4 Tips for Incorporating Popular Music into Traditional Ensembles

By NAfME Member Dr. Robert L. Bryant III

The blog is sponsored by NAfME Corporate Member Yamaha Corporation of America.

The world of music education allows our students to explore a variety of styles and genres. However, the core performing experiences in today’s school music programs still center around classical repertoire for the more traditional concert band, choir, and orchestra. While there have been significant strides recently with the modern band movement, many students who desire to make music will be recruited for traditional ensembles.

Because music teachers earn their training and certification based on these traditional models, which are heavily steeped in classical repertoire, there is a huge gap between the music students know and love and the music they learn in school. This can lead to students feeling that music is less accessible and, in some cases, even elitist. There are, however, several ways we can incorporate popular music and involve our students that increase student inclusion, engagement, and retention.

Tip #1: Knowing Students’ Music Interests

Much of my experience as both a student and a teacher in K–12 music programs occurred within the context of the Historically Black College/University (HBCU) band approach to music performance, which gives a high degree of consideration to current music trends and top hits. My music teachers frequently asked us about the newest and hottest tunes we could incorporate into our performances. At pep rallies, halftime shows, academic assemblies, and seasonal concerts, our teachers depended on us to know what was musically relevant to our generation, given that our generation was the majority of our target audience. Knowing what to perform in different settings made our program popular with our peers and let them know that if they joined band, they would be involved in something very cool!

Young woman wearing fedora smiling with an electric guitar in record shop and Adele album cover in background

Photo by Lechon Kirb on Unsplash

As a teacher, I continue this approach to music programming for my ensembles. We kick off each school year with a student survey. I also ask my students to give a copy of the survey to one person they know who is not in band, so we could get a broader understanding of the most popular tunes at the time. The survey has just a handful of questions and room at the end for students to suggest what they would like the band to play this year. The band staff and our student leaders will sort through all the surveys to find the most popular tunes and then discuss which songs we would like to arrange and when they would be performed. Knowing our students’ musical interests and having a sense of the school’s musical tastes as a whole helped us relate to students and build esprit de corps throughout the building.

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About the author:

Dr. Robert L. Bryant III headshotNAfME member Dr. Robert L. Bryant III is an assistant professor of music and music education coordinator at Tennessee State University. He earned degrees from Florida A&M University (B.S.), Florida State University (M.M.E.), Georgia Southern University (M.Ed.), and Mercer University (Ph.D.). Before his current role, Dr. Bryant taught middle school and high school band in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama in urban, suburban, and rural Title I schools. Bryant was recognized as a 2022 Yamaha “40 Under 40” music educator.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

September 19, 2023


  • Culturally Relevant Teaching
  • Ensembles
  • Repertoire


September 19, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music
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