Coaching a Popular Music Ensemble: An Interview with Steve Holley

JESS: Steve, thanks for chatting with me today about your new book Coaching a Popular Music Ensemble. Let’s start with a little of your backstory. What led you to this field and to decide to write this book? 

 Author Steve Holley
Author Steve Holley

STEVE: My mother was a band director and, at least musically, I grew up in a pretty traditional school band program. Marching band, concert band, brass quintets, parades – you name it. The summer after high school I took up the electric bass, and very shortly thereafter, began playing in the college jazz band, an outside blues band, church gigs, etc. After I transferred to the University of Memphis I took up the acoustic bass and began playing in the orchestra as well, in addition to even more jazz, blues, R&B, soul, and rock gigs. I had no plans to be a teacher; didn’t really want to be a teacher, to be honest, I just wanted to play! After my time in Memphis, I moved to Denver, CO, and took a job…teaching. It was only part-time when I began, but the school’s admin tasked me with creating a program based on my strengths. I developed the Commercial Music Program based on what I learned from being part of several traditional, jazz, and popular music ensemble. There was no blueprint, guidebook, or curriculum when I started, so the book is most of what I learned and developed over 25+ years of teaching and playing. I love teaching and there’s nothing else I’d rather do. I’m even heading off to Arizona State University in the fall to pursue my Ph.D. in Music Education.

JESS: Awesome. We’re so glad you decided not just to teach, but to write about what you learned in this very new field. What is the book about?

STEVE: It’s based on my experiences as a player and educator. In the beginning of the book, I talk a bit about blending formal, non-formal, and informal approaches in the rehearsal.  What I mean by that is think of how a concert band is run; it’s director-centered and the musicians have very little say in the final product. Now, think of how a jazz big band is run; it’s a little less director-centered, there’s less actual conducting, no podium, the director moves around the stage and might even walk off to the side of the stage during solos. Now, think of how a jazz combo might rehearse; the musicians all share the decisions as to what tunes to play, order of rehearsal, how to start and end the tune, who solos, etc. That arc continues over into a popular music ensemble rehearsal. I talk about not only how to go from one part of the arc to another, but how to go about rehearsing a band, the roles of the musicians, creating a show, touring, guest artists, etc. 

JESS: Got it. So we’re exploring more of the spectrums of what leadership and mentorship mean…exploring more student-led learning experiences. Who do you think could benefit from the book?

STEVE: I wrote it with the hopes it could be used by in-service music teachers, pre-service music teachers, college music teacher programs, private instructors, working bands, etc. While I certainly cover the basics of running a band, I think folks who have coached ensembles for a living will find useful information or, at the very least, a different viewpoint on how to coach a band. I offer multiple ways to approach a problem; it’s certainly not a ‘there’s one way to fix this problem and here it is’ kind of book! 

JESS: Awesome. I know my voice teacher colleagues in popular and commercial music college programs often have ensembles in their workload, so I’m excited there will be another resources out there for them and for people who are looking at positions like that. How do you think coaching a popular music ensemble is different from directing a traditional band or choir? 

STEVE: Traditional ensembles tend to be very director-centered, autocratic ensembles where the director makes the vast majority of decisions. Everything from repertoire to concert order, dynamics to how the rehearsal flows, when to breathe and what the dress will be. Students have very little say, and very little autonomy, in a traditional ensemble. That said, I certainly don’t think we should phase out traditional ensembles as many students – me included – enjoy the process. Popular music ensembles tend to be much more student-centered; the students choose the tunes, run the rehearsal, run the show, decide on what to wear, decide on a set list, etc. It provides a much higher level of autonomy that will, hopefully, follow the students after their school days are over. I often joked that my job was to work myself out of a job. In other words, if the students could rehearse without me I was doing my job as a coach by imparting these life skills onto the students. 

JESS: What does a typical rehearsal look like with one of your bands? 

STEVE: Well, there’s no podium, no baton, and the room isn’t set up to face me, for starters. We typically rehearse in a triangle with the three sections – horns, rhythm, and vocals – each acting as a side of the triangle. This allows the musicians to hear and see each other more clearly. I might wander around the room, making sure everyone can hear each other, providing suggestions here and there but, for the most part, I try to serve more as a facilitator to the musical conversation. When a song ends I don’t leap into the middle of rehearsal and offer my two cents. Rather, the students discuss what worked, what didn’t work, and how they can improve. I might speak up if they didn’t address something or offer one way to approach an issue but, for the most part, I’m there to ensure the students gain knowledge, support their growth as musicians, and keep the peace. It’s much more student-centered, democratic learning experience when compared to traditional music education. 

JESS: That’s awesome. Reminds me of some of the stuff Lucy Green talked about in her book How Popular Musicians Learn. Tons of learner-led experiences. I love that your rehearsal model is honoring how the music is typically learned and not just how the music is played. What’s your philosophy of music education?

