Volume IV - 1997

Beyond Passive Listening: The ESL Class Becomes a Band
   by Dennis Sjolie

         Dr. Dennis Sjolie is an assistant professor of English/ESL at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota, where he is also the coordinator of ESL. His experience as an ESL instructor reaches back fifteen years, but his experience in rock "n" roll bands (guitar and keyboards) goes much further back than that. Active in research and conferences, he also writes fiction and teaches creative writing courses.

         Almost any rock 'n' roll musician will agree: performing good music with others requires communication, insight, and trust. The higher the level of communication, the greater the insight, and the deeper the trust, the "tighter" the music becomes. The aim of any serious rock 'n' roll band, in musicians' terms, is to become "so tight they squeak." The same basic philosophy applies to language learning in the ESL classroom: the higher the level of communication, the greater the insight, and the deeper the trust, the more successful the language learning--the "tighter" the language learning. Why the relationship to music? Because music has long been considered integral to language and language learning.

Stage Set for Rock 'n Roll 'n ESL

         As early as 1938, Holzinger and Harmon indicated findings that rhythm had an influence upon auditory discrimination in language. Similarly, Karlin (1942) found that students' musical abilities added to their listening and retention capabilities. Leutenegger and Mueller (1964) likewise suggested that musical dimensions such as "pitch, loudness, rhythm, timbre, time (duration), rhythm, and tonal memory" (p. 141) may be relevant in foreign language learning. More recognizable and more specific to the field of ESL, Lozanov, in the early 1960's, began his "suggestopedia" research, including experimentation with music therapy, relaxation techniques, and rapid vocabulary memorization (Blair, 1991). It is this initial research which sets the rock 'n' roll stage for the ESL class band.

         Today, language theorists and teachers, even musicians, advocate music as a pedagogical technique in language teaching. "Music...appeals to diverse learning styles, stimulates creativity and word play, promotes classroom harmony, and can enhance almost any curriculum unit" ("Reach Every Child," 1994). Polisar (1994), well-known songwriter and children's author, stresses how music "opens new windows of learning...to unlock [students'] creativity..." (p. 69). Similarly, Langfit (1994) states, "Music is a medium that educators can and should incorporate into their classrooms" (p. 430). Listening to music, singing along with songs, and discussing song lyric structure and meaning are certainly enjoyable and beneficial TESL activities, but they serve only as fundamental beginnings. Songs also introduce basic vocabulary, list idioms and common phrases, present varied listening activities, assist in teaching pronunciation, provide cultural insight, and reinforce grammar knowledge (Whittaker, 1981). Cooper (1991) argues that song lyrics are "reflections of our culture. . . [which may be used] to facilitate meaningful learning for students" (p. 56). Further, Cooper, Currie (1994), and Polisar (1994) urge that songs are the ideal medium for teaching history, heroes, and heritage_all pertinent topics to ESL classroom discussion and the fostering of language skills. History, heroes, and heritage _the three H's_further assist international students in developing American "cultural literacy," an area of knowledge essential to the completion of core requirements in virtually all degree programs. Goodkin (1994) states, "Almost every culture has some songs about animals, harvest, love, heroes..." (p. 41). Instructors need to encourage students to share such songs, exploring the musical diversity of the class. In a sense, this process is a musical pretest, a focused musical exploration which assesses students' musical knowledge and awareness pertaining to their cultural backgrounds. Goodkin affirms that often students are "unable to understand multiculture because they do not understand culture" (p. 41). To this we might add that often students are also unaware of their own particular and personal experiences with enculturation_that process by which we all become members of our own specific cultural group. Exploring cultural music backgrounds helps students discover their "musical roots" and further opens the process of communication about music and communication through music.

The Perfect Music for Multicultural Study

         Polisar (1994) begins to pull the eclectic musical exploration process into clearer perspective for band formation when he suggests using "popular music to pave the way for discussions about our interconnected world... Have [the] class study rock music to understand the contributions of many cultures to this groundbreaking American art form" (p. 69). In this view, rock 'n' roll is the perfect music for multicultural study due to the multicultural musical styles incorporated by rock 'n' roll.

         Listening to and discussing music immediately suggests singing along with music. Quite often, students are eager for more active roles in the music exercises done in class. Most cannot wait to begin singing. Teaching the silly old adage "If you can't sing well, sing loud!" usually dispels any lingering shyness or feigned reluctance. Once the class is singing together, dispense with tapes or CD's in favor of musical instruments. Bringing instruments to class to accompany the vocals is a sure but subtle way to begin changing the ESL class into the ESL class band. Begin with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, or simple keyboard accompaniment for the classroom of vocalists. Basic arrangements are the best. Such arrangements are sheet music which provides "easy guitar/piano chords" written above the music staff. Music stores contain my books offering easy chord progressions_the fundamental chord base_upon which songs are "built." All the singers need is a chord progression to carry along the melody and fill in the vocal rests.

