Category Archives: General Musings

General Musings

New iPads? Who cares?

Actually, I do.

I am going to be purchasing the iPad Air 2 from T-Mobile, the first time I will have purchased a cellular version of the device.  T-Mobile allows you to finance the device interest free, even without a monthly data plan (which would be $10 for 2.5 GB per month).  My current iPad is the 4th generation iPad, and it is time to upgrade.  Why?

  1. Touch ID.  My new iPhone 6 has the Touch ID feature, and it is wonderful.  I was never a fan of using a passcode on my iPad, as I use it as my primary teaching device.  Believe it or not, when I’m teaching, I want to just “be” on my device and not have to fight a passcode.  Touch ID solves that issue for me (and many other users), and it works.
  2. Faster processor.  Apple’s charts showed that the iPad Air 2 is twice as fast as my 4th Generation iPad.  My rule of thumb–at least with these current devices–is a doubling of speed.  There will be a point (perhaps with the iPad Air 2) where we will no longer see such leaps of speed, but we’re not there yet.
  3. Faster graphics processor.  The iPad Air 2 is something to the effect of 10 times faster than my 4th Generation iPad.  Considering that so many of my music apps are graphics-heavy (PDF music readers, Notion, etc.), this will make a big difference.
  4. Anti-Glare Screen.  If you have ever performed on stage with an iPad, you will know why this is an attractive feature.
  5. More memory.  The top iPad starts at 128GB.  That is what I need.

There are other advances…it is thinner, has faster wi-fi, and a much better camera (which will help when using PhotoScore in NotateMe).

There are some things I didn’t like about the recent Apple announcement.  First, starting any device with 16GB is simply inexcusable these days…iPhone or iPad.  I dislike seeing schools buying the 16GB model.  Second, the fact the iPad Mini’s only advancement was the Touch ID button and the colors.  Last year, I liked that the iPad Mini was the same basic device as the iPad Air, just smaller.  Sure, the iPad Mini 3 will still be a good tablet, but it should have gotten an A8 or A8X processor like the iPhone 6 or iPad Air 2.  Finally, I dislike that Apple has kept the pre-64 bit iPads in the line-up.  All of those devices should have been put to pasture, just as the iPad 2 should have been last year (and then was quietly dismissed during the year).

If you have an iPad Air, you don’t need to update–unless you want to.  If you have the iPad Mini (2) with Retina Display, you don’t need to update–unless you want to.  If you have the iPad 2, 3rd Generation iPad, or 4th Generation iPad, it might be a good time to update.  It might be better to wait for a couple of months when Apple starts selling refurbished units.  If you have an iPad 1, it is time to move up.

The other thing to remember is that you can still get a decent amount of money for your used Apple equipment, even an iPad 1.

A Week with the iPhone 6

We have had our new iPhones over a week now. For the record, my wife and I moved from the iPhone 5, and my in-laws moved from the iPhone 5c. We're a few days away from AT&T's ETF fees, which will then be passed on to T-Mobile to reimburse; and our old phones have been sent to T-Mobile as a trade-in. Yes, you can sell your phone yourself, but we expected to only get $250 at best for our old iPhone 5 models, and my in-law's iPhone 5c models were still locked under contract. Easier just to trade them all in for just a few dollars less (this is the truth).

T-Mobile has offered decent coverage; yes, blazing fast LTE is limited to the metro area (my iPhone recorded a speed test of over 35 Mbps while on LTE in the Twin Cities area, which is faster than my 24 Mbps router at home, or the 11 Mbps LTE coverage near our house). Otherwise, we seem to have cell coverage–and no coverage–in the same areas that we experience with AT&T. But when you have that T-Mobile LTE…it is INCREDIBLY faster than AT&T (which incidentally scored 5 Mbps just a day before we moved to T-Mobile).

As for the devices, they are simply the nicest phones we have ever owned. I like the curved edges; I love Touch ID; Siri is much improved in iOS 8 (I find myself composing many e-mails through Siri); The larger screen of the iPhone 6 is practically bigger, not “terribly” bigger (we aren't 6 Plus people); The camera is great; and battery life is better than our iPhone 5 models. I have no issues with the new location of the power switch, and wi-fi calling has been fantastic (working in a school where there are places without cell service, but ubiqutious wi-fi). I know a lot of people were excited for the ability to use custom keyboards with iOS 8, but I don't have a single non-stock keyboard installed.

Even iOS 8 seems to work better on my iPhone 6 than on my iPad (4th Generation). This is iPad replacement year for me (supposedly, new models are going to be introduced on October 16), so that doesn't bother me too much, but I do hope that Apple irons out the bugs in iOS 8 soon for the sake of our 1:1 which is populated with all 4th Generation iPads.

Should YOU buy an iPhone 6? Well, if you are an iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad person, and you are up for a new phone, absolutely. If you have no allegiance, then (insert shocked sound), I don't think you can go wrong with any of the top-of-the-line Android phone, either. Here's the deal: you will find that you use your phone for specific tasks. This includes (for us) calls, FaceTime, texting, e-mail, social media (Twitter, Facebook), taking pictures, taking videos, and some games. In truth, Android does these things just as well as Apple's iOS. Two things start to influence you: the amount of money you have invested in the platform (e.g. apps, games, and accessories), and your familiarity with the operating system. The average user isn't going to be spending a lot of time messing around with individual settings on the iPhone or an Android device. So when it comes to phones, buy what makes you happy. I truly believe that.

But for our family, the iPhone 6 represents yet another layer of refinement and reliability from a device that was already a part of our lives. We're pretty happy with our purchase and our move to T-Mobile, even though it took us a week longer to get our devices than originally planned. We will hold on to our devices for two years and plan to look forward to our next iPhone purchase–the iPhone 7 (2016).

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!



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