SmartMusic adds choral literature

In the midst of a very big week (the acquisition of Weezic), SmartMusic has now added a number of choral titles to the SmartMusic Library. There are fifty selections in various voicings. This is considered a “beta” effort by SmartMusic, and when you try the literature, they ask for your feedback.

I have only worked with a few titles so far, and had already been making my own SmartMusic choral files for some time. What I learned, making my own SmartMusic files, was to give every part its own line (this can be tricky with mid-measure divisi in parts), and to very carefully decide what measures I wanted to assess (you can do this with the educator’s version of SmartMusic with a full score).

The difference between my own files and these new choral files is that each song is linked to an audio recording (think of the audio sampler recordings sent out by the publishers), and although you can add “your part” as a synthesized overlay, all parts of the audio tracks exist at all times when you work with the music.

I have sent my feedback already, but I would prefer to be able to choose what parts I heard as I or my students sang an assignment/assessment. I would prefer the choice to hear either a synthesized accompaniment or the recorded accompaniment.

The use of an accompaniment is a tricky matter for singers and choirs. In the instrumental world, you want every player to aspire to the sound of a professional player. If you hear a professional recording of Holst’s 1st Suite, that is how you want your young players to sound, too. In vocal music, you probably don’t want your young choir sounding like the St. Olaf Choir (as beautifully as they sing) or like a particular opera singer, as their voices generally have not developed enough to emulate those sounds. While I don’t want to insult anyone, you generally don’t want your choirs to sing like sound sampler choirs, either, which tend to be adults singing with a bit of a “pop” sound.

What ends up happening, then, is a quagmire where to fully represent a song, you might need several recordings attached to it (e.g. An excellent children’s choir, an excellent high school women’s choir, and a collegiate women’s choir), with solo parts recorded by exemplar voices at each level for each part, so that “music minus 1” audio samples could be used at all levels for all students.

That level of complexity just can’t happen, but that is what would be ideal. Since it can’t happen, I would instead like the choice to use synthesized accompaniments as well as the provided audio recording. It would also be wonderful to be able to upload your own recording (you can upload JUST an MP3 as an assignment/assessment, but I am talking about doing so attached to a score)–perhaps using some of the technology developed by Weezic.

Also, I would like the ability to see ALL parts (full score) or single parts. For assessment, single parts are wonderful, but most of the time, choral singers are used to following the full score, which is much easier to follow than a band score.

With full score examples, SmartMusic has the potential to be the place where choir directors would go to find music, much like many band directors (I know many band directors who only choose music that is available on SmartMusic).

If you are a choral director and have a subscription to SmartMusic (if not, the $40 annual student subscription will give you full access to the literature), check out the choral music on SmartMusic and give them some feedback!

P.S. I would love to see the “legacy” SmartMusic vocal literature updated to include the scores (right now, the legacy vocal literature only provides an accompaniment and interface box, as it dates to the days when SmartMusic was called “Vivace” and ran on an external unit and required “carts”)

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S-Cubed: A New Approach to Sight Singing

Raise your hand if you have figured out how to teach your students to sight sing. If you are a band or orchestra teacher, don't consider yourself out of this discussion. My high school band teacher was also a singer, and his philosophy was, “If you can sing it, you can play it.” In a perfect world, band and orchestra kids would learn how to sight sing, too, as a part of total musicianship (this is why you had to take sight singing and ear training in college).

But here's the problem with sight singing: there is a disconnect between how we sight sing, and then how we actually learn music. Teachers that “teach” sight singing do so as a disconnected exercise from any other part of the rehearsal. I have been guilty of this, too. Over my years as a teacher, I had mixed commitments to teaching sight singing until a professor on my doctoral committee asked, “What are you doing to teach music literacy in the form of sight singing, dictation, and composition.” At the time, I wasn't doing very much, and my committment changed. Since that time, sight singing has been a part of what I focus on.

I have tried a number of approaches, including reading off the board (my preferred method, as all eyes are up and you can see who isn't participating), using exercises from Melodia, Bruce Phelps Sight Reading Method, and 90 Days to Better Sight Reading, using SmartMusic as a class, and even teaching complete songs via solfége. At best, kids tolerated my efforts, at worst they hated them.

This past fall, I had the chance to work with a Minnesota school district that had adopted a 1:1 Chromebook initative and wanted an outsider's perspective on how those devices could be used and what other resources could be used. In that process, the middle school choir director talked about S-Cubed, a sight singing method devised by Dale Duncan, and how that methodology was not only working with her students, but also helped with discipline in her classes.

