Perspectives on music education. Have a point of view? Let us know. You're amongst friends.
By Lauren Bowers
My trip to Fort Collins, CO marked a lot of firsts for me. It was my first time flying alone out-of-state. It was my first time being away from my one-year-old daughter for a week. And it was my first time attending Rock Fest. Seems like a pretty casual event to be attending for professional development, but it was exactly what I needed. Rock Fest is annually hosted by the national organization Little Kids Rock. Its premise is to reach the 2.1 million children who do not receive music education and to continue promoting and expanding the opportunities for children who have access to music.
I was introduced to Little Kids Rock (LKR) three years ago when my district invested in its program and hosted an all-day workshop. When I learned this was an opportunity to get instruments in my classroom, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. This was something my children desperately needed, but our school couldn’t necessarily afford. LKR is adamant in their student-centered approach and a large component of their curriculum is modern band – drums, electric bass, guitar, voice, and keyboard; all instruments that most kids have some interest in playing. They believe music is a language and should be taught in the same way – acquisition as opposed to instruction alone. This approach allows students and teachers alike to make mistakes and experience successes together. And, perhaps most importantly, kids are encouraged to learn songs they like. That’s right “pop songs”.
Surrounded by 300 educators, instructors, and administrators from across the U.S., I shared in this music acquisition experience at Rock Fest. There wasn’t a single moment where I didn’t experience joy and love. I couldn’t help but think this is what it should always be like. Poster sessions allowed me to network with different vendors with incredible products from p-bones to innovative music technology (like Wurrly, an interactive app created by opera singer Nadine Levitt). Sessions included topics such as including special needs learners in the modern band classroom, putting music in context with the help of the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, how to repair guitars (especially if you haven’t a clue what you’re doing), and (my personal favorite) late night jam sessions with the incredible people I met there.
Rock Fest also invited special guests to share their experiences as musicians and what it was like for them learning to play music. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sit in on some deep discussions with Brian Hardgroove of Public Enemy. He shared his personal story of being a young boy, bussed to a more affluent school for the opportunities it would provide him, and his traditional music training. Unabashedly he admitted that he didn’t like rap when he was first exposed to it, but eventually came to understand, and partake in, what rap means as a movement and a culture. As the discussion carried on it became apparent that a second session needed to be held with Mr. Hardgroove. The open and inclusive nature of the Little Kids Rock program leaves room for student discourse and with the tumultuous socio-political climate we now face, many of us had questions. How do we teach our children in times like this? How do we answer their hard questions? As music teachers (and that includes non-certified folks, too) we have the unique opportunity to build relationships with our students over a period of years, not just months. In my experience, that often means we become the adult that some children seek out in order to process their increasingly complicated thoughts and feelings. Mr. Hardgroove touched upon those thoughts and questions regarding race, gender, and social justice. He validated my beliefs that the gift of music is often the solace, the constant; the clarity, for students who otherwise live without. The resounding impression I was left with over the course of Rock Fest was ‘Trust your gut’. I know what I’m doing as a musician, I know what I’m doing as an educator, and I know what I’m doing as a human being. Imagine what your life would be like if you were given those affirmations every day. Now imagine what those daily affirmations would do for our students. Too often in education we doubt ourselves. There are multiple reasons why, but it can create a crippling, emotional cycle that undermines the entire learning experience for both students and teachers.
I returned from Rock Fest with a renewed sense of urgency and a determination to nurture the love I have for my kids. I couldn’t put into words what I felt in many of those incredibly special Rock Fest moments, but I happily reflected upon my learning and how I felt this was the year I would finally be able to get through to some kids that I had lost sleep over last year. Yet, as my school family came into the new year, we received the news that we lost one of our boys. He would’ve been in 8th grade this year. He liked to drum. And he was one of those kids I worried about over and over again. He was one of those kids that I truly believed I could get through to this year, but it’s too late. More than ever, I am grateful for the Rock Fest experience that encouraged me to just love the hell out of my kids, to go with my gut, and teach them. I can only be a teacher if my children have learned from me and they will only choose to learn when they know I care for them as people. I don’t want it to be “too late” for any of the children that I take stewardship over. There are days when the only thing that will matter to a child is whether or not they have been loved. Through Little Kids Rock I have been embraced by a network of people who believe it is never too late to love.
I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to Spread Music Now for sponsoring my journey.
I dedicate this to J.S. He is loved and will be forever missed.
Read the recap from LKR's Modern Band RockFest here.
Photo credits: Andy "AJ" Schroetlin