UpClose: David Wish, music education revolutionary?

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • October 22, 2015

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To some traditionalists in school music and band programs, David Wish is a dangerous man meddling with how music has always been taught in schools. To other music educators, he is a welcomed revolutionary, bringing about a well-organized change to school music programs they’ve long desired. 

Wish wants to change school music programs to expand well beyond the traditional marching, concert, and jazz band, or orchestra programs and take a formal band program to the kids who are never going to be interested in a traditional program. And if he has his way, his vision for what he has coined as  “Modern Band” will become core curriculum offered in schools throughout the USA. 

In fact, it has already been adapted by some of the larger school districts in the country. In July of this year, I ventured out to Ft. Collins, Colorado, where I witnessed a gathering of about 250 music educators, including traditional band directors, general music teachers, and choral directors who had come together, largely at their own expense, to attend the annual “RockFest” sponsored by Little Kids Rock, the non-profit that Wish founded over a 15 years ago to promote afterschool music programs using “combo” instruments, performing popular music with vocals. RockFest was an exciting event for me to be embedded in as a journalist, observing what I can probably best describe as having the enthusiasm of an Amway convention, the fevered devotion to the mission of a circus tent church revival, and the exuberant camaraderie of brothers and sisters in arms on a mission to bring about real changes to the kinds of music programs offered in public schools, without sacrificing their traditional band and choral programs.

I sat down to discuss Modern Band with David Wish, in what I think you’ll find to be a fascinating conversation describing his mission, and how it all came about.

What is Little Kids Rock?

Little Kids Rock is a for-impact, non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all children have an opportunity to unlock their inner music makers. And we do this by expanding and restoring music programs in high-needs public school districts across the country.

In its earliest days, wasn’t Little Kids Rock more of an extracurricular club and after school program?

Probably first two years of Little Kids Rock we were exclusively sort of an after school thing in just like maybe several dozen schools in the San Francisco Bay area and New York City area, and then quickly evolved into something that, even within those markets, school teachers that were full-time music teachers wanted to bring to their students. So we went from being pretty much a 100% extracurricular to now over 90% of our programming is offered during regular school hours.

What are the average grade levels for Little Kids Rock?

Our program goes kindergarten through high school, but I’d say the majority of our children are in that sort of 4th to 10th grade range. That’s beginning to change as more and more high schools and middle schools adopt this Modern Band concept.

You’ve coined this term “Modern Band” to describe a movement Little Kids Rock has begun.

Modern Band is a new category of instrumental and vocal music programming in the U.S. public school system. The last sort of broad category to appear on the scene was jazz band back largely in the 1970s. And Modern Band is like these other sort of music programs like jazz band, or marching band, or chorus; sort of a new category of music education that is beginning to spread across the country. It fills a hole and it meets a need. It doesn’t replace what’s come before it, it builds upon on it. 

And it brings a new set of tools to bear for music teachers who heretofore were sort of at sixes and sevens trying to figure out how to leverage youth culture in music programs? How do they leverage contemporary, sort of culturally relevant music in a music program that’s symphony-based, or a jazz band, or a marching band? And the reason that that was difficult is because the solution hiding in plain sight was that music has evolved and has become richer than it was 60 years ago. Modern Band leverages that cultural context as sort of the central cannon in the music class.

Again, it doesn’t supplant what’s going on in traditional programs, but it supplements what’s going on and we see proof of this everywhere. For example, in New York City, where Modern Band has been written into their coursework in middle and high school level, most Modern Band teachers also teach a few of the other streams of music education, whether it’s marching band or orchestra, or chorus, and they’re seeing an overall increase in participating in music classes. It doesn’t do anybody any good if only 10% of the school students are participating in music class and you suddenly offer a new alternative and all the kids join that, resulting in still only 10% of the kids participating in music class. 

We as educators are missing the mark because we know of music’s transformative power and its universality and its appeal. It’s really our job to make music a core subject, something that’s universally accessible. And that’s what Modern Band’s contribution to the field is — another point of access, another point of entrance, another point for participation. 

So Modern Band is a way to increase overall music education opportunities? It’s not designed to compete with traditional music programs.

No, it doesn’t compete; it co-exists. It doesn’t corral kids from other places; it collaborates. And in fact, the Modern Band teacher is by necessity the marching band teacher, or the choral teacher, or the jazz band teacher because those programs are already existing and filling a very important need. So of those hundreds of teachers that you got the opportunity to meet with in Colorado, all of them are running Modern Band classes, but they’re also all running other music programs. The jury’s not out; the verdict is in. And what people who are music teachers are finding is this increases their overall participation and enrollment in music programming in their schools.

