Bringing Your Music Program Up-to-Date

by Doug Burris

The traditional vehicles of musical performance in the average high school of the United States have been band, orchestra, chorus, jazz band, and variations of these groups. Kids have been “rocking” in garages for years; college students use it to make money. Throughout it all, a great deal of music is learned both in the traditional sense, i.e. sight-reading and, in the unconventional sense, ear-training. Publishing companies such as Hal Leonard are putting out arrangements transcribed from recordings called Rock Scores and the Pepper catalog has a section containing arrangements for ROCK ENSEMBLE!

Let’s face it, rock music is here to stay. Kids love it, not so old kids love it, and old kids love it. As a music educator, I certainly appreciate all forms of music, but I have my personal preferences as does everyone. There are so many styles of rock music that in order to be a rock ensemble director, one needs to be flexible with what the teacher wants to do and what the students want to do. It is important that the Rock Ensemble director have a passion for the music with all of its complications (broken wires, malfunctioning amps, feedback, questionable lyrics) and a sincere love of working with young people.

Participation in Rock Ensemble promotes an appreciation for other forms and styles of music that are not taught in other music classes. Popular song forms, electronic digital instruments, and the use of sound reinforcement systems as an instrument are factors unique to a Rock Ensemble. Success very often depends on the personality of the teacher and his/her ability to relate to students.

Rock music is a musical art because it, like all other kinds of music, gives personal meaning for those who use it as a mode for musical expression. Rock Ensemble gives the students, who need to be up front, an opportunity to do just that. This type of student will not be satisfied playing in the band, orchestra, or any large ensemble where she or he is just a number. This does not mean that the students should not perform in those groups. It is recommended that Rock Ensemble students be advised to participate in one of those traditional groups in order to have a well-rounded performance experience. The Rock Ensemble is a small group which makes it imperative that each student’s individual responsibility is ultimately important to the success of the group.

As with any performing group, specific techniques and qualities of good performance should be a part of every rehearsal. A business-like attitude is necessary if success is to be attained, and day-to-day living made pleasant. Self-awareness and the ability to listen and relate to others is very important. Applications of the elements of music theory, strict vocal warm-ups, and techniques (the use of vibrato and singing with support), efficient rehearsal procedures, such as working on one particular part of a tune without doing the entire piece over and over again are part of the daily routine. Improvisational experience, ear-training, dynamics (beginning rock musicians don’t realize the dramatic effect of playing softly), and experience in conducting are all important activities of the class. Tempo problems can be fixed by playing with a metronome interfaced with a PA system or guitar amp. It is important to play the metronome loud enough so it can be heard while the band is playing.

The Rock Ensemble is an exciting mode of musical expression and an area of musical study that students will greet with consistent enthusiasm. They relate directly to the elements of music when performing in the Rock Ensemble and therefore have a greater appreciation for the study of all music. A truly moving experience with any kind of music will, more than likely, cause a better understanding of all music. Young singers experiencing, for the first time, the vocal challenges of The Prophet Song or Bohemian Rhapsody by the rock group Queen or hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will have a better understanding of classical music. At the very least, they will be able to appreciate and respect the quality of the performance.

Organizing A Rock Ensemble

Organizing should be done according to specific guidelines. Auditions should be open to all, and information regarding the specific audition requirements clearly stated and readily available to all students who wish to audition. It is recommended to encourage students to maintain good grades and that their personal level of character be high. The following audition requirements are specific, but they also may serve as suggestions that may be changed according to the director’s personal taste or meet local needs.

I. Vocal Audition:

A. A prepared song with accompaniment by piano, guitar, small rhythm section or karaoke CDs that are available at reputable music stores. Vocalists will be evaluated in each of the following areas: tone, diction, relative pitch, time, and stage presence.

B. Easy sight-reading to show basic understanding of note reading and rhythms. A suggested book would be Let’s Read Music (Book 2, Volume by Rufus A. Wheeler, Published by Dickson-Wheeler, Inc., 208 First Street, Scotia, New York 12303).

C. Harmonizing the major scale in 3rds with another vocalists, up and down five steps.

II. Keyboard Audition:

A. A prepared solo with or without rhythm section accompaniment in the classical, rock, or jazz style.

B. Easy sight-reading. Use any popular sheet music.

C. Chords

Major: 7ths, 9ths 11ths, and 13ths

Dominant: 7ths, 9ths 11ths, and 13ths

Minor: 7ths, 9ths

Diminished: 7ths

Augmented: 7ths, 9ths

Suspended: 2nds, 4ths

D. Simple Improvisation over the I-IV-V chords in the keys of C, G, D, E, F, Bb, Eb, and Ab.

III. Guitar Audition:

A. A prepared solo with rhythm section accompaniment in the jazz/rock style. The solo should be performed exactly as it is on a commercial recording of the candidates preference. The same sounds (distortion, flange, or digital delay) should be utilized at the audition.

