representatives to discuss the impact of modern band at local levels and the transferability and scalability of modern band models and initiatives. NAfME executive director Mike Blakeslee noted the importance of this type of instruction, saying it exemplified “new ways to serve the kids who are coming into our schools from our communities.”

Featured panelists and speakers discussed and presented ideas that resonated and inspired the audience. One of the highlights of these was the artist panel, this year featuring bass legend Victor Wooten as a performer and clinician. Another included Dr. Charles Limb, a surgeon, neuroscientist, and musician at the UC San Francisco, who discussed his research on the neural basis of musical creativity. Other panels included discussions with leaders of the music industry and academia discussing inclusion, equity, culturally sustaining music education, and other topics.

Concurrent to the Modern Band Summit, the higher education-focused Modern Band Colloquium, organized by Ann Clements from Penn State University and Chad West from Ithaca College, included 50 professors exploring and discussing the value that the profession sees in providing innovative, effective, student-centered music learning experiences in schools. Several colloquium participants had recently attended the Modern Band Higher Education Fellowship, a new Little Kids Rock initiative designed for music education faculty as a five-day “boot camp” to share modern band and Music as a Second Language practices for the next generation of school music teachers and the thousands of students they will reach.

What truly sets this conference apart is its cultivation of a supportive community. In their school environments music teachers often feel isolated, alone at their schools and unable to work and learn together with colleagues.

Community building is at the core of the Modern Band Summit – it is perhaps the most impactful aspect of the event. Outside of sessions and panels, opportunities for community building abound, thoughtfully organized for maximum impact.

The first night featured a networking mixer with a twist, complete with icebreaking tasks, dancing and games to get people from all over the country talking to each other and working together. Experienced conference attendees looked out for new faces to get them involved. The second night activity was a concert, where conference attendees provided the entertainment (organized through pre-conference e-mails and local meet-ups). Roughly 20 teacher bands from school districts across the country put on incredible performances, bringing cumbia, country, classic rock, hip-hop, and more to an eclectic, fast-paced event in an awesome venue (Washington’s) with an open bar.

This year teachers from Southern California performed a well-rehearsed mash-up of “California Love” and “Give It Away,” while teachers from Idaho, Montana, Washington, Iowa, and North Dakota, after meeting each other for the first time, jumped on stage together to play “The Middle” to a cheering crowd of hundreds.

This segued into the next day’s activities, including “crash courses” in various forms of jamming, from ukulele to hip-hop cyphers to iPads, culminating in the evening at a local bowling alley where middle lanes were shut down by a stage for an open jam session, the perfect low-stress environment for teachers to join together to play some of their favorite tunes. And on the last night, a cookout under the stars included a huge stage for more music making. The atmosphere was electric as new friends got a chance to play more music together and show what they had learned, while eating, drinking, and sharing their experiences with their growing community.

It can be easy in this profession to concentrate on competitions, to vaunt virtuosity, and to cherish the cherry-picked performers. But music is about so much more. Most people will never play in a prize-winning concert band or grace the stage of Carnegie Hall in an elite chamber ensemble or orchestra. But all connect deeply with music. Music pervades our lives every day, every hour, every minute, and it has a similar effect for young people in our schools.

The Modern Band Summit is a unique place for educators from around the country with various opportunities and challenges to explore new ideas about music education, to be inspired, to connect, and to feel rejuvenated, while deepening their community of practice and support.

Next year, the Modern Band Summit 2020 will be held in Fort Collins, Colorado on July 16-19, 2020. If you’ve never been, you’ve got to go. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss.



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