Flipping the Ensemble Classroom

SM_Flipped Classroom_blog

“Flipping the classroom” is all the rage in education right now. Advancements in technology have changed how teachers teach by making the distribution of education no longer dependent on being physically present with a teacher in the same time and space. Traditionally, flipping the ensemble classroom means that the students learn the content outside of class time and then come to class to apply the content.

So, how can we “flip” our ensemble rehearsals? When I was in graduate school, the conductor of our Wind Symphony told us, “Learn your parts in the practice room and come to rehearsal to learn everyone else’s parts.” Anyone who has taught an ensemble at any level knows that that would be quite a lofty and idealistic goal in most settings; however, a flipped-class approach can make this more of a reality. Flipping your ensemble can make your rehearsals more efficient and help your students take more ownership of their learning, leading them to develop skills that will help them be able to be life-long musicians who can continue to explore music on their own once they move on from a formal music program.

Concert Passages as Audition Material

My first suggestion is most applicable to situations where students are auditioning for chairs. Select the most difficult passages in the music you want to perform on the next concert as audition material. This will give your students impetus to practice the difficult passages to earn a higher chair. This approach is very efficient because the students need to prepare something for the audition, so they might as well be practicing something that will help the general cause within the ensemble! When they are practicing the parts of the music that is going to be most challenging in the upcoming rehearsal schedule, they will simultaneously be preparing for the audition and the concert. Remember to include challenges in both lyrical and technical areas to encourage extra focus on both important aspects of music.


Another helpful way to flip your ensemble is to give students the opportunity to evaluate their performance outside of rehearsal time. Posting recordings of your ensemble and links to the best recordings you can find of the same repertoire can provide the students with a model of the ultimate goal, as well as a snapshot of where they are right now. Give students an assignment to compare and contrast the performances. This can be done at any level, from elementary to college, very effectively.

At any level, students can listen to two recordings, one of their group and one of another, and make observations of what is the same or different. One major benefit to doing these types of comparison exercises outside of class is that it gives students the time they need to think and evaluate. Some students take longer than others to respond, and because of that, those students might be less likely to participate in an in-class discussion, even when they have great ideas.

Completing this comparison outside of class will give every student the opportunity to provide you with his or her feedback, not just the students who are always raising their hands. This also puts some responsibility for learning on the students by allowing them to engage in critical-thinking as they discover ways to improve. If some students do not have internet access at home, perhaps copies of the music can be provided on CD, being sure to remain in compliance with copyright. Another option is to occasionally use station activities in class, which allows a similar approach to flipping the classroom, where the recordings are just be one of the stations.

Learning More about the Music

Besides learning how to actually perform musical works, most ensemble directors like their students to get to know more about the musical style, the composer, and relevant music theory. All of this can very effectively be done outside of class, using the flipped approach. Most schools use some sort of learning management system (LMS) now, which means that there is somewhere that the teacher can create a module, or collection of activities, for the students to complete outside of class.

A module for an ensemble might include a link to the composer’s website, a link to a YouTube video performance of the piece, another piece in the same musical style, and a relevant music theory lesson. The students could be asked to complete activities along the way that can provide evidence that they completed the activities and that can be used for assessment. Many schools now use Google extensively, so answers could be collected via a Google form, which allows for easy sorting and grading. A quick Google search on how to create Google forms can help anyone unfamiliar with the process.

A module might look something like this:

  1. Visit the following website for the composer of the piece we are performing in band. On the Google form, note one thing you have in common with the composer OR one thing that surprised you about the composer.
  2. Listen to the YouTube video of the high school band performing the piece we are also performing. On the Google form, note one thing you think our ensemble does better than this ensemble and one thing that their ensemble does better than we do.
  3. Listen to this recording of another march similar to the march we are performing on the upcoming concert. On the Google form, note what is similar and what is different about this march?
  4. Watch the video lesson on counting rhythms in cut-time and then complete the questions on the Google form.

I was purposely rather vague in my examples here to allow this to be relevant to any situation, but there are many ways you can use the resources available through technology to provide the students with the opportunity to engage with content outside of class. I spend a lot of time, especially in the summer, looking at technology and thinking about what technology could enhance my courses and my students’ learning experience, and much of that technology ends up being incorporated in my own flipped classes.

I hope these suggestions will help you help your students achieve the goal of learning their parts at home and coming together to make music, which is exactly what the flipped-classroom approach would achieve in an ensemble setting. The bottom line is to critically think about the elements of teaching that can be done by the students without all being gathered together and then consider the best way to do that. Then, ensemble rehearsal time, which has to occur with everyone in the same place at the same time, can be most productive and focused on bringing everything together and applying what was done outside of class.

Do you have a suggestion for flipping the ensemble classroom? Share it in the comments!

Kathleen MelagoKathleen Melago serves as Assistant Professor of Music Education at Slippery Rock University. She has taught music in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Ohio, both in schools and privately. Kathy frequently presents at state, regional, and national conferences, and remains an active performer.

Her book, Modal Exercises for Double- and Triple-Tonguing Mastery, published by ALRY Publications in October 2012, received distinction as a finalist in the National Flute Association’s Newly Published Music competition.  She can be contacted by email at [email protected].


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