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Rock Band!

I stepped WAY  out of my comfort zone this semester and instituted a Middle School Rock Band at our school.  The whole thing was inspired by a visit to The Feyerweather School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  There you will find students doing Rock Band for their music class in grades 6, 7, and 8.  I don't have permission to post video of our band, but here is a Middle School band I found on youtube.  They are excellent!

There are six guys in this band and we did it with the entire 14 kids in our graduating Middle School band.  Here is how the instruments broke down in our class.

3 singers, female, took turns singing solo with some tutti in the chorus sections
2 drummers, one with a kit, one with a conga and sticks
2 basses
4 guitars
3 keyboard players

Here is a group from The Feyerweather School singing "Forget You Cover."

Rock band inspires kids to study music as no other activity I've ever done.  Our students were forming garage bands, getting together after school to just "noodle around," asking their parents for lessons, and otherwise, being engaged in music as never before.  See how these young people took their Middle School band out for a gig.

Still, with all the rewards, there were MONUMENTAL headaches.  I'll go through the various element of putting our band together.  For each element, I will write what happened and what I will do differently in the future.  The elements are: skills, instruments, and colleagues.

Skills
Singing:  
 What Happened: Three of the four girls in our class chose to sing (the fourth was lead guitar).  They had never sung with a microphone before and expected the mic to do all the work.  As a result, we could not hear vocals most of the time.  This didn't seem to bother the band until June, days before performance, when they finally considered the entire product.  At that time we had a parent come in to coach the girls.  The parent was lead singer in her own rock band of physicians.  She taught the girls to "eat the mic" and sing to the back of the room even though they had mics.  Of course these were thing's I'd been barking all along, but it meant more coming from someone new.
What I'd do differently: I would do a unit on singing with a mic during the first semester of Middle School.  We'd study decibels, how many the band produces, how many the voice produces, how much the mic amplifies sound, the difference between amplifying a small number of decibels vs a larger number.  We'd also discuss speaker placement to avoid feedback and what feedback is.  These are all questions of physics and would make any Middle School science teacher very happy.  Perhaps the unit could be paired with work in their science classroom.  I would spend 3-4 lessons on this, then incorporate it in future units on drums, guitar, etc.

Drums: 
What happened:  One student was already taking drum kit lessons and owned a kit.  He was our default drummer.  The problem was that he had never played in a band before and was following more than laying down a beat.  This was very problematic, and I had to beat mercilessly on an old kick-drum with a hold in one side, for the first month of rehearsals.  Gradually both he, and the other boy who chose drumming, began to keep a steady beat.  Later, two months in, the boys were able to lead and detect when the beat needed to be stronger by listening to the rest of the band.  The performance was great!
What I'd do differently:  I would do more African drumming, drumming as an accompaniment to creative movement, and small group ensembles who memorize drumming patterns and perform them without the help of the teacher.  Steady beat is the foundation of all pedagogies, Dalcrose has children exhibit steady beat with their entire bodies, Kodaly stresses beat and rhythm differentiation, and Orff uses the steady beat inherent in all language, to teach music notation.   

I would also begin the rock band unit (a semester long) with lessons on each instrument in the context of the song we chose.  Only then can people really make informed decisions regarding which instrument they would like to play.

Guitar: 
What happened:  Two of our students already played electric guitar, owned instruments and amps, and were excited to be leaders and mentors for others wishing to play.  Our 7th grade boy expert had an amp that could do the distortion at the beginning of the song, so that was his job.  Our 8th grade girl expert loved to practice and decided to ace the guitar solos in the song.  Two other young men wished to learn guitar and had to figure it out from scratch.  They learned the names of the strings and how to play chord roots for chorus and verse.  This was great for lesson one and two, but I was reteaching the same thing every time because they were NOT PRACTICING between lessons.  They forgot which string was what and how to play the patterns.  I had told them to take the instruments home with the baby amp to practice, to use our experts as helpers so they could remember what they had learned, and to use the tabs to remember what they had learned, but they just didn't  do it.  When May came around, a fire was lit under them.  I took acoustics out with me to recess duty and taught them individually, for 20 minutes, how to figure out the tabs and how to play power chords instead of chord roots.  I'll never forget the gleem in the eye of one of these boys when he finally got it.  He would NOT STOP PRACTICING after that point.  He became impatient with the other boy and said, "Dude, just use the power chords, they're easy, I'll show you."  All the guitarists pulled off a great performance.
What I'd do differently: Again, a unit earlier in the year about guitar, but I'd use acoustics.  I had two acoustics and there was one in the Middle School classroom.  Three guitars among 14 is fine for teaching about tuning, frets, holding position, single notes, tabs, and power chords.

