• Thomas J. West

Frequently Asked Questions About Blended Learning in Music Education

@cpfajazz on stage at The Apollo Theatre NYC 2018
@cpfajazz on stage at The Apollo Theatre NYC 2018

When fellow music educators learn that I am a blended learning expert, there are always a few curious questions that tend to follow. Here are some answers to the most common questions I get about incorporating blended learning techniques into an already existing large ensemble curriculum at the middle school and high school level.

What is blended learning, and how is it different from hybrid learning and flipped classroom?

During the Pandemic of 2020, many scholastic band, chorus, and orchestra programs were faced with having to adapt their performing ensemble experiences to an online format. In many cases, this meant teaching half of their students in cohorts, typically by last name (i.e. last initials A-L on Day 1 and Day 3, last initials M-Z on Day 2 and Day 4). Students not physically in the classroom had activities to do at their own pace at home in an asynchronous format. This is an example of a hybrid learning model. Hybrid learning is meant to partially replace in-person learning - often times the educational activities and experiences being conducted outside of the classroom at their own pace are modified versions of the activities and experiences happening in person. A well designed hybrid model reinforces the concepts learned in person and provides self-paced practice and enrichment of the same concepts.

A blended learning model uses the internet and computer software to teach concepts, skills, and experiences that are predominantly different than what is taught in person during the school day in the classroom. In a music classroom, the in-person music performance opportunities are the primary mode of learning, while the at-home music activities focus on individual musicianship skills, such as individual performing technique, sight reading and ear training, critical listening skills, music theory, arranging and composing, improvisation, and studio recording, editing, and mixing. Blended learning is, I believe, the future of a comprehensive, 21st century music education curriculum, as it teaches not only musicianship and artistry in performance, but also creativity in composition, improvisation, and recording. I have been pioneering concepts in blended learning in music education since 2008.

A flipped classroom model is one where the acquisition of new concepts and knowledge happens at home using the internet as the mode of learning, while the classroom is where newly learned concepts are put into practice in practical experiences. Flipped classrooms can be extremely personalized, with students developing their own personal learning portfolio to curate their own interests and discoveries.

How can I possibly have enough time to add composing, improv, and studio recording to my curriculum?

Blended learning makes this possible by leveraging student time outside of the rehearsal hall into systematic units of study that naturally blend into the ensembles performances. For example, honors students in my programs complete an honors project each semester that consists of a student-chosen experience in either solo performance repertoire, arranging and composing for chamber ensembles and full ensembles, serving as a TA, selecting and rehearsing full ensemble repertoire, and completing an independent study project. All ensemble members can use cloud-based software like Noteflight to explore music notation and Soundtrap to learn concepts in home studio recording. Composite recording projects and virtual ensemble videos are great ways to involve teams of students working in the cloud to create.

Blended learning activities are also excellent performance assessment tools. Software programs like Smart Music and Music First's Practice First enable directors to assess scale/solfege study, run seating tests, assess technically demanding excerpts from concert repertoire, and more. Rather than taking time out of a normal ensemble rehearsal for a week of seating tests, these can be completed from home in the cloud.

There is no question that some classroom time has to be given to interacting with students on these concepts, and that incorporating blended learning opportunities takes a lot of time and effort on the teacher's part prior to the first day of class to create web pages, test projects, and create structured experiences that can be graded to foster accountability. This is where I, as a music educator with over a decade of incorporating these concepts, would love to be your strategic partner in adding blended learning experiences to your curriculum.

How can I possibly include blended learning experiences without compromising the quality level of my large ensemble's public performances and adjudications?

This by far is the biggest barrier to entry for most middle school and high school large ensemble teachers. And it comes down to your personal philosophy about music education.

The traditional band, chorus, and orchestra program, with all of its time-honored traditions and expectations, spends 95% of its available instructional time preparing students for the next large ensemble public performance. There never seems to be enough time to help students reach the levels of excellence we aspire to have them achieve. Music programs already lose large chunks of time to standardized testing and other demands on students' time and attention. A lot of directors have to fight tooth and nail just to protect the precious time they currently have, let alone try to expand the available rehearsal time.

I was a high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band director for the first nine years of my teaching career. My programs were never competitive powerhouses, and in fact, were fighting for survival in communities that did not strongly support the arts. And yet, in my very first year of teaching, I added a chamber music concert to the calendar in April in addition to the winter and spring band concerts. I prioritized individual skill development once we got to January and took one day a week to allow students to split into small ensembles and take ownership of the repertoire selection and self-management of rehearsing the material. In the end, the quality level of my spring band concert was not negatively impacted by the fact that I invested one class period a week to chamber music. In fact, the quality level was higher because my students were stronger individual players, making the large ensemble rehearsals more efficient.

For band, chorus, and orchestra directors who have an "end justifies the means" approach to structuring their programs, the educational priority is maximizing the complexity and performance level of their large ensembles. The pursuit of excellence and desire to expose students to the most detailed and nuanced repertoire is certainly the hallmark of the scholastic middle school and high school music program. In the end, however, I assert that time and effort spent on creating individualized experiences in the other aspects of music outside of large ensemble performance result in students being more capable as large ensemble musicians. More importantly, blended learning experiences equip all students to continue creating their own music after high school and into adulthood.

I personally want my students to be life-long music makers, not someone who states, "I used to play the trombone in high school."

Blended Learning Strategic Partnership

I invite you to reach out and let me help you create a strategic plan to incorporate blended learning techniques into your program. The best way to begin is to start small, and once we discuss the details of your current program, I can help you create a plan, implement it, and follow up throughout the school year to see how it's going. Let's talk!


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

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