Arranging like crazy…

One of the things our school district has done for nearly 30 years is to hold an annual Masterworks concert in the fall.  The concert features “master” works, and combines the forces of all of our district high schools.  The school district provides funding for music and for the hiring of a small orchestra to accompany the choirs  I had the honor of working with that concert for seventeen years, directing choirs at one of the districts (at first) two and then three high schools.  The concert is about 7 or 8 weeks into the school year, which is wonderful–you start the year with a very strict focus, on high quality music, and at the same time, you will be performing with other schools so young singers are not “exposed” as individual choirs so early in the year.  One year we moved the concert to the March/April timeline, and that didn’t work as well.  Some high schools in our area hold a similar concert as their last effort in May!

We split the duties of the concert every year; one teacher took care of hiring the orchestra; another paying the orchestra (preparing and collecting expense vouchers); creating the program, ordering music, hosting, and arranging.  Arranging?  Yes.  There were times (well, every year) that we wanted to do a classical work that didn’t have anything other than a piano reduction.  Yes, our SATB works often have existing accompaniment (many available free through CPDL or IMSLP), but not so with our younger SSA and SAB choirs.

My role in the concert (other than preparing my singers and directing) over the years centered on ordering music, creating programs, and arranging.

Now that I teach at the middle school level, I no longer have any responsibility for the concert.  However, the last two years my high school colleagues have asked me to continue arranging works so the choirs can sing with an orchestra.  What ends up happening is I am given the music and then spend what free time I have (when I’m not teaching or being a dad) arranging the works in time for the orchestra to get their parts and practice before the first rehearsal.

I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss my process for arranging.

First, I need to get the source material from printed music to digital music.  Sometimes I luck out and the source is a PDF file generated by a music notation package.  If it is, I can use the program PDFtoMusic Pro to convert the data from a PDF into a MusicXML file, which I can then import into Finale.  This often leaves the least amount of work to do in terms of entering notes, but text is almost always wrong (and I end up deleting the text and starting over).

Another course of action is to scan the music and to use PhotoScore Ultimate to convert the document to a MusicXML file, again editing in Finale on my Mac.  This is generally successful, with a scanning success rate somewhere in the high 90s, depending on the quality of the original and the quality of the scan.  As I have scanned all of the music in two of the high school libraries, most of this music is already at hand.

My latest approach has been to scan the music with my iPhone, using the PhotoScore In-App Purchase in the app NotateMe.  I find that this approach is as successful as PhotoScore Ultimate on my Mac; interestingly when I scan the same piece using both the camera on my iPhone and a scan through my Mac–the two similarly-named programs make mistakes in different places!

Once I have the original in Finale, I clean up the score and correct scanning errors.  I also find printing errors from the original document on a regular basis.  After I have cleaned up the original score with all dynamics and diacritical markings, I re-enter text for the piece.  PhotoScore does bring in text, but hyphenation is always wrong and it is usually just simpler to start over.

After this happens, I create a new Finale file (this is a really important step in the process) with the voicing of the original score PLUS two violins, viola, cello, and bass.  I make sure that the new file is set up correctly with all time signature and key signature changes, and then I copy and paste the first Finale file into the new Finale file.

From that point, I work on orchestrating the score.  With music for the younger choir, I often try to make sure that their parts–particularly exposed entrances–are doubled by an orchestra instrument.  I tend to use a violin with sopranos, a viola with altos, and cellos with baritones.  The main focus, however, is to convert the existing piano score in a way that makes sense throughout the strings, so that if a piano player is not available, the orchestra could play without it.  I don’t want to create any new thematic material, and I try to use any existing material from the original score, if it exists.  For example, last year the women’s choir sang a work from a mass (that was originally for SATB and in a different key), and I was able to find the original orchestration for that mass and bring it into my arrangement for the SSA version.  If a song has been arranged for a solo instrument and piano (along with the choir, of course), I try to incorporate the solo part into the string ensemble as well.

As a tuba player, many of my original works were bass-heavy; in recent years I have tried to avoid overuse of the string bass so that arrangements don’t sound too heavy.

One of my favorite projects was arranging Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson in 2005.  My colleague heard the song on NPR, sent me a link to the song, and asked that I arrange it for choir.  I contacted Ms. Gilkyson, and she gave me permission to arrange the song–so I did so.  Craig Hella Johnson later wrote a SATB arrangement of the song; mine was first (and is written for SA).  That project was enjoyable because it required me to listen to the song and to try to capture Gilkyson’s “simple” song and to convert it for strings, piano, and choir.

