FOCUS ON STUDENTS: It’s Time for a Rock and Roll Revolution in Music Education!

In This Article:

A movement is spreading across the country: children want to play instruments that are most relevant to their lives, such as the electric guitar and the drum set.

Students now have unprecedented access to technology, through recording equipment, promotion of their bands through social media, and low-end starter kits for guitars, amps and electronic drum sets. These students love music but will probably not pick up a violin or French horn, at least in the early-interest stage, especially when there is no access to formal music instruction. They long to be part of a rigorous music instructional experience with high standards, but are not drawn to traditional band, choir and orchestra programs, and after-school Broadway musicals do not attract them to music education. Unless they have the financial resources to go outside of the school for a contemporary music education, many students are marginalized from the type of music learning that they crave the most.

Although rock and roll has been woven into our lives for the past 60 years, teachers who wish to incorporate rock and roll into their curriculum and classroom are still forging new ground.

Connecting Rock and Roll to a Classical Curriculum

At Roberto Clemente Middle School (RCMS) in Germantown, MD, we have developed an in-school and after-school program to attract students. But first, we asked ourselves three hard questions:


• Must rock and roll be taught at the exclusion of the traditional approach? 

• Does the clear separation that exists between the private sector and public education have to remain the model? 

• Must students leave our schools to receive music education in contemporary styles? 

At RCMS, we answered “no!” to all these questions. We began to blend traditional and contemporary music education to aggressively build a whole music program by using a "back door" approach to bring rock and roll into our classical curriculum.

In 2006, we started an intense six-month after-school program called "Old School.” Today, this very popular rock and roll oldies show involves over 400 students in a singing, dancing, and multi-media performance: it is held at our local high school to accommodate our sold-out crowd of thousands.  

To intentionally connect Old School to the curriculum, we included all our traditional Wind Band and Orchestra students in the Old School Pit Band. In addition to 115 students singing and dancing on stage, over 20 in the live rock band, and nearly 200 involved in production, over 100 clarinet and violin students play along to the oldies. It is quite a sight at curtain call to see 400+ students taking a bow together!

We knew Old School would be a big hit and that the Band and Orchestra students would love being a part of this special experience. But, we never expected our middle school production to be so meaningful and relevant to our graduates. We created our Old School Alumni program to give high school students featured songs: up to 70 alumni return annually to be in the show, even choosing it over prom!

In 2011, our new initiative, Old School 360°, brings complete circular leadership above and below us to our K-12 feeder schools. It includes a special Old School Honors Chorus to stoke the enthusiasm of 5th graders who are ready to participate.

“Old School” Deepens Student Interest in Music Curriculum

The extra curricular program at RCMS created a high demand to incorporate rock and roll into the daily curriculum. In 2008, we created a Rock Band class where students master rock and roll instruments, collaborate and perform in bands, and study the history of popular music and culture as part of the school curriculum. By 2011, our Old School program was fully integrated into the curriculum through the creation of a Contemporary Arts singing and dancing class of study and performance of the history of rock and roll. 

Sarah Bender, RCMS 8th grader, expresses the need for contemporary music in education this way: “Many people my age have an aptitude for classical instruments like the violin or trombone, but some of them do not enjoy this style of instrument and won’t take music classes, so they miss out on a musical education. Rock Band gives those people another choice. Since a lot of kids don’t have resources to take lessons, they receive the kind of lessons people pay a lot of money for, free of charge. This means a lot to me because when the budget gets cut in a school, people tend to rob the arts of funding or destroy music programs. I wish music was considered as necessary as math or reading.”  

Her fellow classmate, Kara Feidelseit, adds: “Rock Band class breaks the barriers that divide students into cliques. Any previous labels become irrelevant as you work through your song; the band becomes a family. The class allows kids who are centered (on) their music to interlace that interest into their school lives, rather than have no inspiration to come to school. This is a course that won’t be found anywhere else, and that makes being a part of it special, which makes the student special.”

Taking an Inclusive, Not Exclusive, Approach

We have seen that the classical and contemporary genres do not have to be taught at the exclusion of the other. Likewise, standards of rigorous instruction or musicianship are not compromised to create a whole music education. On the contrary, incorporating contemporary music has created an environment of intrinsically motivated students who desire to put forth their best efforts. Music has become relevant to their lives and they simply cannot get enough of it!

Here are some of the steps we took to implement contemporary music into our music program. Try them in your school!

  • Start an after-school club or an oldies rock band. Parents will love and support it by volunteering their time and talents. 
  • Provide a dedicated space for students to form their own bands and encourage them to play cover tunes as well as write their own compositions. 
  • Develop a battle of the bands program to perform at lunch or at after-school dances.
  • Use the success of Glee to start an after school contemporary vocal program or show choir.
  • Form a parent coalition or booster club exclusively for the promotion of contemporary music at your school. You will be surprised by how many adults wish to get involved.
  • Create an original “musical” of oldies songs with students singing and dancing.
  • Encourage and organize student contemporary performances to fundraise for charity events through an “Artists Give Back” series.
  • Partner with community arts organizations to promote your unique contemporary performances.
  • Use contemporary jazz band arrangements as a special pops concert for Wind Band and Orchestra. 
  • Use Guitar class to teach note reading and tablature to prepare students to participate in rock and roll ensembles.
  • Seek corporate sponsorship and support from music stores and local businesses. Show them how rock schools, camps and merchandise sales add to their bottom line and community involvement.
  • Utilize grants that focus on the progressiveness of your music program.
  • Partner with another school to stage a contemporary music performance.
  • Use social media and press to promote the popularity of your school’s contemporary music offerings.
  • Invite community leaders and district supervisors to performances. Their support will follow: this music is personally relevant in their lives, too.
  • Don’t apologize for using rock and roll to make music accessible to all students!

-- Randi Levy is the Founder and Director of Clemente Music Rocks,, whose purpose is to fully integrate contemporary music into the classroom at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, MD by providing free access to instruction on rock and roll and classical instruments. Randi also heads the Contemporary Arts Coalition to mobilize Maryland public school music educators to pursue progressive reform in public music education by utilizing rock and roll in their curriculum and after school programs.