The Best of 2012

Other websites and blogs are putting out their “Best of 2012” lists, and that has made me want to write my own best of 2012 list. A word of caution: these are my opinions, and mainly reflect the use of technology in music education. There aren't many surprises in this list, as 2012 was a year of improvement, rather than radical transformation.

Best App: On a daily basis, I am guaranteed to use two apps at school on my iPad: forScore and Keynote. forScore is a PDF music reader, and Keynote is Apple's mobile presentation software. There are other apps that I use for similar purposes (unrealBook, Chromatik, and Explain Everything), but these two apps have been my go-to apps in 2012. Since Keynote continues to lack the ability to (easily) link music and to annotate presentations, the award has to go to forScore.

Best Tablet: As 2012 draws to a close, all of the hype of competing products to the iPad seem to have faded away. The Microsoft Surface has failed to gain traction, and it seems the the Google Nexus, Kindle Fire HD, and Barnes and Noble Nook HD are competing for a distant second place in the tablet market. I truly believe that all of these tablets are wonderful devices, and would be world-changing if we lived in an iPad-less world. But we don't. The iPad still offers a better user experience, a wider variety of quality apps, and a user base that encourages further development. I know the home-brew fans like to tinker with their operating system, and that the Apple tax (in other words, making a profit) is distasteful to some–but at the same time, Apple's continued profit results in continued development–and even the return of some more jobs here in the USA. On a personal note, I think the iPad mini is having a profound effect on the market place (I bought one for my wife for Christmas, and finding anything but a 64 GB iPad mini was nearly impossible). But I don't think the iPad mini is ideal for schools–particularly when it comes to secondary music education. The real winner is the 4th Generation iPad, which is twice as fast as the 3rd Generation device, with generally the same specifications. I bought a 4th Generation iPad, and I've been very happy with it.

Best Accessory: The accessory market has been greatly impacted by the new lightning cable that comes with every 4th Generation iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone 5, and 5th Generation iPod Touch. Manufacturers are just beginning to make accessories with the lightning adapter, so any accessory I recommend will not be a “wired” accessory. The AirTurn seems to continue its dominance as the foot pedal to use with an iPad, although I certainly like my PageFlip Cicada. The Justand is a great accessory for use in the classroom, turning an iPad into an overhead projector or document camera, but most music teachers will not find it as a necessary accessory. So I'll vote for my favorite stylus of 2012, the Maglus. In full disclaimer, my first Maglus broke on me, in a number of ways. The rubber tip cracked, and one of the rubber sides unglued from the stylus, letting the magnets go free (I'm still not sure where they are!). I ordered a second Maglus, which now offers a replaceable tip. So far, my new Maglus is holding up. I also very much like our Vers 1Q speaker. Look for a review of the Vers 2Q soon!

Most Exciting Music Ed Tech Product of 2012: Without a doubt, Chromatik is the most exciting product to hit the market in 2012. Chromatik is a way for musicians to share music with each other, and there are a few other features with more to come. Chromatik made a splash via American Idol and several rounds of funding (including one from Bruno Mars), putting it on the map long before it emerged as a product the public could use. A very good iPad app is available, or you can use your computer/Flash to read music. You can also make a recording of yourself and send it to others. The service is free, and they've even had a campaign where they will give an iPad to a school if they get 100 students to sign up for the service (yes, my school did this). It's going to be exciting to watch the features that are added to Chromatik in the coming months.

Most Improved App: Sneaking “under the wire” is Notion for iPad, which is the best music notation app for the iPad. It's main competitor, Symphony Pro, has simply disappeared from the App Store as well as from the web (there is a note that Symphony Pro 3 is coming soon, with no other news). Notion has made it clear that the iPad app is going to be greatly improved in the coming months, and they've started by adding some of the most requested features to the app at the end of December.

Most Shocking News: Also from Notion. They released their 4th Version of their PC/Mac program, and priced it at $100.

Best Free Program: MuseScore, a free music notation software program, is becoming more functional with every update, and is a real contender to Finale and Sibelius. It can't do everything Finale and Sibelius can do, and there is very limited technical support (unlike Finale's free tech support). But it is free and it works.

Most Anticipated App for 2013: SmartMusic for iPad. It is coming in the spring of 2013 to an iPad near you. SmartMusic can revolutionize how students prepare music, as well as how they are assessed–and this will be even more true when the SmartMusic is available on school and personal iPads. Expect many music programs to request iPads in place of “traditional” computers in the coming months.

Most Useful Blog: I keep track of several hundred blogs, and the blog that always seems to bring the most insight is The Loop by Jim Dalrymple. Jim is used by Apple to unofficially verify or deny specific Apple rumors at launch time. He is gregarious, and seldom writes more than a paragraph at a time. However, he links to full articles of all kinds. A word of warning: he's not afraid to use foul language online, which can be abrasive and not-safe-for-work or children (although he almost always uses it for humor–particularly on Twitter). I also enjoy reading every article by the Macalope. The best tech tips have been on OS X Daily.