Once again, I’m (generally) not using the orchestra in the sense that an orchestral composer would use an orchestra–but it does give our students (again, mainly the younger students in the high school program) the change to sing with an orchestra.  There isn’t a wealth of existing SSA or SAB literature that has existing orchestral arrangements–or arrangements that work with a small chamber-like orchestra.

After I have finished arranging, I listen to the pieces as arranged on Finale.  It is amazing how much better my ears have become over nineteen years of arranging for this concert.  Sometimes we will use a piece I arranged in the past, so I get a chance to pull up that arrangement and to fix the mistakes I didn’t hear when I was younger.

When the errors are solved (one common error is for a scan to miss a flat or sharp on a tied note in to the next measure), I check the layout of each part.  I make sure that pages past the first page of an individual part (e.g. violin) have both the page number and the instrument name.  Then I print the parts as PDFs and send them to my high school colleagues for distribution.

The latest development has been to create rehearsal audio files that the high school teachers can either use in class or to share with students, based on the completed scores (for these, I usually just use the piano and voice parts,  not the orchestra parts).  To get audio, I export the MusicXML from Finale to Dropbox, and then import those files from Dropbox into Notion for the iPad.  From the iPad, I can quickly change audio settings with Notion’s mixer, export the audio to Dropbox, and then create another audio file.  For SATB works, I create a number of files:

  • All parts
  • Rehearsal Piano
  • Soprano (featured) and piano (soft)
  • Alto
  • Tenor
  • Bass
  • Women
  • Men

I do similar things for SSA and SAB choir music.  Although Finale can create audio files, I like Notion’s stock audio quality–and the ease of modifying tracks and then exporting.  You can even export to Sound Cloud directly from Notion on the iPad.

Well, this year’s batch of arranging is over; all in all, I cleaned up a Mass (Haydn’s Organ Mass, mainly to make rehearsal recordings) and eight other pieces for the concert.  Although it is a bit of work, I do enjoy the challenge (even if not the short time deadline) and the opportunity to use my skills to help the high school programs.  You don’t get many opportunities to arrange for choirs and strings when you teach high school.  And the other benefit?  Now I get paid for doing the arranging (not much in hourly terms, but when I taught high school, it was “just part of the job.”)

I have been busy!

Hello, everyone! I hope you have had a great start to the school year. I have been incredibly busy and haven't found much time to blog. I have been sent a few promo codes for some apps that I will get around to writing about, but it may still be a week or two before that happens. The beginning of the school year is always busy, but this year has been particularly busy. Here is what is going on.

