Modern Band Rockfest: A Seriously Good Time

Mike Lawson • • August 11, 2017

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If you find yourself amongst public school music teachers who are working on their lead guitar licks, learning to rap, figuring out how to record students’ original compositions, and crowd surfing to the latest pop songs, you can only be in one place Modern Band Rockfest.

For the fifth year in a row, several hundred Modern Band teachers from across the country converged on beautiful Ft. Collins, Colorado to share best practices and build community around Modern Band.

Modern Band is a new category of school music programming that is spreading quickly to districts throughout the country. Modern Band teaches kids to perform, improvise, and compose using the popular genres that they know and love: rock, pop, reggae, hip-hop, R&B, and other modern styles. With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) music educators have been given a bold mandate to provide music to all students regardless of their socio-economic circumstance.

One way for the music education community to rise to this amazing opportunity to expand music access for every child is through implementing Modern Band programming, a new category of music education sweeping across school districts.

In addition to traditional band and orchestral instruments, Modern Band classes feature a wide range of instrumentation common to contemporary pop, including guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, vocals, and other technology. These programs also work to leverage the cultural capital of students and expand upon existing music programming such as marching band, jazz band, orchestra, chorus, and general music.

In the October 2015 Edition of SBO, we introduced you to Modern Band programs: what they are, how they work, and what the goals are, along with their annual gathering, Modern Band Rockfest. This event is funded with support from the Bohemian Foundation, NAMM, and Little Kids Rock, and is the leading national conference focused on advancing popular music, improvisation, and nontraditional ensembles in the U.S. public school system. And again, hundreds of music teachers, arts supervisors, and higher education professionals from over 70 school districts, 34 states and 6 countries and participated in teacher-led workshops that focused on practical, hands-on approaches to building and running Modern Band programs met again in Ft. Collins, CO for the 5th annual conference.

States Arts Directors and Statewide Initiatives

It is fitting that Modern Band Rockfest was held in the state of Colorado, because as Bryce Merrill from Bohemian Foundation explained at the conference, the State of Colorado, in line with the new mandates from ESSA, is passionate about providing a quality music education for all students through their Take Note initiative. Bryce explained that in the summer of 2016, the Governor of the state of Colorado John Hickenlooper convened a group of key Colorado funders, musicians and community leaders to develop a statewide music initiative. At this meeting, Gov. Hickenlooper shared his vision to provide access to music education and musical instruments to every K-12 student in the state of Colorado. As part of this Take Note initiative, the state of Colorado is working to bring culturally relevant Modern Band programs to schools across the state.

This year’s Modern Band Rockfest included the presence of several State Arts Directors who saw Modern Band as an opportunity to help their states’ school districts build music programs as diverse as the students that they serve. Multiple State Arts Directors spoke of statewide initiatives to provide access to music for all students. Beth Lambert, the Visual and Performing Arts Specialist at the Maine Department of Education, spoke to the teachers about an exciting new initiative called Maine Kids Rock. This pilot program, developed in partnership between the Maine Department of Education and Little Kids Rock, is dedicated to building a world where kids can live rich, purposeful lives by ensuring that all Maine school children have the opportunity to unlock their inner music makers. This project represents the first time Little Kids Rock has partnered with a State Department of Education.

These State Arts Directors and others also participated in a panel presentation facilitated by Mike Blakeslee, the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). Mike shared information about the NAfME advocacy for the Every Student Succeeds Act and expressed his interest in Modern Band’s ability to reach students from varied backgrounds and engaging more students in music education.

Sessions and Keynotes

In addition to these keynote sessions, Modern Band Rockfest participants participated in engaging, hands-on sessions that focused on all aspects of running Modern Band programs. These sessions were led by current in-service music educators who are implementing Modern Band ensembles in their schools. Sessions this year included hip-hop in the classroom, bucket drumming, guitar soloing for beginners, and movement and stage presence.

Some of the celebrity attendees to this year’s Modern Band Rockfest included guitar virtuoso Alex Skolnick (Testament, Alex Skolnick Trio), bass virtuoso Stuart Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani), and legendary drummer and recording artist Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel).

Modern Band Educator of the Year

In a very special moment, Barbara Murray was honored as the Modern Band Educator of the year. Ms. Murray, the former Director of Music for New York City Department of Education, oversaw the introduction and expansion of Modern Band into over 500 NYC public schools. These programs currently serve over 70,000 students! This unprecedented expansion of Modern Band into the Nation’s largest school district was possible through the support of Amp Up NYC, an initiative between Little Kids Rock and Berklee College of Music in support of the NYCDOE’s plans to expand Modern Band programming.

Higher Ed

Another group that was well represented at the 2017 Modern Band Rockfest was higher ed. professionals from over a dozen colleges and universities including Ithaca College, University of South Florida, the University of Western Ontario, and George Mason University (just to name a few). Throughout the three-day conference, these music education professors jammed with teachers, participated in workshops, and built community with each other. According to Radio Cremata, an Assistant Professor of Music Education at Ithaca College, “The sharing is a very big piece. Rockfest is a place where we come together, learn, grow, share, and continue to advance in new directions.”

Modern Band Highlights this Year

Modern Band Rockfest also provided an opportunity to reflect on some of the achievements in the past year. In 2017, three school districts adopted Modern Band into their approved course offerings: Bridgeport Public Schools (CT), Trenton Public Schools (NJ), School District of Philadelphia (PA). These school districts have joined many others that have adopted Modern Band as part of their regularly offered music courses including the three largest school districts in the United States, New York City Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified School District and Chicago Public Schools. Other districts that have adopted Modern Band are Bridgeport Public Schools (CT), Trenton Public Schools (NJ), School District of Philadelphia (PA), Fontana Unified School District (CA), Dallas Independent School District (TX), and Johnson City Public Schools (NY).

Modern Band’s expansion across the country is undeniable. Over the next 5 years, Little Kids Rock has partnered with Chicago Public Schools to expand Modern Band programming and music education throughout the school district. With an investment of over $2 million dollars, 100,000 students will have access to a culturally relevant and student-centered music education (not to mention over 10,000 new instruments to rock out on!)


After the sessions and presentations ended each day, the music making continued! Each night, committed and passionate music educators participated in late night jam sessions that went until 2 a.m. These jam sessions included a diverse repertoire including the blues, gospel, and currently popular songs from artists such as Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, and Beyoncé. Building community was a common theme for teachers in attendance at the conference. Rockfest “brought together so many people from so many backgrounds to stand on common ground as we explore the future of modern band programs!” shared one teacher from Denver, one of the latest urban school district to adopt Modern Band. As the curtain closed on this year’s Modern Band Rockfest, it was clear that the success of the conference came from the fact that the participating teachers, arts supervisors and higher ed professionals were engaged with an approach to music education that focused on providing access to music for all students through an approach that is learner-led, aligned to the Core Arts music standards, and engaging for all participants. Indeed, the participants were engaging in serious fun.


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