Thoughts from TMEA

My wife and I returned yesterday from a short trip to San Antonio, where I presented a session on the S-Cubed Sight Singing Method on Saturday morning.  A huge thank you to everyone that attended that session!

I had previously blogged that I had applied to TMEA and none of my proposals were accepted—furthermore, because we had a new principal, I did not apply at any other conferences.  At some point—it must have been October—TMEA contacted me, letting me know that someone had withdrawn their proposal, and asked if I would like to present one of my sessions, specifically my S-Cubed session.  I was happy to accept that proposal, and used two of my personal days (not sick days) to attend the conference.

My wife and I have been flying Spirit airlines over the last year, and we really like the company.  We travel with a minimum of belongings, and every flight has been a positive experience.  If you travel with more stuff, I can see how Spirit would be more of a negative experience—but we’re happy with it.  I even bought a sopranissimo ukulele so that I can fit it in the Spirit-sized personal item.  We couldn’t fly into San Antonio on Spirit, so we chose to fly into Dallas, where we rented a car.  We stayed in Dallas on Wednesday night, made our way to San Antonio on Thursday (having dinner at our favorite restaurant, Guillermo’s), and I spent Friday at the convention and Saturday morning at the convention as well.  We had dinner on Friday at Lulu’s—home of the 3lb cinnamon roll (we did not order one—at least this time).

I attended a few sessions—both of the offered ukulele sessions, as well as a couple of other sessions.  My main focus at conferences is to make connections with other like-minded (or like-interest) people, so it was fun to have lunch with Robby Burns and Daniel Jamieson on Friday, where we talked about a lot of things (note to self: I have to download Bear notes for iOS), as well as to finally meet Greg Dellera and Ryan Sargent from MakeMusic, Meredith Allen from SoundTrap, Katie Wardrobe from Midnight Music, and to say “Hi” to John Mlynczak from Noteflight and Floyd Richmond from Houghton College.  I also enjoyed meeting Andy Ramos, who has been making ukulele play along videos as well.  I didn’t spend very much time in the TI:ME area, so I missed a number of my techie colleagues (e.g. Barbara Freedman and Amy Burns) but at a conference as large as TMEA with the limited time I was actually there, that isn’t a surprise.  As my wife was with me, who is not a techie nor a music educator, and I didn’t want to ditch her or force her into additional conversations (e.g. meals) where she would be bored.

TMEA’s exhibit area is simply overwhelming if you aren’t used to it.  Even so, there were a few products that were not represented this year (I am sure that the costs to have a booth are overwhelming), and in that case, I wish the vendors would still come and float around with their product (that is what I would do).  Interest in ukuleles was sky high (I’ll apply again to present next year) and vendors were selling a lot of them.

What I’m trying to sort out in my brain right now is where we are at, as a profession, with music technology.  We have more tools than ever—and there are functional tools on every platform, even though some platforms (in my opinion) remain better suited for certain tasks.  And it is pretty clear that there is still a huge divide between “traditional” music education and what we consider “music technology.”  I think elementary teachers are better suited to incorporate music technology into their lessons—but when performance becomes the focus (where the majority of secondary music education lies), “music technology” is still a rare course in many schools across the country.  It is nice to hear from teachers who have such programs—and understandably, they challenge “performance based” music educators to do more.

I guess it is always true, but we have a long way to go.

I love going to Texas, and if I have one conference that I can attend/present at, it is my top choice (and there are MANY fine conferences across the country).  If you haven’t been to TMEA (and there is a one day TI:ME additional conference on Wednesday for $50 extra), make it a priority next year to go!  You won’t regret it, and if you are from the northern states, it is nice to see 70º in February (it was a little colder this time than it has been during my other trips).

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New Pricing from SmartMusic

This news was released a couple of days before TMEA, but MakeMusic has just announced a whole new pricing plan for SmartMusic.  The cost is $40 per educator, giving the educator access to all of SmartMusic’s tools, and then there are three new tiers for student accounts for SmartMusic.

