Category Archives: General Musings

General Musings

Apple’s New “Stuff”

I like Apple’s stuff. As I have written about in the past, that wasn’t always the case. But since 2008 or so, all of the major technology in my life has been Apple-made; and surprisingly our Anti-Apple district went all Apple in the summer of 2012 (We still have PC labs, but teachers all have MacBooks, and we have iPads in all 17 schools, including five 1:1 schools [one is my school]).

That said, I don’t run out and buy every Apple product. If I had endless money, I would, but at the moment, I own:

  • 2008 Aluminum MacBook
  • 4th Generation iPad
  • iPhone 5

We have a lot of other Apple things in our home, but these are the things that are specifically mine. My promise to myself is to purchase a new MacBook when I can no longer update to the next version of OS X. Surprise…the next version of OS X (Yosemite) will run on my MacBook. So…no new MacBook for me. Honestly, though, I pretty much only use my MacBook for Finale, PDFtoMusic, and PhotoScore Ultimate. We also use it as the home for our family pictures. Other than that–I use my iPad or iPhone

I did not update to the iPad Air, and this year will be a year of updating for me. I was waiting for Touch ID (unlock with fingerprint), which did not happen last year. This year’s release will be four to ten times faster than my iPad, so it will be time to update. My iPad is my #1 tool, so it is worth updating my iPad to me. It may not be worth updating for you.

Our iPhones are heavy lifters in our family. My wife lives on Facebook and Instagram via her iPhone. I do most of my reading on my iPhone. When AT&T changed their update policy (they used to offer annual updates to the newest iPhone), we stopped updating until the end of a contract. Our phones are two years old, and as of this writing, we expect new iPhones–with a new carrier–on Tuesday. We’ll see…the order was inexplicably cancelled today (I went to a T-Mobile store and placed the order in person this evening)

At its last press conference, Apple focused on three “new” things. Two iPhones and the Apple Watch.

I don’t understand the public’s desire for “phablets,” but it is clear that a lot of people want a phone that is a small tablet. Although that would be great for reading and browsing the web, it seems impractical as a phone. And I wouldn’t want to read or compose music on it. Sales of the iPhone 6 Plus are through the roof (as is the iPhone 6), so clearly my opinion is my own. I look forward to a rounded phone again (I have never been a big fan of the square iPhone 4-5) and I look forward to improvements in speed as well as Touch ID.

But in truth, most phones are now smart phones, and pretty much any phone will do what other phones will do. iPhones do have an easier to use operating system, but once you get past the operating system, all the main apps that people use look the same on both devices. I know all the arguments on both sides–but it comes down to the idea of simply buying what you like.

When it comes to tablets, the list of available apps (particularly in music education) begin to highly favor the iPad, and for good reason–the iPad was built around Core MIDI, Android doesn’t make that a priority. And does it come as a surprise that Apple would make a device that would be more friendly towards musicians? Granted, there are apps such as NotateMe that favor a Samsung device with a dedicated stylus, but these apps are rare–and usually available on both iOS and Android.

The other new product Apple introduced is the Apple Watch. The device isn’t coming until 2015, but Apple had to announce something “revolutionary” because simply improving your existing products isn’t enough for the tech journalists. I will buy an Apple Watch–I have been using an iPod Nano with a special Hex watchband as my primary watch for three or four years. It will be a nice accessory to the iPhone (iMessages, e-mail, and other apps) but it won’t be “necessary.” I look forward to the first developers who make a metronome and pitch pipe for the device!

Apple introduced some other concepts, such as Apple Pay. Truly, if I can do away with carrying credit cards and typing in credit card numbers–with the added security of purchasing only via my fingerprint–sign me up for that. And of course, Apple also introduced iOS 8, which has a bunch of new features (mainly for developers to make better apps), but in the process some things are now broken, such as Air Turn functionality on iOS 8. The AirTurn acts as a keyboard, and iOS 8 treats keyboards differently than in past versions of the OS. Developers use the code provided by AirTurn, and iOS 8 has changed how that code interacts–leaving the developers of the apps “under fire” when the problem lies somewhere between Apple and AirTurn. I’m hoping that AirTurn can get the “ear” of Apple and a solution can be found, soon.

