There are lots of reasons why teachers are not successful in implementing rock music in their orchestra programs. Upon discussing this topic with many orchestra teachers, I would say one of the biggest contributing factors is lack of knowledge. Every teacher is going to have a different background and different comfortability level when it comes to implementing rock music into their classroom. Some teachers will have little to no background with rock music. Other teachers will be familiar with rock music, but from my experience most teachers don’t have a grasp on how to incorporate this into their programs to be a really great learning tool for their students. Through this post, my hope is to give you some practical advice on how to go from not knowing anything about rock music to being extremely comfortable with rock music. The first step is actually just simply appreciating rock music. If you don’t know anything about rock music, then I am going to lay out some steps to getting more knowledgeable about rock music. Hopefully this will lead to the next step of actually using this knowledge in your class.
For those of you that are afraid and feel like you are a hopeless cause, I thought it fitting to explain how I actually got into playing rock music, because if anyone was hopeless it would have been me. If you read my post “The Great Chasm: Part 1,” you learned that I was obsessed with classical music from a very young age. In fact, in high school I didn’t have a clue what bands were popular because I was too interested in analyzing the Karajan recordings of the Brahms Symphonies (yes I was a geek). I first started improvising when I was in high school because I was put on the worship team at a church that my family was involved with. I knew quite a bit of music theory in high school and I just used that information to figure out what I was doing. It wasn’t something I was really passionate about, but did see the value in having some basic skills at improvising.
The first time that I acknowledged that rock music existed happened to be in my freshman year of college at the University of Minnesota. I was randomly placed with another musician from Madison, Wisconsin. His name is Ari Herstand and he had a dream of becoming a rock musician. He would write songs and started coming up with opportunities for himself in Minneapolis to perform his songs. He asked me to play cello along with him on a few songs and eventually his shows became bigger and bigger and we had a blast playing music together all across the Midwest. Ari introduced me to bands like Dave Matthews Band, Radiohead, Phish, and many others. I started to appreciate a new genre of music and started learning how to be a rock musician as well as a classical musician. I eventually got teamed up with a bunch of other musicians and started using these skills with this new genre in several bands. I started getting into recording studios and started playing bigger and bigger shows around the Midwest. At one point I counted and found out that I had played with 30 different bands in a one year span and had played close to 200 concerts (both rock based and classically based). It was a really great time in my life and I grew a lot as a person and musician. So to reiterate, I entered college without any knowledge of rock music and left college playing with dozens of bands in hundreds of concerts and recording on many records. It’s not difficult to get a working knowledge of this stuff and as I continue I will show you some tips and thoughts to build this into your knowledge base. Before I go on any farther, I just want to suggest that you check out Ari Herstand and go buy his music, like his Facebook page, and follow him on twitter. He’s really living his dream out in L.A. and really doing some great things, plus he put up with me during his time in Minneapolis.
So the question we’re trying to answer for the reader is, “how do you gain a knowledge about rock music to implement it in your classroom?” The answer is easier than you would think. Start listening to music that you usually wouldn’t. It’s really that simple. You’re going to need to become more proactive and set a routine for yourself. Take whatever is in your car CD player (or iPod) right now and change it out for something fresh and listen to it until you understand it and at least appreciate it. It’s important for you and for your students that you understand that for some music it takes time to like it. I remember there was a time that I didn’t like Radiohead. It seemed that I was always around people that loved Radiohead and these people were really inspired by what Radiohead was doing. I decided that it was worth my time and effort to invest some quality time with Radiohead. I put on their album OK Computer and probably listened to that CD hundreds of times. It was on every time I was in the car for a few months. Eventually I started hearing what other people heard from Radiohead. They are a great band and I love what they do. To this day, they aren’t my favorite band, but I appreciate their music a great deal. What’s funny is this is the same advice I give to students when learning about classical music. Some music you aren’t going to love instantly right away and others will need a certain amount of investment. If you do invest some quality time with a composer, or rock band, eventually you will start uncovering their greatness. Let me state it a different way, they say with some foods you need to eat it seven times to allow your taste palette to like a food. This theory could easily be used with new music. Granted, I bet it didn’t take seven times to like chocolate.
