Expanding the Circle: CCM and Popular Music in Higher Ed // Kat Reinhert

Eight years ago, I started a journey looking into schools to get a doctorate. At first, I started looking into CCM programs – but as most of you reading know, at the doctoral level they don’t exist. Especially for someone like me who doesn’t sing any classical music or musical theatre at a professional level (my background is jazz/songwriter). I finally chose a Music Education PhD with an emphasis in popular music at The University of Miami. I was also very fortunate to be granted a teaching assistantship, largely within the contemporary program (popular musics), where my duties included teaching private contemporary voice lessons, contemporary theory and ear training, songwriter’s ensembles, and songwriting classes.

My intention going in was to figure out how to design a curriculum for a CCM program to help singers gain the skills they would need to succeed in the music industry. Rather quickly however, both through working in the contemporary program and through the research I got involved in, I discovered that in order to really help these kinds of singers, I needed to understand the much larger world of Popular Music Education (PME) and Higher Popular Music Education (HPME). In current academic settings, this is where those singers (singing in popular musics) and their voice teachers would be housed.

My dissertation thus ended up being an examination of two HPME programs in the USA – how they started, how they developed their curriculum, what their goals were, what their outcomes are proposed to be – and in the meantime, developing a curricular framework for the construction of any HPME program.

Fast-forward eight years where I am now working in the intertwining circles of popular music, songwriting and contemporary voice. After finishing my PhD, I was hired as The Director of Contemporary Voice at The University of Miami. I loved and very proudly held this position for two years before choosing to leave and return to New York City in the Fall of 2019. During this time I also became involved with a non-profit organization, The Association for Popular Music Education (www.popularmusiceducation.org), which promotes popular music education at all levels, and I am currently its president. I present at as many conferences as I can in the fields of voice and music education have authored several papers, journal articles and book chapters on songwriting and contemporary/popular/commercial voice.

What I have observed in going to all these events and in being involved with APME is how much stronger of an education we could provide to contemporary vocalists if we started communicating more with each other across the disciplines of CCM and HPME/PME. There’s wonderful pedagogy and research being done in both areas – and if we can find a way to have more conversations to expand the circle I feel we can help these disciplines grow and flourish.

Let’s Talk Terms

There are so many terms and they’re worth unpacking briefly so to better understand the connections between all of them and to encourage more awareness.

Popular. Contemporary. Commercial. Contemporary Commercial. Each of these terms gets used to talk about music that falls under a certain umbrella of sound, yet they all have slightly different meanings. What we’re talking about with these terms is hard to define into a neat little box. I’ve found that most of us have our own ideas of what each of these terms mean – and each of them deserves their own set of problematizing. It is helpful to understand how each of these intersecting worlds of research and academia and the larger world of the music industry discuss these terms so as to facilitate stronger and more meaningful conversations.

Popular. Contemporary. Commercial.

Each of these three terms at the higher education level generally refers to programs that are creating and performing music that is not musical theatre, jazz or classical. That is not to say that you won’t find programs with overlap, but just that the focus of these programs tends to be on all the music that might potentially fall under a popular musics (I really like the plural musics here) umbrella (indie, rap, hip-hop, funk, disco, rock…etc). It’s super confusing and I doubt there will ever be consensus, but it’s important to understand that when higher education discusses popular music they’re not just referring to Taylor Swift and Katie Perry but to a larger and much more diverse set of genres.

Concomitantly, each of these terms also has inherent issues built into their zeitgeist. With Popular and Contemporary – is it of the day? Of the now? What about the Beatles? They aren’t contemporary, but they are popular – or are they? Contemporary is also used to refer to classical music that is being written today – making it all the more challenging to define. However this is also something that some programs are embracing – that contemporary is just any music in any genre that is being written now – today – which is pretty compelling when you think about it, but doesn’t help the confusion with the term. Commercial – by definition, this term refers to making a profit or engaged in commerce, an exchange of goods and services for something of value – and while music can be profitable, the idea that one should get into music solely for the money is pretty laughable. It’s a hard road to be a musician – and there is no guarantee of notoriety or income – no matter how talented you are.

In the music industry, popular is widely used to describe those genres that are seemingly of the now, but also a very specific kind of sound, contemporary is a genre of easy listening for adults and commercial refers to revenue. Super helpful, right?

Popular music is also discussed as music ‘of the people’ – basically, what the people make popular through their desires and listening habits – which are of course influenced by marketing and publicity and the machine that is the music industry – so then of course the question is: are we really making choices for ourselves?  It’s an Escher Sketch in music….

Higher Popular Music Education (HPME)

In most of the research within music education (and by this I mean research related to teaching and learning music at ANY level – not just K-12) , programs in higher education settings that host students studying popular musics are referred to as Higher Popular Music Education, (HPME) programs. To make it even more confusing, there is also a term called Higher Popular Music Performance Programs (HPMPP) that also gets used for these programs. In addition, there’s the musicology term Popular Music Studies (PMS), related to the study of popular music in terms of how it relates to society, culture and theory – but generally not the replication or creation of it within the program of study.

