A Series of Rants…#1: Economics and Green/Red Note Apps

I try not to be a negative person, but from time to time, we need to express the truth, even if it is negative, particularly if it will help other people. I have a series of such items that I have been thinking about, and I would like to take some time to express those thoughts.

My first “rant” is about economics and green note/red note applications.

For the record, I am talking about apps/programs/services such as SmartMusic, Music Prodigy, and the coming services of Weezic (although pricing is still not known for Weezic).

I am fortunate to teach in a 1:1 (which in and of itself is deserving of a rant or two). I wholeheartedly support 1:1 programs of any kind, and I support iPad 1:1 programs. There is tremendous potential in such programs.

One of the wonderful aspects of green note/red note applications is that they can be used to help students learn their notes, and to keep them accountable to their learning in a way that is understandable to them AND their parents. I recently blogged about a director who felt that the majority of their work was done with phrasing and shaping of vowels–not right or wrong notes and rhythms. That hasn’t been my experience. Even with my best efforts and the efforts of my colleagues in my school district, the hardest aspect about putting music together has been for students to learn the right notes and rhythms. Remember–I am a choir director, and sight reading is generally atrocious in choral music. There are exceptions, and I am happily working through the method of Dale Duncan’s S-Cubed Sight Reading Method (started in March). The skill of sight-reading just isn’t there, and if kids can’t sight-read, the majority of your time will be spent pounding out notes and rhythms.

Technology can be used to help this, in many ways. It can be used for formative and summative assessments that keep students accountable to the skills they are supposed to be learning (let’s be honest…the number one issue with sight-reading, particularly in choir, is that it is so hard to keep students accountable with assessments…and assessments take so long to correct!). The green note/red note applications that are available are an ideal solution to this process. But what I have learned is that they all cost too much.

A few years ago, I worked at the newest high school in our state, and for the majority of my students, finances weren’t an issue. We also had practice rooms with computers, and students could complete assessments at school (before school, at lunch, after school, from another class) if they couldn’t afford a subscription to a program at home. My current school doesn’t have that scenario.

Don’t get me wrong…I think SmartMusic’s $40 annual fee and Music Prodigy’s $30 annual fee are really amazing–in my last audition with the Minnesota Opera (eight years ago–I stopped when I was married and started a family) I paid $55 for a thirty minute rehearsal with a pianist plus their performance at my audition. If I use any of SmartMusic’s (limited for vocal/choir) literature, or I enter my own Finale files as an accompaniment, $40 for a year of a piano player that follows me for rehearsal (or even performance) is a bargain. If I had a student in Hockey, $40 wouldn’t cover a single glove. It seems like a bargain. When SmartMusic considered asking $8 per student for a practice room subscription, I thought that was fair–my students at my former school would have paid that. I didn’t understand the outrage expressed by many teachers using SmartMusic.

But then I started working at my school, where 40% of our students are on free & reduced lunch, and well over 20% of my choir students needed a donated t-shirt for our concert apparel because they couldn’t afford $8 for a t-shirt. Other students paid $8, but their families may not have eaten that night (lots of people fake afluence).

To add to the problem, we don’t have practice rooms, either. But every student has an iPad, and most students have Internet access at home, either their own, provided free by the community, or off of someone else’s Comcast Xfinity account and wireless router in their neighborhood.

But we can’t ask our students to pay $40 per year for SmartMusic, or even $30 per year for Music Prodigy. They have iPads, but we can’t leverage their use in choir for accountability. Or band. Or orchestra. And to be honest, a price point of $40 or $30 in choir bothers me as well, as that provides little or no literature that we can use–the literature in the program has to be created (or scanned and edited) by me. It isn’t the same as a band student that can use SmartMusic as their method book, justifying $8 of that $40 per year right off the bat, or a band director that can program their entire concert based on SmartMusic’s band catalog.

Truly, this irritates me to no end. It is frustrating to be so close to a solution (1:1) but hampered by economics. Our district is reducing nearly $8 million next year, so we’re not going to be looking to provide SmartMusic for our students. I currently have over 300 students…SmartMusic for each of my students would be $12,000. I am relatively certain that our six secondary schools combined provide less than $12,000 for sheet music for the entire secondary music program (my budget is $0). Either way, the choir program raised about $3000 with fundraising this year, most of it going back to music purchases or t-shirts.

Perhaps it is an issue with funding from our school district, or perhaps it is just the tough breaks of the economics of area. But what I have learned is that more schools are in my current position (1:1 with no money for additional apps) or worse (not 1:1, and still no money).

And it isn’t just green note/red note programs that are the problem–this also applies to any subscription service (e.g. MusicFirst products). I don’t hold any grudge against any of these companies…they deserve to be paid for what they do. But those companies need to know (and probably realize) that many of us are locked out of their services, even with attractive pricing. We KNOW their pricing is affordable, yet we KNOW it isn’t affordable for many of our students or our schools.

This is why apps are so attractive on the iPad–buy them once and keep upgrading for free, or freeze with the last version that works with your OS. A “true” app isn’t a recurring expense. You can pay $3 for an app, knowing that you can use it again (thank goodness for that change). So a $900 expense is diluted over a number of years.

So…here’s the question…can someone make a green note/red note app that can be purchased ONCE and then run on the iPad (versus a server that requires upkeep), and then find some way to have students beam their scores to a teacher version via Bluetooth? Can we change the paradigm of a server-based green note/red note service? Can we make this type of program accessible to all, while still allowing someone to make some money off of the concept? Yes…content would have to be provided by the teacher/director (get out of the royalties business), but in truth, assessments should be short (no more than 30 seconds) and specific to either develop a skill or to assess a skill. And the assessment should be based on MusicXML, so it can be created in any app and uploaded to the program. And if anyone wants to go into business on such a venture, send me a note. I’d be happy to partner with you. I just don’t have the programming skills myself to make it happen.


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