NAfME’s All-National Honor Modern Band Ensemble

Mike Lawson • Modern Band • January 10, 2020

For the past decade, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) has highlighted performances of some of the country’s best student performers as part of their All-National Honors Ensembles (ANHE).

Students in concert band, orchestra, jazz band, and mixed choir have come together, working alongside professional conductors, honing their skills, meeting new peers, and putting on amazing performances.

As a part of NAfME’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, last year these traditional ensembles expanded to include a classical guitar ensemble, and this year included a modern band or large popular music ensemble. When discussing the growth of this program, ANHE Program Chair Scott Sheenan said “It’s the music many students listen to every day and to be able to put that kind of music on the same stage as the other ensembles shows that popular music is just as important as any other music.”

As directors of this inaugural ensemble, we learned a lot from these students and felt like the best way to hear about this experience was primarily through the eyes of a few of the participants. But first, some background to the process.

Students from 20 states submitted audition videos, providing a minimum of two performances of contrasting style to demonstrate their versatility and skill. Sixteen students were selected, consisting of four vocalists, three guitarists, three pianists, three bassists, and three percussionists. The students then recommended and voted on songs, which we then tailored to make a diverse program. The repertoire included some classic rock tunes from Kansas and The Foo Fighters, and some newer hits such from Lizzo, Hiatus Kaiyote, and John Mayer. To round out the set list, students submitted their original songs and voted on their favorite, “This Love” by Brendan, which was then arranged and workshopped together by the entire ensemble.

So how was their experience? What were your expectations for this group and how did they change after the experience?

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how excited I was to meet all these talented musicians and make music with them. I was expecting a few bumps along the way (as there usually are whenever bands rehearse together), but as soon as we started playing “Carry on Wayward Son” together for the first time, my mind was completely blown. Everyone was so well-prepared and confident what they were doing, which played a huge role in our sound and how we worked together as a band.”

– Soraya, guitar and trumpet, Florida

“I was expecting my bandmates to be focused on only music and ignore the possibility of being friends with each other, considering the fact that all these people are the best of the best from the entire country. I am so glad to say that I was completely wrong, everyone in the ensemble was very friendly and supportive of everyone and there was absolutely no negative in a single person who I shared the stage with.”

– Cosme, guitar, Illinois

“To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. My own director even said that this band was like the Wild West because nobody really knew how it was going to turn out. The turning point for me was when we first played “Carry On”, and I heard the singers with their harmonies in the intro. Everyone just kind of looked at each other and was like yeah, we’ve got this. It was a feeling of confidence that sent me into such a relaxed mindset that even when we went on stage for the performance, it felt just like a big jam session with all of these uber-talented musicians.”

– Brendan, drums, Pennsylvania

Why is performing important to you, and why are you excited to perform with the modern band?

“I like to feed off energy and performing just puts me in another world. Like I don’t have to be anybody else when I’m performing, I can just be myself and speak through what I’m doing.”

– Jason, keyboard, Pennsylvania

“I’m excited to play music that I love listening to in a national ensemble.”

– Isaiah, drums and percussion, Kansas

“I think that it means just sharing something with the audience for them to feel. So the more that you can show and express, the audience feels it too.”

– Kayla, vocals, Minnesota

“When I’m on my own, I already feel really good playing my music. So live it’s a good outlet to release whatever emotions and it just makes me really happy. Getting to share that happiness with the audience is just a really good feeling.”

– Soraya

What did you learn from this experience?

“I started to really enjoy improvising. I’ve been in jazz bands for the last couple of years, and have experience with improvising, but it’s always been a challenge. I dreaded going to the front of the stage and soloing. This was the first performance where I was excited to play. I really felt supported by the people on stage with me, and I think that was also an important take away- that over just a couple of days, everyone in the band was able to bond together so we had fun. We had fun practicing, we had fun jamming with each other, and we had fun on stage.”

– Naomi, keyboard, saxophone, flute, Maryland

“Music should be fun, no matter what you are playing. The thing that held our band together wasn’t that everyone was a master musician; it was our shared love of playing music that we all grew up with and still listen to this day.”

– Brendan

“Making music the whole time was fun, but it also taught me important non-musical lessons about life. When you are extremely passionate about anything and you stick to it no matter what, it can take you to places you never imagined going to.”

– Soraya

Why is music important to you?

“If I play the keyboard, it keeps me in school all the time and keeps me from getting in trouble outside of school. If I wouldn’t have picked up music, I’d probably be running the streets and doing stuff that I shouldn’t be doing. Because that’s just what happens where I’m from. So, music really took me out of that element and put me somewhere where I really need to be.”

– Jason

“It’s given me a safe space to be someone other than myself. I’m a different person when I sing. Like I’m the songwriter, I’m the performer. And through that I’ve been able to uncover like truths that I wasn’t able to find like just by being Kayla.”

– Kayla

“It’s given me something to really focus a lot of my energy on rather than silly things that don’t matter as much. And because of that, I now have something that I love doing every day. Something that I will always have to do.”

– Isaiah

What advice would you give to the other students or educators?

“I would advise future students looking to play in modern band to keep an open mind, listen to and play different music, experiment with improvising, and learn from the people around you.”

– Naomi

“Adding a modern band seems like a perfect option for schools looking to expand their music program. I know the reason I joined band originally was because of my love for playing the music I liked listening to, and while joining the music department has expanded my music vocabulary, I’ve never had the chance to play in a concert like this one, an opportunity I feel a lot of people would love to be a part of. My school is adding one next year, and I am totally ecstatic for the future of our program.”

– Brendan

“I know for a fact that the next modern band is going to absolutely crush it. I would remind them that before you set foot in rehearsal, take a moment to remember that you have worked hard to get to where you are now, and remember that those teens on the other side of that door are also there for the same reason, you all love music.”

– Cosme

What did we discover? There were a lot of great lessons for us as directors. The student’s music choices were as diverse as they were. When asked what they listened to, they mentioned classic rock, alternative, pop, funk, grunge, gospel, jazz, R&B, progressive metal, and musical theater. Many of them also played multiple instruments and with varied ensembles, and several had been in a different All-National ensemble last year. For example, Naomi was accepted this year on keyboard, but plays saxophone in her school jazz band and clarinet in the concert band. Clearly, students who study music want to learn and play everything when given the opportunity, and that musical growth is so important to their happiness and success.

It was immensely gratifying to see just how capable these students are. We were able to primarily act as facilitators, letting them work out the parts, arrangements, harmonies, form, and other aspects, while we facilitated discussion. These students have spent their formative years learning how to be amazing, dedicated, and intelligent musicians, but also critical thinkers and problem solvers who see the value in working together to bring about success. That success could be seen as they performed and was clearly enjoyed by the audience who could not help getting out of their chairs to dance.

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