For the HPME and HPMPP, the music found in these programs generally does not include musical theatre or jazz – those can be found within other areas of the school should a student be interested. Again, this is not to say that is not to say that these musics are not touched upon or talked about or learned in any way – just that the focus of the program tends not to lean in that direction.

Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM).

This is a term that categorizes music related to singing any music other than classical. This is an excellent term to use if you’re a vocalist talking to other vocal pedagogues and its been extremely useful in helping advance the understanding and research of these musics in the vocal world. However, outside the vocal world, if you use CCM, they’ll probably think you’re talking about Contemporary Christian Music (which, by the way is a whole thing unto itself). What it really seems to refer to is music that is amplified for performance – because under its umbrella are included jazz, musical theatre, and all popular music styles, including folk music.

Unpacking Undergraduate CCM

In theory, a CCM undergraduate degree sounds great – give a vocalist a little bit of experience in everything during their four years in college so that they can know what they want to do when they get out of college so they can pursue that thing on their own – or find somewhere else to continue their education really focusing on what they now have discovered they want to do with their sound.

With research and experience, I’ve come to the conclusion we need to ask some questions about this potential idea. The largest to me being:

Once out of the bubble of higher education, how are these vocalists going to compete with the vocalist who just spent four years:

  1. intensively studying jazz
  2. intensively studying musical theatre and acting
  3. intensively learning about songwriting and how to be an artist with original music
  4. intensively studying a few closely related genres within popular music

I would argue that they’re not.

Based just on thinking about the sheer knowledge about what someone needs to do to excel within any genre of music, and especially one that involves the use of technology and skills outside of just singing (amplifiers, microphones, DAW, recording, looping pedals, working and leading a band, writing original music, arranging covers, reading music, learning by ear, harmonizing, playing an instrument while singing…etc), it’s unrealistic to think that a broad undergraduate CCM program focused solely on vocal production and technique could adequately cover all the needs required and warranted by a specific genre at the level required by the industry.

I’m sure these undergraduate CCM vocalists could easily do wedding or club date gigs, might land a gig doing jingle work (if they can record themselves in a DAW), could probably help middle and high school students learn the basics of singing in these genres, and are primed to get a Masters Degree and perhaps a subsequent Doctorate in CCM Pedagogy (if some university offers that someday). But I would argue that students graduating from this kind of a program probably aren’t going to be competing with the specialists in the music industry itself.

Of course, there are always the unicorns – people who can just sing everything – but in my experience, this is a rare bird and we shouldn’t expect all students to a) want this or b) achieve this.  This is not to say that all students shouldn’t have access to all the things their voice is capable of – dynamics, timbres, colors. However, just like we don’t expect a dramatic soprano to sing what a lyric soprano does – why do we expect that a country singer should also sing heavy metal? Instead, let’s celebrate each of those artists for who they are.

If we’re really preparing students for a career in the popular music industry – or even the music industry, then we need to listen to what they want to do, to what they’re making and creating and have that be the focus of these programs. They need to be able to lead the way with what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. That means original music. It means original arrangements of covers. It means having knowledge about areas outside of singing. It means helping someone learn how to use their voice in a very specific way to achieve a very specific sound to create very specific art. This means really thinking about curriculum design and how to best serve the students moving through these programs.

Curricular Design

In my research, I worked on a conceptual framework for curricular design of HPME programs. Essentially, what do programs need to think about when creating curriculum and what elements go into them? Below is a diagram I designed based on my research:

When we consider helping voice students succeed in the music industry, all of these elements are things to be considered when starting a program. Starting with why we want to create the program and ending up with the assessment of the success and value of the program. Given this information, we can then look at the more specific elements of what singers working in the popular music industry might need and want to get out of a program. Today’s musician (because singers are most definitely musicians) need to be multi-faceted. Not just in their own individual skill on their instrument, but in skills in tandem with what is required to work in the music industry.

These vocalists most assuredly need an understanding of basic vocal technique, biology and physiology. That’s a given. They also need specific skills related to their individual goals. In addition, all of the vocalists (and their teachers) would benefit greatly from the following musical skills and experiences:

  1. Songwriting skills – able to top-line, co-write and write original music
  2. Arranging skills – able to create new and interesting covers
  3. Ability and willingness to be an entrepreneur – and all the skills that come along with this: good writing ability, social media acumen, marketing acumen, good project management, organizational skills…etc.
  4. Ability to play an instrument – preferably piano or guitar so as to accompany themselves – and then some skill on other instruments such as bass and drums as well.
  5. Ear training and theory in popular music styles
  6. Ability to write a chart and lead sheet quickly using industry software (Sibelius, Finale)
  7. Ability to record themselves and create a basic demo into a digital audio workstation (DAW) such as Garageband™, Pro-Tools™, LogicX™ or Ableton™
  8. Ability to teach others what they know – some kind of pedagogy class about how to write lesson plans, work with different age groups, classroom management
  9. Performance skills – solo accompaniment and with a band – being able to talk down a chart, work a microphone and stand
  10. Artistic Citizenship awareness – understanding that music affects the world – a social consciousness of sorts – when putting music out into the world
  11. Technology understanding – how to work with engineers, understanding and experience working with microphones, amplifiers, looping machines, pedals and monitors – both floor and in-ears.
  12. Ability to learn music both visually and aurally
  13. Ability to create harmonies on the spot and understand what they are singing
  14. Ability to dance/move/be comfortable on stage – especially if they are interested in performing
  15. Music business/industry know how – how to read and make basic contracts, copyright laws, licensing, publishing…etc.

