JamStik+ Kickstarter Campaign Begins Today!

I will begin this post with a simple statement and a link. The JamStik+ began on KickStarter today, and met its goal in just over three hours. The promotion is still underway, and for the first 48 hours, you can buy a JamStik+ for $100 off retail. If you are interested, the link is: http://kck.st/18XReLB. Even if you miss the first 48 hours, you can still “buy in” at a lower cost during the campaign.

Now…for the interesting stuff. The JamStik was created in nearby (for me) Minneapolis, with a combined effort of guitar players and engineers (and some mixture of the two), and was funded, in part, by an earlier Indiegogo campaign (2013, which raised about $180,000). The goal from the start was to create a wireless, portable guitar that could act as both a instructional tool for guitar and as a MIDI controller. It was never meant to be a guitar replacement, and the device, which finally shipped in the fall of 2014, did everything that it said it would do. Along with the device, Zivix (the company behind JamStik) came up with new wireless protocols, developed a wireless MIDI device (Puc), and released three iOS apps, one needed to connect the JamStik (JamStik Connect), one as a instructional “game” (JamTutor), and one mixing app (JamMix).

If you bought a JamStik–via Indiegogo or afterwards–you were likely happy with the purchase. It met every promised characteristics. There were a few hard core guitarists that weren’t happy, but again, they were looking for the JamStik to be a guitar replacement, not a tool for instruction or a MIDI tool for guitarists.

A few music educators saw the JamStik and realized its potential for the classroom. It is safe to say that education has ALWAYS been a part of the JamStik, but the vision has been 1:1 versus a classroom setting. Through a combination of fundraising, some help from my school, and some help from Zivix, we have a set of nine JamStiks that I have been able to use with students this year–and although there have been some challenges, I am excited about the potential of the device. The devices are rugged (withstanding abuse), the batteries last for more than a week of use across various classes, and the software works well. Sure, I have some items on the “wish list,” but the updates to the JamStik firmware have been wonderful (changing a D-Pad function to a capo, for example) and the company continues to develop and refine its apps.

This is the part of the KickStarter that might be missed in the campaign…for every 15 JamStik+ units that are sold, 1 will be donated to education. Take a look:

How great is that? Not only can you purchase a JamStik+ at a discount, you can also be a part of a donation to an educational group (this could mean a school, or another educational setting).

Now that it is 2015, there are only 2 potential setbacks to the original JamStik (from ancient 2014), which of course still works perfectly. The first is that Apple released Bluetooth MIDI in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, which changes how you interface with a MIDI device. The JamStik+ is a low energy Bluetooth device, so it can connect to Bluetooth MIDI enabled apps (on iOS or Mac) without any background app (or cables). The original JamStik acted as a wireless router, and truthfully, the connection process (although simple) was the hardest part about using a JamStik (In other words, a pain point, but a very, very small one).

The other limitation of the original JamStik was criticism from “real” guitarists, who wanted the device to be able to handle pull-offs and some other guitar techniques. These are not techniques that we use in guitar classes–so they are not really a limitation for anything we do. Zivix answered that concern by adding a pickup to the JamStik, which will result in even greater accuracy and sensitivity, as well as allow for some advanced guitar techniques.

The addition for Bluetooth MIDI is the big point for me–it’s a game changer in simplicity, not only for the JamStik, but for ANY MIDI device. Yes, a Bluetooth MIDI Guitar controller for $199 (KickStarter 48 hour price) is worth the cost of an upgrade (and any price point is worth the investment, if you play guitar).

Do you play guitar and write your own music? Then you need this device and either Progression or Notion on your iPad. You won’t regret it. If you have been thinking about a JamStik–now is the time to buy one. If you believe in the product, how about sponsiring $5, or buying the JamStik “goodies” pack. Either way…act soon. The campaign lasts 42 more days, and although some offers will end, some discounts will be available until the end of the campaign.





Questions about SmartMusic

Today I received an e-mail asking about SmartMusic.  The author had a question about this statement from a presentation I made at ILMEA in 2014:

“Today, SmartMusic is a complete practice, assessment, and performance tool.” (http://www.ilmea.org/site_media/filer_public/2014/01/17/russell.pdf)

The author expressed his belief that tone, tone quality, and phrasing are more important factors to performance; and that SmartMusic only assesses pitch and rhythm.

