The Flipped Orchestra: eLearning to extend Musical Motivation & Understanding

Blacktown Effects 3The title to this blog post might sound a bit unusual to you. You may have expected to click on this link, especially if you have searched through Google, to find upside music students or inverted violinists!! In fact the ‘Flipped Orchestra’ is a term that I coined last year after attending a forum on PBL (Project Based Learning) with very inspirational presenters from the Buck Institute of Education in the United States.

Project Based Learning or PBL originated from a concept expounded by author John Dewey in his book My Pedagogical Creed, (1897). Dewey outlined the idea of learning by doing“The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these…….I believe, therefore, in the so-called expressive or constructive activities as the centre of correlation.”1

The concept of PBL is not a modern one, but has more recently been embraced by progressive educators looking to make learning in schools more relevant to ‘real life problem solving’. As George Lucas, Hollywood Film Director and Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation states on the Buck Institute website: “With Project Based Learning, students learn by designing and constructing actual solutions to real life problems”2

In this movie, commissioned by the Buck Institute of Education, animation shows us clearly the key elements of project based learning.

The video clip outlines 3 essential elements to setup our classroom for PBL or Project Based Learning.

  1. Critical Thinking – Claire analyzes the problem and formulates a strategy to come up with possible solutions
  2. Collaboration – Claire pulls together her team to work together on constructing solutions
  3. Communication – Claire and her team present the final solution to the boss

A more recent model of implementation of Project Based Learning is the Flipped Classroom. Students still need to access information, content knowledge and also to gain skills. Ideally, this would require initiative on their behalf to research and find this information and instruction, though the teacher or facilitator still needs to be able to guide the students towards that information and instruction. The University of QLD has a very succinct explanation of The Flipped Classroom. Click here to find out more about the Flipped Classroom at the University of Queensland Australia 3

What this describes is a role reversal where the students are able to access content and instruction outside of the classroom and normal school hours. For example; in a history class where students might be studying the arrival of the First Fleet to Australia, they might have a complete ship’s journal or diary of a convict etc to access in an online format including embedded multimedia – then in the Project Based Learning Classroom, they write a script for a play around the journal or diary that they accessed at home and then produce a play, film or multimedia presentation around their script. Thus, they have demonstrated Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication through their finished medium.

So….. in the Flipped Classroom, students are more active rather than passive in their learning: “students take more responsibility for their own learning and study core content either individually or in groups before class and then apply knowledge and skills to a range of activities using higher order thinking…….”3

What does this have to do with our Captivate Strings and Captivate String OrchestraWell, I have mentioned many times in previous posts that our String Things program in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta (Western Sydney) differs greatly to the strings programs I have led in independent schools. Many of our students, for various reasons, are not able to attend one on one ‘private lessons’. Also, in many of the areas and schools of the Diocese of Parramatta, there has not been a culture of external or private teaching. This may be because there are not ‘private’ music teachers in the immediate area though I wish to point out that the purpose of motivational music education is not to have ‘private’ lessons. Such lessons can be a useful pathway. Rather, I believe we need to demonstrate the pathways to higher level thinking and the end result of musical performance and even composition or music creation. When we have an ensemble or orchestra that students can aspire to join then they see the purpose of the learning. But to get there without access to ‘private tuition’ we need to think of other ways to present the content and instruction. Thus, we come up with the concept of the ‘Flipped Orchestra’.

The history and background of the String Things Program across 14 Catholic Primary Schools and 4 Secondary Schools is fully explained here in my previous blog post. But this post is much more about the published resources that drive the:

  • Classroom String Things Program – generally speaking, each year 3, or 4 or 5 class in a school (depending on the implementation plan in that school) has a ‘class orchestra’ in their classroom music program. This is resourced by the String Things Level 1 Method (Click on the video to see the overview) The backing tracks and innovative arrangements motivate and inspire students and encourage ensemble performance right from the start.
  • Small group co-curricular lessons. Students have the option to take up group lessons for violin, viola, cello or double bass to receive more detailed instruction in groups of 5 – 6. The String Things Level 2 Method books have both melody and ensemble parts to allow any combination of ensemble learning and performance. This is in effect a collaborative learning method. These books also come with a CD with quality full orchestral backing tracks so that students can practise at home with a complete ‘virtual orchestra’ and there is also a DVD with detailed instructional video on scales and technical work.
  • The Captivate String Orchestra which consists of students from across 10 primary and secondary schools, students study and learn their parts with the use of instructional video and also a video score and recording of an actual orchestra embedded in each instrumental part with the use of QR codes (Click here to find out more about QR codes) Students have face to face instruction with one of our specialist teachers. (Click here to meet the Captivate Strings Team) They are able to extend their musical understanding and their confidence by referring to the detailed instructional video and even reading the score with orchestral recording.

All of these resources, from the String Things Method Level 1 and Level 2, to the ensemble packs for school orchestras and the Captivate String Orchestra are authored, arranged and published exclusively for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta (Western Sydney) When I arrange/orchestrate simple pieces for The String Things Method or more advanced pieces such as Themes from the Moldau, I then multitrack all of the parts on REAL instruments in my recording studio and master the recording so that we have a quality recording and backing/listening track that      we can use to author the eLearning resources such as this iBook with interactive score excerpts. Themes form the Moldau iBook


Click here to download the iBook “Themes from the Moldau – an Arrangement for String Orchestra” from the iTunes Store. It is a FREE download, or search in the iBook store for “Themes from the Moldau” The author is Phil Rooke

You can click on each stave of the score excerpts to listen to that section of instruments – eg by clicking to the left of the Viola stave, you can listen to just the viola section for that excerpt. By clicking on the icon below the score excerpt you can listen to the whole string orchestra play that excerpt and follow the score.

The iBook format with embedded media gives the students a thorough understanding of the harmony and texture of the score as well as being able to extract and listen to their own part.

When we begin to learn a new piece in the Captivate String Orchestra, we first of all read the score and listen to the recording in the rehearsal. Students have the link to this video score in an email but also in a QR code on their part. Click on the video below to read and listen to my own orchestration and recording of 1st Movement from Winter – the 4 Seasons by Vivaldi. This score, arrangement and recording is arranged and produced by Phil Rooke and copyrighted to Catholic Education © 2012 all rights reserved.

There are QR codes on all of the parts of Winter 1st movement linking to the instructional video for that part. Click on the video below to see the instructional video for Winter 1st Movement – Solo Violin

Finally – the extended learning and rehearsals lead to the performance – this is our Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra performing the 1st Movement from Winter, 1st Movement at our Chamber Music Concert at the Dame Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith, June 2013 – Soloist, Daniel Katafono

Thus, the 3 stages of the String Things program are demonstrated:

  1. The Level 1 books and media motivate the students in the class orchestra within the classroom music program – usually implemented around year 3-4
  2. The level 2 books are mostly used in the small group co-curricular lessons. Instructional video can be found on the DVD and the quality orchestral backing tracks are on the CD so that students are able to listen to each piece at home and play with the backing track.
  3. In our higher level combined orchestra and indeed even in school based ensembles, instructional videos and active scores are embedded on each music part with the use of QR codes.

Ultimately, the aim of the Captivate Strings Program is to offer the opportunity of motivational music learning and an orchestral performance experience to as many students in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta as we are able; no matter what the students’ cultural or socioeconomic circumstance.


1. John Dewey, Education and Experience, 1938/1997. New York. Touchstone.

2. The Buck Institute of Education Website

3. The University of Queensland Website – “What is the Flipped Classroom”

Captivate Screen ShotThe Strings Things Teaching Program including original music,
musical arrangements and media are authored, composed,arranged
& produced by Phil Rooke and published by
Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta © 2009 All rights reserved



About captivatestrings

Phil Rooke is a Teacher Educator, specializing in Music Education for the Catholic Education Office - Diocese of Parramatta, authoring & implementing teaching programs and leading music learning across a system of 78 schools in Western Sydney. "I am on a learning journey to find and invent better ways to motivate students and teachers in music making."
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