This may seem like a lot to consider, and it is – but it’s also necessary.

In my dissertation research, I discovered that most higher education schools have a total credit limit across four years somewhere between 120-140 credits. This includes somewhere between 20-35 credits for general education. So, let’s say the degree has 120 credits. 20 of those must be used for general education. Now, we’re at 100 credits. On average, let’s say core music classes (theory, music history, ear-training, business, keyboard, basic technology) make up 50 of those credits. That leaves us with 50 for the four years – or approximately 12 credits/ year. You figure voice lessons are 2 credits/ semester – so 4 credits for the year. Two ensembles at one credit each per semester are 4 more. Now we’re down to 4 credits per year for all the rest of the learning. Which needs to include about 10 of the items above (some are located in core music) to even give the students a chance at working as a musician. How, I ask, is someone also supposed to learn all of the nuances of all of the CCM genres and all of what they require in that amount of time – with all the other things they need to learn to even be viable as a musician?

Some people reading this may say – well, but why does it matter if they learn all this other stuff – they’re just a singer? Because they’re not. We have to expect and demand more. In 2020, singers working in the popular music industry cannot afford to just be singers – nor, in my experience, do they want to be. They want to be multi-faceted musicians with several layers of skills and abilities so as to provide as many opportunities for themselves to work as possible. Some of which they can learn in college, some they will just get started on and have to keep learning, some they will discover they need because they want to do some certain job. It’s about giving them the tools and courage to say ‘yes’ and the faith to know that they can. It’s a life long journey of amazing learning.

Does this include knowing how to use their voice effectively, health-fully and efficiently? Yes. Does this include the ability to sing in different styles according to their needs? Yes. Does this include the ability to write their own original music and possibly even produce it? Yes. Does this include leading a band? Yes. Does this include teaching? Yes. Does this include….whatever it is you can think of wanting to do – yes. We need programs that are multi-faceted and flexible and are taking into account multiple ways of being and learning. Programs that are student-centered and have built into their design the flexibility for the student to choose the path most aligned with their goals.

What to Do?

When considering starting new programs we need to ask questions. We need to ask, “Why are we doing this? Whom does it serve? What is the purpose? How can we push boundaries? How can we think out of the box? Where could this lead if we do? What risks are we afraid to take and why? Where do our biases lie and why? How could we change? How can we help?”

These are hard questions.  But we need to be asking them when we’re talking about creating new programs. The same time-honored paradigm cannot exist if we want provide the space for students to grow with the music of the day.  We must be willing to take risks and provide the spaces where students feel safe to risk with us.

I don’t know where to start, but I know we need more research on CCM styles – and often, it is the people moving through DMA and PhD programs that get this research started. We need expert teachers and pedagogues for these HPME programs. Those with real life experience working in the industry. Who also have the pedagogy chops and understanding to truly help students find their voices and create life-long music makers and singers. For this, the discipline needs graduate programs in CCM pedagogy. Whereby those expert practitioners who know how to use their voices well can come and learn how to help others learn to use theirs.

We can help a lot of amazing singers find their way if we start expanding the circle and finding ways to learn more about the larger fields of music education and popular music. Seek out a conference that isn’t a voice conference – and apply to present on the voice. Educators – (K-12, college, band, instrumental) really want to know more – but they often don’t have access to anyone with the amazing knowledge so many of you reading this article possess.

So, go where they are. Share ideas. Take risks. Ask questions.

Expand the circle.

Kat Reinhert is a songwriter and vocalist located in New York City.  Her work as an educator focuses on working with original music artists, songwriters and those wanting to sing in popular music styles.  Her dissertation exploring two HPME programs can be found here.  She has authored several book chapters, journal articles and blog posts on songwriting and contemporary voice including ‘Singers in Higher Education: Teaching Popular Music Vocalists’ in the Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education.  As an artist, she has released four independent albums and is in the post production phase of a fifth album of original music for release in 2020.  She is the former Director of Contemporary Voice at The University of Miami and the current President of The Association for Popular Music Education. She holds a BM in Jazz Performance from The Manhattan School of Music, a MM in Jazz Pedagogy from The University of Miami, and a PhD in Music Education from The University of Miami.

4 thoughts on “Expanding the Circle: CCM and Popular Music in Higher Ed // Kat Reinhert

  1. Your article contains so many brilliant ideas I think it could re-order the academic school-based training of music makers. I love your comprehensive list of 15 things an artist should train for… I agree with every single one! May your ideas bear fruit and spread, for the sake of future creators of song.


    1. Oh my goodness! I soooo didn’t see this until now. A year later! Gosh. I’m so incredibly sorry for not replying. You’re so kind. Thank you. I’m glad you found what I wrote insightful and useful. All the best for 2021!


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