Happy New Year! This week, we were excited to interview Shemeka Nash, a band director in Chicago, Illinois. Shemeka currently teaches 7th-12th grade band at Morgan Park High School and is also the fine arts department chair. She has done a lot of great things for the band program at Morgan Park, including creating a student-centered modern band.
Shemeka has always felt students should have some input about the repertoire they play. Even in the concert band, she encouraged students to look for music on J.W. Pepper for the ensemble to perform. She found this helped students connect to the repertoire, since it’s something they were interested in. Shemeka was taught that the curriculum is a journey you take with the students. The standards are set each year, but you can allow students to explore different paths to get there.
“In order to make the curriculum have meaning, you have to allow the students to journey through different paths to get where you are going.“
Little Kids Rock
It was through the program, Little Kids Rock, that Shemeka was first introduced to teaching modern band. In a modern band, students play popular music, like rock music, R&B, and hip-hop, as authentically as possible. This means using drum sets, electric guitars, drum machines, and instruments like that. At the time, Shemeka was teaching a high school general music class where students were to apply musical concepts by playing an instrument, but the only instruments available were recorders. Feeling like that wasn’t appropriate for high school students, Shemeka completed training through Little Kids Rock and got a class set of guitars. And that’s where her modern band class began!
Eventually, students in the concert band and marching band started noticing what was happening with the modern band and asked to join the after school rehearsals. Now, Shemeka has several students who take part in both groups.
What Does This Look Like?
The students will frequently suggest songs they want to play, popular music they are already familiar with. While the marching band sometimes plays music like this for parades and in the football stands, Shemeka found that the students really enjoyed being able to play it using the instruments it was originally written for. Often in rehearsals, vocalists will help each other with the music, suggest harmonies, and assign parts. Sometimes, Shemeka will record the ensemble and encourage students to provide feedback to their peers, based on what they heard on the recording.
Shemeka has found the modern band has added students to the music program. Students that may have never walked in the band room are now taking part in modern band. Since the modern band is now an after-school program. Some students already have experience making beats and using programs like Soundtrap and Ableton. They use the modern band to have their music played live and learn to collaborate with other musicians.
The modern band gets to perform gigs, which the students love! Shemeka’s students have had opportunities to play in various Chicago venues, and also at festivals coordinated through Little Kids Rock. These festivals take place on Sunday afternoons at local clubs with a stage and professional sound equipment! Bands of all ages perform for each other, giving the students a great experience in front of a live audience. Shemeka believes these performances are a significant part of the learning experience – students learn how to walk onto stage in a new venue, plug into the amplifiers, and perform with monitors, making it a truly authentic experience. She makes sure that all students know how to use the microphones and mixer during rehearsal, since those are important skills for musicians.
It’s Okay to Let Go
Starting the modern band was a learning process for Shemeka as well. Through collaboration with colleagues and attending the Modern Band Summit each summer, Shemeka has learned a lot about teaching this kind of ensemble. She models lifelong learning for her students!
Shemeka suggests that any music teachers interested in moving towards a student-centered approach or starting a modern band first be okay with letting go. She can still have high expectations for the students, but letting students have control, especially with the repertoire, makes the experience more meaningful. Shemeka also suggests teaching students how to create arrangements, so they can take ownership of that as well. Shemeka suggests teachers interested in starting a modern band begin with music they know and share that with the students. You can use the piano/vocal scores as the basis for arrangements and build from there.
Be sure to check out the full interview to learn more about Shemeka’s modern band program and get some great tips for your own music classes! The Student-Centered Modern Band
Connect with Shemeka and learn more:
Interested in reading more about student-centered learning? Check out these interviews:
- Creating a Student-Centered Choral Program, with Brian Ackles
- Crafting Student-Centered Lessons (Part 1), with Jesse Rathgeber
Listen to the full interview on your favorite podcast platform, or here on Anchor!