There are two truths here:


SmartMusic–and a number of other services coming online in the “industry”, such as Weezic and Music Prodigy, ARE assessing pitch and rhythm.  They give you quantitative feedback about the quantitative parts of the music creation process.  But these are crucial and critical items.

I don’t know about your band, choirs, and orchestras, but the first hurdle is learning the correct notes and rhythms–and sight reading ability is at an all-time low, particularly in choral music.  There are some directors who teach holistically from the start, teaching phrasing while learning notes (and dynamics, and lyrics/language).  I don’t happen to be one of those directors, as that model of learning was never modeled for me at any point in my career (in professional choirs, you are expected to arrive knowing the music).

So, yes…these programs are assessing pitch and rhythm, which are essential for the music to be performed correctly.


When used properly, SmartMusic is not on its own.  Students are supposed to submit their recordings to their directors, who are supposed to listen to those recordings and give feedback to their students/members.  If you are using SmartMusic as a director and NOT listening to those recordings, you aren’t “closing the loop.”  This is where you can give feedback–as detailed as you want–to each student about those other things, such as tone, dynamics, articulation, pronunciation, and phrasing.  It is when the teacher uses SmartMusic as intended that it becomes a complete practice, assessment, and performance tool.

Back to the dialogue:

When I presented this session, SmartMusic had JUST (literally the night before) released a version of SmartMusic on the iPad that allowed you to upload your own literature to the device.  Up until that point, you had to only use existing resources on the iPad.  At the time, I was still trying to use SmartMusic in my teaching and was very excited about the possibilities with the app.

Those possibilities are still there, but my current teaching position doesn’t allow for the use of SmartMusic, even though every student has an iPad.  Our students have iPads as a part of a project to change instruction and learning in our lowest performing schools.  And while the correlation is not 100%, you can often tie performance with socioeconomic factors.  My school is one of the poorest schools in our district–and we have many students in choir that cannot afford a t-shirt ($8) to wear as a concert uniform.  As a result, I can’t ask students to pay $40 a year for a service they use in only choir (every-other-day), and the district certainly doesn’t have the financial resources to pay for SmartMusic for every student (we have $8 million in cuts next year).  I also have no practice rooms available for the choir (practice room subscriptions).  So while I feel $40 a year is a fair price–I also understand how many of my students could not possibly afford it, and that keeps me from using it.

This is why some of the other new services are of interest to me–Music Prodigy (currently $30 per year per student–still out of our price range) and Weezic (pricing and features to be determined).  I would love to have a tool like SmartMusic available to all my students, to help them learn music and hold them accountable to the right pitches and rhythms–and to also give me more 1:1 time with them via those recordings and my feedback to them.  They would get the immediate feedback about pitch and rhythm and my eventual feedback about other issues.

The other issue I have in my current position is that I have over 300 students, and listening to 300 recordings is not an easy task–yet some of you have many more students than I do!  Some suggestions: make sure students are recording an essential element in a song (something that needs work or shows mastery of the song), make sure the selection is no longer than 30 minutes, and consider using a rubric that can give quality feedback versus personal statements to each student (which takes exponentially longer).

So…in conclusion, I do feel that SmartMusic remains the best option for a practice, assessment, and performance tool (but other programs are out there and improving at a fast rate).  When used correctly by a director, SmartMusic can be a COMPLETE part of that process, involving other elements of a quality performance.  And certainly–no one’s choir has ever been negatively impacted by singing the correct pitches and rhythms.

Coming soon…the iPad Air 2 (to me)

I did it. Today I finally decided to order an iPad Air 2. I have been thinking about a new iPad for some time; and was waiting for Apple’s March announcment as well as T-Mobile’s announcement this past week.

I bought my 4th Generation iPad in the fall of 2012. I did so when the 3rd Generation iPad (introduced that March) was replaced by the 4th Generation. The 3rd Generation iPad had the retina screen, but still used the 30-pin cable, and often ran slower than the iPad 2. The 4th Generation featured a faster processor (the A6X, if memory serves), as well as the lightning adapter.

