For many youths growing up in the age of Kendrick Lamar, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, the choice between taking orchestra, band or choir often misses the point.
Building a school’s music instruction around more recent artists and hits offers an alternative to a curriculum that’s often based on classical, jazz and marching bands.
“For music education to have the greatest impact, it needs to be relevant” says Lynn M. Tuttle, director of public policy and professional development at the National Association for Music Education (NAfME).
Students who participate in music programs—compared to those who do not—have a higher graduation rate, better attendance and higher standardized test scores, according to research from the NAMM Foundation, the charitable arm of the national music merchants’ trade organization.
“For many districts” Tuttle says, “it comes down to less flute and more guitar classes.”
Can you hear it?
Hear what student musicians are playing in Oregon and New York.
Little Kids Rock
For Ryan Zellner, national program director at Little Kids Rock in New Jersey, modern band strikes a more powerful chord with Generation Z youths. Pop songs have a better chance of catching a child’s imagination and inspiring them to learn more about music.
The nonprofit group focuses on helping K12 educators teach everything from reggae to hip-hop to Latin to rhythm and blues. It hosts more than 150 local workshops, where teachers participate in band activities and learn the Little Kids Rock way of teaching. The teachers then go back to their schools and create bands.
Little Kids Rock also gives schools more than 10,000 instruments per year—mostly guitars, basses, keyboards, drums and, increasingly, ukuleles. The program coexists alongside traditional band, orchestra and choir curriculum at Connecticut’s Bridgeport Public Schools.
The students are excited to play songs such as Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” says Tania Kelley, Bridgeport’s director of performing and visual arts.
Bridgeport also doesn’t rely on the most traditional methods of music instruction. Instead of using sheet music with the standard five-line staff, Bridgeport’s music instructors give students “tabs” that show them which fingers to use to play notes and chords.
The program has brought dramatic change in just three years: About 600 Bridgeport students play in a rock band, with about one group in each of the district’s schools.
Children in command
You don’t need to change the entire district’s arts curriculum to update musical instruction, you can just add a recent hit song. That’s exactly what pop star Pharrell Williams did, developing a music course based on his Oscar-winning song “Happy.”
The e-book course—which works on iPads, iPhones and MacBooks—offers a self-paced tour of every aspect of the composition, from the drum beat to vocals. Its key innovation is that the e-book links up with the free GarageBand app so students can experiment with the song’s elements—such as hand clapping—and rework the recording to their own liking.
“It gives kids a chance to explore music-making without any knowledge of instruments, sheet music or music theory” says Kiko Duran, programmer of the e-book. “They’re in command of the ultimate song.”
Brian Nadel is a technology writer based in Pelham, New York.