I saw some fired up, excited teachers at RockFest who were really energized by this whole program who were adamant that this was revolutionizing how music is taught in their schools.

Well, and also ensuring that modern music is taught. I think that each of the categories of music education has its own beautiful charms, right? Orchestral programs have that wonderful European history and the discipline of so many people playing so precisely so many different parts to create something bigger and greater than them. The jazz band brings to bear improvisation, et cetera. Modern Band brings the culturally relevant music of the moment into the classroom in a centralized way. And that’s not happened before, and that’s what its unique contribution to the musical family and public school systems will be, and is rapidly becoming.

It’s not just how modern music is taught, but actually that it should be taught. In fact, one of the things that I hear repeatedly from teachers all over the country is, “You know, I was trying to do this thing. I knew that my kids came to my classroom as open to learning new music as they came filled with existing music. But I never knew how to leverage it. I was trying. And it wasn’t until your program came out that I could see the full path forward to not just wanting to do this, not just wanting to bring in music, you know, popular music, but having a means of doing it, you know?”

And some of the things that they’ll say run the gamut from, “Well, the music that the kids listen to, it’s like four or five people in the band and how do I engage a classroom of 50 kids doing that?” Well, the techniques that a Modern Band classroom brings to bear are exactly what those teachers are seeking. And similarly when you’re learning to become a music teacher, typically — if you’re a mere mortal, you probably only play a handful of instruments pretty well. If you’re a string player maybe you play violin and viola, and possibly well on cello and concert bass. Where are you on oboe and bassoon and French horn, and trumpet? And the answer to that question is probably nowhere. And that’s why you go to school.

At school, when they teach you how to run an orchestral program, they say, “This is how you now have familiarity with your bassoon so that you can show your bassoonist how to play the bassoon. You’re not a bassoonist yourself, but we’re giving you the techniques and the tools you need to be able to bring the bassoon to your student.”

Well, a lot of teachers don’t have the instrumental background in Modern Band, or they only have a partial one. Sure, they play guitar, they play piano, but they don’t play drums, they don’t play bass. They don’t have a familiarity with turntables and technology. Modern Band training offers that same sort of genre-wide and instrument-wide training so that a specialist on an instrument can have a more generalist approach and ergo, attract more children into the program, and teach a broader variety of instruments. Just as schools that are across the country are preparing music teachers to go into jobs where they’ll teach jazz, or they’ll teach classical music, or they’ll teach choral music, they’re beginning to, and it’s my belief, will soon be doing it nearly universally, also including Modern Band in that set of tools that they train their teachers in. A Modern Band compliment of teaching skills will be a very marketable skill for the foreseeable future.

Describe Modern Band in terms of instrumentations, curriculum, and repertoire that might be part of the curriculum? 

Modern Band focuses on the primary instruments that contribute to the making of popular music in this moment. And those instruments are guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, voice, and technology. And by technology, we mean technology as an instrument, whether it’s looping or sampling, or turntables, or sound plugins, or any number of things where the technology itself is producing the sound; but also technology as a recording tool and as a teaching tool. Technology is the one that’s not so obvious. We look at Modern Band as having three components: technology as instrument, technology as recording tool, and technology as didactic tool.

Technology as a didactic tool is like you go to YouTube and you say, “I want to learn how to play Shake It Off by Taylor Swift.” Well, there are 55,000 videos that will show you how to do that, and because we have the technology for anybody anywhere to share what they’re passionate about in an open forum, well that’s one interesting use of technology as a teaching tool.

Another technology as a teaching tool would be old school, like Jamtracks, or Band in a Box, or playing along with a drum machine, or all of these different things. And then of course as a recording thing, that’s pretty straightforward. But that’s what Modern Band is. It focuses on guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, voice, and technology, with a particular emphasis on the music that kids know and listen to.

When did Modern Band curriculum first get into public schools?

Los Angeles Unified School District was the first major city to write Modern Band into its curriculum, and I believe that was about four years ago. And then they were followed by in New York, Chicago, and now Dallas. Actually, if you think about it, the other thing that’s really amazing to me, Mike, is like New York, LA, Chicago are the number 1, number 2, and number 3 largest school districts in the United States. And with other various significantly large districts like Dallas writing it into their curriculum, this is, I think, going to be an addition to traditional music programs that’s gonna happen swiftly, not slowly.

