Student Engagement in Music Education Student Choice & Meeting Kids Where They Are At

“No, we wanna play Nevermind” . . . “It needs to be tight!”
C. Whitcomb, A. Bryant, V. Tropea

My best days in the studio with students are when my song choices or ideas get overruled and thrown in the trash. Music is a personal thing. We all have our favorite songs, and genres of music and sometimes we get so excited about great tunes we think our students will like that we forget about the student view. When I first started teaching music at Learning Alternatives, I quickly realized that the students were hungry to learn and play music. Luckily, the students and I have similar tastes in styles and genres (rock, pop, hip hop, rap, metal etc). However, I soon realized that within these styles, they have very particular ways of interpreting music.

My first realization of this was when we got a tune together for the CBC Music Class Contest. They chose “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne and although I like that tune as well, our interpretation of it was very different. I came to school with a very clear idea of how I wanted the song to sound. I saw breakdowns, First Peoples drumming, and a rap section working well in my arrangement. I proposed this to the band and they thought about it for a minute and said “no, we just want it to groove and be tight”. The arrangement that they produced was way better than what I planned. The solidification of this notion came a few months later when preparing for a gig I developed a set list that I thought would rock! I talked to the band and proposed my idea. They said, “We just wanna play the entire Nevermind album from start to finish”. I have now, finally learned, that for me student engagement really happens when I simply produce the music they want to play.

Meeting students where they are at can be challenging. Every one of my students comes to me with a wide variety of musical tastes and abilities. The expectations of my Contemporary Music 10-12 classes state that students must be able to learn and perform entire tunes without having to start and stop to get parts. However, in some cases, that does not meet students where they are at. I have one student who does not have the focus or currently ability to play entire tunes, so we just work on parts of tunes. All he wants to learn are melodies and snippets of XXXtentacion tunes. If you know this artist, you know the song content can be very dark, but my student is more interested in the melodic guitar parts and melodies that XXXtentacion uses. We learn little pieces of his songs and that keeps my student engaged and it develops his facility on the guitar without having to practice scales etc.

I have students who seldom come into the studio. We have a very diverse group of students who struggle with various issues and trauma. Keeping them engaged in music when they are away from the studio (now during the pandemic and before Covid 19) Involves me being engaged in what they are doing musically when they are away from the studio. As I mentioned in a previous blog, my students do not have laptops or desktop computers at home but they all have phones that they are on all the time. We use Instagram to connect with one another via posts, IGTV and DM. These digital communication tools allow us to share music we listen to and communicate. Some of my students are doing “30 day music challenges”, and producing music on Spotify, SoundCloud, and Apple Music. We use GarageBand to share audio files and build on them and some students directly message me songs they sing that I use/count as coursework.

At Alt68 Studios (Learning Alternatives) students feel valued and part of something meaningful when:

  • They learn, play and produce music they value.
  • They have the opportunity to experience and learn music in ways that provide entry points at all levels of experience and opportunity.
  • They can connect to the studio digitally using platforms that they understand and value.

I feel very fortunate to teach music at Alt68 Studios in the Nanaimo Ladysmith School District. Our program gives us the freedom to think differently about how we design our music learning environments. Through our differentiated and inclusive studio space we can provide student choice and meet kids where they are at in the studio and in our digitally connected world.

Tune lists for groups at Alt68 Studios. The groups select their own songs.

Our Alt68 Studio Instagram account. This is how we connect digitally.

This submission was written by Steve Holmberg who teaches at Learning Alternatives in Nanaimo, BC.