B. Easy sight-reading from the Complete Guide for the Guitar: Advancing Jazz-Pop-Rock Edition (EFM 50001S, Coffman/Webb; Ellis Family Music, 1-800-573-5547, 30 Samana Drive, Miami, FL, 33133).

C. Chords

Major: 7ths, 9ths

Dominant: 7ths, 9ths

Minor: 7ths, 9ths

Diminished: 7ths

Augmented: 7ths

Suspended: 2nds, 4ths

D. Easy Blues improvisation over I-IV-V progressions in any key.

E. Major Scales: 2 octaves starting on the fifth or sixth string.

F. It is suggested that the guitarist have his/her own equipment and be encouraged to develop his/her own concept of sound if not already in place.

IV. Bass Audition:

A. A prepared bass solo that has been transcribed from a popular, commercially produced recording.

B. Construct a bass line over a I-IV-V chord progression using the following accompaniment:

1. Root, 5th

2. Root, 3rd, 5th

3. Root, 5th, octave

4. Root, 5th, octave, 12th

5. A basic walking-bass pattern

C. Knowledge of root, 3rd, 5th, in major, minor, augmented, and diminished chords.

D. Easy sight-reading from Complete Guide for the Guitar: Advancing Jazz-Pop-Rock Edition (EFM 50001S, Coffman/Webb; Ellis Family Music, 1-800-573-5547, 30 Samana Drive, Miami, FL 33133).

V. Drum Audition:

A. A prepared piece with rhythm section accompaniment (bass, piano, and/or guitar) demonstrating an idiomatic rock drum pattern using good time and dynamic playing.

B. Demonstrate proficiency in 5/8 meter (listen to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five).

C. Demonstrate proficiency in 6/8 meter (listen to any jazz/waltz).

D. Demonstrate proficiency in 5/8 and 6/8 alternating meters (listen to Greg Allman’s Queen of Hearts from the solo album Laid Back).

E. Sight read from Realistic Rock by Carmine Appice (Carmine Appice Enterprises, 9171 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 436, Beverly Hills, CA 90210).

VI. Wind Auditions:

A. Any prepared solo with accompaniment, either jazz or classical.

B. Major scale played one octave through 4 sharps and 4 flats with arpeggios.

C. Sight-read in any intermediate level, band instrument book.

Because of the electronic nature of the group and the detailed set- up procedure, it is recommended that special sound reinforcement equipment personnel be selected. These students are very valuable because they will know exactly how to set up the equipment. In a situation where the entire system must be set up and taken down every day, these students will save valuable rehearsal time, save on wear and tear of the instrument, and gain experience. They will be instructed in soldering and repairing cables and chords. Organization of the equipment is very important. These students should be musical and have the desire to do the job. Mixing the sound through the system is very important and requires a musical ear. Equalization and the use of special effects are part of this very important position. Guidelines for duties are as follows:

1. Correctly wrap cables (over and under method) and properly dress a mic stand.

2. Set up and break down sound system.

3. Maintain all equipment by regularly checking cables, connectors, mic stands and speakers.

4. With teacher supervision, mix sounds by using the correct placement of mics and speakers so as to avoid audio feedback.

5. Pack up and prepare all equipment for trips.

6. Understand digital synthesizers, digital delay, and equalizer manipulation.

Festival Participation

In the state of Florida, a mixed vocal instrumental ensemble may enter district and state festivals in the “Special Category” under the auspices of the Florida Vocal Association. This category encourages high quality performance by ensembles in the popular, show, and entertainment mediums. This category allows for a variety of instrumentation and choreography depending on its appropriateness to the style. Since this is a vocal festival, all singers must also participate in the school chorus. All Rock Ensemble directors should work closely with the school choral director if they are not one and the same. All directors are urged to consult the F.V.A. (or your state) Handbook for rules and regulations if they are interested in entering this kind of festival.

There are also many private festivals in which a Rock Ensemble may participate. Close communication with festival directors usually proves fruitful with reference to category and eligibility of performance. Some festival directors are very cooperative in setting up a special Rock Ensemble category and Rock Ensemble directors should not hesitate to ask for a Rock Ensemble category so that they may be evaluated as a Rock Ensemble and not have to compete in any other category such as Show Choir, Jazz Band or Jazz Choir.


The instrumentation of Rock Ensemble can be as diversified as the director wishes. Availability of equipment varies with each school and situation. A good rehearsal facility and secure storage area are absolutely necessary. There are many variations on the basic instrumentation of Rock Ensemble, but drums, electric bass, one or two guitars, one or two keyboards, and one or more vocalists is a good way to begin.