         Next, learn what instruments class members play and encourage those students to bring their instruments to class, even if they say they cannot play very well. Many bands form with beginning level musicians. Perhaps instructors, too, need to brush up their musical skills: restring that old guitar, tape together those tattered finger-charts, dust off that portable keyboard that practically plays itself. Simple chord accompaniment is the rule at this point. As in language development, begin simple and work toward the complex. Musical flash and razzle-dazzle comes later, much later, just as does complicated grammar structure when addressing language.

The Group Comes First

         "Group involvement supersedes individual expertise" is the message instructors need to send. In a class of twenty students, twenty students can be actively involved. This is not so overly optimistic as it may first appear_nor is the process of forming a band so intimidating as it may seem. Musical and non-musical instructors alike can find a workable process. After all, "kids" in their late and middle teens form bands each and every day. Students as well as instructors who initially may feel unable to do anything musically often discover, in the right situation, that they do have voices, do have rhythm, do have the ability to participate, adding their own beat_or counterbeat_to the musical whole. At first, instructors may need to nurture participation, just as they nurture participation for language development. But soon the musical excitement becomes contagious.

Nonmusical Instructors

         Virtually all bands are structured around a nucleus of two or three more solid musicians. The ESL class band is, of course, easier to form if the instructor is a vital part of this musical nucleus; nevertheless, this is not essential. Instructors who are absolutely nonmusical can find other musicians_colleagues, friends, acquaintances, anyone who comes to mind_just to get the music started. These "guest musicians" or "musical assistants" can be a part of the musical nucleus, providing accompaniment for the class singers. They can offer suggestions for developing a class rhythm section, or help students determine their vocal ranges for later experimentation with back-up vocals and harmonies. Further, guest musicians, together with the band nucleus, can begin to "orchestrate" the class, making suggestions as to who might perform as lead vocalists, back-up vocalists, percussionists, various instrumentalists, and so forth.

         Nonmusical instructors can certainly oversee and orchestrate the students as musical direction begins to take place. It is amazing, too, what technology can now do. Computers and synthesizers and "midi" have the capability of taking nonmusical "musicians" to astounding new musical dimensions. There is no special formula, no recipe, that one must follow. Instructors who find music intimidating may wish to experiment first with "jazz chants" (Graham, 1978), a technique of adding emphasized rhythm, such as hand clapping, finger snapping, or ball bouncing, to poems which students read in chorus. Additional percussion, or any musical instruments, may join the "chorus" at any time.

         As students bring instruments to class to assist in providing basic chord progression accompaniment for the vocalists, and instructors discover the guitarists, pianists, and percussionists who make up their ESL classes, encourage students to introduce their various instruments and discuss their varied musical backgrounds. Guest musicians performing in the classroom should also partake in these dialogues. Never forget, the chief purpose here is communication. Constant communication. Plus, half the fun of being in a band is discussing musical instruments and music equipment.

The Magic Inside the Instrument

         There is something about musical instruments that inspires curiosity and awe. Is it the magic, the power, the charm of all the music_all the notes_locked inside each instrument, waiting for the musician? Is it the wonder of what actually makes the music? Guitars. Keyboards. Drums. Like children drawn to the piper, students are drawn to the instruments, wanting to touch them, wanting to strum guitar strings, depress keyboard keys, pound drum heads. What a wonderful and fascinating process to watch. Student questions issue forth in waves, utilizing all verb tenses one can imagine, even some verb tenses one cannot! But it is language, communication both fresh and exciting. That is what matters.

         Teachers who are veteran rock 'n' roll band performers, or who are friends of such performers, have a distinct advantage in the assemblage of equipment: guitars, amplifiers, effects pedals, keyboards, drums or drum machines, sound systems, mixers, microphones, percussion. Each piece of equipment is a new experience for the class, so there is no need to bring it all in at once. Don't let the roadies unload the equipment truck too fast! Let the momentum build. That's how most bands form: a little at a time. Otherwise, things can get out of control. Not that musical chaos is particularly bad; any number of bands have built successful "artistic" careers on utter musical chaos. Still, musical chaos is not the primary goal of this exercise.

The Involvement of the Music Department

         As the band develops, issues pertaining to equipment may become a concern. Some students will have their own instruments/equipment, others will not. Equipment problem resolutions may depend largely on the creativity of the instructor, the "contacts" of the instructor, or how far the instructor and students wish to carry the concept of an ESL class band. Surely, the music department will be involved at this point_or ought to be involved. Students who are discovering they wish to learn music, or wish to further develop existing musical skills, should be encouraged to contact the music department for future courses or private lessons. Music departments are also valuable resources for music equipment, keyboard/synthesizer technology, and additional musicians. Educational media centers should not be overlooked, either, as they often have sound systems, mixers, and microphones at their disposal, not to mention "sound technicians" who can assist in "running" sound reinforcement equipment.

Rehearsal Suggestions

         With any new band, rehearsals are exciting, confusing, wonderful, frightening, inspiring, and disappointing all at the same time. Approach the rehearsals expecting anything and everything. But do not expect the impossible. Musical development, as language development, requires time, trial-and-error experimentation, and practice. Much practice. Begin with easy songs and continue with easy songs. Most bands prefer a democratic process of song selection: every member is free to suggest material; every member is free to veto material. All class members should be making song suggestions. Instructors may be surprised to find that Bloom's (1987) comments concerning students' love for music do not apply only to American students: "...they most emphatically do have music... It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does..." (p. 68). But keep the music simple. Be realistic when selecting songs; don't reach for material the ESL class band could never perform. Simple is material such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Lucky Man or Dylan's Knockin on Heaven's Door, most recently covered by Guns 'n' Roses, or Petty's It's Good to Be King. Simple refers to easy, repeating chord progressions and easy, repeating rhythms. There is a vast abundance of "possible" material out there.

         The concept of "give and take" pertaining to music selection is imperative, or instructors and students alike will experience power struggles for musical control which so many bands experience and often, ultimately, cannot survive. Students may argue to perform everything from Metallica to Madonna. Listen to all suggestions. Experiment with all suggestions. Keep it democratic and keep it simple. Remember, too, there is nothing wrong with taking material and making it "your own." Bands doing "covers" or remakes of other performers' songs, frequently add their own distinct style. That's also a good part of the fun.

Points to Consider

         As the band develops, instructors and students fill the following slots: guitarists (rhythm and lead), bass, keyboards, drums, percussion (tambourines, maracas, shakers, hand drulns), back-up vocalists, lead vocalists. Perhaps the band also has flute(s) or horns, but trying to add these too soon is most complicated. A fine performing band need have only guitars, percussion, perhaps bass, or bass lines supplied by a good keyboard player, and a host of vocalists.

         Allow the students to experiment with harmony. Singing and experimenting successfully with two-, three-, four-, and even five-part harmony is a sweet experience. Encourage students to become familiar with other aspects of music theory as well: principles of chord progressions, rhythm variations, syncopation. Some students will, perhaps, need sheet music for every note they play; self-trained musicians are typically masters of improvisation and "play wherever their fingers carry them." Make allowances for both types of musicians. Rock 'n' roll bands are often composed of self-trained musicians. If instructors are musicians of this sort, the ESL class band has distinct advantages pertaining to "jamming" and musical exploration. Never forget that vocalists, too, can "jam" right along with the guitarists and keyboard players and drummers.

         As the band develops further, instructors or students may have original compositions they wish to introduce. Certainly students who have the interest should be encouraged to try songwriting. Songwriting partnerships may even form. Group songwriting exercises are also quite exciting and productive. One never knows what lyric phrases or musical riffs emerge from the sheer joy of playing music with other people. Experimentation with video is another strong possibility. Mass communication departments are often on the lookout for interesting material to videotape. The ESL class band preparing for its school concert debut surely qualifies. Mass communication students might even conduct "on air" interviews with band members. In this aspect, the mass communication department may become nearly as close an associate as the music department. Consider, too, the possibility of recording, especially if a nearby mass communication department has sophisticated recording equipment. Many of them do.


         Where does all of this musical experimentation and band formation lead? It leads everywhere. It leads to excitement. It leads to discovery. It leads to confidence. But primarily, it leads to communication: communication through language and communication through music. It further leads to any number of insights: personal insight (both individual and group-shared), communicative insight (stronger understanding of successful communication and communication rules), cultural insight (stronger understanding of background culture and American culture). Goodkin (1994) stresses multicultural music education, for "through the continual exposure of students to their planetary musical heritage, we daily widen the scope of how music can speak" (p. 43). To this we might add: through music, we also widen the scope of how students can speak and listen and write and understand_and join together.

         Luebke ( 1995) affirms that "music.. .is not a replacement for traditional texts, but rather a compliment to them" (p. 11). Most assuredly. But music is indeed a strong compliment, especially when we consider Bloom's ( 1987) observation concerning the former passion of the German people for Wagner operas. The Germans were convinced, Bloom states, that "Wagner was creating the meaning of life and that they were not merely listening to his works but experiencing that meaning" (p. 68). This is not to argue that rock 'n' roll is a Wagner opera, or to put forth that an ESL class band is a Wagnerian orchestra. But music_specifically performing music_does indeed create meaning. And the meaning musicians, any musicians, find in music, any music, should never be underestimated. Mick Jagger (Jagger & Richards, 1975) puts it more concisely: "I know it's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it, like it, yes, I do..."


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