Commercial Music – a Paradigm Shift in Music Education

Commercial Music – a Paradigm Shift in Music Education

(Part 1 of 2)

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


Commercial Music Education has revolutionized our program (at Briarcrest Christian School) and has allowed our students to experience higher levels of musical excellence than ever before. Seven years ago I created a commercial music ensemble at Briarcrest that focused on singing and playing all styles of popular music including Jazz, Rock, Country, Blues etc… This ensemble became known as SoundScape. SoundScape quickly became one of the premier performance groups at Briarcrest and has been recognized both regionally and nationally for its outstanding level of musical performance and studio recordings.

Commercial music education has quite literally enhanced every facet of our program from marching band to our symphonic wind ensemble and has provided our students with greater opportunities in music.

By creating a rigorous and educationally sound curriculum that focuses on ear training, reading proficiency, music theory, improvisation, ensemble playing techniques and exposure to recording technology, we have been able to pull students into our program who would have never considered a traditional high school music ensemble. This approach to music education requires students to exist on what Bloom’s Taxonomy refers to as the “creative” level of learning, utilizing advanced aural and cognitive skills in a demanding and holistic way on a daily basis. Commercial music education has quite literally enhanced every facet of our program from marching band to our symphonic wind ensemble and has provided our students with greater opportunities in music.


Photo by Dana Goode


How commercial music saved our program… When I joined the faculty at Briarcrest Christian School eight years ago, I inherited a band program that was struggling to stay afloat. In fact, enrollment in our program had hit an all-time low with less than 4% of our school participating in our high school instrumental music program. My first task was to diagnose the problem and find a solution, fast! That’s when I stumbled upon a YouTube video of one of our non-band students playing guitar at the legendary B.B. Kings Blues Club on Beale Street. I was blown away by this kid’s musical ability. I asked myself, “why isn’t he in band”? The answer was more than obvious; our program did not entice him. That video made me realize that we were losing out on an opportunity to involve musically inspired kids because our curriculum was limited to traditional instrumental ensembles. This caused me to consider a radical new approach to high school music education. A paradigm shift was on the horizon.

Before I proceed, I want to preface this section by saying that the foundation of our program is still our traditional ensembles. Our marching and concert bands remain the cornerstone of our program and are where most of our students find their musical identity. Commercial music has not replaced these core ensembles; on the contrary, it has saved, enhanced and strengthened them.


Photos by Dana Goode


The Paradigm Shift… I took that guitar student, along with several others that I had recruited and formed our program’s very first commercial music ensemble. This group, which would eventually be known as “SoundScape”, included a drummer, singers, guitarists, a keyboardist, and a horn section. These kids learned and performed music that was indigenous to our school’s culture. This included Rock, Blues, R & B, Soul, and Jazz. What started as a desperate search for something to save our program turned into, I believe, a more comprehensive, holistic and effective approach to music education.


Why commercial music? For us, commercial music was indigenous to our school’s culture and, therefore, took off in a way that our more traditional ensembles did not. What worked well 25 years ago was actually holding us back. Why? The culture of our school changed while our department did not. We needed to offer something that every kid could relate to, be inspired by and get excited about. Once we adopted this new approach and began incorporating commercial music into our program, we saw immediate and consistent growth (see the enrollment chart below). Commercial music was indigenous to our school’s culture and has taken off like wildfire! Now, instead of trying to convince kids to join band, we have students transferring to our school just to be a part of our program. One particular student drives over one hour each way just to be here.


The most important reason for commercial music is that it provides our students with an all-encompassing and holistic approach to music education. When I began developing our curriculum, I quickly realized that the techniques involved in teaching this style address every aspect of the 2014 Standards for Music Education. In fact, techniques such as ear training, composition, orchestration, improvisation, musical analysis, and the world or recording technology are naturally woven into commercial music education pedagogy. Very few times, if ever, do my traditional ensembles spend time composing, orchestrating parts, playing by ear, analyzing the harmonic structure and form of a piece, or recording in a studio. 

In Part 2 of this blog, I will go into specific pedagogical approaches and techniques that I use to teach our students. This is perhaps the most compelling section because it explains how to use music theory, ensemble techniques, recording technology and other methods to enhance students’ musical education. Below are a few links that show what this style of music education looks and sounds like.


Video Examples


Audio Recordings


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

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 Conference in Dallas, TX. The 2020 NAfME National Conference will be held in Orlando, FL, November 4-8. 

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