Basic ($4 per student per year) allows student access to all method books and any materials that you create as a teacher.

Standard ($8 per student per year) allows student access to method books assigned by the teacher and teacher-created materials, as well as solo and ensemble, as well as “group” literature assigned by the teacher (i.e. if you want to assign your concert literature to students, this is the plan they will need).

Premium ($12 per student per year) allows students to accesss all content on SmartMusic on their own.  They can still access assigned lesson books, literature, and teacher-created materials.

The old plans required a set starting fee ($399 per year) plus a 50 student minimum.  The new pricing allows for a program of any size to use SmartMusic.  The Premium model used to cost $40, or $20 through the school.  That’s a major savings for the student on that plan…at either price point!

Many programs will want to look at the $8 pricing level, which would give students access to method books and the scores they are working on in class (provided that the scores are a part of the existing SmartMusic library—and many directors choose literature that is a part of the library).  You can create your own resources…but that takes a greater commitment of your time and energy, and you would not have access to the recordings that are a part of SmartMusic as well.  Choral music educators are used to creating their own materials, but we generally have two to four voices plus piano, unlike a band score with a much wider range of instruments/parts.

With the $8 model, think of the cost as $1 per month per student.  That’s an incredible deal.  Add $0.50 per month ($1.50 per student per month) and students have access to everything on SmartMusic. That is a great deal, too!

If you haven’t been using SmartMusic and price or the previous structure didn’t work for you…it might be time to check out SmartMusic again, and to see what the “New” SmartMusic is all about!


Ultimate Guitar Acquires MuseScore

Reported first by Scoring Notes, it appears that Ultimate Guitar has acquired MuseScore.

MuseScore has been an outlier in the world of music notation.  It is an open source, free program that can do most of what musicians (including educators) need a program to do, and it runs much like Sibelius.  This past weekend, I visited with a fellow music education techie who mentioned that they have not upgraded Sibelius since version 6, and are generally using MuseScore for most of their work.

Music Notation is a crowded industry right now, with programs such as Sibelius, Finale, and Dorico, as well as programs like Noteflight and Flat.io, and platform specific solutions such as Notion (Mac/Win or iOS), StaffPad (Win), Komp (iOS), MusicJot (iOS), Symphony Pro (iOS), Forte (Win), and others.  George Hess just wrote about this today as well, and he does what I do…most of his work in Notion (Mac/Win or iOS).  I move to Finale when I can’t do what I need to do in Notion.  All of these are paid programs.  And now there are notation editors in programs such as SmartMusic and Soundslice, too!

MuseScore has been the outlier.  Several years ago, I asked college students what programs they used, and they all used MuseScore.  What did you use in college?  Do you still use that application?  Chances are, you do.  What does this mean for the future of software notation?  And now that MusicXML is not controlled by a company and can be freely used by every application (and new versions of MusicXML will be even better)—there is nothing to stop you from using whatever program you want to use.  So why not choose free?

The large elephant in the room has been this: why pay for a notation program when a free version does nearly everything that you want it to do, with similar results?  The answer usually lies in three categories:

  • I need tech support that I can call; I don’t want to rely on a community for answers
  • I want a program that is easier to use (Notion and Dorico)
  • I need all the power I can get because I am a super human

I’ve been watching MuseScore for years, occasionally using it (the Sibelius-type note entry is hard to wrap my mind around as a Finale user), and have simply marveled at its existence.  George mentions that the core developers of MuseScore wanted to make money with the program even when it was free.  I suppose they have, at least now with the acquisition.

Ultimate Guitar has been very useful for me as I make ukulele play along videos—I check their chords when I work with music to make sure that chords I am using are correct.  However, if you want all the functions of Ultimate Guitar, you need to subscribe (e.g. transposition).  We call this a subscription/freemium model, and it works.  In the world of iOS apps, it is one of the only ways to sustain income over time (versus the one time purchase of an app).

