Rockband: Friend or Foe of Music Teachers?

I guess it was about 2 years ago that a few of my students started requesting to learn songs that seemed quite out of character for them. “You want to learn ‘Highway Star’ by Deep Purple?”, I remember saying to a 9 year old boy, thinking “I wasn’t even born when that song came out, how did YOU hear about it?” This kind of thing started happening more frequently and gradually kids started telling me that they were playing Rockband, a video game with controllers shaped like musical instruments where you have to tap precisely along in rhythm to the guitar, bass, or drum part or sing the vocal part. (And soon there will be a keyboard controller!)
Included in Rockband were many great rock songs from the 70’s onwards. My students were hearing these songs over and over as they tried to “play” them successfully on the game, and this led to them being curious about how to play them on the piano.
Then my husband brought home Rockband for us last Christmas and I became an enthusiastic player immediately. It’s the only video game I’ve ever played, and enjoyed. I’ve discovered songs that I wouldn’t have ever run into otherwise, just like my students.
Sure, there are some drawbacks. The plastic controllers are not musical instruments and mastering the game means nothing in the real world of playing a real instrument. You can’t give a guitar to someone who’s mastered “Highway Star” on Rockband and expect them to be able to play even the first note of the guitar part. In that sense, maybe it is a big fat waste of time.
I think the pros outweigh the cons though, by a considerable margin. Rockband is introducing kids to songs the way radio did for their parents and grandparents. The same songs played over and over, exposing them to new groups, genres, becoming more familiar and beloved to them with every listen. And it doesn’t hurt if Mom and Dad tell them it just sounds like noise and please turn it down.
It’s not just rock songs, or old songs either. You can listen to new songs and different styles now too with the extra ‘track packs’ that are available. I’ve taught my students many songs they’ve first heard on Rockband and in every case they were very pleased to be able to “really” play it.
In my years as a teacher, it’s the only medium that has come along that has sparked children’s curiosity about music and motivated them to learn material that is sometimes much more difficult than what they are currently studying. I would say Rockband has inspired kids about music in much the same way that the Harry Potter books have inspired kids about reading. As a music teacher, I love to see kids light up with passion and enthusiasm about all and all things musical. After all, I know exactly how they feel. Music is awesome.