This iPad has served me well over two years–almost two and one half years. It has survived one broken screen (amazingly, the screen took all the damage), and has been my main tool on a daily basis. Without a doubt, I spend more time on an iPad each day than I do my iPhone or my old 2008 MacBook.

My iPad has been showing its age as of late, including a crash mid-presentation today in class. There was no explanation, the device shut down, the Apple logo appeared, and the device didn’t restart. I had to reboot the device (hold down the power and home buttons) and then everything was fine again. I think the memory-intensive apps that I use are simply starting to tax the capabilities of this iPad. And that’s okay–this device has had hours upon hours of use.

Two days ago, I saw that you could buy a 128GB iPad Air (1st Gen) for $549 from B&H. That was tempting. Today I noted that you can buy a cellular 128GB iPad Air 2 from Best Buy for $699.

Now that we are with T-Mobile, I wanted to own a cellular iPad. T-Mobile allows you to buy a 64GB iPad for $99 and 24 monthly (no interest) payments, or a 128GB iPad for $199 (plus tax for the whole device) and 24 payments. That makes the largest iPad affordable. So I called up T-Mobile, and asked if they would match Best Buy’s price. They wouldn’t, but did offer a $50 discount (making the downpayment $149 plus tax). And they also allowed me to take advantage of T-Mobile’s 200MB of Data free each month with no service contract (I orginally thought that I would buy the $10 monthly data matching plan, which would be 2.5GB per month for our phones–something I still may do in the future). To put this another way, if I simply give up drinking pop each month, the cost of the iPad is covered (and I will be on a better road to health).

I have been using an iPad Air 2 with my choirs this year, but the device is owned by the choir program and is used for classroom management (students scanning in and Casper Focus, primarily). Although the iPad Air 2 is noticeably lighter, smaller, and thinner (same size screen), I haven’t noticed any improvements in speed–but then again, I don’t use the memory-intensive apps on that iPad that I do on my “old” iPad.

At my presentations this year, I have been telling people with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Generation iPads that it is time to move up; and I have told 4th Generation owners (like myself) that the time for us to upgrage is nearly here. I am now proving that with my own pocketbook.

I was also waiting to see if Apple would release an iPad Pro in March; now it seems unlikely that we would see such a device until the iPad refresh (likely October). I am also starting to think that an iPad Pro may not be “just” an iPad, but a type of “transformer” device. We will see what really comes out this coming fall.

Yes–I absolutely understand that a new iPad will be out in the fall, and that device will be slightly faster and likely have more RAM. There may be a better camera, and perhaps it will be even thinner. For owners of the iPad Air or iPad Air 2, there will be little need to upgrade. But for owners of older iPads, I am guessing that 64-bit programming will be required (it is now!), but required ALONE, for iOS 9, meaning that only the iPad Air, and iPad Mini 2 and newer will be able to run iOS 9 and future apps. This would mean that all owners of 4th Generation iPads (and earlier) would have to upgrade if they wanted to run any new apps or app updates. That’s a guess, but three years into 64-bit processing, doesn’t that seem likely? This fall, the 2nd Generation iPad will be nearly 5 years old (4 years, 7 months). The 4th Generation iPad will be 3 years old. The apps on those devices will keep working (like apps loaded on 1st Generation iPads, which are frozen at IOS 5).

It also stands to question: what is the realistic lifespan of an iPad? Two years seems to be the agreed-upon life of a phone. What is a fair life for a tablet? 4 years? 5 years? My MacBook turns 7 years old this November. What is the lifespan of a MacBook? Much of the answer lies in what you use your device for, and at what point the advancements in technology make the upgrade expense worthwhile. My MacBook is almost there in terms of improvements that I would gain by upgrading.

So, I am looking forward to working with my iPad Air 2, and the addition of Touch ID will be wonderful. It is amazing how many students will freely touch your personal device without asking. I am planning on puchasing the Zagg Rugged Keyboard case as soon as it is available–this looks like the iPad case I have always wanted. 128GB on my iPad will also be wonderful (I currently have 64GB). My current iPad will go to my father-in-law, who still uses my old iPad 2 daily. I am also interested to see how my use of an iPad will change when I have LTE available…all of my iPads have been wi-fi only to this point.