  1. I have been busy setting up my classes with technology the way that I want them to run. I have been using Google Classroom, GClass Folders, the Attendance2 app (iOS), and Showbie (best on iOS). I want to thank Larry Petersen, from Huron, South Dakota, for writing me and asking about Showbie. Showbie seems to be everything I have ever been looking for in terms of a paperless classroom on iOS. The cost of the app is $10 per month for the teacher (not the student), but gives full access to all the features to you (the teacher) and students in your class (not other classes). I will write more in the future about Showbie, but so far, it works.
  2. Setting things up is hard and time consuming. We have certainly spent more time on tech issues in choir during the first 5 days of classes (we meet every other day, so as of Monday, I will have seen each class five times) than singing–with the idea that we will be able to make more music later as a result. I've seen just about everything in five days…forgotten passwords, kids that cannot type their district e-mail address, and more.
  3. My colleagues (music) at my school are taking a purposeful approach away from technology in their classes. While that saddens me as a “music education technologist,” I also know that they need to do what they need to do, and I certainly have no desire (or wish!) to tell them how to run their classrooms, how to teach, or how to use technology.
  4. I am waiting for our PDF music reader to be distributed. Last year, Apple made it possible for a school to buy apps and then distribute them to students, and then later recollect them. This changes the finances of an iPad program immensly. Well, although Apple has made this possible, our MDM (iPad manager) can't yet distribute those apps in the “retrievable” condition. Up until now, there has been enough tech issues that we haven't needed the sheet music yet…but as of Tuesday, we're where we need to be.
  5. Our middle school (generally) has a music requirement with a choice of band, choir or orchestra. As a result, I get not only the kids who love choir or like me, I also get many students who didn't want to haul an instrument, or simply had no other choice. One class had five new-to-choir students in 8th grade that had no interest in singing or participating. By luck, I had an open hour on the opposite day, so we are now teaching those five students guitar. I am working with Zivix to see if we can purchase five JamStiks to use with these students, allowing them to work at their own pace (with coaching along the way). Thankfully, one of our sister middle schools had a guitar class in the past, and was able to loan us five guitars in the mean time.
  6. My wife and I, as well as our in-laws, are moving to the iPhone 6, and we're changing carriers from AT&T to T-Mobile. We have been on AT&T since our first iPhones in 2008 (3GS), and we tend to stick with our phones throughout the contract. We don't hate AT&T, but we often drive from the Minneapolis area to Milwaukee, and there is a long stretch of road between Minneapolis and Madison that has poor or no cell data coverage at all, and this hasn't changed in the past 6 years we have been with AT&T. Additionally, we'll save money per month with T-Mobile, even though you officially BUY your device with T-Mobile (AT&T sells it to you for $299, but you are locked into a contract where they recuperate their cost). In addition to some of the technical aspects that have been around for a couple of years (Touch ID) that were not on our old phones (iPhone 5), I am very excited about T-Mobile (and only T-Mobile for now) that offers wi-fi calling–moving from LTE to wi-fi seamlessly. My school…and likely yours as well…has TERRIBLE cell service inside the school. This will guarantee good coverage for the first time I have worked in a school (we have a closed network that student devices–and most faculty for that part–will not have access to). So we're excited about the iPhone 6.
  7. And I have been blessed with a lot of growth in choir at our school. Last year, I had 211 students, with only 24 students in our 8th grade choir (these numbers were established before I ever arrived). This year, I have 335 students, with over 100 in 8th grade choir; and we only had 95 students in 7th grade choir last year. I'm not bragging, I'm not superman, I'm not the world's greatest teacher, and I have many places to grow, even in my 19th year of teaching. I'm just grateful for the growth, but in truth, there are negatives as I no longer have lesson time, and setting up tech resources, such as Attendance2, has been tricky.
  8. I have been starting to hear back about presentations at music conferences this year. For sure, look for me at Iowa, Texas (also the TI:ME National Conference), Salt Lake City (ACDA National Conference), and potentially some more. There's also another big thing happening, which I will keep under wraps for now until I can break the news.
  9. If you are a Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Iowa music teacher, we are working on forming a TI:ME chapter. The original thought was a Minnesota Chapter, but we may need to consider a larger area of the North Central states to justify a chapter. We are looking to set an online meeting date to officially organize and make some plans. If you would be interested in joining us, please send me an e-mail! Thanks to Steven Struhar at MakeMusic for his assistance with this process.

I hope you have had a great summer and a great start to your school year!

 

An introduction to the JamStik, and a review (Video)

If you want to see the video without reading any of my additional thoughts, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Let me make it clear that I do not consider myself a guitarist. I know a good number of chords, I know individual notes when I refresh my memory, I know some strumming and plucking patterns, I have led worship with only guitar (it has been a while), and I have taught classroom guitar at the high school level. I’m horrible at barre chords, and with a real guitar, I often use a capo to change keys to avoid those barre chords.

I think it is safe to say that I know all the I need to know to teach guitar and to enjoy picking up the guitar from time to time.

My last post shared my first thoughts on the JamStik–and I had promised that I would post a video I had made earlier that day when I had finished editing it. Well, the editing is done.

This isn’t a great video. It turns out that my audio on my MacBook was set too high. I was filming the video in just one take, so there are a bunch of edits that are clearly edits after editing, and I never really “closed” the video. When I filmed the video, I had just downloaded Jam Tutor (one of Zivix’s free apps that comes with the JamStik) and started playing with the app…and I simply lost interest in filming the end of the video and just played with the app (for example, Jam Tutor wouldn’t recognize a D7 chord, which simply amazed me, when so many other chords are programmed in). As a result, the video ends with a Star Wars scroll.

Otherwise, the video effectively captures my thoughts…how to set up the JamStik, how to use it with other apps, the couple of flaws I can see (the strings aren’t tuned to guitar pitches, so if you play you can hear “wrong” notes on the strings, even though the right notes play through the iPad), and there’s no way (right now) to “Capo” (can that be a verb?) the device. A fellow JamStik purchaser (I think his is arriving soon), Kevin James Stafford, recently mentioned (on Twitter) that he had been in touch with Zivix and that the capo ability should be coming in a future firmware release.

Another JamStik purchaser, Joseph Argyle mentioned (again, on Twitter), that the JamStik can’t be used for hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. I don’t know if I will ever need these, but it’s clear that the JamStik isn’t meant to be a pure replacement for a guitar. Or at least not this first model. I would imagine that harmonics are also impossible.