So, in summary, Apple released and introduced a lot of nice things as “new stuff” earlier this month. Some things, such as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, can be purchased now. iOS 8 is out (if your device supports it). And other items are coming later (Apple Pay and Apple Watch)

Do you need an iPhone? Well, are you under contract with your current device, or can you upgrade? Do you like your current phone, or have you been longing for something else? It’s really a personal choice.

Do you need an Apple Watch? Probably not. But if you want one, buy one

Do you need Apple Pay? If you don’t need a solution to credit cards, I do.

Do you need iOS 8? If you have a device that can run it, probably.

There will be more news from Apple before the end of the year (October?) which will introduce new iPads and likely new MacBooks. There may even be some new devices introduced, such as an iPad “Pro.” Stay tuned.

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!

 

Some Tablet Thoughts from a Developer (and CEO)

I am a music educator, and I specifically teach middle school choir, although I hold licenses for K-12 general music, band, orchestra, and choir. That is what I do for my day job, and the topic of music education and technology is simply an area of interest for me, as well as a hobby. The blog, of course, generates very little revenue (unless you buy a recommended app from a referral link, which will send 7% of the proceeds my direction), and the iBooks I have written also do not generate much income. Ultimately, the goal is to “give back” to the profession.

One of the privileges of writing the blog is the chance to interact with developers and other bloggers. At the same time, in general, app developers seem to value interaction with app users–good feedback can help the app improve, and a positive recommendation (either on the App Store or in person) can result in more sales. Not all feedback is useful, to be sure, but the conversation is important both ways. This is a new concept…in the past, end users had little or no way to express thoughts or ask questions about the programs they used.

Over the last months, I have had the opporunity to visit with Martin Dawe, CEO of Neuratron, about their app, NotateMe (and NotateMe Now), which is available on iOS and Android. It was the first app to allow you to convert music handwriting into digital notation–and as of last month, the app now allows the camera of a device to scan existing sheet music into digital notation. The app costs $39.99, and the in-app purchase is an additional $29.99. While the app environment has trained us to think that a $5.00 app is expensive, the truth is that most apps are underpriced. While $70.00 for that app combination may seem expensive–the truth is that the purchase of a scanner and “full” PhotoScore would be greater than a $300 purchase.

I am fully in support of NotateMe, just as I have been of PhotoScore since I bought the program for my MacBook several years ago. Although scanning music isn't an exact science (there are always issues), I have found PhotoScore to be the best scanning software available for my computer. In my testing, the PhotoScore in-app purchase results in scans that are nearly as accurate as the Mac/Windows version (the full version allows for a number of other features…but my main concern is just getting music from paper to digital with the least amount of errors).

I see a time coming where a number of musicians and music teachers may purchase a tablet just to scan music. If your goal is to simply scan music, what tablet should you buy?

My traditional answer is: an iPad Air or an iPad Mini with Retina Display. However…if you can, wait until November as new iPads should be released for the holiday season. Why the iPad? There are more music apps of higher quality, apps that tap into the iPad's Core MIDI functionality, and more music-specific accessories (including the JamStik, which recently started shipping to Indiegogo backers).

I realize that I am iPad-focused. As I thought about this topic, I decided that I would ask Martin Dawe (CEO of Neuratron) what tablet he would recommend, as he comes at the issue as a developer who works with iOS and Android.

Mr. Dawe suggested Samsung Galaxy Note tablets for use with NotateMe and PhotoScore (he personally owns both a phone and a tablet that are Note versions). This is because the Galaxy Note includes an S-Pen which allows you to write on your screen, is pressure sensitive, and has auto-palm rejection (built into the NotateMe app). If you are using a Samsung Galaxy Note tablet with NotateMe, your music writing experience is going to be better than using any other Android device or an iPad/iPhone.

Additionally, if you are interested specifically in the PhotoScore in-app purchase of NotateMe (I do think this will happen), Mr. Dawe suggested the purchase of a newer Android device with a higher resolution camera (generally, 8 MP versus the current 5 MP version found in iPads) and auto-focus. Not all Android tablets have auto focus, which is needed for accurate scanning.

