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I do a project with my 6th graders at the beginning of the year that I call “Battle of the Bands.” To begin, I arbitrarily put students into groups of five. After letting the students know what the groups are, I give an overview of the project, which goes something along the lines of this: As a class, we are going to make a list of 10 current, popular songs that are on the radio – songs you students listen to and like. The songs must be appropriate for school, so anything involving references to drugs, sex, violence, etc., will be immediately disqualified. After the list of 10 songs is created, we will vote by a show of hands for each song – the two songs with the highest votes will be chosen as the songs to be learned and performed. After the two songs are chosen, students are to “huddle” with the rest of their group and discuss who is going to sing/play what part. Someone needs to sing; someone needs to play a steady beat on some type of percussion instrument; someone needs to play a bass line on bass bars or boom whackers; someone needs to play simple chords on the xylophone or piano; if you are a band or orchestra student, I can make a simple part for you to play on your instrument. Everybody has to have a job in the group – nobody can just sit and watch because they are not “musical.” After the groups have picked a song and decided what instruments they are going to play, (I have them chose from instruments available in the classroom), that’s where my homework begins. I go home, learn the songs, create simple “Orff” type arrangements of each song and create very basic “sheet music” that each student will use for practice and performance. We spend a couple of weeks in class (4 or so sessions of 25 minutes each) learning all the songs using the instruments, and then we start official “rehearsals” where each group takes the “stage” while the others are an audience and we do run-throughs of each song. I have the singers stand on the risers and the instrumentalists are “around” them like a real band. I teach microphone technique, proper breathing, posture and mouth formation for singing, and proper instrument technique for the variety of instruments the others in the group are playing. After each “practice,” I give feedback, tips, advice, etc… I play acoustic guitar with every group as well as have my own mic so I can keep things together and help with the singing. There are frequent stops and starts with these rehearsals where I ask things like “are we together? Is the beat steady? Did we play the form correctly?” After every group has had two official practices in front of the class, we begin the battle. Each group performs (with microphones, etc) for the rest of the class. The audience is using a rubric centered on three components to give each group a score ranging from 3 to 12. Component A is “Vocal and Instrumental Skill,” component B is “Application of skills and concepts” and component C is “Citizenship and Participation” I ask the class to tell me what each of those things should look like (with some prompts from me of course) and we write out a rubric with those 3 components. Groups can earn 4 for doing that component “all or nearly all the time,” 3 for “most of the time,” 2 for “sometimes and 1 point for “hardly ever.” After the performance, I have kids close their eyes and then raise their hand to vote 1, 2, 3 or 4 for each of the components in the rubric for that group. The score is totaled and ranges from 3 to 12. When all groups have performed, the group with the highest score wins a pizza party with me. When we finish the unit, I have each student write or speak a reflection of the unit to me and the class (I take notes looking for trends).

This whole unit takes me 6 to 8 weeks and I have 100% buy-in. The comments from students are things like “I like how we did modern music, not old music,” “I liked playing instruments,” “I liked how it took teamwork,” “I like learning how to use a microphone,” “I was really nervous at first but it got easier as I did it more.” Sometimes the comments were negative but enlightening – “I got sick of this song since we practiced it so much,” “this song is the same three notes over and over again,” “I felt like we needed more practice to make it perfect,” “sometimes people voted for their friends and not according to the rubric.”

All of the reflections offer some good take aways! I came up with this project as I was working on my Washington State Pro-Teach certificate, which had a strong emphasis on making connections with students, students having a “voice” in their learning, and students feeling like what they were learning was personally meaningful. I had some major deficits in those areas and after some reflection, I realized that what kids listen to on the radio or TV was nothing like what we learn in the classroom (which is a good thing actually). Older kids start to feel alienated from music in school exactly because it is “school” music and not “real” music like what they hear or see on TV. Having played in a number of rock and pop bands over the last 20 years, I knew that I could draw on that experience and come up with a way to re-connect with students on this important point. I feel like this unit really accomplishes those 3 things I was struggling with previously (I passed my Pro-Cert too!) and later in the year when we do Stravinsky or Non-Western music, or patriotic, or classical music, when they complain about it I gently remind them about the pop tunes we did in the fall, and how simplistic we discovered they all were. They quickly realize that those songs don’t offer us much opportunity for learning beyond the basics that we already accomplished with the Battle of the Bands.

I hope this is helpful to you!