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Photo courtesy Little Kids Rock

Creating Music Makers

How the Modern Band initiative is changing kids’ music education.

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Music is a universal language, and has been present in every culture and in every time period. Even from the first time your child bangs on bowls and pans in the kitchen while warbling out a few words, being “musical” seems to be as human a feeling as hunger or love.

However, the sad truth remains that there are a lot of schools with underdeveloped music programs. Some don’t have access to instruments; others offer a curriculum that doesn’t encourage student participation. Sometimes, it’s both.

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The nonprofit organization Little Kids Rock hopes to change this by restoring, expanding, and innovating music education across the country. Through its Modern Band music education initiative, it works to build lasting school music programs by teaching kids to perform popular music genres they already like.

Playing Music Kids Like

“They call it playing music for a reason,” says Little Kids Rock CEO David Wish. “If it feels like work, you’re doing it wrong.” This is especially true, Wish says, with children. They don’t want to sit and learn theory, they want to make music. And, they want to make the kind of music they like.

In Modern Band classes, students are encouraged to pick up instruments and experiment. Rather than learning every note and chord, they work in groups to make sounds together. They play music that interests them, from Beyoncé to the Beatles to AC/DC. Playing comes first, and theory comes later.

Restricting music is a weakness of our current music education models, Wish says. “If the music doesn’t suit the child, it’s not suitable for the child. No music is for everybody, but everyone wants to listen to the music that they like.”

Bringing Music Teachers Together

Partnering with Fort Collins’ Bohemian Foundation, Little Kids Rock hosted a meeting of musical minds on July 28: the fifth annual Modern Band Summit at Colorado State University. The four-day conference gathered hundreds of public school music teachers, district art supervisors, and higher education leaders from across the country.

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Some come in T-shirts and some in business suits, but all come carrying instruments over their shoulders. In seats closer together than a movie theater’s, young college interns sit next to seasoned educators toting notes and drumsticks. They all had a common goal: to discuss ways to improve public school music education programs. The best way to do this, Little Kids Rock believes, is through spreading the Modern Band initiative.

“Modern Band turns the classroom into a musical and builds students’ confidence,” says Poudre County school teacher Jasmine Faulkner, who is pushing to spread the Modern Band model in Colorado.

Home Connections

Ryan Zellner, national program director for Little Kids Rock, believes that the Modern Band system “helps bridge the gap for students between their school life and home through music.” For example, a student might play a Taylor Swift song, and her mother sings along while she’s cooking dinner.

Interested parents can get involved with the program by helping fix guitars, assisting teachers with jam sessions, learning to play an instrument for the first time, or even grabbing their old dusty ones out of the closet.

And such connections are reflected in students’ school lives. Studies have shown a successful, engaging music program keeps kids in school and improves their success, especially when students are encouraged to creatively collaborate on something in which they are interested.

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“The key to it all is to broaden how we define ‘music,’ when it comes to the classroom,” Wish says. Many students are told they don’t have enough musical talent to be a musician. They have too small of hands to play the bass, perhaps their voice is too shaky to sing, or they simply can’t manage to get Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony right. This, Wish feels, is one of the greatest mistakes a school can make. “Not everyone is a musician,” he says, “but everyone is a music maker.”

More Music Variety

Little Kids Rock strives to provide more common instruments for popular music to schools, such as guitars, drum sets, pianos, bass, vocal equipment, and more, while innovating school music programs themselves.

Modern Band was achieved, Wish says, by changing music education from a “no/but” proposition to a “yes/and” one. Jazz? Yes, and … Pop? Yes, and … Rap? It’s a program in which the music serves the students, rather than the other way around.

There is more encouragement of students to work in collaboration with each other to figure things out. It takes the sole responsibility out of the music teacher’s hands and turns the classroom into a music-making community. The teacher’s job, then, is to help the students draw the music out, not drive it in. It’s creation, not just recitation.

Wish proved that truly anyone could be a music maker when he sat this writer down at a piano. And though I believed I didn’t have one musical bone in my body, through the course of our interview, I found myself playing a Journey song—small, uncoordinated hands and all.

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Reaching Underserved Schools

Little Kids Rock has gone to great lengths to bring Modern Band to underserved schools across the country, and it’s working. The program has reached 37 states and over 200 school districts. There are nearly 2,000 teachers practicing Modern Band in their classrooms, and 320,000 students who have access to music education and instruments for the songs they like.

Since expanding to Denver last year, Little Kids Rock has helped 48 schools and donated over 800 instruments in the greater metro area alone. And while they are far from having an instrument for every child, they’re working on it.

If your child’s school doesn’t offer Modern Band but you like the sound of it, Wish encourages parents to start the conversation. “Parents don’t always realize how much power they have,” Wish says. “It only takes a few parents, a few phone calls telling their schools they want a Modern Band program.”

Lilly Halboth lives in Fort Collins and enjoys her time as a freelance writer, a full-time student, and a part-time child at heart.

If your child would like to start or improve music making of their own, Little Kids Rock provides a range of free online video lessons, which you can access at jamzone.littlekidsrock.org. For more about the nonprofit, visit littlekidsrock.org.

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