Incidentally, Neuratron uses a cross-platform tool to program for Android and iOS, so updates are pushed out at the same time for both platforms, and could potentally move to other platforms as they develop/mature.

I recently purchased a 2013 Nexus 7 Tablet so that I could run the latest software from various developers. If I were to spend “big money” on a tablet that wasn't an iPad (I bought the Nexus 7 for $200), I would consider the Samsung Galaxy Note 12.2 (Android $649 starting price) or the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. Neither device has the same music app resources as an iPad, but both are stellar machines. Both devices have a larger screen than an iPad, and when it comes to music reading, that is a good thing. The number one thing that could make the iPad better for music educators? A larger iPad as an option for reading music scores and working with music notation (although an S Pen would be a nice addition).

I need my tablet to do a few more things than Android or Windows tablets can currently do (limited mainly by the availability of music apps) such as the features offered by forScore (or unrealBook) and Notion (or Symphony Pro)…so the iPad remains the tablet I would recommend; but if you need a tablet for the purpose of scanning music, consider the advice of Martin Dawe and purchase any one of the recent Samsung Galaxy Note models!

 

 

Are Chromebooks or iPads Better for Schools?

Yesterday an article entitled “Are Chromebooks or iPads Better for Schools?” circulated across Twitter, showing up in my feed at least ten times. The article, for the most part, describes how the Hillsborough, New Jersey school district, after a year of piloting iPads and Chromebooks, sold all their iPads and distributed 4,600 Chromebooks. Click here to read the article.

As always, I am concerned about how devices can be used in music education and other electives (this blog, as named, is about technology in music education, and that will always be my primary concern).

As you read the article, notice four things:

1. iPads are highlighted as failues in LAUSD and Fort Bend, Texas–as well as directly linked to the disasterous Amplify tablet rollout in the Guilford County Schools (North Carolina)

2. Teachers are interviewed in the article, but did you notice the subject areas they teach? Jennifer Harmsen, Social Studies. Larissa McCann, Science. No music or elective teacher's thoughts are recorded about the subject.

3. Anti-iPad/pro-Chromebook feedback from Hillsborough's IT Director:

While nobody hated the iPad, by any means, the iPad was edged out by some key feedback, said Joel Handler, Hillsborough’s director of technology. Students saw the iPad as a “fun” gaming environment, while the Chromebook was perceived as a place to “get to work.” And as much as students liked to annotate and read on the iPad, the Chromebook’s keyboard was a greater perk — especially since the new Common Core online testing will require a keyboard.

Another important finding came from the technology support department: It was far easier to manage almost 200 Chromebooks than the same number of iPads. Since all the Chromebook files live in an online “cloud,” students could be up and running in seconds on a new device if their machine broke. And apps could be pushed to all of the devices with just a few mouse clicks.

Hillsborough educators also tend to emphasize collaboration, and they found that Google’s Apps for Education suite—which works on either device—was easier to use collaboratively on Chromebooks.

I have written about these items before: there is nothing wrong with a “fun” device, as long as the teacher simply manages their classroom. A fun device can be used productively, too. New iPad management tools, released as part of the failed LAUSD situation, make the management of iPads MUCH easier. But without a doubt, GAFE work best on a Chromebook, Mac, or Windows computer that has a keyboard. GAFE is centered around the concept of typing (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations). On other other hand, GAFE apps do seem to work better on an iPad than Google's own Android tablet.

4. And most importantly, although hidden in the article:

At Hillsborough, the Chromebooks are currently being supplemented by 3,000 Nexus tablets, handed out by Google as part of a new pilot program.

Did you notice that? The school district was given 3,000 Nexus tablets by Google–I am sure that had nothing to do with their choice of Chromebooks over iPads.

To be fair, there is a positive paragraph about iPads as used by David Mahaley, an administrator and classroom teacher at Franklin Academy in Wake Forest, North Carolina. But the overall message of the article is clear: Chromebooks are the way to go.

I simply urge you to remember that there are other subjects in education beyond social studies, science, or English. Your choice of 1:1 technology needs to be the best fit for all subjects. Please don't forget us! There is more to say on this subject–but as you read stories that are pro/anti devices, make sure to look at all the details and all the angles!

 

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