I met teachers from San Francisco, is it in there, also?

No, San Francisco hasn’t written it into their curriculum officially yet. So then there’s another 20 that are basically doing what Modern Band is but it hasn’t become official. And so you would say, “Well what do they have?” Well they have Little Kids Rock, which is fine. Little Kids Rock does not have the capacity to scale up to every school in the United States. But Modern Band does, because of educators everywhere have the desire and tools necessary to teach Modern Band, then that can and will happen regardless of whether or not Little Kids Rock is there.

How many students nationwide are currently involved in Little Kids Rock?

To put a number on it, we have 195,000 kids currently enrolled in the program. A little bit more than 11,000 of them are involved in an after school capacity, like about 5%. So even in those other cities like Tampa, and like . . . let’s see, Tampa would be a good example, or San Francisco, or Philadelphia, what there is, is a very solid and robust Little Kids Rock program. It is offered during the day, but it’s usually offered under the moniker of Alternative Ensemble II, or General Music with Instruments III, or like they’re like putting it . . . it’s part of the regular day, it’s happening, but it’s not as elegant as having an actual course description where teachers account hour by hour specifically what type of music program they’re having the opportunity to offer.

And Tampa’s a great example. We’re in well over 100 schools there, and working with them to actually write the Modern Band component into their course work. I mean, Chicago only incorporated Modern Band like a few, like a month or two before RockFest this year. So it’s such a new concept, right? But it’s also in some ways, I think, when people really look at it, the logic of it, and the demonstrated results that it can already point to, are so powerful that people are like . . . I don’t want to say exact . . . I don’t want to be glib. It’s not like, “No, duh,” but it really does become kind of obvious, like, “Wow. So marching band, jazz band, Modern Band. I get it. I totally get it. We can have all state Modern Band competitions if we want.” Like in Dallas, we have varsity Modern Band and non-audition Modern Band. “Oh, wow.” And they’re starting to see, “Wow, it’s not rock and roll class,” that is after school for 10 kids or some kind of garage band, or whatever. 

It’s all of that and much, much more and it can reach kids by the class loads; hundreds of kids, dozens of kids, all of the time making contemporary music in a classroom setting as opposed to, “There’s the Beatles on stage. I guess there are only four of them. I wouldn’t know how to bring that into my music class.” And that’s what Modern Band does. It removes the problem of incorporating a musical form that was invented outside of the academy, and brings it into the academy with the tools that those teachers need to scale it up, and not just have something that they teach to five kids once a week after school, but rather hundreds of kids, thousands of kids, tens of thousands of kids.

There are right at 200,000 students around the country involved in Little Kids Rock, apart from Modern Band. Is that right?

In Little Kids Rock classrooms, yeah. Over 2,000,000 children in the United States today attend school districts that have officially offered a Modern Band program as part of their music program. So here’s the math of it all. New York City has something like 1.1 million kids. The LAUSD has something like 600,000. Chicago has something like 400,000. Dallas has several hundred thousand. But when you add them up, more than 2,000,000 public school children attend school districts where Modern Band is being taught. That’s unbelievable when you think about it.

Hartford became the first city that I’m aware of in the United States to launch a Modern Band program without the original Little Kids Rock already being present. They found out about what was going on with Modern Band. We were not already there as Little Kids Rock. So they didn’t learn about it in their own front yard, they learned about it because they heard about Modern Band programs in New York and other places and they were impressed and liked the sound of it. They heard that we were experts in it and invited us to come out and train their teachers and etc., which we did. And now what? Now they have a Modern Band program. And there was never a time where there was like a Little Kids Rock program in Hartford. It just went from nothing to, “Now we have Modern Band.” Even though Little Kids Rock as an entity provided that training and whatever, that’s fine. But that’s really new. 

When Tampa launches its Modern Band program, and I believe they will and probably within a year or so or less, we will have been there already for like seven years with Little Kids Rock. We have a wonderful and deep relationship with the Hillsboro Public School System. We’re in well over 100 schools, and the teachers love it and the music supervisors love it. They are using Little Kids Rock as the name of it, not yet calling it Modern Band. But I believe that’s going to change. That’s why when I say I understand why you’re like, “Well, wait a minute. The way that I look at it is Modern Band is the thing that’s gonna really scale and lots of people are gonna want part of the action. Schools training music educators are gonna want to be turning out Modern Band trained teachers.