Knowing my situation (see my last two posts), I figured it was worth a try. Dale offers the S-Cubed series on “Teachers Pay Teachers” and occasionally offers sale prices. I bought his entire series, and waited for a time in the year to begin working with it. I need to let you know that I am not receiving any financial compensation for mentioning S-Cubed. I am mentioning it because it works.

When you buy S-Cubed, you receive files of all the various PowerPoint lessons Dale has created to teach sight singing. Dale has created many (short) YouTube videos demonstrating how to teach concepts and sharing additional thoughts. He currently works in Georgia where sight singing is still a part of the adjudication of choral contests. His choirs “kick butt” in this process every year. After years of struggling with teaching sight singing, Dale observed other teachers and came up with a process that worked for him, and he is now offering his process to other teachers.

When you see Dale on his YouTube videos, you may be tempted to think, “I'm not Dale. This isn't going to work for me.” What I am sure that Dale would tell you is the same thing I have said to my student teachers–if you try to be me, you are going to fail. To succeed in this job, you have to know who YOU are and to be true to yourself, working through your strengths and learning how to cope with your weaknesses. If you buy S-Cubed, you have to present it AS YOURSELF, and not as Dale. If you do this, it will work for you.

At the core of Dale's process are two things: gameification and technology. He uses available technology (in his case, an Interactive White Board and PowerPoint), and we all know how students (heck, even adults) love playing games. Sight reading is turned into a game (at first), which leads to a systematic process that enables students to sight read without hating the process. In the process, classroom management also becomes easier.

I began using S-Cubed in March, as we have taken a period off mid-year to work on other non-singing projets (composition). Over the past 3 months, we have covered the first five lessons of S-Cubed, while there are 27 complete lessons. I have personally worked through Lesson 6, but even so, I have only used 1/3 of a year's worth of lessons with my class (remember, my classes are on an A/B format, whereas Dale's classes are open enrollment but meet daily).

I don't want to get into the specifics of what you do in each lesson, as Dale's process walks you through every step of the journey, and truthfully, the man deserves to be paid for what he has developed. What I can tell you is that S-Cubed is working, and I can't wait to start my 6th Grade students on Lesson 1, and to pick up with Lesson 6 with my 7th and 8th grade students next year.

Athough Dale includes PowerPoints (which also act as your manual) for each day (there are several days in each lesson), I have been re-creating content to use on my mirrored iPad screen with Keynote. I like to use Keynote's “laser pointer” as I walk students through the tasks which keeps me from signing (yes, signing) with them as many students used to watch me as I signed solfége instead of watching the projected screen. I also like to use APS Tuning Trainer to help my students develop sensitivity to pitch. And I like to use other resouces for quizzes, such as Google Forms (and perhaps Schoology in the future) for assessments (instant grading). I am placing a lot of hope in PracticeFirst next year (at $6 per student) to assess student sight singing as well. I might also have students record themselves on video (we shall see).

What you are going to see with S-Cubed is a systematic approach that exposes kids to solfége names and hand symbols, and then gradually puts those names and hand symbols INTO THE MUSIC. The hand symbols won't be “just” for elementary music teachers with a Kodály background any more. And if you do have elementary teachers that teach with the Kodály hand symbols, let them know you are continuing the work.

Here's the deal…this system is worth its weight in gold, and could be EASILY modified for elementary school or high school (if you choose this method, your high schools would be foolish not to continue using it), or for band/orchestra as well. The complete first method is currently selling for $150, but there are occasionally some sales, and there is no guarantee that prices won't go up, either. You can also buy individual lessons or smaller lesson packs if you don't want to commit to the entire series. Or you can download the free pack just to find out more about the method. Dale also blogs at inthemiddlewithmrd1.blogspot.com, and is in the process of developing S-Cubed year 2.

In closing, one of my major tools during the second half of the year has been S-Cubed. Kids buy into it, even stoic 8th grade students that are “too cool.” if you start this at the beginning of the year, your kids will be sight reading before you know it, and you will have massively changed the climate in your program.

A big day for music technology…

Two major items hit the news today that have the potential to impact our lives as musicians and music educators.