My next tip is to research the bands that you are interested in. It isn’t hard to become somewhat of an expert of these bands with a little bit of research. If you’re playing a Coldplay song in your orchestra, you should at least know some basic information of the band, including the members and anything interesting. This isn’t hard to learn, and your credibility will increase a ton with your students. Just imagine what your students will think when you can say that Coldplay used to be called Starfish and that their drummer’s name is Will Champion and that in your opinion A Rush of Blood to The Head is their best album. To put this another way, don’t sound old and lame to your students, even if you are old and a little lame. Learn how to speak rock and roll and don’t add the mom inflection in your tone if you can help it. The research you do will help get around this issue. Also when you research the information and your credibility increases you will be surprised how much more your students are willing to listen to you about other things, like how to hold their instruments properly.
I want to now stress and let you know it’s alright to not be 100% on top of what your students are listening to. First, there is just too much music out there to really know and some of the music out there you just simply don’t connect with and that’s also okay. Did I mention I don’t like Schumann all that much (sorry if that offended some of you)? I can tell you that I have never listened to an entire song by Justin Bieber, I don’t know how many people are in One Direction, nor have I ever watched an entire episode of Glee. I’m not suggesting in this post that you should become a teenybopper. I love Muse, Bon Iver, Explosions in the Sky, and Sigur Ros. I have tastes that are usually different than high schoolers. However, if listening and appreciating Justin Bieber would make my students more invested in my program I would do it in a heartbeat and I would research about his music to connect with the students. To this day I haven’t felt like this was necessary, but maybe that day will come. Let me state that if your favorite contemporary artist is Yanni, your students won’t connect with that. You’re going to have to find a balance of liking and listening to music that a good majority of students can “respect” you for, while at the same time staying true to what excites you about music.
My next words of advice is to become really knowledgeable with rock history. I think it’s important that students appreciate how Bob Dylan affected music forever, why Nirvana changed a generation, who Freddy Mercury is, and that Michael Jackson is not just some crazy person who had one too many nose jobs. A while back I did an arrangement of the U2 song, Where The Streets Have No Name, and at least half of the students didn’t know who U2 was. This ever important history is being lost for young people. I think it’s just as important to know how Led Zeppelin affected music as it is to know how Beethoven changed music. Much of the music students love today is only a result of years of history that brought music to where it is now. If you don’t know your rock history, it’s really not difficult to do some quick searches and learn yourself.
If you’re still not sure where to start, there are lists made by people of the greatest songs of all time. Now obviously each list I have found can be argued, but the lists are at least a starting point. Here’s a wiki site with a bunch of these lists compiled into one . Download the songs and start listening and learning. Once you have this as a part of your knowledge base, using this in class will be extremely easy. I then make it a point to connect the dots between these rock songs and the classical songs and all the sudden I have students eating AC/DC and Tchaikovsky out of my hands all in the same meal.
Another idea that I am going to personally try this year is to have a music exchange program with my students. I am going to show them three songs that really excite me and in return they will show me three songs that they love. I’m going to get really serious about listening to their musical tastes and researching them. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I start respecting their tastes enough to listen intentionally to their music that they will to some degree give the same respect back and this will actually create a better learning environment. I think especially with high schoolers, students want to feel like their identity has worth and they want to show that to people. I’m going to make a point that the songs must be appropriate in content and they must work on finding music that we can show in class, but I think this music exchange will pay huge dividends in the end. Another huge benefit of this is that I’m going to become more educated musically.
Technology has changed drastically how we take in music. YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, and iPods have changed the accessibility. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to listen to a specific song I had to drive all the way to Best Buy and purchase the CD to listen to it. The other option was wait to by the radio with a tape until that song came on and record on the tape the song I wanted. You could wait for hours by the radio for that one song. Today pretty much every song is available for free with a quick YouTube search. If you really want to expand your music listening, get Pandora and create a station and they will pick music for you to learn from. As a musician, I would encourage buying music to support an artist’s efforts, but do what you have to do to get educated. Really, with the technology today, you shouldn’t have any excuse for not listening to new music.
I’m sure there is a ton more I can say on the topic, but I think I can sum this up in a simple terms. If you don’t know rock music the worst thing you can do is start making excuses. It’s not difficult to learn new music, you simply have to do one thing: start listening. Listen a lot and research a lot. We live in an age where access to music is really easy. Once you have this knowledge and you make it a point to use it in your class, you’re going to see that you will be connecting with more students than ever before. More learning will happen because of the environment you created.
I always leave a post with a call to respond. I have several questions I hope we can get responses back from the reader. My first question is who have you just discovered that you didn’t know about? How were you introduced to that artist? Then share with me how your knowledge of rock music has benefited your orchestra classroom. I Would love to continue the discussion and learn from your successes.