It is desirable to have many of the instrumentalists double as vocalists, or percussionists, or on any other instruments. This fits into the Rock Ensemble format because it gives the student who is doubling more to do. Sometimes it’s difficult to give everyone something to do on every song. It is therefore advisable to have the drummer, bassist, and guitarist double only on occasion. This is the section of the ensemble that determines how tight the group is and they need to play together as much as possible. Percussion instruments (congas, bongos, timbales, timpani, etc.) should be used in any ensemble. These instruments may be taught to anyone with good rhythm and they contribute to the good sound of the ensemble.

Other Considerations

The success of any performance group is directly related to the amount of time spent in rehearsal. Rock Ensemble can be taught as a regular class or after school for no credit. Both situations have their advantages and disadvantages. If students take it after school for no credit, they will be dedicated, and if they are not, it is easy to remove them. It is also easy to take on new students without registering and going through the “red tape” that is required in most schools. After-school rehearsals are necessary if superior results are desired.

It’s important to help young musicians determine what they want to sound like. If a young musician emulates the sound of a well-known performer, that can give the initiative to practice and be consistent with the instrument. Success in this area is a motivating experience for the student. Rehearsal behavior and class room objectives are to be done with public performance in mind. Public performance is a catalyst to conceptual learning and thoroughly expedites learning a particular work. In other words, no one wants to be embarrassed in front of a large audience by singing or playing a bad note!

Upon deciding on a project, it’s important that all members, including the sound engineer, have a tape recording so that they may practice with it and become completely familiar with the music. All melodic and harmonic instruments need to be aware of pitch discrepancies when dealing with cassette tape recorders. It is for this reason that everyone in this category know the actual key of the piece so that they can tune their instruments accordingly when practicing at home. When possible, students should have a compact disc player and the CD to avoid this problem. Compact disc players always play in tune due to their digital nature. It is also advisable that the school have a CD player so that instruments will be in tune when rehearsing with a CD! Today, any digital music player, like an iPod, is invaluable.

When rehearsing parts, start with the drums, then work with the bass, guitars, keyboards, lead vocals, back-up vocals, and winds. Every effort should be made to work out individual parts outside of class. Class time should only be used to work on blend, dynamics, tempo, and choreography. Choreography is a subjective matter. Some directors may choose to choreograph heavily while others will only use it to provide the audience with small amounts of visual relief. A little bit goes a long way.

When the intensity of musical involvement and the emotional level necessary for a successful performance is high, the desire for consistent success becomes addictive. When the ensemble reaches this point, the musical experience will be equal to that of any other performing group. Recording the Rock Ensemble can be very helpful in fixing those not-so-obvious trouble spots. After recording the group, watch the reaction when they hear something they don’t like or that wasn’t obvious in the live performance. After this, improvement should be substantial. It is advisable to record your group either in a semi-professional or professional recording studio so they may experience the pressure, the struggle for perfection, long hours, and the rewards of success. It is also helpful for fundraising and public relations. There are many companies that will take your master tape and produce good sounding and nice looking CDs to sell! (There is also a great deal of new software out there for making your own labels and CDs!)

The rehearsal facility could be a standard class room, but a room approximately 50’x50′ would be better. The room should be carpeted and draped so that all electronic and acoustic effects may be heard clearly without interference from excessive natural room reverberation. The room should be isolated from regular class rooms in the same manner as the band or choir room. Although the expense of a Rock Ensemble program is not as big as a band program, it does require a considerable amount of money to initiate and maintain. One advantage of this program is the relative ease in which it supports itself. The nature of the music tends to make very popular concerts and the group is usually in demand.

The diversity of a Rock Ensemble is what makes it interesting to listen to and perform with. Arranging original music is probably the most creative aspect of the class for advanced students interested in composing. Transposition (writing wind parts, ear-training, transcription skills, calligraphy, and arranging) are all part of classroom activities.

After the high school Rock Ensemble experience, students may go on to college or become professionals. Colleges offer courses of study that are compatible with what these students have learned in high school. Many universities and colleges offer majors in instrumental/vocal performance, sound engineering, and music business.

In closing, it should be emphasized that other music organizations in the school (band, orchestra, chorus) are vital to the comprehensive music education of the student and to the general tone of the school. Where it is possible, the concept of Rock Ensemble should be utilized in the school that has a comprehensive, and well-established music program.

For more information about the Rock Ensemble, please contact Doug Burris at

Miami Beach Senior High School

2231 Prairie Avenue

Miami Beach FL 33139

(305) 532-4515 ext. 2316