The Tragedy of Saying "I Used to Be in Band"
Ever since beginning clarinet lessons in fourth grade, band has always been at the center of my life. Being involved with my high school band gave me purpose, a great circle of friends, great trip experiences, and the life-changing musical experiences at PMEA concert band festivals.
In college, I marched in the Penn State Marching Blue Band and marched contra bass bugle in The Cadets Drum & Bugle Corps in 1993 and 1994. Those experiences shaped my work ethic, my musicianship, my expertise, and my relationships.
I actually started college as an engineering major, but it was obvious halfway through my freshman year that I was in the wrong place. I switched to the School of Music, but I didn't know exactly what kind of music degree I wanted. That answer came a year later during the Blue Band's trip to the second Blockbuster Bowl in Florida. Everything that could have gone wrong on that trip went wrong - our flight was delayed 6 hours going down, the charter buses didn't show, the food court at the mall was closed so we couldn't get dinner, the football team lost the bowl game, and half the band got sick during the trip home while being laid up in the airport for a 12 hour delay.
But our performance at the bowl game was magic.
I have never felt as empowered as I did by the surge of emotions during that marching performance, as I did with so many others over the years. On the bus ride from the hotel to the airport to fly home, I thought to myself, "I love this! What am I going to do when I can't be in a marching band anymore? I want to keep doing this!"
...and that is when the epiphany happened.
I could enter the music education degree program and become a high school band director. I suddenly had a thirty year band directing career as my goal. I finished my Bachelor of Science in Music Education degree and was hired for my first job - I was the entire music department for a small rural junior-senior high school in North Central Pennsylvania teaching band, chorus, and general music.
I love band, but I love music more.
During my undergrad days and into the first six years of my teaching career, I was an Associate Director with the Warren Junior Military Band of Youngstown, Ohio. JMB was where I cut my teeth as a band instructor, serving as visual tech and caption head as well as a woodwind tech and concert band co-director. In this setting, I recognized that for all of the great musical and life experiences being part of a marching and concert band could provide, most band students' understanding of the music itself as an artform was limited to whatever repertoire was being perfected. Section leaders were capable of playing independently, sight reading well, and playing with expression, but the deeper you went into any section, the less musically capable the students were.
The whole reason I became a band director was because it was the only way to stay involved with the activity on a daily basis without auditioning for a military band. It was clear that, despite all of the wonderful things that scholastic band, chorus, and orchestra ensembles provide to their students, the traditions in these ensembles left little room in the curriculum for teaching independent musical skills. I didn't want my students to just be good ensemble instrumentalists - I wanted them to love music as much as I do. I wanted them to learn everything they can about music and to continue making music even after they no longer could participate regularly in a band, chorus, or orchestra.
It pained me to think, "What's the point of all this rehearsing and performing if they never touch their instrument again as an adult?"
When I got my first band directing job, I was determined to give my students opportunities to develop their own ability to play independently at whatever skill level they were capable of. In my first year of teaching, I added a chamber music concert in April in addition to the winter and spring band concerts. Students chose their own repertoire, were given one day per cycle in band class to split up into small ensembles, and take complete ownership over the rehearsing process, with me rotating to each group to offer support. The students really enjoyed this opportunity to take charge of part of their band experience in a musically meaningful way.
I attempted to provide some other kind of small group independence opportunity at the next school districts I worked for, offering a jazz studies class in one setting. I recognized individual achievement with special awards at every spring concert - a practice that actually was frowned upon in one district.
Combining Music with Technology
And then, fate dropped me into a band and strings position for grades 6 to 12 at the Center for Performing and Fine Arts, a rigorous pre-professional program in the arts offered by the innovative Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School. This setting was drastically different - no marching band, and in fact, not enough students to fill out even a wind ensemble instrumentation. I had to creatively arrange, compose, and adapt string orchestra and concert band repertoire to fit the ever-changing instrumentation of my classes.
However, due in part to the small size and to the fact that every student in the CPFA program took their other academic courses online as cyber students, I was positioned to begin exploring live video lessons, online sight reading and music notation applications, MIDI and digital audio workstations, and deeper dives into the art and science of jazz improvisation. I also helped to establish CPFA's Remote Access program, teaching music and fine arts classes to PALCS students all over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, providing them opportunities to come on campus to participate in our winter and spring concerts in person.
In addition to being a career band geek, I have always been a technology enthusiast. I had an Atari 2600 as a kid, an IBM PC Junior as my first personal computer, and have always loved programming, creating, and playing with computer software. My position at CPFA allowed me to combine my passion for music with my passion for technology. When I was hired in 2008, I was already using Smart Music as a tool for my students and was tasked almost immediately with figuring out how to teach music online via video conferencing to cyber students across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The CPFA Remote Access program was on the cutting edge at the time of the trend towards remote learning.
For a long time, I missed my days at band camp and in the stadium. I missed being in front of a full-sized concert band. I kept my passion for the marching arts alive, however. I began serving as a music, visual, and jazz adjudicator for the Cavalcade of Bands Association, and in 2016 I became a certified music judge for Drum Corps International. I occasionally arrange and write field shows and serve as a staffer with local groups.
However, my expertise in the marching band realm was now matched by my expertise in blended learning techniques. My students graduate from my program capable of writing in two, three, and four parts for their primary instrument or for full ensembles. They know what primary chords are, how ii V I progressions work in jazz standards, and how to set up their bedrooms to get a clean sound recording of their performance. I use the internet, cloud-based software, learning management systems, and digital audio workstation software to expand my students' understanding and passion for music.
A New Direction, a New Mission
My life took a dramatic turn just before the pandemic of 2020 began. I moved out, got divorced, and now live in a new home. Also, I have a new opportunity to serve as the Music Department Chair at CPFA. I want to share my expertise in music technology and blended learning with my band, orchestra, and chorus colleagues in an impactful way. I look forward to working with fellow music education professionals to help them bring new experiences to their large ensemble students.
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.