How to Teach Commercial and Popular Music in Schools

How to Teach Commercial and Popular Music in Schools

A Few Pedagogical Tips and Tricks

By NAfME Member Stephen Holley

In my last blog, “Blending Traditional and Contemporary Teaching Methods – The Argument for Adding Commercial/Popular Music to Your Program,” I discussed the advantages of adding elements of popular music education (PME) to your curriculum. One of the greatest advantages, in my mind, is the inclusion of a variety of styles of music in an effort to reach every student, regardless of their background. For this article, I’ll lay out a number of pedagogical tips and tricks that have worked for me over the years in building our Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School.

Teaching Popular Music
Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley

While our ensemble focus has been primarily on popular music including R&B, salsa, soul, pop, Latin, blues, jazz, son, funk, among others, our program includes elements of traditional music education as well. Our philosophy entails exposing our students to a diversity of musical styles and developing life skills for a number of reasons including:

  1. We live in a diverse world – it is incumbent upon us, as educators, to expose our students to the world through music.
  2. As the legal consumption of music continues to diminish, how do we inform our students to become a new generation of music lovers and consumers? Our students might not be the next professional musician, but they may very well purchase season tickets to the symphony, support a local jazz club via sponsorship, angel fund a new artist project, grow into a successful business person and music philanthropist, or simply purchase music . . . the way it used to be!
  3. Utilize music as a vehicle to teach life skills including team work, confidence, preparation, attention to detail, professionalism, responsibility, organization, schedule conflicts, etc. In effect, working to impart life skills that will benefit our students regardless of their career path.

We live in a diverse world – it is incumbent upon us, as educators, to expose our students to the world through music.

Over the past 20-plus years of teaching at both the collegiate and secondary levels, as well as being a professional musician with thousands of gigs under my belt in every style imaginable, I’ve been able to develop a fairly sizable quiver of tools! With that, here are my thoughts on a number of questions I’ve received on how to teach commercial/popular music, as well as how I tend to run rehearsals, gigs, and everything leading up to our performances and recording sessions.

Teaching Popular Music
Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley

Rehearsal Strategies

  • Reimagine your role as that of a coach or producer – You have to abandon the idea of the traditional “director.” Get off your podium or, better yet, get rid of it. Walk around the room. Focus on one section or one player. How do your kids hear the music from their vantage point? Ask the members how they would go about improving the song.

  • Rehearse in a circle/block formation – I always set up the room with the three sections (rhythm, horns, vocals) facing each other in a triangle. As we approach a performance, I turn the vocalists around so their backs are to the band, simulating a show.

  • Efficiency in rehearsals – Like any rehearsal, have your day planned out. Know your plan before your musicians enter the room, and, when things go sideways, use it as a learning opportunity for everyone in the room – you included.

  • But I’m not a guitar player . . . or a drummer . . . or a bass player! And you don’t have to be, really. If it’s financially feasible, bring in local musicians to run rhythm section clinics and/or give private lessons. Not in the budget? Contact a local college to see if they have students looking for entry-level teaching opportunities for their resume.

Teaching Pop Music in schools
Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley
  • Developing vocabulary and crafting your part via listening – If you’re not comfortable recommending Duck Dunn, James Jamerson, Willie Weeks, and George Porter, Jr., to your students, ask your local pros, a Twitter chat, or your colleagues for advice. Use every moment as a teaching opportunity while, at the same time, helping the musicians develop vocabulary on their instruments through critical listening of the masters.
  • Detailed song forms – Before I hand out charts, my musicians have to turn in a song form with the various sections, number of measures in each section, what’s going on musically in the song, and the role of their instrument in the context of the song. It guarantees they know the song, the form, and the musical relationships that craft the song.
  • Don’t neglect the fundamentals – Spend time working on scales, arpeggios, and sightreading – it will pay huge dividends. We’re working to improve their musicianship via PME, not give them an excuse not to learn their instrument.
  • Other thoughts – Have them memorize their music. It looks professional, they’ll be able to get into the music, and it gets their head out of the stand. This will, in turn, help them to musically converse. Turn off the lights – have them play in the dark . . . Think of hearing protection not only for you, but for the band. I have a dB meter mounted on the wall in our room. If our volume goes above 100 dB, a red light flashes to warn us.
Band in schools
Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley

Peer-to-Peer Learning

  • Upperclassmen to underclassmen, i.e. mentors. Two drummers, two guitarists, two bassists, two pianists, multiple vocalists at varying levels of experience, ability, and classification. Build a community and create expectations at the same time.

