Striking a chord: UK professor assembles Kentucky’s 1st all-state elementary modern band

Martina Vasil, associate professor of music education and director of graduate studies, helped coordinate the first all-state elementary modern band performance at the 2024 KMEA conference.

Story originally appeared in UKNow, March 11, 2024 by Jenny Wells-Hosley.

“If you look scientifically at the brain while somebody is playing music, it’s like a Christmas tree lit up. All parts of the brain are being used. Playing music provides a multitude of benefits: physical, emotional, mental, social.”

This is how Martina Vasil, Ph.D., associate professor of music education and director of graduate studies in the University of Kentucky School of Music, describes the power of music to engage a child’s mind.

But as a former K-8 music teacher, Vasil noticed that for many of her students, traditional music instruction didn’t always resonate, or “click.” These students often felt they just weren’t musical like their peers in the traditional choir, band or orchestra classes.

But Vasil knew that could not be the case. And she understood all too well the importance of music in child development.

After talking with these students, Vasil decided to learn more about the genres of music they loved — pop, hip-hop, rock and R&B. She then began incorporating those genres into her classes. She also adjusted her teaching for how musicians in those genres learn — mostly learning music by ear, working with others collaboratively to create music and engaging in a lot of self and peer learning. This is also called “informal learning.”

And suddenly, it clicked.

“I started bringing in music they loved and playing it, we sang with it. It really engaged them, they learned better — it unlocked their musicality,” she said.

Vasil would go on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in music education, writing her dissertation on the topic of using popular music and informal learning in secondary classrooms.

When she came to UK as a faculty member in 2015, she began to research even more ways to incorporate “modern band” into schools. Modern band is a type of class that centers student-preferred music (usually popular music) and instrumentation that is more reflective of today’s contemporary music — electric guitars, drum kits and electronic beats, for example.

“The purpose is to open access to more students who do not play more traditional instruments found in ensembles such as choir, band and orchestra,” Vasil said. “The goal is to expand music education — not replace already excellent music traditions.”

Vasil says teaching modern band can be a challenge for music teachers, because they, like herself, are trained in that more classical music tradition. To help support these teachers, Vasil began hosting modern band training workshops on UK’s campus. Music teachers across Kentucky took a strong interest in these workshops, particularly elementary music teachers, who were eager to learn how to include modern band practices in their classes.

“Over the past 20 years, with changes in technology and accessibility to music, children have really started curating their musical preferences at a much younger age. Modern band classes also make sense at elementary schools because of this,” Vasil said.

As part of her ongoing mission to increase access and spread the word about modern band, Vasil decided to spearhead the first All-State Elementary Modern Band at the Kentucky Music Educators Association (KMEA) Conference, which took place last month in Louisville. While there are a handful all-state modern band ensembles across the country, this Kentucky group was the first in the U.S. designed specifically for elementary school students.

As the land-grant, flagship institution for Kentucky, a part of UK’s mission is to improve people’s lives through excellence in education and creative work. As an employee of UK, Vasil understands that expanding access to music education for all Kentuckians is central to improving lives.

“I wanted to create this space for musicians from across our state who have not had a platform to share their gifts before” she said. “The idea was to give more access to more music education for more people.” 

Thirty children, ranging from grades 4-6, were accepted into the all-state band last fall. Before they began practicing, the students shared what kind of music they loved with Vasil and the other three music coaches: David Dockan, UK doctoral student; Mia Ibrahim, UK doctoral student; and Kailey Holmes, music teacher at Stonewall Elementary. Mia Ibrahim tragically lost their life in December, and Taylor Ayotte, music teacher at Dixie Magnet Elementary, kindly stepped in to take their role as coach.

In addition to Vasil and the coaches, UK College of Fine Arts lecturer Austin Robinson and instructor Eli Uttal-Veroff provided technical and sound support for the bands.

Students were placed into three different groups based on the type of music they liked — heavy rock, pop and country — and practiced individually at home before joining the other students to form their bands, in person, at the conference in February.

When they finally got the chance to play together, Vasil was blown away.

“The first time the heavy rock group played a song by Guns N’ Roses, I was like ‘whoa. They nailed it,’” she said.

Beyond offering general support for playing their instruments and arranging songs, the coaches would primarily ask the students open-ended questions such as “what did you notice?” or “how do you think that went?” or “what could be done better?”

“The students had so much to say,” Vasil said. “They had so many ideas for how to fix things, or they’d note when the drums were too loud, for example. That kind of reflective critical thinking is really high-level, especially for elementary kids.”

One of the students in the heavy rock group was Bentley Yinger, a fifth grader from Lexington, who played the drums on songs “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor and “Ain’t it Fun” by Paramore.

“My favorite part was playing drums with friends and getting to meet new people,” Yinger said. “Our band name is Jetpack Joyride. We have our own group chat now, so instead of leaving all my friends from modern band, I can still talk to them.”

Yinger plans to stick with modern band in the future.

“It’s fun and gives you more skills to work on.”

Coach Ayotte found the experience especially worthwhile, not just as an elementary music educator, but as a former music student who participated in KMEA.

“Working with the KMEA Modern Band ensemble was an unforgettable experience,” Ayotte said. “If an ensemble like this existed when I was growing up I would have been over the moon.”

Ayotte believes modern band offers music that appeals to all people, young and old.

“It challenges students to be accountable for their part on an instrument, but also accountable for their role in an ensemble or band,” she said. “I plan to implement modern band in my classroom to inspire and engage students for years to come.”

Vasil says the response from the KMEA audience was very enthusiastic.

“Attendees and parents roared with appreciation after student solos, as songs completed and even during some moments when the band was off…then got back on!” she said.

Vasil had dozens of attendees praise the performance and ask if the ensemble would return next year. Many teachers and parents requested that a secondary modern band ensemble be offered so students who were in 6th grade could continue to participate in 7th grade and beyond. Vasil has submitted a proposal to KMEA for a secondary modern band ensemble to premiere at KMEA 2025.


For educators who would like to  learn more about modern band training at UK, visit

The next music education workshop will take place 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at the Lucille Little Fine Arts Library at UK. The registration deadline is March 15. Learn more and register here.

At UK, music education has the second-largest enrollment among teacher preparation programs and is nationally accredited by the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation. 

About Martina Vasil

In addition to her aforementioned roles in the UK College of Fine Arts’ School of Music, Vasil also directs summer music education programming in modern band, Orff Schulwerk teaching model and Dalcroze Eurhythmics. Since 2018, she has continued to teach children in grades pre-K through sixth grade music at the Lexington Montessori School.

Vasil is past president of the Association for Popular Music Education and continues to serve as a board member. She is the webmaster of the Kentucky Orff-Schulwerk Chapter and is a planning committee member for the Mountain Lake Colloquium for Teachers of General Music Methods. She is also the faculty advisor for the UK Boomwhacker Club (the BOOMCats), Swing Dance Club and Sigma Alpha Iota.

Vasil has publications in the Journal of Research in Music Education, the International Journal of Music Education, the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, the Missouri Journal of Research in Music Education, The Orff Echo, and the Bluegrass Music News. She has presented her research internationally, nationally and regionally and is a frequent presenter for Orff chapters across the nation.

Last year, she was named a Great Teacher by the UK Alumni Association, one of the most esteemed honors on campus. This year she was named District 7 University/College Professor of the Year from KMEA.

Vasil earned her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in music education from West Virginia University and her master’s degree in music education from Eastman School of Music.

Created 03/11/2024
Last Updated 03/11/2024