And so right now, Modern Band exists with or without Little Kid Rock even though we started it there, in New York, LA, in Chicago. And what that means is that any teacher anywhere in the district, whether we’ve trained them or not, if they’re a music teacher, the Chicago public school systems says, “Oh yeah, you want to teach kids to play rock and roll and disco, and heavy metal. We understand. That’s called Modern Band and this is the way you’ll code it with your course work.” 

And this is the other thing that I would say. I work with a lot of teachers who say to me, “You know what? I was doing this before I met you. I just thought it would be the greatest thing if I could teach kids to play the music they knew and loved. I just didn’t know what to call it.” Or, “I called it my guitar club, or I called it rock band.” Well those same teachers now, if that same teacher comes up in Chicago and they look through the courses they could offer, and they see Modern Band. “Wait, Modern Band teaches kids guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, vocals, and how to song-write and improvise? Well, wow, I want to do Modern Band. Yeah, I’ll sign up to do that. And by the way, because of my own background, I have the skills to do it.” That’s what’s different.

When will you feel like you’ve made the impact you’re seeking?

I’ll feel like we’re successful when I can ask anyone what “Modern Band” is and they just know. If I go to someone who doesn’t know anything about a school music program, then I say, “Jazz band is being taught in public schools. What do you think a jazz band program consists of?” People will know. They’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, they teach kids jazz and trumpet and things?” 

“What’s Modern Band?” You ask people that now, they don’t know. You have to explain it, which is understandable. But look at how it’s already beginning to become pervasive. For over 2,000,000 kids and the teachers that are at those districts and the parents at those districts, the term Modern Band is being used. “Oh, Modern Band, is that the one where the kids do all the popular music? Oh yeah, I know about Modern Band. Yeah, my kid loves that class. He’s in that class.” Or, “My nephew’s in Modern Band class. Yeah, cool.” 

I look at Little Kids Rock as a catalyst. Little Kids Rock and our approach is adopted with varying degrees of teacher and district buy-in. The most manifest is when the district says, “This is a fantastic addition and should be permanent. And for that reason, we’re going to create a course or a set of courses under Modern Band so that we can always have this.” And it’s beginning to creep into job descriptions. When districts are posting, “Hey, we have a job; looking for a teacher that can do orchestra and Modern Band,” or, “Looking for a choral teacher, Modern Band skills a plus.” 

It’s the movement that matters. It’s not the organization. I love Little Kids Rock probably more than the average bear, but I don’t want it to take place of a society that believes in and invests in music education that matters, it’s meaningful and is inclusive for all the children of this country. It’s the job of Little Kids Rock to be a catalyst to remind us of just how important that is. And then we as a society, in our governments and our schools and etc., we lock on to make that the priority that it can, should, and will be.

If I’m a music teacher, general music teacher and I’ve heard about what you’re doing and I’m really excited but I don’t know what to do, how do I get help exposing my administration to the opportunity? How do I get involved as a teacher from scratch? 

So what I would say is there’s a website called modernband.org and if you go there it’s a clearinghouse of Modern Band resources; curricular materials, different websites, etc., but it’s also a clearinghouse of the schools, of education that you could attend or point to for your administration and say, “Look, USC is teaching Modern Band. This is like a real thing. Berkeley’s teaching Modern Band. Ithaca’s teaching Modern Band. Here’s a link to the music department.” There’s a document there that you can download called “What is Modern Band?” that’s been designed to share with school administration, PTAs, other music teachers. 

Little Kids Rock provides teachers with four things: instruments, curriculum, pedagogy, and community. And we always think the instruments . . . the instruments is the big thing, but our teachers usually wind up telling us, “You know, the instruments got me in the door, but what won me over big time, what is the most valuable thing of all, is your approach and your curriculum and your pedagogy. That’s it.” So the good news for us is that’s pretty cheap. And we’re investing now in creating MOOCs, massive open online courses in Modern Band. And we’re doing that individually and also with university partners for exactly that reason so that a teacher can go and get the training, the resources, the intellectual, the IP, that they need in order to conceptualize and run a Modern Band class.

Is there a fee to the districts that want to set up an official Modern Band program and use your curriculum and other materials?

No. There’s no fee. We don’t do that. Our materials are open source in schools so long as they’re never sold and so long as children are never charged. 

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