Using the SmartMusic (v. 1.0) iPad App in the Choral Classroom

This post examines one use of the new SmartMusic iPad app in the choral rehearsal, but before I get to that, let me talk about my past use of SmartMusic in the choral program.

Choral music educators have had a difficult time embracing SmartMusic, as it is a program that has traditionally put instrumentalists first. MakeMusic added features to SmartMusic throughout 2011 that made SmartMusic a good tool for choral music education, but we still lack the huge library of available titles that exist for band or orchestra.

MakeMusic added vocal sight-reading methods to SmartMusic in 2011. The list of available literature (currently) includes:

  1. Building Beautiful Voices
  2. 90 Days to Sight Reading Success
  3. Sing at First Sight (Book 1 and 2, along with one additional resource book)
  4. Patterns of Sound
  5. SmartMusic Vocal Exercises

(note: all of these titles are available in the SmartMusic Library and work with the SmartMusic iPad app)

Later in 2011, SmartMusic was updated to allow a Finale 2012 user to create SmartMusic vocal assessment files that could be sent to SmartMusic and assigned to students.

My main use of SmartMusic in the past two years has been to put all of our choral literature into Finale (I do this for a number of reasons), often by first scanning with a program called PhotoScore Ultimate (I find PhotoScore to be more accurate than SmartScore Pro X or X2, but your results may differ) and then cleaning up the score. Choral music can be difficult to scan because vocal parts often share the same line, so you will need to create independent parts for each voice, including subsections (Soprano 1 and Soprano 2 each need their own line). This can be facilitated by using Finale's “explode” feature–but that is a discussion for another time. If I create my own sight-reading exercises, I simply use Finale's select & drag feature to copy the notes to each staff, and then use the “8” key to transpose men's parts down an octave.

After I have a song in Finale, I can create assignments for students that are either formative (e.g. a section of music that I want them to rehearse to be able to better perform the music) or summative (i.e. testing to see if students really know the music). I can access student results through my teacher's version of SmartMusic, gradebook.smartmusic.com, or the SmartMusic Inbox app.

My SmartMusic work flow: music to scanning to Finale to SmartMusic

If you create your own assessments, keep in mind that you don't want to assess any more than ten measures. You will want to listen to every assessment (your time is limited, too) and provide feedback (which you can do while grading), and you also want to be respectful of your student's time. SMART assessment is essential (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Bound), and a ten measure assessment can achieve this. If you are creating a formative assessment, choose the ten hardest measures for your singers–and it may be a different ten measures for each section–or ask your students which measures they want assigned (they know where they are struggling, too!).

Although we bemoan the fact that there are so few choral resources available on SmartMusic (the legacy SmartMusic vocal accompaniments do not have the printed music on the screen), as choral directors, we often only have to deal with 2-8 vocal parts plus a piano. We can recreate a ten measure exercise in a relatively short period of time, especially if music scans well. Our instrumental colleagues would have to work much harder than we do to create their own resources (and some do!).

Now..what about the SmartMusic iPad app?

I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the SmartMusic for iPad Beta program. I have signed a non-disclosure agreement about the beta process, but I want to draw on my experience from using the Beta version of SmartMusic for iPad in the choral classroom–which was very similar to the app that is available in the App Store today. As I wrote in my previous post, SmartMusic for iPad is currently limited so that you cannot use the app to complete teacher assignments. This feature is coming in the future…but as for now, I cannot use the iPad version of SmartMusic as I have been using SmartMusic in choir over the past two years.

So…how can you use SmartMusic for iPad in the choral classroom?

The quick and easy answer: sight reading. I know of a few choral educators, including Brandt Schneider (Seymour High School, Connecticut – http://brandtschneider.blogspot.com/) and Martha Schmidt (Burnsville High School, Minnesota) who currently use SmartMusic with their choirs for sight reading on “normal” computers. Sight reading in a group setting is even better on the iPad!

You can download any of the existing SmartMusic vocal resources, such as 90 Days to Sight Reading Success, and you can use the iPad SmartMusic app to access those resources. I would not recommend using AirPlay to wirelessly mirror your iPad to your projector screen, as there is a delay with audio and video (albeit slight) that greatly influences the score obtained with SmartMusic. You will want to use a VGA (or HDMI, if your projector is so equipped–many are not) to iPad adapter as well as a sound amplification system (out the iPad's stereo jack) to project video and audio from your iPad in your room.

