by Michael Hayden — Greenfield, WI
As the semester comes to an end at Whitnall High School, students who enrolled in the first ever Rock Band course are packing away their classroom studio, putting guitars back in their cases, disconnecting microphones, mixers, and getting drum kits ready to go into storage for the rest of the year.
The inaugural class is also taking the time to reflect on what we have learned over the past four months, the musical friendships made, and the great music that has been created. Students in Rock Band spent first semester learning about music, how to play various rock instruments, and how music shapes our modern society.
Class examples were based on the music of rock n roll greats like Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis, AC/DC, Kansas, Black Sabbath, just to name a few. What started as a way to reshape what it means to study music during the school day turned out to be one phenomenal learning experience and I hope helped bridge the ever growing disconnect between in and out of school music.
The idea for a high school rock band class came after receiving a grant from the Meemic Foundation to purchase rock instruments and to start a creative music improv lab at Whitnall Middle School. What would come to be known as Jam Club is home to two guitars, a bass, MIDI keyboard, electronic drum set, a couple of microphones, and a JamHub Greenroom. The name Jam Club represents what students are doing after school (jamming). The lab is meant to be a safe space for students to get together and make music, more specifically rock music, with old and new friends alike. Additionally, the name Jam Club pays tribute to the JamHub, a sophisticated headphone monitor system that not only allows the students to connect with each other via headphones (think Silent Brass but for an entire band) but also give each individual student the ability to adjust the volumes of what they hear in their “mix.” After school one day per week, a small number of students get together to learn new instruments, be creative, and jam.
I think that most music educators have at least a general idea of what kind of equipment is needed to get a band together and start practicing/playing. In most garage-type bands, you would need various amps and a PA system so that the guitars, bass, and vocals can be heard over the drums. This is especially true with younger musicians who may tend to play on the louder side. Given that Whitnall Middle School’s Jam Club would take place in a classroom (and with other teachers and students around) having amps was not an option. Also, it adds considerable cost and takes up more space then we had available. This is where the JamHub GreenRoom came in. While doing some initial research on what types of equipment I would need to make the Jam Club happen I came upon the website for Jam Hub and was amazed about the capabilities and how relatively inexpensive the devices were. This would be the device that would make Jam Club and Whitnall High School’s Rock Band class happen. The hardware itself is very user friendly (6th graders are able to use it with ease), allows each instrument input to also be paired with a microphone, has built in effects (like reverb for the vocals), and in the case of the Greenroom model, has a built in USB output that allows students to connect their iPads and record their jam sessions.
From Jam Club to Rock Band
About the same time Jam Club was getting off the ground, Whitnall High School’s Rock Band class had been approved to go in the course catalog for the following school year (2014-2015). However, there was some initial uncertainty on my part as how to logistically make the class happen with regards to gear and setup. With multiple bands playing at the same time, it appeared that there would need to be either a space large enough where students could isolate themselves or we needed to have a system that would allow students to have a more “silent” and portable option. It would be the JamHub that would inevitably help make Rock Band class a reality as it takes away the need for amps and a PA system. With budgeted school funds, I was able to purchase two rock stations for the class. Each station has a JamHub Greenroom, electronic drum kit, two electric guitar, electric bass, and a keyboard. Since the JamHub connects students together via headphones, two groups would be able to practice in the same smaller classroom (our class is held in a computer lab) at the same time. Due to the high enrollment, a third band would rotate in after spending one day working individually or with me on a variety of course topics. This two day on, one day off system worked great for students as it allowed them make music with their band but also gave time to work independently, ask questions, or reflect on some of the class discussions.
Rock Band Structure
Rock Band class has four main units with each roughly following a different time period in rock n roll history, beginning with the 1950’s and ending with modern rock. At the end of each unit, students would put on a class performance in our high school auditorium. In addition to learning to play guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums, all students learn about the fundamental elements of music (such as form, pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, pulse), the different progressions and developments in rock music through modern music history, and take an in depth look at the similarities and differences between various types of rock music.
Students in Rock Band also used the JamHub GreenRoom as a way to make high quality recordings of their sessions. One our the course units centered around basic recording techniques and students were able to use the USB output on the JamHub to connect to either their iPad or one of the iMac’s in the lab. It took some tweaking at first to balance the output levels but students were able to capture high quality audio recordings that they would then send to me for listening and assessments as well as share with their family and friends. A few students even chose to extend this one step further and export the JamHub directly into GarageBand on an iMac so they could add additional effects such as echo, compression, and distortion.
Finally, each student in Rock Band would learn the basics of how to operate a mixing console and use that knowledge to setup, soundcheck, and run live front of house sound during our in class performance that would occur at that end of every unit. Students directly translated what they learned on the JamHub, with regards to instrument levels and balance, and were then able to apply that to larger analog and digital mixing consoles.
The most enjoyable class activity for the students was working with their band members, making music together. As an educator, seeing my students take charge of their musical and educational journey was very rewarding. Students came to class eager to play and regularly would start to set up their equipment before the bell rang (connecting microphones, doing quick sound checks, and adjusting monitor levels in the JamHub). I can’t help but think about the possibilities of this type of course and how to incorporate small units of alternative-type music making that would benefit all music students.
Ideas for Extension
The JamHub has many capabilities and possibilities for extension outside the realm of rock band classes and after school jam groups. Since both Whitnall Middle and High School are 1:1 iPad schools, the JamHub could also be used as a tool to connect multiple students together to use their iPad as a musical instruments. Additionally, there are a wide range of free, cloud based recording projects that have hundreds of synthesizers, drum machines, and other types of virtual instruments that students could use to create music together (these could be accessed via a laptop or Chromebook). Throw in a couple people on vocals and a student or two playing their saxophone, violin, or banjo and you have a truly unique school music experience.
Capitalizing on your students interest in music by incorporating some of the 21st century musical experiences they see and hear outside of school are a great ways to bridge the disconnect between in and out of school music as well as explore what it means to make music, all while providing your students with music making experience they may see as adults. I hope that educators around the world embrace some of the new and more relevant ways of teaching music. The model of solely basing our music curriculums on performance is one that, while very valuable to some, is not working for a large majority. By incorporating more modern music making experiences, such as rock band, jam clubs, iPad band, and so on, we can reach a wider range of our student populations and reignite passions for music.
Michael Hayden teaches orchestra, digital music, and rock band at Whitnall Middle and High School in Greenfield, WI. He received his Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his Master of Music in Music Education from Northwestern University. In addition to teaching music, Mr. Hayden is a technology trainer for his school district, a frequent presenter on the topics of digital music, technology integration, classroom uses for portables electronics, and is an advocate for relevant music making experiences. For more information visit michaeldhayden.com.