Providing Vernacular Music Experiences to Formally Trained Music Educators

The term vernacular music refers to the musical styles and music making practices that are most widely used among people. I tend to use the terms vernacular music and popular music interchangeably. For decades now, leaders within music education have promoted the use of popular music in schools only to see little substantive change occur. I think, however, that the curricular landscape might be starting to change. Hopefully more schools are broadening the music learning opportunities they offer to become more inclusive of multiple types of musicianship.

A critical ingredient for carrying on this kind of curricular reform is equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to use popular music in authentic and educationally meaningful ways. I’ve had the opportunity to do this with the music education majors at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. For these students, I offer a course called “Popular Musicianship” with my colleague Dale Bazan. Most of these teachers-to-be have developed their musicianship exclusively through the formal settings of large ensembles in schools and private one-on-one lessons. In this course, they form small “rock bands” and learn how to play the instruments authentic to them. Almost entirely outside of class meetings, they collaborate to cover popular songs and create original works. They also do some songwriting individually.

Here’s a short video from last fall’s class in which I explain it some more:

When talking about the educational benefits of using popular music, one that is usually mentioned first is the motivation boost it can offer. I’ve certainly seen this played out with my students. They have such personal, emotional, and social connections to popular music that they seem willing to invest a lot of their free time—what little music education majors have!—on improving their vernacular musicianship. And their intrinsic motivation is surely enhanced by their being able to choose the music they work on, even composing some of it individually and collaboratively.

Using popular music, however, is much more than a “hook” to get kids into school music programs, only then to focus on other musical things they may not like as much. I seriously doubt that a bait-and-switch approach even works in the long run. The real power of popular music comes from the fact that it’s the native musical style of young people. It only makes sense to use a familiar musical context to most effectively engage students in creative activities like composing and improvising. As numerous music pedagogues have pointed out, people ideally learn music in the same sequence as they learn their native language. Much listening necessarily precedes imitation and personal expression. Here’s where popular music can offer an educational opportunity that other less familiar styles cannot.

As I said above, most of the music education students come into the Popular Musicianship course having logged much time listening to popular music, but having very little experience performing it or being creative with it. They seem to get a lot out of exploring the social music making and personal expressivity. They gain more confidence in ear playing and improvisation, and grow the artistic interpersonal skills involved in making creative group decisions. Through songwriting and performance of original music, many discover a new outlet to express intense feelings and stories from their personal lives. When they have these musical experiences, they quickly understand the merits of providing them to others, including their future students. In this short video, some of our students explain these things in their own words:

In addition to the experiences with the Popular Musicianship class, I’ve been following the growing body of research that supports the value of vernacular music experiences in the education of young people. Here are a few articles I’ve written in which I review some of this research:

  • Woody, R. H. (in press). Vernacular musicianship: Moving beyond teenage popular music. In E. Costa-Giomi & S. J. Morrison (Eds.), Research perspectives on the national standards. National Association for Music Education. [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by ear: Foundation or frill? Music Educators Journal, 99(2), 82-88. [abstract] [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2011). Willing and able: Equipping music educators to teach with popular music. The Orff Echo, 43(4), 14-17.
  • Woody, R. H. (2007). Popular music in school: Remixing the issues. Music Educators Journal, 93(4), 32-37. [excerpt]

And here are some of my favorite research studies addressing aspects of vernacular musicianship:

  • Allsup, R. E. (2003). Mutual learning and democratic action in instrumental music education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 24-37. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S. (1995). Of garage bands and song-getting: The musical development of young rock musicians. Research Studies in Music Education, 4, 12-20. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236. [abstract]
  • Davis, S. G. (2005). “That Thing You Do!” Compositional processes of a rock band. International Journal of Education & the Arts(6)16. Retrieved from http://www.ijea.org/v6n16/.
  • Davis, S. G., Blair, D. V. (2011). Popular music in American teacher education: A glimpse into a secondary methods course. International Journal of Music Education, 29(2), 124-140. [abstract]
  • Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. [publisher]
  • Jaffurs, S. E. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200. [abstract]
  • McGillen, C., & McMillan, R. (2005). Engaging with adolescent musicians: Lessons in song writing, cooperation and the power of original music. Research Studies in Music Education, 25, 36-54. [abstract]
  • Woody, R. H., & Lehmann, A. C. (2010). Student musicians’ ear playing ability as a function of vernacular music experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(2), 101-115. [abstract] [excerpt]
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6 responses to “Providing Vernacular Music Experiences to Formally Trained Music Educators

  1. Arranging popular tunes for marching band was something I learned from my high school band director and was always one of the things I was most passionate about. In college, it was just something I did on my own, but then it became central to my whole way of teaching. Taking tunes off recordings is a really rewarding experience.

    • Barry – I’m kind of fascinated by the process of taking music that was originally created for a small pop/rock group and making it work well with a large band! The marching band director here at UNL has done that with much success. I suppose not all popular music can translate well, but it seems a lot of it sure can.

  2. Pingback: Providing Vernacular Music Experiences to Formally Trained Music Educators | Stan Stewart's Blog

  3. This is a really great article with many excellent resources. As an untrained musician who writes pop music, I agree with so many of your points about the personal connection and expression music gives. I am very interested in the music therapy field for this very reason, although I think it is the composition of music, particularly accessible music such as pop music, which has the most potential for self-expression and healing. I have had some personal experience with this – although I think pretty much every pop music writer has as well! Beyond the many personal and educational benefits of learning music, I also think that the interconnection with technology and music today is a critical learning. I will be guest lecturing tomorrow at the Art Institute of Seattle to their first year music students about social media and collaboration online, which bring a whole new multi-disciplinary dimension to being a musician today.

    • Solveig – Thanks so much for your comment here. I share your interest in the use of popular music for therapy and healing. Many of my students say they experience something special when they put their deepest feelings into songs they write. Most of these are first-time songwriters and they’ve addressed all kinds of difficult personal issues…strained relationships with friends/family, death of a loved one, loss of childhood innocence. And of course they write about love…gained and lost. I very much enjoy seeing the amazing things these young people do, and watching them grow as a result.

      Bob

  4. Some really innovative ideas there, thanks a lot!

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