Using iPads for Choir Sectionals (many links!)

On Friday morning, Jeff Tillinghast wrote (On Choralnet) about using iPads in choir, when you have one iPad, five iPads, or every student has an iPad. I love his ideas–although I disagree with his statement that music is “too small” on the iPad (particularly with a reference to the Messiah–the famous G. Schirmer score is in the Public Domain [although it is still sold] and is larger on my iPad than it is in print).

In his category of “five iPads,” Tillinghast wrote, “Record the accompaniment so that I could send a section to go work on sectional material without having to worry about finding a piano player.”

I've been doing this for years with a wide variety of technology. I am not a strong piano player. I've come to terms with this, as I am a very good tenor, tuba player, and conductor…and I have “mad skillz” with music technology. I've grown to accept that you simply can't be a master of everything. We, like most schools, use accompanists for concerts–and at my current school, we've been able to use students for every concert with one exception (our Mock Trial team made it to state, state was on the same night as our concert, and one of our piano players was in Mock Trial). For years I've placed accompaniment files into Finale, and generated rehearsal accompaniment files from Finale. When I enter all the vocal parts into Finale, I can make a rehearsal track for an individual voice part. As the years have progressed, I've added more data into those files (including text). Now, with SmartMusic, I can not only make an accompaniment for a student, I can also (quickly) make a SmartMusic assessment file at any point of the rehearsal process.

In the “old” days, I would burn a CD for each section, and had students bring in CD boomboxes. For a period of two years, I had kids use Dell X5 Pocket PCs for sectionals with large iHome tubular speakers for sectionals. I have also used iPod Nanos and iPod Touches to achieve the same goal. Moving to iOS deviecs allowed for audio management with iTunes. Once you set an iOS device to import a specific playlist from iTunes, adding new files is as easy as dragging tunes to a playlist and syncing the iOS device. And now, with three iPads, we can start to do sectionals with iPads, and iPads make all the difference in the world. Not only can students control the music they hear, they can also see the actual music on the screen ! Again, special thanks to Chromatik, who donated an iPad to our program through their special offer.

Let me walk you through the process. First, I scan the song my choir is preparing. Truth be told, all of our music is already scanned–something we did through most of 2010. Most of our scanning was done page by page on a flatbed scanner. These days I scan music using a Canon P-150 scanner, a scanner that scans in duplex and about 1/100 of the time. Using a guillotine paper cutter, I cut a choral octavo so all the pages are loose and can be scanned in page order. The P-150 automatically adjusts the width of the scan to the width of the page–no cropping necessary. All of these PDFs are saved on Dropbox (referral link–if you sign up, we both get a bonus) so I have access to all our scores at all times.

Next, I take that scan and run it through a music recognition program–most frequently PhotoScore Ultimate. There are rare occasions where a piece doesn't scan well, but most of the time, the scan is 95-99% accurate. Then I export the PhotoScore file as a MusicXML file and move it to Finale, where I finish editing it. For an eight page octavo, it usually takes me an hour to clean up the score, move parts to a single line (most SAB scores put SA on the same line), remove dynamic markings, edit text (hyphenation is always messed up), and then recreate the Finale file from scratch and use the Clip feature in Finale to bring everything over.

Third, and this is a new step, I export the file to MusicXML and save it to Dropbox. I open that MusicXML file in the Dropbox app, and tell my iPad to open it Notion for the iPad. In Notion, I adjust some small items (for example, tempo markings, as Notion doesn't recognize a rit or a fermata). Then, using Notion's new export audio feature, I can save m4a files directly to Dropbox, manipulating the audio output with Notion's embedded mixer board (very easy to create a track where one part is dominant). As a result, I am able to create a high quality compressed audio track that works on all iOS devices in my Dropbox account at one time.