At the same time, here’s a way for guitarists to get MIDI data directly into a computer, with no compromises. I loaded up Notion for iPad, and sure enough, it interprets data directly from the JamStik. Were I PreSonus, I’d been inking package deals with Zivix right away (or vice-versa). If you are a guitar player and only a guitar player, you might find that PreSonus’s Progression is a better app to purchase for notation purposes. Remember that guitar is at the heart of PreSonus’ Notion products, and Progression is guitarist’s version of Notion.

I have not yet tried the JamStik with my MacBook (there is a free download available via the JamStik website), but I have no doubt that the JamStik will work perfectly with my MacBook.

At any rate, in terms of music education, a classroom guitar with case costs $150 or more (probably more–from personal experience, don’t buy a classroom guitar without a truss rod. The JamStik, incidentally, has two), plus there are upkeep fees, need for storage, and other costs. In comparison, the $299 price tag of the JamStik isn’t far off from what you would expect to pay for such a device. A decent backpacker guitar (I bought one of these for teaching guitar…it simply isn’t as unwieldily in the classroom) is in the $200 range (sometimes more, sometimes less). For a device with IR sensors and a Wi-Fi hub embedded inside of it, I see the JamStik as a fairly priced product, although I hope there can be an educational discount in the future. I also need to find out what happens when several JamStiks operate in the same room (do they all share the same embedded network name and channel), and if the JamStik can be operated by USB connection if necessary (all future tasks to try).

As a side note, I also just came across a product called PocketStrings, which is simply a portable guitar neck (4 or 6 strings), and I see this as a possible solution for practicing without a JamStik at home (for example, if you had a classroom set of JamStiks that you wouldn’t send home with students).

I think this device has huge potential for music education, and I am curious to see what “real” guitar players think, and how it can be incorporated into a “traditional” guitar classroom.

The Zivix JamStik is Now Shipping

Back in 2013, Kevin Honeycutt (a former art teacher, who is an now educational motivational speaker) tweeted about the JamStik, a guitar controller for iOS (and Mac) that was an Indiegogo campaign. I wrestled with the idea of “buying into” the device, but finally decided to jump on board. The JamStik was being sold at a discount to early backers, and I submitted my $219 to be an early backer to the project.

Well, time passed. The company, located nearby in Minneapolis, Minnesota, took prototypes to various computer and app shows. And I was (and still am) teaching at the middle school level where students are asked to choose between band, choir, and orchestra–meaning that as a choir director I have students who either love singing or cannot play an instrument. This has convinced me that students at the middle school level–even if selected by hand because of their reluctance to sing–should have another option as a performance class–guitar. I understand this is an unpopular stance, but I strongly believe in it. Furthermore, I teach at a 1:1 iPad school, so a guitar controller for iPad makes sense as a way to learn guitar. Small, light, rechargeable, and NO TUNING. Yes, guitarists need to learn how to tune a guitar. But I have never been in a guitar class where all the guitars were in tune (within any individual guitar, or with all the other guitars in the room). Tuning is a skill that can be taught along the way. With this in mind, I saw (and still see) the JamStik as a device with a lot of possibility for education, even at a suggested price point of $299.

The problem was that the JamStik was delayed, then delayed, and then delayed more. Thankfully, the company was busy enough at prodcut shows to demonstrate that it was still in the game. And last month, units to the original 900 backers began.

My JamStik shipped last Friday, and arrived Tuesday night. I have had some time to play with the device, and it is perhaps the first device that I have ever backed that has lived 100% up to its promise (with the exception being the shipping dates along the way). As promised, it is a five fret MIDI guitar controller for iOS or Mac. It is solidly built, and uses real strings with infared sensors. Although it is probably a “toy” for a “real” guitarist, I think “real” guitarists could make real music with it. At the same time, for casual guitar players, like myself (actually, I have a hard time calling myself a guitarist) or for educators teaching (or students learning) guitar, this might be the perfect device in a 1:1 iPad setting.

The device connects to your iOS device (I have used it with both my iPad and iPhone) with a wifi connection, which is broadcast by the JamStik. If you run the JamStik Connect app (free), and JamStik Connect runs in the background on your device, you can use the JamStik with just about any CoreMIDI app on iOS. JamStik Connect broadcasts its own audio (you get a choice of five guitars) out of the iPad, so if you plan to use another app, you have to turn the guitar sound created by JamStik Connect “off.” Otherwise, you get the sound of the other app PLUS the sound of JamStik Connect. This isn't a problem, but it is something that may take a moment to figure out when you hear two guitar sounds out of one app. I do wonder if each JamStik creates its own channel and network name, and I wonder if it is possible to have a room of JamStiks in an educational setting, or if that would be wifi overload. The wifi component surprised me…for some reason I thought it would be a Bluetooth device.