Worst Update: I really liked Skitch, an annotation app, before it was bought by Evernote and “updated.” Skitch 1.0 was so easy to use; Skitch 2.0 is not as easy to use, and Skitch 1.0 drawings are stored in an unusual way.

Most Promising Feature: The text editing in WriteUp, a typing app for iPad. It allows you to quickly scroll through text, and a lot of people think Apple should buy this feature and integrate it.

The App Recommended By My Students: Notability. My iPad-using students have searched for apps that make their life better. Notability allows them to import a worksheet as a PDF, write directly on it, and send it back to a teacher. Workflow always seems to be a challenge on the iPad, and it is great to see when students can figure out a better way around. I still like Noteshelf for notetaking, but it is taking Noteshelf too long to add PDF import.

Most Useful Utility: Dropbox. I have two accounts: a school account and a personal account. I can share the entire school account with my students, and can share particular folders with that account, without having to open my own account to students. So many apps take advantage of Dropbox. I can only hope that iCloud starts to offer some of these features in the future. Deep Dish Designs GigBook (a PDF Music Reader) recently added Dropbox integration.

Best Android App for Music: EZ PDF Reader, although far from being forScore or unrealBook, seems to be the best option for PDF music reading on the iPad, at least until Chromatik comes out with a native app (or HTML 5 app) for Android. Mobile Sheets added annotation, but I found that feature to be hard to use.

In closing, most of my “Best of 2012” items are not new to the marketplace. It was a year of refinement, and a good one at that. As schools are on the precipice of going all-digital, we need to keep several things in mind. First, not all courses are “core classes” with a desk. Although notebooks and Chromebooks are enticing–particularly on price–we have to ask if those devices fit in all classrooms. Second, music publishers need to find a way to push music out digitally at a lower cost than printed music, as well as to convert existing libraries or allow teachers to legally convert existing libraries for a very small fee. Third, notation software companies should be researching the ideal formatting on a tablet (both iPad and wide-screen Android), and should be offering that formatting as a template to music publishers (and anyone that “prints” music). Realistically, you should be able to buy or print a score that is ideally formatted for your device, whether you sing in a choir or play in band, orchestra, or a garage band. The iPad wouldn't be “too small for music” if the music was formatted for the iPad's screen. Finally, it is time for all software companies to get on the bandwagon of iOS, if not Android as well. It was prudent for companies to wait it out…but that time has passed. Nothing should be programmed solely with Adobe's Flash. Every major piece of software should have an iOS version–if only a reader–as part of the “package.” Just one example: shouldn't a marching band field show be available both on the PC/Mac and the iPad? Why is there no iPad version? Wouldn't you want that entire show with you on the field, with the ability to make edits? And shouldn't you be able to distribute that entire show to your student's iPads (along with their music)?

2013 promises to be an exciting year in technology and in technology in music education. I'm looking forward to it and talking about it as it develops!



Barnes and Noble Nook HD 9 Inch Tablet

While I am in Ames, Iowa for the Iowa Music Educators Association Professional Development Conference, I have had the chance to stop by Best Buy (I needed to buy another VGA dongle for my MacBook, as my regular dongle was missing), Wal-Mart, and Target.  Target had the brand new Barnes and Noble Nook HD tablet for sale.  It’s a beautiful tablet that is very light, and it is incredibly priced at $269.  If you have a Target Card (Credit or Debit), you would get another 5% off that tablet.

The Ames Target has guest wi-fi available, so I was able to connect to the Internet (the device had not previously been connected to the Internet) and to surf the web and even load my usual test score, the G. Schirmer Vocal Messiah that is available from IMSLP.

The only problem with the Nook HD is that it doesn’t have the App resources of the Kindle Fire, the Android Tablets, and of course, the Apple App Store.  Other than that, it’s a wonderful tablet.  If you need a tablet for e-mail, surfing the web, reading books, and watching movies…it is definitely worth looking at over all of the other Android Tablets (including the Kindle Fire) and even the iPad Mini.

At the same time, if you would want to use this tablet for music, you are going to be disappointed.  Although EZ PDF Reader, a passable program for music use with Android devices, is available for the Nook HD, I fear that it will not handle page turns well.  As I mentioned, I loaded the Messiah on the device (having to use Quick Office to display it) and the results were a bit disappointing.  You can see the results in the picture attached to this post.  I would NOT recommend this device for use as a music reader.

What the Nook HD Tablet needs is an app like forScore or unrealBook.  It’s unlikely any developer will invest in such an endeavor, because the device won’t have the sales numbers to justify such an investment.

But if you know someone who just needs an Internet connected tablet–this is a great one.