Teaching the Core Arts Standards through Modern Band

The “New” Standards Are Not So New Anymore

By NAfME Member Bryan Powell

Bryan Powell presented on “Teaching the Core Arts Standards through Modern Band” during the NAfME 2021 PreK–12 Learning Collaborative in February 2021.

By now, we are all aware that the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) released the current standards for music education in 2014. While the 1994 national standards were driven by content, focusing on skills and knowledge, the current standards are process-oriented, focusing on student understandings and musical independence that lead to artistic literacy. The NCCAS framework outlined four artistic processes for Core Arts Standards: creating, performing, responding, and connecting. National Association for Music Education (NAfME) considers connecting to be embedded in the processes of creating, performing, and responding, and therefore it is not a separate artistic process.1

closeup of electric bass

iStockphoto.com | Krugloff

While there are many ways to address the core arts standards through any musical ensemble or general music class, the emergence of modern band ensembles in K–12 has provided a number of ways for music educators to address the core arts standards in their modern band classes. Through emphasizing songwriting, improvisation, critical listening, and group work in a learner-centered modern band class or ensemble, music educators have the opportunity to address a wide variety of standards. This blog shares a few examples focusing specifically on the artistic process of creating. Some of these ideas are taken from the forthcoming Music Educators Journal article that I co-wrote with Matthew Clauhs (Ithaca College) titled “Teaching the Core Arts Standards in Modern Band.” For a more detailed explanation of how you can address all of the artistic processes through modern band, please check out our article when it is published later this year.


Modern band can serve as a vehicle for teaching standards related to creating music. Songwriting and improvisation activities are essential components of modern band, and while these classes and ensembles may recreate the music of others (e.g., cover songs), even these recreations have original input from students as they arrange the song to fit their instrumentation and experience level. One of the primary goals of modern band is creating original music through songwriting. To meet the performance standard shown in the figure below requires students to “generate melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic ideas for melodies (such as a two-measure phrase).”

One way to address this standard is by having students create simple solos on their instruments. Students can improvise one-, two-, or four-note solos to get started. The examples below indicate which notes to play on the guitar in the key of A minor (but this activity could be done on any harmonizing instrument). A simple backing track of a rock drum beat or play-along in the key of A minor provides a rhythmic and harmonic context for the improvisations. Students can start with simple rhythmic ideas on the one-note solo using their names or food to come up with rhythmic ideas. Music teachers can then scaffold these activities and increase complexity over time to include two- and four-note solos, eventually working up to the minor pentatonic scale and beyond.


improvisations in A minor

These one-, two-, and four-note solos can be played on the ukulele as well. See video examples of improvisation on the ukulele here.

For students who want to create a melody or improvise on the keyboard, modern band teachers can use Jam Cards to indicate the notes to play in a particular scale. Jam Cards are visual guides that illustrate the notes of a chord, scale, or harmonic progression. Students simply slide the card behind the keys of a keyboard and colored bars indicate which notes to play. The cards provide instant transpositions for chords, scales, and progressions by moving the card to a different starting place on the keyboard. This is especially useful if a keyboard player is performing an improvised solo using a specific scale. Students can also use these Jam Cards as they create melodic ideas to use in their songwriting.

jam card for music students

For a video lesson example of how to use the Jam Cards, watch this demonstration:

YouTube video
There are many ways that students can get started with creating melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic ideas for melodies. I’ve also listed a few resources below that you might find useful in your modern band classroom.

1Standards.” National Association for Music Education. Accessed March 29, 2020. Note: Materials published by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards identify connecting as an artistic process for music education (example).

About the author:

Bryan PowellNAfME member Bryan Powell is an Assistant Professor of Music Education and Music Technology at Montclair State University (MSU). Prior to joining MSU, Bryan served as the Director of Higher Education for Little Kids Rock, and the Director of Programs for Amp Up NYC, a partnership between Berklee College of Music and Little Kids Rock. Bryan is a founding principal editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education and author of Popular Music Pedagogies: A Practical Guide for Music Teachers (Routledge). He serves as the Executive Director of the Association for Popular Music Education and is the past-Chair for the NAfME Popular Music Education SRIG.

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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.

May 26, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

May 26, 2021


  • Standards


May 26, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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