Hal Leonard, Over 70 Years Later: A print publisher’s perspective on moving online

Mike Lawson • FeaturesJanuary 2021 • January 8, 2021

Share This:

Music educators will probably always remember the exact day and time in March of 2020 when they were told they had to move their entire program online. From there, the rest of 2020 was a whirlwind of trying to teach through video, engage students, learn new technologies, create new curriculums, and constantly try and figure out when and how to mute and unmute microphones. We all had to pivot, adapt, adjust, take a deep breath, and keep pushing forward for our students.

For Hal Leonard, it was no different. The almost instantaneous change in customer needs led to a company-wide refocusing of resources and priorities to support music education. However, the world’s largest music publisher with a catalog of over a million titles selling in over 65 countries, with hundreds of employees and offices in 15 locations worldwide, doesn’t exactly stop on a dime.

Think trying to turn an aircraft carrier around like it was a speedboat. However, we did it! Larry Morton, CEO of Hal Leonard, with his always positive and uplifting spirit, gave the company a one-word call-to-action and motto: Pivot. “Business as usual” immediately turned into “business of the future,” as we looked at every offering we had and rethought how we could support learning in an online world. Many readers may not realize how much goes into creating and distributing the music you play, the products you use, and the software that supports online learning. We want to share our story of the various pivots that Hal Leonard has made this year, the challenges we have faced, and even share some insider stories of how many of the solutions came about!


As soon as music education went online, the first area of need to support was copyright. We had millions of pieces of paper out in the world that explicitly say, “No photocopying or scanning allowed.” However, we had to adapt to support sharing and teaching online. The Business Affairs team, led by Nancy Ubick, VP of Business Affairs, worked to balance removing restrictions for online learning while still protecting the copyrights of the writers we represent. Hal Leonard was able to put out the first set of copyright guidelines for online learning, just in time to present them live on the March 18 NAMM/NAfME Webinar that maxed out at 5,000 live attendees and over 10,000 registrants. These guidelines have been continuously revised and extended are still available at: https://halleonard.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/ 360045211353-Distance-Learning-FAQ-for-Educators

Then came the virtual ensemble. There was a need to support educators in legally distributing their performances and the requests were coming in fast! Every educator knows that music rights can be a complicated area in trying to understand who to contact for permission, so Hal Leonard put out guidance on how we can handle requests and more information to help teachers understand who they need to contact for rights we do not represent: https://www.halleonard.com/licensing/usingHL.jsp

Online Music Education Software

When it comes to online learning, Hal Leonard owns the leading online music notation software, Noteflight, as well as the most popular band and strings method, Essential Elements, which has included the online Essential Elements Interactive platform since 2012. For general music, we were in the pilot year of the new Essential Elements Music Class online platform and already had a wealth of songs and interactive resources to offer. Each of these platforms and teams had to move quickly to support music education, and we all began by immediately offering free access for music educators through June 30.

Noteflight Learn and SoundCheck Performance Assessment

Noteflight Learn, our music education offering that allows teachers and students to collaborate in their own site that can integrate with other learning management systems, has always been ideal for online learning. I will never forget the day we started with free access for online learning. It was a Saturday, March 14, and many schools had already closed their doors. The reality of the pandemic was setting in and I was looking through the Music Teachers group on Facebook seeing the calls for help. Just as a quick reaction, I made a simple post saying if anyone wants to use Noteflight it is fully COPPA compliant and we could set them up through the end of the year. I figured a few people would message us…but only an hour later with hundreds of reactions and shares on the post I realized the need was enormous! On Monday morning the Noteflight team had hundreds of requests for extended demos all from one Facebook post, so we doubled down and made a formal landing page and got the word out. A month later, we were serving over a half million new users! Noteflight Learn had always planned on having an assessment component. We were in final stages of talks with MatchMySound technology, and once the pandemic hit, we fast tracked the project and quickly announced SoundCheck. Of course, then the challenge was getting the software out in time for the fall, so we shifted the entire product roadmap and went to work. While we had a time pressure, we also really wanted to do something very special with SoundCheck, not just rush something out the door in a pandemic.

