• Thomas J. West

Blended Learning Approaches to Large Ensemble Music Rehearsal & Assessment

A marching band on the football field in performance
Modernizing the Tradition with Blended Learning

When I began teaching at The Center for Performing and Fine Arts in 2008, I had already had some experience as a beta tester for Smart Music. Back then, Smart Music was a local software application that drew from an online library of band and orchestra titles and exercises. It was the first software title for scholastic band and orchestra that was a multi-purpose backing track, sheet music reader, and performance assessment tool. At the time, the idea of web-based software was a relatively new concept. I remember first discovering Noteflight as the first cloud-based music software I was aware of, and while in the early days, it couldn't hold a candle to the industry standard software like Finale and Sibelius, I knew that music education was about to enter a new era.

I had a unique situation at my school. It was an auditioned program for students in grades 6 through 12 that was part of a state wide cyber charter school. Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School was one of the first cyber charters in the state, and I am proud to say that we have distinguished ourselves as state leaders in an effective, comprehensive, and well-rounded public education delivered via the internet. CPFA students commute from all over Southeast PA twice a week to take any combination of pre-professional studies in music, art, dance, and theatre. We also serve distance learning students all over the state in our Remote Access program. Remote Access students not only study with our faculty online, but they have opportunities to participate in on-campus music concerts, dance concerts, theatre showcases, and art exhibitions.

Since all of my students have computers in their homes supplied by PALCS, I began experimenting with using these new software programs to take the learning out of the rehearsal room and into their own bedrooms. Practice logs and journals became a thing of the past as my students had scale exams, technical excerpts, and other assignments to submit from home. I also explored 1 to 1 video lessons with our Remote Access students using Adobe Connect. I took those skills home with me and started teaching private lessons via Skype, which was the only major video conferencing platform at the time.

Over the past 12 years, I have expanded and explored these possibilities to not just help students become proficient on their instruments and to master their concert repertoire, but to explore music arranging and composition, jazz improvisation, and studio recording and editing. My dreams of making my band and strings students into life-long music makers, a dream that I have had since I started my career. Here are a few of the blended learning techniques that I have used at various times with my own students:

  • Live sectionals in Zoom playing along with an exemplar recording (or with the teacher modeling)

  • Student recorded scale/rudiment/solfege exams submitted via an LMS

  • Recorded seating tests

  • Excerpts from technical passages in concert repertoire added to Smart Music or Practice First for student submission

  • Student sectional recording projects in Soundtrap where all members of a section record their parts to a MIDI/click track (and learn how to edit for time sync!)

  • Using VoiceThread or Canvas Studio to watch a video of the ensemble's performance, with students adding time-synced comments about things they see/hear

  • Intonation training using the Tonal Energy (TE) Tuner App

Helping Band, Chorus, and Orchestra Students Become Life-Long Music Makers

My passion for music and my passion for teaching are nearly matched by the enthusiasm for technology. I want to see as many young people finish their days in a scholastic music ensemble and continue their music performance and creation into adulthood. Whether the students become music performers, composers, producers, therapists, educators, or hobbyists, I want to help as many music teachers provide the full musical education in ensemble performance, individual musical development, and creative musical skills.

I partner with individual band, chorus, and orchestra directors to create a strategy for introducing blended learning concepts to their curriculum in a controlled way, providing time for teachers to learn the skills themselves, create the online content, and manage the assessment of online activities. I also help music departments and school districts create a plan to incorporate these techniques across the department. I serve as a clinician for in-service days and conferences. I arrange and compose chamber music, flexible ensembles, and full ensembles to customize music content for student groups of all sizes and abilities. I also help teachers create studio recordings of their students and ensembles by editing and mixing student recordings.

I invite you to contact me to set up a consultation and begin or continue enhancing the music education offerings in your program.

Also, check out my free resource: 5 Ways to Get Music Students Engaged with Blended Learning (and one dirty little secret)

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Thomas J. West is helping band, chorus, and orchestra directors use Blended Learning techniques to turn their students into life-long music makers.

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