Bass: 
What happened:   Two guys were interested in the bass and they were interested for the same reason.  The bass has fewer strings to memorize and seems easier.  I purchased a bass at a pawn shop, but I didn't realize the importance of checking the jacks and paid too much ($45).  I ended up having to get repair (which was only partially possible).  The other guitar was loaned and only available when that parent was coaching the group with me, so one of the players usually didn't have a guitar or had to play on my acoustic.  As a result, the boy without an instrument had behavior challenges and sometimes it was a mess.  In the end, both boys mastered the chart, one became board and wished he'd chosen to play the 6-string instead.  Both boys leave our school for High School knowing that there will always be rock bands for them that need a bass.
What I'd do differently:  I would take a bass guitarists with me to buy the instruments.  I would have bought two at a pawn shop and checked all the inputs first.

Keyboards:
What happened:  All three young men who chose keyboards had taken piano lessons outside of school.  They could choose to play single note chord roots, simple triads, or left hand roots and right hand chords.  All of these options were quite simple, but these boys enjoyed themselves anyway.  One of them had a Kurzweil, and loved to play with sampling and new sounds.  He had great taste and it wasn't a distraction.  Another boy was able to play his chords and beat a drum to help our ailing drummers keep a steady beat.  He was a one-man-band.  Once the drummers found his actions helpful, they became annoyed.  The third boy didn't push himself at all, he chose to sit back and enjoy the song and use music class as a break from his academic day.
What I'd do differently: With a Kurzweil, I'd have the entire class be part of the laying down of percussion and bass tracks that helped our band get started.  I'd do a unit on keys, chords, and colors.

Instruments
Without instruments and amps, you don't have a rock band.  Procurement of instruments is the major obstacle to any new rock band.  Fortunately, we have some rockers among our parent population.  One father is the lead guitarist in a Pink Floyd tribute band.  He has the long hair and everything.  As luck would have it, he was looking to unload thousands of dollars worth of old equipment to make room for his new stuff.   
Donations: I guarantee you that dozens of families in your school have electric guitars in their attics.  They invested in amps and guitars years ago and lessons were not taken, practice didn't happen, and now there is clutter in the attic.  I found that speaking directly to parents is much more fruitful than putting a plea in the school's parent newsletter.  Get to know your parents and figure out who the rockers are.  Suffice to say, the rock band is NOT recommended for a teacher's first year in a school.

The cool thing about donations is that you can get much cooler stuff than you need.  We got an amazing bass amp that is enormous and sounds amazing.  You could do Seinfeld riffs on this amp and it would sound great.  We also got a guitar amp with loads of effects, an amp we would never get on our own.

Don't forget the amps!
Experts among us: Chances are that several of your students already study guitar, drums, or keyboards.  If you have a safe way to store their instruments, these students can be a great asset and foundation for your band.  They can lead sectionals, be models for others, and give beginning students pointers on fingerings and technique.  The number of experts you have also lessens the number of instruments you need to get with purchase or donations.  It also gives you an idea of the practicality of doing a rock band at all.  If you have fewer than 25% experts, I suggest you not do a rock band yet.  Try an after school band with 50% experts to start.

Cords: Have 6 or more extra power cords, guitar cords, and extension cords on hand.  Be aware that bass guitar amps need special cords, label them clearly.  Invest $100-$200 in these cords.

Amps: Consider the size of the rooms you are going to play.  Don't overpower your singers with too much volume from the instruments.  Good amps are around $80.  Are you beginning to see the expense involved in a school rock band?

Colleagues
Support from regular classroom teachers is mandatory.  If you do not have their full support, abort this mission!  You will need help putting instruments away and setting up, this can impact on the other teachers' instructional time and possibly their prep time.  Again, you need to build that kind of relationship.  Yet another reason you should not start a rock band when you begin at a new school.  
What I'll do differently:  I will give colleagues the heads-up in the preperatory units that lead up to the actual rock band.  I'll keep a few students to help clean up after each lesson so that all students know how to do that and so that the classroom teacher gets used to the clean up process perhaps taking 5 minutes longer for some students.  My teachers have developed an excellent relationship with me over the past 5 years.  They are also much less stressed for time than public school teachers and more flexible that way.  In a public school environment, I think the rock band would be an after-school endeavor.  If you have a public school rock band as part of your general music experience, I'd love to hear about it.  Please post in comments.
I'd like to take a moment to thank my Middle School colleagues who were generous with their advice and help as we put the rock band together.  Without your dedication, the band could not have happened!
 

Comments

I am at a Christian school where we have chapel with contemporary worship every Friday. Last year, we decided to have a MS Worship Team (the equivalent of your rock band) and it had many of the same effects yours did! The only difference was that I started with pretty much 100% experts, as we only have 20 minutes 1x/week, after lunch, to practice. They play for the elementary kids every other week in chapel.

I learned that collaboration/communication is definitely important with colleagues, especially since they have to miss part of class to play for the elementary kids. Everyone was so supportive and gracious. Also, I'd like to do more with teaching actual music concepts through the band this year, rather than solely focusing on performance...it's just hard with so little time. Do you have any suggestions? Also, how long did you practice each week? What did a typical practice consist of? We pretty much need to play 2-3 songs every other week...do you find that idealistic or is it feasible?
Glennda said…
Very nice. I wish these students would always be busy with learning and playing music and not with anything else that's not good for them.
Tim Jones in Spokane that's a long friend of mine started with music since kid.

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