STEVE: Yikes, that’s a big one! For me, it’s about inclusion, and that’s why I’m a big proponent of popular music education. I mentioned earlier that jazz and traditional ensembles should not be phased out, but we can’t deny that this paradigm is only reaching approaching 20% of our students. The other 80% of kids either aren’t into music (they might be interested in the visual arts, dance, or theatre) or they don’t feel the music and the types of ensembles we offer speak to them. We call it ‘traditional’ music education for a reason, and altering tradition is hard. As music educators, we need to explore ways to reach more kids and to offer them a well-rounded, transformative music education experience. While our current music education model is certainly transformative for some, it’s really ‘your choices are A and B, and there is no C. If A or B doesn’t fit you, sorry, not sorry…’

JESS: Right. I loved my traditional music education, but I also had transformative experiences in modern and contemporary styles and learning paradigms. I’m excited about offering more options to learners. What are some things you would like us as voice teachers to know about what it’s like for singers to participate in these ensembles? How can we better prepare our students for these experiences?

STEVE: I’m certainly not the one to provide advice to vocalists – I’m just a lowly bass player! That said, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was if I wanted to play more gigs, learn how to sing backup. One of my first gigs when I moved to Colorado was in Vail, at 8000 feet, singing the top line on Earth, Wind and Fire tunes… With that, I feel as though I have enough background to help my students find the vocal range that fits them best, help them figure out harmonies, and determine what key is best for their voice. One of the things I always stress with the vocalists is to understand not just how their part fits in with the whole, but how all the sections contribute to the song; that includes the form. How does the BGV synch up with the horn line? How does lead vocal fit with the keyboard and/or guitar part. If we need to change keys, what note does the melody start on? If the band forgets to play a double chorus, how should the vocalist handle it? If the vocalist forgets to go the bridge, how should the band handle it? A great deal of the prep is understanding the role of the vocalists in a popular music ensemble and much of that can be accomplished through listening. In the chapter on musician’s roles in a band I wrote three times as much for the vocalists, mainly because the vocalist(s) take on a number of roles in a band. 

JESS: What are some of the unique benefits singers receive from this kind of ensemble?

STEVE: I would say most of your readers probably understand the benefits far better than I as they’ve lived it!  That said, outside an understanding and, hopefully, an appreciation of styles of music they might not be comfortable or familiar with, there are a number of benefits that mainly focus around building confidence and developing a team mentality that, hopefully, carry over into other areas of the student’s life. Some of these include flipping the switch from being a lead vocalist to being a supportive background vocalist, developing a rich, musical vocabulary through listening and modeling, and learning about the why behind the song. Why did the Staple Singers want you to “Respect Yourself?” Why did Aretha need a little “Respect?” Why was Donny Hathaway concerned with that “Little Ghetto Boy?” Through understanding the lyrics and what inspired the lyric our students will not only be able to connect with the song, but will be able to better understand the cultural and historical context of the song. 

JESS: While many of our readers are music educators, we also have a ton of private voice instructors in the group. Would your book be helpful for a voice teacher who, let’s say, as part of a private music studio, could collaborate with other private instructors to put together this kind of ensemble? Or perhaps with other teachers in the area who have individual private studios? Is there anything they should keep in mind when running something like that outside of a school setting?

STEVE: Most definitely! Most of the time, we only understand our corner of the world. By that, I mean I’m comfortable running a rhythm section rehearsal as I’m a bassist. I’m also comfortable working with horn sections as I played trumpet throughout high school. Working with vocalists was the area where I was least comfortable, so I took it upon myself to learn more about how to support the vocalists during rehearsals. In addition, I regularly brought in professional vocalists and horn players to work with the students as they were able to identify, diagnose, and fix issues as that was their “bag.” This also allowed me to learn from my colleagues, so it was of benefit to me and my students! Another scenario might be to collaborate with a private instructor in each of the three sections and using the rehearsal as a learning laboratory for all – students and teachers. Each of the private instructors would provide guidance in their area of expertise and also learn methods the other private instructors use in their areas. Much of the philosophy behind popular music education is the ‘teacher’ becoming a ‘co-learner’ with the students. 

JESS: I would think that you are probably in a (growing!) minority of music educators. Where have you found like-minded folks to collaborate with and talk about this work? What are some of your favorite resources?

STEVE: You mean other than Popular & Commercial Music Voice Teachers on Facebook?! Honestly, there aren’t a great deal of resources out there, and this was a huge reason I wrote this book. I’m already working on book #2! Over the years, I’ve found the blogs on CDBaby, ReverbNation, Sweetwater, and DiscMaker to be a great resource. I bookmarked a large number of these websites that I found useful on my website; you can find those under the PM Ensemble Resources tab on there. One of my favorite resources is YouTube and especially the isolated tracks you can find there. Much like in research, you can listen to the original source recording and really get a sense of how each musician in the band contributed to the whole. It’s a rabbit hole I’ve gone down far too many times! Another great resource is the Association for Popular Music Education. We just had our conference in New York and we’ll be in Detroit and Edinburgh next summer. You can check it out at I spend possibly too much time on Twitter…you can follow the hashtags #popmused and follow up on all the great presentations from the APME conference by looking up #APME2019. Lots of great conversations there, for sure. 

JESS: I’m so excited for more folks to experience working with and being in this kind of ensemble. Thank you so much for taking the time to put together this wonderful book. Where can people grab a copy?

STEVE: Thanks for the opportunity, and many thanks (again) for looking over the vocal roles section of the book! You can pick up the book at my website or on Also, I’m more than happy to serve as a resource and can be reached at I look forward to hearing from some of you! 

JESS: Thanks again for your time!

[Readers, if you’re interested in connecting with Music Educators like Steve, he admins a great group on Facebook called Popular & Commercial Music Educators.]

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