The other day I received a call from a parent asking to discuss his daughters progress in her band she is enrolled in. I run a small music school called the Brooklyn Music Factory and a cornerstone of our program is the bi weekly band rehearsals. Kids can sign up for different styles of music like the all Motown band, Atlantic Ave. Soul Review or the New Wave synth group, Club Keyboard. The kids love the chance to practice and eventually perform and for the band leaders (teachers) it is wonderful to dive head first into one genre or songwriter. What the phone call from this father made me realize is that it is not as easily apparent to those observing the actual musical value of a band program. Sure, they see that their child is having fun, in fact, tons of fun, but as this parent pointed out, “sometimes if a kid is having too much fun, how can they really be learning anything?” This entry is dedicated to how to respond to parents effectively and what I see to be the value of the group learning environment that can be both tons of fun and extremely educational.
I view the first three years of a child’s education as to be more about developing essential musical tools that can ultimately serve any instrument they may play. At the Brooklyn Music Factory we are less concerned with developing the specific technics on each instrument and instead introducing tools, sharpening them through numerous music games, and building a rock solid foundation that inspires and motivates musical exploration and hopefully devotion to one or more instruments. In my mind the band program is the perfect opportunity to introduce certain tools that can only be learned in a group context while at the same time reinforcing and growing those that have been learned in the private lessons.
What are these tools?
The first and most important is learning to listen. Students are generally capable of listening to themselves with some practice, but find the idea of listening beyond their instrument a foreign concept. In band we talk about letting others guide us through the form. We talk about learning others parts as well as we know our own, in fact, we rotate from instrument to instrument so that students get a chance discover and appreciate each others parts.
Rhythm or groove is next on my list. We open every rehearsal with a twenty minute African drum circle. Playing different games where students lead with their own rhythm or we pass a single beat around the circle. Sometimes a band leader gets behind the drum set and keeps time while we improvise as a group for as long as fifteen minutes without stopping. As you know, that is an eternity for a child. Groove comes from maximum exposure. Students need time to play play play! And learn to play play play with other’s definition of groove and time. The key here I have found is to get rid of as many musical variables as you can so that student’s can really start to feel the space (rests) between their notes and also start to understand how groove is like a jigsaw puzzle, each musical piece fits beautifully together. One example of simplifying it for students would be what I like to do with our older (ages 12-15) group. Pick two major chords a second apart (G to A). Set up a simple reggae groove and get the chordal instruments to play on the off beats (try to skank like Bob Marley!). Have vocalists or horn players improvise a short and simple melody. I usually jump on drums (the hardest part of that groove). Play this for many minutes and then start dropping different players out and bringing others back in. Basically, it is an exercise in building each individual’s confidence in their part and their groove. Be fearless with directing players to hold the groove alone for a while. A vocalist can groove just as hard solo as with a full band. The band needs to trust that one player can carry the entire band if needed. And of course, remind all the musicians that their rhythm and groove continues even though they are not playing.
Finally, and I touched on it in the last paragraph, is that bands build confidence. Pure and simple, if a student sees themselves as a capable player, they are more apt to explore and practice at home. If the band leader cultivates a supportive rehearsal environment, students are going to regard each other as vital parts of the whole. If you feel like your peers need you, it makes you feel good, makes you feel important. And when that part of you they need is the musician in you, that can be an incredibly powerful motivator.
As my conversation with this band dad drew to a close, he thanked me for taking the time to show him the value of group learning and his daughter’s band experience. I told him that I clearly needed to do a better job at expressing what I think to be an invaluable learning environment. In fact, I think that if our goal is to raise musicians that want to make music with others, hopefully for the rest of their lives, I believe the band program is not a luxury, but imperative.