Rock Band Performance & Pedagogy

I apologize for the long break between posts. My Jazz and Popular Arranging course ended on July 1st, shortly after my family came to visit! They were here through July 5th, and we visited Monticello, Hampton, and several breweries and wineries. We also started the replacement of our back patio during that time. I began playing with the Charlottesville Municipal Band, getting several additional opportunities to perform through a trombone ensemble and a Dixieland band. In the middle of July, my mother-in-law and her friend came to visit us. We went and visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater before I left for Boston for this Rock Band course. Right after I came back from Boston, I began helping at Charlottesville High School’s Band Camp. Now I finally have some time to write!

From July 22–27, I partook in a graduate class at Boston University entitled Rock Band Performance & Pedagogy. The primary function of the course was to experience a “modern band” class as a student would: choosing songs, playing new instruments, rehearsing with different groups, and performing at the conclusion. Interspersed throughout the week were small lectures, master classes, and discussions related to the work. Our instructors were Dr. Jay Dorfman, currently Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music Education at Kent State University and former BU faculty, and Kevin Coyne, music teacher at McDevitt Middle School in Waltham, Massachusetts and a DMA candidate through Boston University.

From our syllabus:

Catalog Description: In this course, students will participate in small rock ensembles and will examine the pedagogy of that type of ensemble. Lectures and demonstrations will include topics such as equipment selection, repertoire selection, and performance techniques. An additional emphasis of this course will be techniques for amplifying rock ensembles. Students will also learn fundamental techniques for recording rock ensembles.

Course Objectives: By the conclusion of this course, students will:

  • Gain experience performing as a member of rock ensemble;

  • Learn techniques for coaching rock ensembles in the K-12 environment;

  • Learn about processes of selecting repertoire for rock ensembles;

  • Learn about processes of selecting equipment for use in rock ensembles;

  • Learn techniques for amplifying the instruments in rock ensembles;

  • Learn techniques recording and editing performances of rock ensembles.

Class ran from 9–5 each day in the basement of the College of Fine Arts which was undergoing a massive renovation. We operated out of three classrooms amongst a sea of practice rooms. Our lectures and discussions occurred in a piano lab, and our rehearsals occurred in a music history classroom and what I believe was a music technology classroom. The vast majority of our time was spent in rehearsals with lectures, master classes, and discussions. Here is a brief overview of the days:

  • Monday, July 22

    • Course and Personal Introductions

    • Form a Group, Pick a Song, Explain your Process

    • Begin selecting songs, forming bands, and rehearsing

    • Theoretical Foundations of Modern Band

    • Choosing repertoire and finding materials

    • Rehearsals

  • Tuesday, July 23

    • Discussion: Green (2001) Chapter 3—Learning to play popular music: acquiring skills and knowledge

    • Master Class: Improvisation in Modern Band

    • Lecture: Guitars, Basses, and Amplifiers

    • Rehearsals

  • Wednesday, July 24

    • Lecture: Using PA systems and microphones

    • Master Class: Drum Set with Pieter Struyk

    • Rehearsals

  • Thursday, July 25

    • Discussion: Green (2008) Chapter 6—Group co-operation, ability, and inclusion

    • Master Class: Songwriting

    • Rehearsals

  • Friday, July 26

    • Master Class: Beat Boxing

    • Coached Rehearsal from Guest Artist

    • Rehearsals

  • Saturday, July 27

The academic portions of the course looked at the modern band movement started by Little Kids Rock. The founder, David Wish, has an informative YouTube video about the foundations of modern band. Essentially, Wish is looking to create another ensemble called “modern band” to fit in with the band/orchestra/choir paradigm. It has an instrumentation (guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, vocals, technology, and computers) and a repertoire (rock, pop, reggae, hip hop, R & B and other modern styles), much like the other B/O/C ensembles. We discussed some of the implications of this movement as well as Lucy Green’s research into informal and non-formal learning.

Our instructors’ approach to the course followed this research in informal and non-formal learning. We were provided some very loose structures in terms of song selection and instrumentation and given a lot of freedom in putting together a roughly hour long set of music. There was little direct instruction, and the vast majority of our learning (both songs AND instruments) were done through individual and group exploration. For example, the first song that we chose to do as a full group was the Joe Cocker version of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” I chose to play bass, so I looked up a tab sheet and practiced on my own with the live recording.

Our final setlist was:

  • "Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift: Full group. I played trumpet and sang backup.

  • “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World: Small group. I played rhythm guitar very poorly, reading from tabs.

  • “Cry, Baby, Cry” by The Beatles: Small group. I learned the bass part by ear.

  • “Cheap Thrills” by Sia: Small group.

  • “Soliloquy for Boston”: Our small group’s original composition. I played drum set.

  • “Stress Express”: The other small group’s original composition.

  • “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” by Fall Out Boy: Small group.

  • “Feelin’ Good” by Nina Simone: Small group. I improvised on trumpet.

  • “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show: Small group.

  • “Ain’t No Man” by The Avett Brothers: Full group. I sang backup.

  • “With a Little Help from My Friends” by Joe Cocker and The Beatles: Full group. I played bass.

This, so far, has been the most fun and practical graduate course I have ever taken. Prior to this course, I had a little experience playing upright bass, piano, and drum set, but all in a jazz band setting. I had no experience playing guitar, electric bass, or performing in a rock band setting. This course pushed me way outside my comfort zone—playing guitar, bass, piano, and drums, and singing, all in a rock band with other trained musicians. The performance-based nature of the course made it an excellent venue for learning as well as a fun experience.

I also loved getting to live in Boston for a week! My last visit to Boston was in 2003 when I was visiting MIT. A classmate and I stayed at an AirBnB in Brookline, just a few blocks away from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. While we should have checked ahead of time if the apartment had air conditioning (it didn’t), our stay was still fantastic! We were within easy walking distance of Boston University, Comm Ave, and Coolidge Corner. We went and heard live music every night, ate at several different restaurants, and got to see many different sights over the course of the week. My favorite part was meeting up with several classmates on Saturday night to hear an 80s cover band in Somerville!

I look forward to being in Boston again next spring for my qualifying exams and potentially next summer for another elective like this!

1 Comment

Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.