We worked overtime on carefully designing an experience that not only fit with Noteflight’s user interface, but also creating a seamless experience for both composing and performing music. When you look at SoundCheck, you will notice it looks and feels like the music in Noteflight and is just as sharable as any Noteflight score. It was really important to us that we created an experience where students and teachers can freely move between a Noteflight notation score and a SoundCheck assessment score with as few clicks as possible. Our core philosophy is around collaboration and access, and we did not want to limit the possibilities for online learning; instead, we expanded what is possible.

With Noteflight Learn, which includes SoundCheck and the Hal Leonard content libraries, plus now the Essential Elements exercises, we offer a single platform for both composition and performance assessment that can integrate directly with your own learning management system. As we look at the other products on the market, we do not want to replicate what has been done, but create a unique experience designed around what is possible today and in the future. Noteflight Learn does just that, and we have loved hearing from thousands of teachers telling us how they can now teach in ways never before possible.

If the explosion of new users and the addition of SoundCheck was not enough, we also wanted to devote all possible resources to supporting teachers. We were getting lots of feedback from teachers, many of whom were tech newbies, and we took those requests and started adapting the experience to make Noteflight Learn even easier.

The great thing about web-based software is that it can be updated anytime, and we were pushing out new features weekly, which is quite a feat for a dev team. In addition, we understood that software does not teach music; teachers do. So, we added a team of rock star teachers to serve as our Noteflight Learn Education Ambassadors and we provided free professional development to all accounts and continue to do so. Noteflight Learn is a service to support music education, which includes great software, great support, and great training! Learn more and start your free trial at: www.noteflight.com/learn

Essential Elements Interactive

Since 2012, the Essential Elements method books for band and strings have included access to the web-based Essential Elements Interactive, which provides a wealth of resources for playing and recording the exercises with various backing tracks, making assignments and grading student submissions, and instructional videos to demonstrate proper technique. Over the years we have seen the use of EE Interactive and the mobile apps steadily increase, but obviously when online learning started there was a flood of teachers and students activating their included EE Interactive accounts for the first time. Hal Leonard quickly added more resources to assist schools and EE Interactive supported over half a million users in the spring of 2020.

Many times, music educators’ challenges are also our challenges, and we are constantly working to provide solutions for schools and teachers. In this case, there was one clear challenge that affected us all: Where are the books?! Many schools were shut down instantly, even with early dismissals on same-day notice. Therefore, with students and teachers scrambling to move online the method books and even instruments were left in lockers and most teachers were unsure as to what students had what resource at home. The EE Interactive support team, led by Steve Smith at Hal Leonard, worked tirelessly to provide access for all students so their music learning could continue at home. And as I am sure all readers can relate, getting hundreds of 10-11-year-old students to get signed up and have access when many don’t even know where their method book is can be quite a task!

Just like Noteflight, Essential Elements Interactive also moved quickly to respond to teacher feedback and improve the experience. Updates were made to the site, new blogs and support articles were written, the landing page was completely revised, and the BandTalk Podcast was started to feature actual band directors sharing how they use Essentials Elements with the authors. In addition, the EE team recognized three major feature improvements and announced them to users: Offering EE exercises in Noteflight Learn with SoundCheck, adding video recording for assessments, and integrating with Google Classroom and other learning management systems. The first two features are already available, and we are working on the integrations now.

