Commercial Music: A Paradigm Shift in Music Education

Commercial Music: A Paradigm Shift in Music Education

(Part 2 of 2)

By NAfME Member Michael Parsons
Director of Instrumental Music
Briarcrest Christian School
Memphis, Tennessee


In my last blog, I mentioned how commercial music education not only revolutionized our program, it saved it. In this blog, I will explain the “How-To” for this style of music education, or at least techniques and curricular strategies that I have implemented over the past eight years.

rock band


In the Classroom

Song selection… When I talk with educators about implementing commercial music into their program, the first question I am often asked is, “Where do you find music?” My response is often met with a puzzled look when I tell them, “my students.” Unlike my traditional ensembles where I choose the music, the magic of our commercial music program is that the students have creative investment in the repertoire. Here’s how we do it.

I allow my students to have creative investment by suggesting the material. My job is to guide them through that process and to then make the final decision of what we will perform.

Step one – I have my students submit song suggestions on a Collaborative Spotify playlist that we all share and are able to access. This is a FREE resource that does not require a subscription. Once my students have posted their suggestions, I then listen through all of the songs and choose the ones that are:

  1. Accessible to our group
  2. Lyrically appropriate
  3. Fit into the performance that we’re putting together

I allow my students to have creative investment by suggesting the material. My job is to guide them through that process and to then make the final decision of what we will perform. This is a great way of getting kids to take ownership over what they’re learning. Once the set list has been decided, I then create a performance playlist from which they write out their parts.

Sheet Music… The second question that I’m often asked is, “Where do you find sheet music for your group?” The answer may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the same as before: “My students.”

All of my students learn how to read standard notation. I believe that reading is important for any musical education. However, developing great aural skills along with understanding music theory is also essential. Popular music is an incredible medium for developing aural skills which reinforce the students’ reading abilities. Instead of purchasing parts (or transcribe them myself), I teach my students how to learn their parts by ear and then notate them using a FREE notation software called Muse Score.

Oftentimes, my horn section will pick out their part at the piano and then have to transpose it for trumpet or sax. Listening critically for their part in a particular song, learning the part by ear, and finally notating that part (often times having to transpose) is a musically holistic experience for the student. I take the same approach with my vocalists when learning harmony parts. These students learn to identify pitch intervals and can create harmonies based on the melody and chord progression.

I take a slightly different approach with our Rhythm Section when it comes to notating parts. Instead of using standard notation, I have them analyze both the Harmonic and the Formal structure of every song that we learn and create what we call “charts.” This requires the students to use their understanding of written theory along with their aural skills to give themselves enough information to recreate their own unique parts for a song. This is an example of one of the “Charts” that my students wrote for a song that we are currently working on:

keith urban


In Performance

Commercial Music Education opens up a wide range of performance possibilities for students, ranging from school concerts to touring opportunities. My group (known as SoundScape) performs at our school, at other schools around the Memphis area, at regional music festivals, and county fairs. The group also takes a week-long performance tour across the Gulf Coast. These performances provide our students with one of the most positive musical experiences imaginable.

This style of music generates a strong response from the audience, which is a huge positive reinforcement for our students. After a great performance where the crowd is dancing, singing along and even creating a mosh-pit, our students are often met by enthusiastic fans begging them to sign autographs! This “rock-star” experience does more than boost the students’ egos; for some, it provides a sense of self-confidence. Some of the proudest moments of my career have been to see very shy and introverted kids break out of their shell after one of these performances. I have witnessed lives literally change before my eyes. This is a dream come true for a lot of kids and is certainly an experience that few are ever afforded.

I’ll go into greater detail about how to line up performances and even tours at the NAfME In-Service Conference.

commercial music



Another unique aspect of commercial music education is the area of song writing and recording technology. By empowering the students to take ownership over their music with song selection, learning parts by ear and then notating them, song-writing is a natural progression in the curriculum. I often have my students start with “stream of thought” writing, where they will write literally anything that pops into their head. We eventually whittle their random thoughts down to a specific concept or lyrical “hook” and go from there. Here are a few examples of songs that my students have written:


Listen to more samples here.

Recording can be as simple or as complex as you choose, but it is probably the most valuable and educationally fruitful thing that we do. I learned a long time ago that the recording studio is not a glamorous place. Recording can be an incredibly humbling experience because recordings do not lie. If your horns are out of tune, it’s obvious. If your vocalists are pitchy, there’s no hiding. Or if your drummer can’t play in time with a metronome, you simply can’t do anything. Such a harsh and truthf ul environment, which at times can be intimidating, can be the most beneficial thing for young musicians.

SoundScape records professionally produced albums annually. This type of production is a nine-month project that consumes hundreds of after-school hours. I am convinced that, while a professional production may not be for everyone, even a simple recording project done on a laptop using free software (such as “garage band”) can still be incredibly beneficial for students. Recordings provide true feedback for the musicians and allows them to improve with each listen. Again, I will cover more at the NAfME In-Service Conference.


Copyright Clarifications

The area of copyright law and intellectual property is an important issue to be aware of, while at the same time, can provide another unique approach to music education. Copyright issues generally arise when an individual or group begins selling a product such as a recording, video performance, or notated sheet music. Any time my group records a “cover-tune,” we purchase what is known as a mechanical license. This grants us permission to record, distribute and sell a specific number of units. A great resource for securing these licenses is It’s simple, inexpensive, and most importantly . . . legal. There are other companies that provide these same licenses and will also distribute recorded material to various online sources such as iTunes, Spotify or Pandora. We use for digital distribution of our recordings.

This is also a great opportunity to teach students how to copyright their own original material. All of the students who write original songs for our albums are required to have their songs copyrighted before we release the recordings. This teaches them the value of their work, the importance of protecting their intellectual property, and ensures that they are themselves protected in the event that someone wants to use their songs. I see this a great way of teaching various facets of the music industry that may spark a student’s interest. I have had several students graduate from our program and go on to pursue degrees in music business because of the lessons that they learned from our program.

For more information, please join me at the 2016 National NAfME In-Service Conference in Grapevine, Texas on Saturday, November 11th for my session “High School Commercial Music Education”. You may also contact me directly at


About the author:

band director

NAfME member Michael Parsons, serves as the Director of Instrumental Music at Briarcrest Christian School. Michael. directs the Briarcrest Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble, the “Mighty Sound of the Saints” Marching Band, Middle and High School Worship Bands, and two of Briarcrest’s premier commercial music ensembles, “SoundScape” and 76-South. Michael holds a Master’s of Music Degree in orchestral conducting along with a Bachelor’s of Music Degree in performance, both from the University of Memphis.

In addition to being an educator, Michael has had a very active career performing with artists such as Keith Urban, Booker T and the M.G’s, and with the national/ international touring band, Sound Fuzion. Michael has performed in China, Germany, Venezuela, Scotland and throughout the United States, including a performance at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. Michael is an active member, clinician, guest speaker and published writer for various musical associations including the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), The TN Music Educators Association (TNMEA) and The West TN School Band and Orchestra Association (WTSBOA). In 2014, Michael was selected as one of “Memphis’ Finest Young Professionals” by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Memphis and VIP Magazine. Most recently, Michael has been nominated for the 2017 Grammy Music Educator Award.

Michael Parsons presented on his topic “High School Commercial Music Education” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference in Dallas, TX.

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