A moment of diversion: why not use Finale to generate these files? I used to do this, and it used to be my only option. If I do this on Finale, it requires more steps–and thus more time–to achieve the same goal. Additionally, the audio output of Finale is very low, meaning that I have to open up an audio editor such as Audacity to later increase the maximum volume of each track (this is true even when I have the base keystroke value set quite high, as well as Finale's mixer). I know MakeMusic is aware of the volume issue. And then, if I want to put the file on Dropbox, doing so from Finale requires a series of additional clicks. All that is a one-step process with Notion. So I use the programs in conjunction with each other.

At this point, all of the resources are ready. I have a PDF of the score, audio files that include a part-dominant track for each part, as well as an accompaniment only (or all voices) version. All of these resources are on Dropbox.

The next step is to put the resources on the school iPads. I have created a choir Dropbox account with a username and password I share with students. This means that only my students have access to these materials and I am not freely distributing them on the Internet. By sharing folders from my Dropbox account choir's Dropbox account, I can edit the contents of the folders on the choir's account by simply dragging items to my linked files on my personal account. So, if I have a women's choir folder on both accounts, I can drag a new file to that folder on my Dropbox account and it appears instantaneously in the choir account. It works like magic.

This is where forScore (you could also use unrealBook) comes into the discussion. I download the PDFs of each song from forScore's Dropbox interface. Then I use Dropbox to import the audio files to the computer that manages our iPads, and quickly add those files to the choir playlists (I have a playlist for each choir), and sync each iPad. At this point each PDF and each audio file is on our school iPads.

Within forScore, you can quickly link a song to a score. In my prep period, I decide which section will rehearse during the day, and I quickly edit the audio that is linked to each PDF (e.g. If the sopranos are going to rehearse, I link the soprano track).

During class, I send one section or two section to run sectionals, giving them specific expectations and a return time. They are given a portable speaker to use (usually a Boombucket (YouTube Video), but as I wrote yesterday, some Vers 2Qs are on their way). As a final step, I use iOS 6's “Guided Access Mode” to lock each iPad into forScore, and forScore alone. Students can put the devices to sleep, but cannot leave the program. In the days of using iPod Touches and iOS 4, students would take the devices and dink around with them during sectionals (going on Safari or playing with other apps)–Guided Access at least keeps them on task in the right program.

I also show my students other tools with forScore, such as the pitch pipe or piano–I've had iPads returned with the piano “activated,” so I know those tools are being used, too.

The truth is that my students don't ever see the time that is spent setting things up so that they can have a successful sectional without the need of a pianist–and that's okay. What is important is that this model works, and it works well. I'd certainly recommend it to others–even if you are going to record yourself playing (with an iPad?) in place of using Finale. My guess is that you will spend at least as much time recording and editing audio as it takes me to edit a score in Finale and export the audio through Notion for iPad.

Two other quick thoughts about scanning music into a notation program. First, I'm having some students edit scans I've brought into PhotoScore with MuseScore this year–to see if they can learn how to use the program and to do the “clean up” for me (ultimately, making their own resources). I can bring those cleaned up files right into Finale. Second, any Finale file can be used to make a SmartMusic assessment, and I cannot possibly communicate enough how powerful and wonderful that is. Of course, SmartMusic's primary focus is instrumental music–but it works wonderfully for choir if you create your own resources.

There are things that could be done by music publishers to make this entire process easier. They could make a PDF license for each song available, allowing you to legally reproduce as many PDFs for your program as you need. They could provide you with the MusicXML file for a song when you legally purchase it (removing dynamics, as I do, which makes it exponentially less useful for creating your own “performance copy”). And they could provide rehearsal tracks for free, like Carl Fischer/BriLee.

iPads–even 2-5 of them–can be a wonderful tool for your choir program. I'll make a point to write more about my iPad use in my teaching in the future. As with all “emerging” technologies–my use changes as the abilities of the device (more in regards to the abilities of the software) change and advance over time.

If anyone is looking to make a donation to a high school choir program, we could use two more iPads and three more Vers 2Qs.