In addition, we recognize that the future of music learning exists both online and in person, and the format in which we deliver content needs to also adapt. While EE interactive provides amazing online resources, the physical method book also needed to have an online option. Using Hal Leonard’s new proprietary digital book platform, the EE methods are now available as digital books! Essential Elements is the most popular band and string method because of the quality and pacing of the instruction. The delivery of this instruction in a hybrid learning environment is now available as a digital or physical book with included EE interactive, or direct access to EE Interactive. Learn more at: www.eeiblog.com/hybrid

Essential Elements Music Class

In 2019, Hal Leonard launched Essential Elements Music Class as an online resource for K5 music with the goal to provide high-quality interactive songs and resources on a custom-designed, easy-to-use platform. We recognized that a software tool for the elementary classroom needed to be simple and effective. It just has to work for teachers and students, including the arrangements and accompaniments of all the songs. As the program was in the first-year pilot phase, development for the site and the content was ongoing. The pandemic required two major pivots for EE Music Class: Online use for students at home and continuing to safely record quality backing tracks and videos.

The story of how EE Music Class went online for students starts just before the pandemic. I was having dinner with the lead developer, Asa Doyle, during the TMEA conference in February. We were talking about the product roadmap, which included student access, and as we looked at all the other products for elementary students, we recognized the challenge of managing logins and passwords with children ages 5-10. There are all sorts of solutions that use QR codes and easy password management interfaces, but we always seek to think about what we can do differently. It was over this lively dinner conversation we asked ourselves “why do kids even need to log in?” Could we just make an easy and secure way for teachers to share content with a simple link kids can click? This would also make EE Music Class compatible with any learning management system with a simple link! We loved the concept and added it to the roadmap.

Well, fast forward a month… Schools are going online, and we had a whole-class instruction product with only teacher access. After a quick conversation and some miraculous rapid development, sharing links were live within a week, and free trials were available for any teacher through June 30. Since then, we have continued to expand sharing options based on teacher feedback and now you can share a whole lesson or a single resource with students, all with no student login required!

One other fun challenge for us in the pandemic was safe access to video and audio recording studios. EE Music Class seeks to provide the highest quality arrangements appropriate for children’s voices, and most importantly recorded and demonstrated by a diverse group of children. It was not safe for a group to gather in a studio, so we had to get real creative real fast to keep providing new songs.

Led by Paul Lavender, Hal Leonard’s VP of Instrumental Music, we were able to record with remote musicians, edit music from multiple sources, and even find a single family of children who sang beautifully together and could record safely. Even through this, we also shifted the output of songs to be timely for teacher’s needs, including adding new arrangements of songs like “Lean on Me” to support the Worldwide Day of Gratitude and many songs focusing on connections and social emotional learning. Learn more and start a free trial at: www.eemusicclass.com


These are only a handful of the stories about pivots and adaptations made in 2020, as there is so much going on in the music industry and changes in consumer behaviors we are working to support. We of course also had many challenges, as we all did in 2020, but in the end we kept our eyes on the prize: Students learning music safely and effectively. Hal Leonard was founded in 1947 by three gentlemen who were musicians and music teachers themselves, from the need to provide arrangements of popular music to school bands.

Supporting the needs of music education is in our DNA. And while in 2020 the way we did that had to shift rapidly to constantly changing needs in an uncertain time, it is this DNA that allowed us to keep moving forward. You can read the whole Hal Leonard story at www.halleonard.com/aboutUs.jsp.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed music education, and while we all desperately miss performing music together, we have also been given the opportunity to learn new ways of teaching and making music with our students. Music education in August of 2021 will not look like it did in February of 2020. We all have new skills, a new perspective, and new methods of reaching all learners in a hybrid model. Hal Leonard is in this with you! We also are looking at how we can support what music education will look like in August of 2021 and beyond.

We appreciate the opportunity to tell our story of 2020, and we hope our perspective was both enlightening and inspirational to you. In the end, the perspective of educators and Hal Leonard are the same: 2020 was a crazy year full of uncertainty and opportunity, and we worked tirelessly to keep music making in the schools. Please do not ever hesitate to reach out to us to share your story and needs. We are here, we are listening, and we support you!

John Mlynczak, M.M., M.Ed., is Managing Director of Noteflight and collaborates closely on all aspects of music education technology at Hal Leonard. He is also a frequent national clinician and strong advocate for music education. Learn more at www.johnmlynczak.com.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!