Denying Your Destiny: How You Define Yourself Changes Everything
How a Marching Band Director Became a Blended Learning Expert
Did you ever have your mind made up about something, only to find that life had other plans for you?
Think of a time when you thought you knew what you wanted, pursued it, and then reinvented yourself. What was that process like?
In my case, I tend to learn things the hard way and to hold on to things longer than I should. It's been a theme throughout my life. Part of my upbringing as a student in marching bands and drum corps has been learning the value of hard work, determination, and a commitment to excellence. Those concepts have always served me well, but one of the truths of life is that how we define ourselves can be the difference between lasting success and perpetual frustration. Having a "never surrender" attitude doesn't help a turtle swim upstream - the turtle needs to leave that feat to the freshwater trout.
"How we define ourselves can be the difference between lasting success and perpetual frustration."
If you read my first blog post, you read the story of how my path led me from typical middle school and high school band director positions to a unique school for the performing and fine arts. There were many things about my teaching position at PA Leadership Charter School's Center for Performing and Fine Arts that were a perfect fit for me. The school naturally combines in-person music ensemble instruction with cutting edge internet-based technology. I am a musician at heart, a professional band geek, and a "first generation technology enthusiast." I began with an Atari 2600 when I was in first grade, programmed in BASIC on my IBM PC Junior when I was in fifth grade, organized things is DOS before there was such a thing as Microsoft Windows, and have always had an intuitive understanding of how computer software works.
CPFA counted on me in my first year of employment in 2008 to figure out how to make the on-site course offerings that were available to commuting students in Southeast Pennsylvania available to any PALCS student anywhere in the state. I developed the CPFA Remote Access program, a program that combined best practices in distance learning with opportunities for those students to feel like they were part of the on-site community. I also became CPFA's Educational Technology coach, providing guidance, training, and supervision of all staff (even my boss!) in the use of software, internet-based tools, and organizational systems like Google Drive.
The instrumental music classes I was teaching were abysmally small. It was sixth through twelfth grade meeting two days a week: middle school on Mondays and Wednesdays, high school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was also both winds and strings (no percussion at the time). When I arrived, there was no music ensemble library, just a stack of the crusty old, yet still effective Alfred Duets/Trios/Quartets For All flexible ensemble books. The student population was very transient, so the instrumentation of my groups transformed every year. There was a year where I had eleven alto saxophonists out of thirty total instrumentalists, half of which were bowed strings! I became very adept at buying string ensemble repertoire and transposing violin 2 parts for clarinet and trumpet, viola parts for alto saxes, and cello parts for tenor saxes. I did the same in reverse buying concert band titles, giving the violins the oboe part, or transposing clarinet and flute parts, transposing the alto sax parts for viola, giving the celli the trombone parts, and using bassoon or transposed tuba parts for the double bass players. I ended up arranging and composing many of my own selectionsto fit the abilities and instrumentation of my ensembles.
Through all of this, I missed being able to rehearse a full-sized concert band. I missed the thrill of designing a marching band show. I felt the most at home among the high school band directors I mingled with at Cavalcade of Bands competitions as a judge, and at PMEA district events. I longed to be back in front of a band program, planning trips, designing field shows and concert programs, and striving for excellence in the activity that I grew up in. I interviewed for countless band openings in my region, often made it to the first round of interviews, but never made it further.
"I longed to be back in front of a band program, planning trips, designing field shows and concert programs, and striving for excellence in the activity that I grew up in."
The positive part of this educational setting, however, is that because of the small size, I was able to spend time in the curriculum teaching students how to write melodies for their primary instrument over top of primary chords using Noteflight. I gave Honors students opportunities to select their own Honors projects, including repertoire selection, rehearsing, and conducting in concert, as well as performing solo literature and arranging and composing pieces for our full ensembles. I created new courses in electronic music and jazz studies. I founded a new extra-curricular jazz combo program (not enough for a big band) called the CPFA Jazz Mavericks that not only participated in jazz festivals, but also gave students opportunities to perform real gigs for real clients playing jazz standards at all kinds of public events.
In Conflict There Is Change
Even with all of the great things I was accomplishing with turning my students into well-rounded, independent musicians who could continue making their own music in adulthood, I still longed for at the very minimum a 50-piece wind ensemble to direct. I tried many different ways of offering my classes, different ways of recruiting quality students to the program, and different public outreaches to make the region aware of the alternative we had to offer. The dream of having this tech-rich program combined with a concert band continued to elude me for twelve years.
And then, in dramatic fashion, my life changed. I moved out of my home, leaving my sons behind, to end a near two-decade marriage that should never have been. My marriage was yet another example of my determination, commitment, and sense of responsibility keeping me in a situation that I should have left long ago.
I moved into a new home a mere nine months before the Pandemic of 2020 and had to navigate a difficult and contentious divorce during that time. I also had a new opportunity arise at school recently, as I was offered the Music Department Chairperson position at CPFA. My new duties as department chair, along with the dramatic changes in my personal life, gave me an opportunity to pivot into a new secondary professional pursuit.
I have been teaching private music lessons both locally and online since 2006. I have been arranging and composing for contemporary a cappella groups, barbershop harmony groups, concert band, and string ensemble since 2000. I have been staying involved with the marching arts as an adjudicator, designer, and occasional staffer since 2008. None of those things individually have generated more than a few thousand dollars in supplementary income - it took all of them combined to come anywhere close to the stipend I used to receive for my extra duties as a marching band director.
It was clear that I needed to stop diversifying and to double down on something in my wide array of knowledge and experiences. It is with this focus in mind that I have decided to leverage my unique teaching position into a set of services to assist individual band, chorus, and orchestra teachers, music departments, and school districts to help bring blended learning and hybrid learning models of teaching to help turn large ensemble middle school and high school students into independent, life-long music makers capable of creating their own performances, sheet music, audio recordings, and ensembles.
I resisted being unique for a long time because I wanted to be a regular part of the scholastic band community. It turns out that I have been unique all along, and need to stop hiding my light under a bushel. I hope that this new focus will enable me to help hundreds, if not thousands of students to learn to love music for life in the manner that I do.
Thomas J. West is helping band, chorus, and orchestra directors use Blended Learning and Hybrid Learning techniques to turn their music students into life-long music makers.