This also means that it is unlikely that I will buy the Apple Watch, at least in the early days. I am fearful that the 2nd Generation iPad watch will be an evolutionary jump, much like the iPad to iPad 2, and iPhone to iPhone 3G. When you pay that much for a watch (starting at $399 for my wrists, and my ideal combination is the $999 stainless steel combo), it simply can’t be replaced every year (or three). If you have an iPad 2, four and a half years later, you can still use it with most modern apps. Not so with the iPad 1. There is a reason I upgraded immediately from the iPad 1 to iPad 2, but waited until the 4th Generation iPad and now the iPad Air 2. I will likely do the same with the Apple Watch–wait until the next generation.

That said, Father’s Day is coming in June…

Would You Be Interested in Having Me Present in Your State?

One of the things I love to do is to present sessions on the use of technology in music education, with an eye towards the integration of technology into “traditional” music education. This past year, I spoke in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, and Utah. All of these have been paid for out of my own pocket (although Iowa kindly offers a hotel room). I have been blessed with a school that allows me to use both my own personal days as well as to give me some additional days off to present at various conferences. I am at the limit of what I can personally afford to present, but I would love the opportunity to present in other states. Generally, this is the time of the year (through June) where proposals for music conferences are made.

If you would like me to present at your state music conference, I would encourage you to propose a session (or sessions) from me to your state conference committee. I can speak on any number of topics (although I am generally considered the “iPad Guy,” I can custom-create a presentation on just about any topic), and I am open to leading multiple sessions to justify the expense of bringing me to your state.

At this point, I am still not concerned about this aspect of my profession–supporting other teachers–being profitable, but I do need to break even. Generally, to speak at a conference (If someone else is recommending me), I would ask for transportation and hotel to be covered. You may have a music store or sponsor in your state that might be willing to pay for those expenses. If your state is in a warm climate, and your conference is in the winter, my wife may want to travel with me.

Right now, I am scheduled to speak at NAfME (two sessions) and WMEA in October, and the rest of my calendar is open. I will begin to apply for other sessions in the coming days.

If you are interested in having me speak, please feel free to recommend me to your state conference, and please e-mail me if you have any questions.


Update on the mi.1 MIDI Interface

I have written about the mi.1 before, which is a small MIDI cable that acts as a wireless bridge between your iPad (or MacBook, or iPhone, or iPod Touch). No external power is needed, and you can buy the device for $45 from Amazon.

The device has been updated so that if an iOS app uses the new iOS 8 Bluetooth MIDI code, you can connect your keyboard to your device without wires or any background app (which is what was previously required). You can also connect it to a Mac running Yosemite.

This would be the second device that I know of that will utilize the Bluetooth MIDI interface in iOS 8 and Yosemite. I do know know of many apps, other than GarageBand, that are using the standard at this point . Expect more apps and external devices all the time!

I don’t have a horse in this race, and I don’t make any money from a referral. There are a few things you need to consider:

  1. Make sure your device can use Bluetooth MIDI. Quicco Sound (which makes the mi.1) reminds you that you can use iOS devices running iOS 8, specifically: the iPhone (6 Plus, 6, 5s, 5c, 5, 4s), iPad(Air 2, Air, 4th gen, 3rd gen, mini 3, mini 2, mini), iPod touch(5th gen), and Macs running OS 10.10 (Yosemite)
  2. Some keyboards do not have the space on the back of the keyboard to allow the mi.1 to plug into the keyboard (see this document)
  3. You can connect the mi.1 using just the MIDI Out port
  4. This is NOT for USB MIDI. This is for the traditional round MIDI ports, which are still in use even after 30 years of MIDI (can you think of any other computing port that is still in use after 30 years?)
  5. Finally, not all keyboard MIDI ports are powered. This is a requirement for the mi.1 which has no power of its own. We own a Casio Privia PX350, and the mi.1 works fine with it. Quicco has started a list of compatibile and incompatible devices, which you can check here. I’m tempted to go to a music store this summer and just test out compatibility!

If the mi.1 doesn’t work for you, don’t worry. You can also check out the Zivix Puc.



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