MuseScore and Ultimate Guitar are both promising that MuseScore will remain free and open source; and that MuseScore 3 (which could once again change the playing field) is still under development.  All that said, I’m betting that MuseScore will be a freemium application, offering basic features for free, but advanced features for an affordable monthly or yearly rate.  Again, mind, you, that is MY guess and has NOT been stated by either company.  Just remember…if you want a product to make money, you have to actually collect money somehow.

Soundtrap was recently acquired by Spotify.  Peaksware acquired MakeMusic and Alfred.  Hal Leonard acquired Noteflight.  Acquisition seems to be a part of the process in the field of music technology.

If you want to follow this industry more closely, follow the work at Scoring Notes and the thoughts of George Hess!


TMEA 2018

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I have been busy with school, the musical, and using technology to create materials for my mid-year ukulele efforts with my choirs.  With new administration in our building, I took a step back from presenting this year and only applied for TMEA (Texas), and was thrilled to be asked to present a session when someone else declined.  I love San Antonio, and if I lived here, I would be on the Riverwalk every day.  Is there a San Antonio school or college that needs a band/choir/music technology/ukulele teacher? 🙂

On Saturday (February 17), I am presenting a session using my choral conductor skills, on the topic of Dale Duncan’s excellent S-Cubed sight singing method.  No…I am not compensated by Dale in any way…just a teacher who uses the method, modifying it where I need to modify it for my needs, and then wanting to share it with others.

If you are at the session on Saturday, you can find the session “slides” here: S-Cubed for TMEA


Technology that can help you through the tough days…

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We’re in the rough part of winter in the Midwest, where we will see temperatures between -20ºF and 50ºF over the next two months, with the potential of snow and rain (of both the frozen and unfrozen varieties).  These can be rough months to get through—made even more difficult if you are in a tough teaching positions.

I try to be very careful about what I post about my position, but my position is a tough position in a Title 1 school, and  there are unique challenges in my particular position as students have to take music, and if they aren’t in band or orchestra, they are in choir.  We’re also trying to integrate PBIS, the first year of a five to seven year process—and if PBIS is true (I think it is…PBIS is how teachers in healthy schools have always taught), then we also have to acknowledge that anti-PBIS is true.  Either your 60% of compliant students will impact the other 40% (I’m using skewed numbers reflecting my position), or the 40% of non-compliant students will impact the 60%.  Change is slow and hard.  And the issues aren’t solely in my classroom—they are present throughout the school (Otherwise, the answer is pretty simple: find a new teacher).

We have a new principal (who is excellent), we open a new school with different boundaries (and thus student population) in the fall, we are continuing with PBIS, and 8th Grade music will become an elective instead of a required course.  As a result, eight months from now, my position will look very different than it has for the past 9 years (this is my 5th year in this position).  That’s all good…but how do you make it through the next five months?

I am tired of the educational “gurus” who keep laying the blame on teachers.  If you think teachers are the problem, then get off your hiney and come work alongside those teachers and stop preaching at them from your social media pulpit.  In the process of chastising teachers, those who are doing what you suggest will simply puff themselves up, those that aren’t going to do it will still ignore you, and those in broken positions will take the admonition to heart, adding more weight to their “heart” that already feels as if they are to blame.

We also have to accept that some systems are broken, regardless of how much time you put into relationships with students.  I’m not saying that you shoudn’t build relationships with students—but I don’t know many teachers in this day and age who do not!  There are a few, sure—but they are far and few between.  In an industry where we are seeing teachers leave the field in less than three years, we need to start caring about the physical and mental well-being of teachers.  I fear that a lot of mental harm is done to teachers who are admonished for not working hard enough, not caring enough, and not doing enough to reach students.  This has to stop.

If you are a teacher in a happy, healthy situation—I celebrate with you.  I’ve been there with you, and I know how great that experience is.  Enjoy that time to the fullest and make it last as long as you can.  For those teachers who are in less than ideal situations—and you’re stuck in your position, I want to bring two tools to you today.

The first is simply a post by Tracy King, a music educator who has a presence on social media and sells a number of materials on Teachers Pay Teachers.  She wrote a blog about dealing with teacher burnout, and if your batteries are running low, read that blog post (link).