  • High schoolers to middle schoolers – We’re lucky that our schedule allows our middle school musicians the opportunity to work with our upper school musicians once a week. It affords the older students a chance to mentor and provides the younger students an opportunity not only to learn from their older peers, but to feel as though they’re part of the larger program.

  • After every tune I ask the students what THEY thought about the song, what can be improved, what did they like, not like, etc. before I present my thoughts. I try to keep my suggestions short and to the point, i.e. horns – remember to play the same articulations; guitars – vary your tone so you’re in separate sonic spaces; bass and drums – listen to each other as you’re not locking, etc.

Student pop band
Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley

Give Students Ownership of the Band

  • Have the students pick the majority of the tunes. That said, every year I create a Spotify playlist with tunes I think will showcase the band’s strengths and, at the same time, better their weaknesses.

  • Promotion/marketing their band – Put the entire band in charge of getting their friends, family, and teachers out to the shows. Have them make announcements at assemblies, put up posters, etc. If possible, enlist a band manager to coordinate your print and social media marketing. Let’s be honest, they know more about social media anyway!

  • Have your students create set lists so they’ll better understand the flow of a performance, how to gauge and entertain the audience, and how to keep the show moving. After the first time they play Tower of Power followed by Earth, Wind and Fire followed by Average White Band they’ll never do it again . . . the horns won’t let them!

  • Let them own their successes and their mistakes – If the vocalists miss the chorus, don’t jump on stage and try to direct. Remember, you’re a coach . . . and it’s their band. They will learn from their mistakes.

  • Let your students run the rehearsals – Again, I plan out the rehearsal for each day, but often the students run the rehearsal, count off the tunes, give each other feedback, etc.

Teaching Students Popular Music
Photo courtesy of Stephen Holley

These points really only scratch the surface. Hopefully, this will provide some insight into my philosophy, rehearsal pedagogy, and how we’ve been able to develop not only a highly successful commercial music program, but also foster and cultivate hard-working young adults who appreciate and value the arts.

Remember, you’re a coach . . . and it’s their band.

In my next article, I’ll share a list of terminology used in PME.

  • What is a bubble?
  • When should the Wurly play footballs?
  • What does a lift have to do with music?
  • Is a rub always bad?
  • And no, tic tacs are necessarily for your breath, but they do help improve the pocket in your rhythm section.

If you have any questions feel free to contact me at I look forward to continuing the conversation!

About the author:

GRAMMY® nominated music educator and NAfME member Steve Holley serves as the Producer for the Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School outside Denver, CO. The R&B, soul, salsa, and jazz bands in the CMP have been recognized by DownBeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards over a dozen times, have performed hundreds of gigs throughout the US, and have performed abroad at the Festival del Tambor, Montreux Jazz, and Porretta Soul Festivals in Cuba, Switzerland, Italy, respectively. In addition, the bands endorse JodyJazz Mouthpieces, D’Addario strings and reeds, Evans drums heads, and ProMark sticks. 

Steve holds a BM in Jazz/Classical performance, a MM in Jazz/Classical performance, and an MM in Musicology from the University of Memphis. In addition to being an educator, arranger, performer, and musical entrepreneur, Steve is a sought-after clinician with performances and master classes given at the Jazz Education Network, Association for Popular Music Education, and several state MEA conferences. Most recently, Steve has written several articles for In Tune Monthly, Teaching Music, and multiple blogs and newsletters for NAfME and JEN.

You can follow the Kent Denver Commercial Music Program on FacebookTwitter, and on Snapchat and Instagram @KentDenverMusic.

Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

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.

Elizabeth Baker, Social Media Coordinator and Copywriter. October 11, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (