“My Students Make Almost All of the Musical Choices for the Ensemble”

An Interview with 2022 All-National Honor Ensemble Modern Band Conductor
Bryan Powell

This year the 2022 All-National Honor Ensemble (ANHE) Modern Band will perform alongside five other All-National Honor Ensembles in National Harbor, Maryland, near Washington, DC. Bryan Powell will lead the Modern Band. Learn more about Bryan Powell here. Here, Powell shares some of his thoughts on favorite repertoire, his musical inspiration, and the upcoming ANHE Modern Band.

When did you first fall in love with music?

I’ve been surrounded by music all of my life. Both of my parents are music-makers, and my dad was a high school band director. So I grew up with music all around me. I think I started to really develop a love of music when I became old enough to buy my own tapes at the music store and decide for myself the music that I wanted to listen to.

“Music gives us a way to navigate the human experience, connect with others, and better understand ourselves.”

What inspired you to become a conductor? Describe the process in getting to where you are today.

students make musical choices in modern band

When I chose to be a music education major, I assumed that I would become a high school band director like my dad. However, when I got my first teaching job in a public school in East Harlem, it became apparent that although all of my students liked music and had musical lives, most of them didn’t want to be in band. They wanted to learn music that was important in their lives, and they wanted to write their own songs. So I started an afterschool rock band, and that quickly grew into a guitar program in school, and eventually a full modern band with guitars, electric bass, keyboards, drums, etc.

I learned from my experiences teaching music in East Harlem to function as a facilitator, and not as a director. The students chose the music that we played and had input about the arrangement of the song and other elements of the performance. My role as a facilitator of a modern band is much different than my role as a director of a concert band. And today as the director of the popular music ensemble at Montclair State University, I maintain the same approach where my students make almost all of the musical choices for the ensemble.

What are some of the greatest accomplishments, and challenges, you face as a conductor of a large ensemble?

My biggest successes in facilitating modern bands and popular music ensembles come when the students are able to realize their vision for playing the music of their choice. Whether it is a cover of an existing song or an original song that the students write themselves, helping students to realize their own goals for the music is always rewarding. A challenge for me as a facilitator in an ensemble is to know when to inject my opinions and guidance into the learning process, and when to allow the students to work out a challenging part of the song themselves. Part of the learning process in a modern band is the epiphany moment that comes when students are able to troubleshoot a musical challenge themselves. My role as a facilitator is to make sure that all of the students’ voices are heard and that the ensemble is a reflection of its members.

What factors do you consider when programming music for a concert or honors ensemble? What are some of your favorite pieces of repertoire?

One of the cool opportunities for modern band ensembles is to allow the students to choose the songs that they play. In each honors modern band ensemble that I’ve directed in the past, the students are always the ones to choose the songs that we play. This provides a unique opportunity, and challenge, to the process. Unlike other ensembles where students are given music staff notation to play, there are no written-out parts for the modern band ensemble. We create the arrangement of the song together and make the musical decisions about form, solos, choreography, and how to end the song together. And given the nature of honors ensemble rehearsals, we need to put everything together in 2-3 days, which is exciting! In addition, every honors modern band that I’ve directed in the past has also included an original song written by the students. This is another unique opportunity for honors modern band students to feature their own music on the program.

What excites you the most about the ANHE program? What do you hope your young musicians who attend will take away from their experience?

I am incredibly excited and honored to work with students from all across the country as part of the ANHE modern band. My hope for the students who participate in the ANHE modern band is that they will have fun and connect with other student musicians. This is a truly unique opportunity for all of the students, and I hope that the final performance is a reflection of their musical preferences and musical identities.

“This is a truly unique opportunity for all of the students, and I hope that the final performance is a reflection of their musical preferences and musical identities.”

What advice would you share with young aspiring musicians?

Play what you love. Music provides us with a way to connect with the human experience, and different music connects with different people in different ways. Find out what you like, and never stop engaging in meaningful musical experiences!

As I mentioned above, music gives us a way to navigate the human experience, connect with others, and better understand ourselves. All cultures from the past have had music, and music will continue to exist into the future. Music connects us to the past, present, and future simultaneously.

About the Author

Bryan Powell

Bryan Powell 2022 NAfME All-National Modern Band Dr. Bryan Powell is an Assistant Professor of Music Education and Music Technology at Montclair State University. He is the Director of Higher Education for the non-profit organization Little Kids Rock. Bryan is the Executive Director of the Association for Popular Music Education, an organization dedicated to promoting and advancing popular music at all levels of education.

Bryan is an active clinician, having delivered modern band and popular music workshops at over 50 colleges and universities across the globe, as well as presenting at over 100 music education conferences. He is also an in-demand modern band ensemble director, serving as the Director for the 2022 New York City All-City Honors Modern Band Ensemble as well as the 2022 PMEA District 7 All-District Honors Modern Band Ensemble.

In 2023, Bryan will direct the NAfME All-Eastern Division Honors Modern Band Ensemble. He is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education, a peer-reviewed, academic journal. Bryan has co-edited several books including Teaching Instrumental Music: Perspectives and Pedagogies for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press). Bryan also co-authored Popular Music Pedagogies: A Practical Guide for Music Teachers (Routledge) as well as The Music Learning Profiles Project: Let’s Take This Outside (Routledge).

Bryan has a Bachelor of Music degree from Pepperdine University, a Master’s degree in Teaching from Chapman University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Boston University. His research interests include popular music education, music technology education, and community music research. And most importantly, Bryan is a father, a husband, and a dog owner.

Our Sponsors