Moving the Needle from Access to Participation

With the recent authorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) music educators have been given a bold mandate to provide music to all students regardless of their socio-economic circumstance. We have entered a new era, ushered in by thought leaders envisioning and enacting a more open, democratic, and participatory type of music education for all students.

Any debate there had been about the importance of access to music education has been closed by the federal government in favor of music education. The new challenge that faces committed music educators is the goal of universal participation in music programs.

Current research shows that secondary music programs frequently serve 20% or less of the student population. Music programs that serve a distinct minority of a school’s student body (even ones that do so exceptionally well) must now turn their attention to the other 80% if they hope to pursue the ESSAs goal of universal participation in music programming.

Music Will has pioneered culturally responsive and inclusive music programming across a national network of over five thousand K-12 schools in forty-five states. Our work is redefining what a well-rounded, inclusive music program looks like. We have done this under the moniker of “modern band,” a term we coined in 2008 to describe the large-scale, district-wide music programs we are creating with our partners.

Modern band programs teach students how to compose and improvise while performing the musical genres they know and love such as rock, reggae, pop, hip hop, EDM, and others as they emerge. Modern band also utilizes the musical instruments that are common to these genres: guitar, bass, drums, piano, voice, and technology.

With the shared belief that contemporary popular music is a central cultural asset that is underutilized in public education, a diverse set of school districts across the nation has rallied behind modern band and, as a result, millions of children currently attend schools in districts that offer modern band classes as a part of their standard in-school music programming.

Modern band is a useful tool for engaging students who would not elect to participate in existing school music programs and it is thus an excellent means of increasing student participation numbers in music education. Modern band programs ‘widen the door’ to school music participation by incorporating popular musical instruments, contemporary repertoires, and student composition and improvisation into the classroom.