Battling to Build Bands in Spokane, Washington

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By Matt Robinson

An elementary music teacher finds that using a competition format can help bring students together

Inspired by the popularity of shows such as The Voice and American Idol, a music teacher at Farwell Elementary School in Spokane, Washington, recently decided to give the concept of ensemble competition a new spin. Dave Turner has created a special “battle of the bands” for his sixth graders and found it to be an effective means of drumming up interest in his program.

First, Turner divides his students into random groups of five. Next, he has them put together a list of popular songs. “The songs must be appropriate for school,” he notes, “so anything involving references to drugs, sex, violence, etc., will be immediately disqualified.” From this list, the student groups select the two most popular songs. Each includes a vocalist and multiple instrumentalists; the group members have to pick who plays which role, and “nobody can just sit and watch because they aren’t ‘musical.’”

Once Turner has arranged the songs for the student groups, they practice separately for a month, after which they rehearse in front of an audience of classmates. “I have the singers stand on risers and the instrumentalists are around them like a real band,” he says, adding that this allows him to offer feedback on performers’ microphone and instrument technique, breathing, posture, etc. He also plays acoustic guitar with each group to help solidify their sound.

After the groups have had two chances to practice on stage, the “battle” begins. Each group performs for the rest of the class, which comes prepared with scoring rubrics that include vocal and instrumental aptitude as well as general citizenship and participation. “After the performance, I have kids close their eyes and then raise their hand to vote for each of the components in the rubric for that group.” Once the scores are tallied, a winner is named and earns a pizza party.

“When we finish, I have each student write or speak a reflection on the unit to me and the class,” Turner says, explaining that he looks for trends in their comments to help make his performance and theirs even stronger. “This whole unit takes me six to eight weeks, and I have 100% buy-in!” Because the songs come from today’s charts and are chosen by the students, no real introduction to the music is necessary. And though some students may vote according to popularity instead of performance, the battles are usually won by the talented and hard-working.

“Kids start to feel alienated from music in school because it’s ‘school’ music and not ‘real’ music like what they hear or see on TV,” Turner suggests. “Having played in a number of rock and pop bands over the last 20 years, I knew that I could draw on that experience and come up with a way to reconnect with students on this important point.”

Teaching Music, February 2013 Full Article here.