Blending Traditional and Contemporary Teaching Methods

Blending Traditional and Contemporary Teaching Methods

The Argument for Adding Commercial/Popular Music to Your Program


By NAfME Member Stephen Holley


As music education adapts to a new state of arts consumerism and technology, how do we combine the best practices of the past with proven, contemporary methods to modernize music education? Are traditional music education, jazz education, and commercial/popular music education one and the same? What are the similarities and differences between the three? How do we develop a cohesive, forward-thinking curriculum in an effort to instill not only musical abilities in, and an appreciation of, ALL genres, but also life skills that will support our students no matter their career path?


congas | carlosbezz


Follow the Music


The vast majority of what is taught in a “traditional” setting is applicable to directing a jazz ensemble and is also relevant to coaching a commercial/popular ensemble. While this might be obvious to some, take a moment to think about the band director, with little or no jazz experience, who is hired to direct a program that includes a jazz band. While it might be overwhelming, at first, for a “traditionally” trained musician, with little performance in those genres, to direct a jazz or commercial ensemble, we all know of examples where this is true.

In the end, music is music—right?

The skill set required to direct any musical ensemble can be viewed as a Venn diagram, with the vast majority of rehearsal preparation/execution and performance requirements being essentially the same for ALL styles of music.


pop music | yanyong


After top universities began to add jazz to their curriculum in the late 1960s, it took years for jazz to be considered an educationally viable addition to a high school program. Now, as several universities (and in many cases, the same universities who led the charge for jazz education) have added, or are in the process of adding, commercial/popular offerings—including ensembles, songwriting, production, recording, music business, etc.—how long will it take before this non-traditional approach is considered educationally viable at the secondary level as well?

As educators, we cannot turn a blind eye to the musical landscape as it stands today and where it’s trending towards in the future.

I should say that I am not advocating we discontinue marching bands, concert bands, choirs, or wind ensembles. My mother was a band director for 35 years in the public school system. I am a product of that system. Altering your curriculum to include facets of commercial/popular music education is not the end of western civilization! It is simply modifying what we’ve been taught (and, perhaps, what we’ve been teaching) to adapt to today’s musical and career environment; to say nothing of what the future holds! With that, we cannot continue to ignore the fact that jobs and gigs that were available 30 years ago, 20 years ago, even five years ago, continue to exist. As educators, we cannot turn a blind eye to the musical landscape as it stands today and where it’s trending towards in the future.


The Benefits of a Commercial Music Program


Over the past 18 years, our Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School, an independent, 6-12 school in the suburbs of Denver, CO, has been able to reimagine the way we teach music. We strive to support our student musicians in three primary areas:

  1. help develop an appreciation of, and competency in, a variety of musical styles
  2. offer multiple once-in-a-lifetime experiences through travel and study with professional musicians and
  3. utilize music as a vehicle to develop life skills including responsibility, leadership, confidence, attention to detail, teamwork, creativity, and professionalism, among others.


Ashlee Wilcox Photography | Documentary Associates, LLC


The primary differences between the approaches, in my mind, is that commercial/popular music education:

  • utilizes a variety of styles of music that the majority of our students already consume and enjoy
  • instills business skills, including knowledge of social media promotion/marketing, contracts, licensing, copyright, etc.
  • includes multiple opportunities to write, arrange, perform, and record music—both original and existing material
  • offers an opportunity to explore the social and cultural aspects of music as it relates to our students’ lives
  • provides a space for students who do not want to solely participate in traditional band, choir, or orchestra to pursue a love of music
  • uses more informal pedagogies that involve student-centered learning and peer-to-peer learning than traditional, teacher-centered pedagogies

In a large majority of secondary programs, the jazz/popular program is supplemental to the larger, traditional program. This is commonplace as jazz bands were added to the curriculum as demand for that type of program increased. Take comfort in the knowledge that many of the growing pains we’re experiencing, due to the growth of popular music education, are not new—not by a long shot! As with any change, it takes time to review, understand, implement, and adapt.

Ashlee Wilcox Photography | Documentary Associates, LLC


In our case, the Commercial Music Program is not part of a larger program. Indeed, it is the program. We don’t have a marching band, a concert band, a wind ensemble, or an orchestra. We offer ensembles that focus on soul, bluegrass, R&B, Americana, salsa, pop, rock, and reggae, and country, among others. We also offer classes that focus on entrepreneurship, theory, composition, recording, history, and the business aspects of the industry.


Reaching All Students with Music


In developing our program, I used my experiences as a professional Memphis musician to design a curriculum that would extend beyond the classroom. I shaped the program based on what I wished I would have known as a young bass player when it comes to learning my instrument, getting a gig, keeping a gig, and furthering myself as an all-around musical entrepreneur. Teaching popular music also affords me the opportunity to discuss the history behind the song, the meaning of the lyric, and the social/cultural environment in which the song was written.

It’s not a matter of “reaching kids where they are”; it’s simply a matter of reaching kids.

A large component of my teaching philosophy is to support my students to better understand and develop the skills needed to lead a happy, fulfilled, and successful life, as the creative, personal, and business skills necessary to succeed in music are crucial no matter the occupation. Our students need a wide-ranging skill set to compete in today’s academic and career landscape; skills that will translate to ANY occupation. In my experience, music is the perfect vehicle to impart these, and other, much needed life skills. It’s not a matter of “reaching kids where they are”; it’s simply a matter of reaching kids.


Victoria Chamberlin |


In my next article, I’ll discuss methodologies that have worked for me over the years in terms of peer-to-peer learning, rehearsal strategies, giving students ownership of the band, music selection, performance opportunities, etc. If you have questions feel free to contact me at I look forward to continuing the conversation!


About the author

music teacher

GRAMMY® nominated music educator and NAfME member Steve Holley serves as the Producer for the Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School outside Denver, CO. The R&B, soul, salsa, and jazz bands in the CMP have been recognized by DownBeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards over a dozen times, have performed hundreds of gigs throughout the US, and have performed abroad at the Festival del Tambor, Montreux Jazz, and Porretta Soul Festivals in Cuba, Switzerland, Italy, respectively. In addition, the bands endorse JodyJazz Mouthpieces, D’Addario strings and reeds, Evans drums heads, and ProMark sticks. 

Steve holds a BM in Jazz/Classical performance, a MM in Jazz/Classical performance, and an MM in Musicology from the University of Memphis. In addition to being an educator, arranger, performer, and musical entrepreneur, Steve is a sought-after clinician with performances and master classes given at the Jazz Education Network, Association for Popular Music Education, and several state MEA conferences. Most recently, Steve has written several articles for In Tune Monthly, Teaching Music, and multiple blogs and newsletters for NAfME and JEN.

You can follow the Kent Denver Commercial Music Program on FacebookTwitter, and on Snapchat and Instagram @KentDenverMusic.

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