The apps that come with the device seem to be well made…Jamstik Connect works well (no discernable delay) and Jam Tutor is solid. As a music teacher, my only “complaint” about JamTutor is that it doesn't teach guitar from “traditional” notation, which always one of my goals when I teach a guitar class. Think about the power of letting students use JamTutor so they can learn at their own pace, and then supplementing the experience with traditional “guitar” methods including notation and tablature! I have not worked with their sequencing app, JamMix. All the Zivix apps are free on the App Store.

As with all devices, I only see two “negatives” with the JamStik. First, as a MIDI device, you can shift the JamStik up or down an octave or two octaves. You cannot, however, shift MIDI in terms of half steps. I can see the possibility of a basic guitar player wanting to use chords from the key of G, but to transpose the JamStik to another key (such as F or C)…but you can't do this with the JamStik hardware at the current time. You would need some kind of display to show you your transposition, which the JamStik doesn't have. In other words, the JamStik lacks a digital capo. That might be a negative for some owners, but I am not sure if a future firmware update can address this functionality.

Second, the strings, although not actually amplified, are not tuned to the pitches we normally associate with a guitar. As a result, as you pluck the strings, you can hear the “pluck” of the actual pitches, while the MIDI sounds comes through your iOS device. This makes for a small amount of dissonance. I don't know if it is possible to tune the JamStik to the actual pitches (in truth, just being “close” would be enough to solve this issue). Maybe this only bothers me as I am a music teacher.

From what I have gathered, the folks at Zivix have said that the strings are very rugged, although I expect we will see ways to buy replacement strings and batteries soon.

One of the tough things that has happened is that the JamStik is now in some Apple stores while some unknown number of JamStik owners are still waiting for their JamStik from backing the product back in 2013. My guess is that Zivix thought they were going to meet all their deadlines, signed a contract with Apple based on those deadlines, and then had issues with parts (a stock e-mail from Zivix, sent to backers who inquire about their missing backed device, explains the part shortage). I think Zivix was requried to ship product to Apple, not having shipped to all backers first. That is a hard thing to take if you have been waiting more than a year for a device–and additionally Zivix's lack of addressing that situation (to date) is a little awkward. I don't think there is any explanation that can soothe feelings after a year of delays and now the Apple store situation. I personally would always to like to see open communication from a company, but I tend to be more patient and am not the litigating type. I also have my JamStik in my hands at this point.

I filmed a video with the JamStik earlier today; I will post that when I get a chance to edit it, which may not be today.

$299 may seem like a lot of money for this device, but a traditional backpack guitar (I have one of these from my time teaching guitar at the high school…it was just easier to deal with than a full guitar while teaching) costs around $200. For the added benefit of being able to bring MIDI into an iOS Device or Mac via a wireless connection based on infared sensors? $299 seems like a pretty good price, and as with all things, I would expect that advances in the product might eventually lead to additional models (a full size guitar?), features, and lower prices. I would also like to see educational sets of JamStiks and educational pricing. If schools were willing to drop thousands on Yamaha's MIE keyboard labs, why wouldn't you consider 30 iPads and 30 JamStiks ($27,000)? The JamStik is a device that could really change how we teach guitar and also help non-guitarists music educators to include guitar in their course load. I am excited to see where the product goes from here.

 

A great post by Philip Rothman about NotateMe on the Sibelius Blog

A few years ago, Philip Rothman took over the Sibelius Blog as most of the Sibelius team headed to Steinberg (I believe that Daniel Spreadbury, who was a part of that group, used to run the Sibelius Blog). Although the Sibelius Blog was never limited to “Sibelius-Only” items, Mr. Rothman writes about music notation in a broader sense. As a result, if you are a person that uses software from other companies/developers, and you haven't followed the Sibelius Blog, you are missing out.

Last week, as MakeMusic announced its transition to go under the umbrella of Peaksware, Mr. Rothman was also given access to the new CEO over MakeMusic, and was able to ask questions that I had not thought of. As I mentioned, the topic for me became more about the people currently employed by MakeMusic, as I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of MakeMusic's staff over the past years. I was very happy to be able to read Mr. Rothman's information about the news.

Today, Mr. Rothman wrote about one of my favorite iOS/Android apps, NotateMe. He did so with feedback from Neuratron's CEO, Martin Dawe–and I really enjoyed reading about Mr. Rothman's experiment with NotateMe. So, go read the article. And if you subscribe to blog feeds (my latest choice of blog feed readers is Feedly), subscribe to the Sibelius Blog so you can read all of his posts!

 

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