The second is for me to admit that I have always relied on my loud voice throughout my career.  I am an operatic tenor with the ability to produce a Decibel level approaching that of a jet taking off (well, not really).  When I was teaching high school choir, music theory, music history, or guitar, my students generally chose to be there and thus were invested in what they were doing.  I only raised my voice when I wanted to—usually as a joke.  Perhaps there were classes of 9th grade boys that needed more volume than others, but I generally just used my normal singing and talking voice (and I’m loud, as my wife would be happy to tell you)

Since I began teaching music to students at the middle school level, where a healthy percentage of students would rather not be in the class, I have found myself regularly suffering from vocal fatigue and connected illnesses.  I have had to be louder and larger to gain their attention.  Yes, I am aware that there are quieting techniques such as EnVoy (I am learning about EnVoy as part of my personal development plan this year), but those techniques are less effective when an entire school staff has to be louder and larger to fight an anti-PBIS environment (again, we’re in year 1 of a multi-year process).  As we moved to ukulele for a couple of months in the middle of the year, I found myself dreading the volume I would need to project over fifty ukuleles (as well as the students who simply keep strumming no matter what—the same students that if you take away the ukulele will disrupt your class in other more significant ways).  I thought back to my master’s work, where I took a class on “Body and Mind,” where the instructor (a voice therapist) begged all of us to use voice amplification systems.  I ignored that advice—I was teaching high school music to kids that listened, which didn’t stress out my voice (he also suggested that we don’t sing along with our students—something I still struggle with when teaching students.  Guess what I start doing when we go back to singing on a daily basis in March?).

I opened a new high school nine years ago, and it was technology-packed (thus my desire  to go to the school).  The technology package had a voice reinforcement package for every classroom.  It turned out it was truly “reinforcement” versus “amplification.”  Teachers needed amplification in the room, not “reinforcement.”  As a result, the system didn’t work for teacher needs—and specialists from the company were brought out who verified the systems were working as designed—with no benefit for the teachers.  As a result, nobody used those systems (I tried, and gave up, as did others).  With our new school that opens up next fall, “amplification” is included.  That will be a different situation altogether.

However, in our current school, there are only certain classrooms with the ability to do teacher amplification—and my classroom is not one of them.

I decided to break down and buy an inexpensive wireless microphone system (less than $40–the Pyle lavalier system.  I’m not going to give it a five star rating, but it works), which I have hooked up into our portable PA system.  I now run my computer through a Bluetooth audio connection (more about this later), and then my voice through the lavalier system, all through the PA.

Since adding the microphone, I find myself in a much better state of mind at the end of the day.  I can still utilize EnVoy techniques—but I also am taxing my vocal folds significantly less than I used to.  The job is still incredibly tough, and many days I still feel as if I am invisible or that I have failed—but some physical wear and tear has been taken off my shoulders, and that makes things a little bit better.  When you feel that you are at the bottom, even a little boost is significant.

So, that second tip?  Invest in a wireless audio system for your room.  I know it might sound crazy…but you owe it to yourself.  I was told to buy that system in 2002 and put it off for fifteen years.  I was a fool.  Don’t follow my foolish example.

At a later time, I will write about the Bluetooth audio connection and how that has been a blessing (and far more reliable than AirPlay).  I have also changed my approach to let my iPad be my iPad (after all, I bought it), and to use my school issued computer for projection without mirroring my iPad to that computer.  Again, I’ll write about all of this at a later point.

And to anyone going through tough times…many of us are with you, or have been in your shoes.   Some people have never been in that position, and they may not be able to empathize with you—so it can be a challenge to share how you are feeling—make sure that people actually want to hear how you are doing, and then share.  Sadly, many people are fine just using the superficial, “Things are great,” even when they are not.  Hang in there…take care of yourself…do get counseling help if you need it (yes, most of us benefit from such things)…and consider using some technology tools to help you make it through the day.


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