When you have your iPad connected, you simply open the resource you want to use, and choose the exercise that you want your class to complete. For example, 90 Days to Sight Reading Success features three exercises per day. You have the choir sing each exercise for that day (you will have to navigate in the app, but this is easy to do). SmartMusic gives students an arpeggio of the home key, followed by the starting pitch and a count-off, and while the exercise is underway, SmartMusic has a moving bar that helps students see where they are in the exercise (should they happen to miscount). You can use this strategy with any sight-reading methodology, whether you use fixed do, moveable do, numbers, or a neutral vowel. I can't remember where I read this, but if my memory serves, it doesn't matter what sight reading strategy you use…as long as you use something, students will improve in their ability to read music.

After the exercise is complete, SmartMusic will show right (green) and wrong (red) notes, and it will miss some notes because your entire class is singing. This is okay, as your ears are working, too. I often will use the Curwen-Kodaly hand signals during the exercise while my students are singing (I figure if it helps even one student to make a connection, I should do it). I try to avoid singing when my students are singing, but occasionally I have to jump in to help out. With my treble choirs, my voice shows an octave down (and influences their score). And if a choir performs poorly enough, I will stop the exercise seconds before the end of the recording (this is important, because the right/wrong not feedback will not clear from the screen until after the next countoff, so if you want to be able to work quickly, you have to stop the exercise before it ends itself), and work through the exercise note-by-note, or I will point out problem areas (perhaps even having the choir sing specific intervals) and have the choir sing the exercise again. On occasion, I will have them listen to their performance–another feature included with SmartMusic for iPad.

Only one of my choirs is a mixed choir, and in that case I have men and women sing each exercise separately (usually choosing soprano and bass on SmartMusic), and then rotate who sings each exercise first each time. I have every choir sing the same sight reading exercises each day, because every year we have new students in choir who have never sight read before–this allows them to learn, and also allows students who didn't “get” sight reading the previous year (or years) to perhaps catch on this year. As a side note, you will have to decide how much sight reading impacts a student's grade; I have it set at 10% of the grade (even the worst scores will earn a partial percent of that 10%). I want sight reading to count, but I don't want it to hurt a student's grade so much that they would drop choir.

One of the new features of SmartMusic for the iPad is that it tracks the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place results of each exercise. Therefore, I find my students as a class competing with themselves for a better score, and in the case of my three choirs with treble singers, they are competing with the other choirs as well. My mixed choir has developed a small competition between the men's and women's scores (the women usually dominate, and when the men win, they get a little raucous). The percent and placement features of SmartMusic on the iPad have made sight reading a much more enjoyable task for most of my students–an informal survey showed that nearly all my students (150 of 152) liked sight reading better with SmartMusic, and only 2 students would want me to go back to my old method of displaying sight reading on the board and having them sing it from the board without SmartMusic (we typically use the Phelps Sight Reading Method, available at www.phelpsmusiccompany.com).

Since I have been using the iPad–nearly daily–to teach sight reading, we have been using the 90 Days to Sight Reading Success via SmartMusic on the iPad. This method moves a wee bit fast for my tastes, but at this point of the year, we had enough experience with the Phelps method that our choirs could handle it. If you were starting with sight reading from scratch, I would suggest starting with some of the other sight reading methods available on SmartMusic.

I am looking forward to a version of SmartMusic for the iPad that will allow me to assign formative and summative assessments for students, but for now, I am also quite pleased about SmartMusic's impact on sight reading–and its impact on student attitudes towards sight reading. I daresay that even if you used SmartMusic for nothing else other than class sight-reading (a $40 normal subscription), that you should consider obtaining it for your choirs.

What you need:

  • An iPad; the latest version (currently the 4th Generation) is recommend with 32GB or greater of storage
  • The VGA to iPad adapter ($50)
  • Subscription to SmartMusic ($40 for standard, $140 for the educator's version that allows you to create assignments for students from existing repertoire–but you cannot yet do this on the iPad)
  • The SmartMusic iPad app (free)
  • Finale 2012 (If you want to create assessments from scratch, $235 from www.aabaca.com, but again, these assessments cannot yet be accessed on the iPad SmartMusic app)

 

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Posted on May 6, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Using the SmartMusic (v. 1.0) iPad App in the Choral Classroom.

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