The first is that MusicFirst introduced PracticeFirst, a new system that will allow green note/red note assessment for $6 per student, with additional titles being added for an additional cost (teachers can also provide their own literature, which is what I would do). I haven’t see or used the system (other than some screen shots at http://www.musicfirst.com), so I cannot tell you how the service compares to SmartMusic or Music Prodigy. I can tell you that the pricing does come very close to affordable for even my current situation where student socio-economic factors are an issue. $6 per year, for the same general ability to assess student pitch and rhythm, versus $40 for SmartMusic and $30 for Music Prodigy, is one heck of a deal. Furthermore, PracticeFirst is web-based (meaning any device, potentially including phones), and it is also supposed to assess tone. I still need to see what Weezic will release in this area. I would still love to see a buy-once app that didn’t have to rely on servers, as $6 per student is still nearly $2000 for my program. That is $10,000 over five years, and $20,000 over ten years. That is a significant investment, and SmartMusic and Music Prodigy would be more! Remember, you aren’t getting much content with PracticeFirst, but with advances in scanning, it is easier than ever to scan music, and furthermore, you shouldn’t be assessing full pieces of music…you should be selectively choosing the measures you will assess. For the cost savings over SmartMusic ($11,000 for my program), I can make my own assessments, plus as a choral director, I always had to make my own literature assessments anyway.

Again, we don’t know how PracticeFirst will compare with other programs, but it will be fun to find out.

As a side note, also check out the resources at www.odogy.com for additional green note/red note applications in music. There is a web application called CommunityBand, as well as a Recorder Application, a Music Share Application, and a Duet Maker. All are priced very affordably for music education.

Finally, the handwriting music on a tablet space has really heated up. The Sibelius Blog covered StaffPad, a handwriting app mainly for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Microsoft Surface 3 [The Pro is the better option with the larger 4:3 screen], about two weeks ago. This week, Neuratron announced its pending third version of NotateMe for iOS and Android. Today the Sibelius Blog broke the news about TouchNotation, a new handwriting music app from Kawai (the link is a referral link. If you buy the app from the link, I will relieve a 7% commission from Apple, but the cost is the same, and the company makes the same amount). The app was live in Japan first, and there is a free version available as well. The app is on sale for $7.99 until the end of April, and has various in-app purchases. I have only played with the app for a few moments, but it seems to work well enough, although there doesn’t seem to be a way to add lyrics (not so great for a choir director or general music teacher).

I am intrigued by the entrance of Kawai into the app space. NotateMe remains the app I would recommend on iOS or Android, as it allows for the PhotoScore In-App Purchase, which is worth its weight in gold. And I don’t have a Surface Pro 3 (I would buy myself a new MacBook and an Apple Watch first), so I have not purchased StaffPad (which would not work so well on my Asus T-100 tablet without an active stylus). But it seems that StaffPad has captured the excitement of a number of musicians and executives at Microsoft. I have seen a number of musicians who are buying a Surface Pro 3 just for StaffPad. On a similar note. I know musicians who bought iPads for forScore and unrealBook.

I also hope you didn’t miss the news about the next version of Sibelius (8?) that will also utilize the Surface Pro’s active stylus. It seems that if you are a musician who uses Windows, it is time to buy the Surface Pro 3.

So…that’s the big news today…PracticeFirst, odogy.com, and Touch Notation, as well as mention of StaffPad, NotateMe 3, and Sibelius. Aren’t options wonderful?

Another use for PDFtoMusicPro

After my session in Salt Lake City, a choir director came up to ask me if I knew about PDFtoMusic Pro.  I do know about PDFtoMusic Pro, and I will use it from time to time.

PDFtoMusic Pro can be purchased from MyriadOnline, and costs $199.  The program runs on Windows and Mac computers.  It reads PDFs generated by a computer, and then converts them into MusicXML files.  It also plays AND SINGS (emphasis intended) what is on the score.  If you scan your music (most music is not available in MusicXML files or computer-generated PDF scores), this program typically isn’t of much use to you.  However, if you use a lot of music from the Choral Public Domain Library or can get a computer-generated PDF from a publisher, PDFtoMusic Pro can save you hours of work.

The choir director that recommended the use of PDFtoMusic Pro had another suggestion, which I had not considered.  As PDFtoMusic Pro sings back a part, he scanned his music with another app (I believe Sharp Eye, which is a Windows-only software package), edited the scan in Finale, and then saved his song as a PDF specifically to open in PDFtoMusic Pro.  PDFtoMusic Pro then creates rehearsal files for his choir members with its synthesized voice.

I just tried this process with Rollo Dilworth’s “Everlasting Melody” which I am studying with my 6th Grade students in the next months.  I scanned the music with PhotoScore Ultimate, then edited the music with Notion for iPad.  I then exported a PDF and tried opening it with PDFtoMusic Pro.  The result was okay–but PDFtoMusic Pro didn’t like the Notion-created PDF.  For example, it didn’t play ties (over barlines) correctly.  Next I exported the Notion file as a MusicXML file to Finale, and then saved the Finale file as a PDF, opening it in PDFtoMusic Pro–and PDFtoMusic Pro worked just fine with the Finale-generated file.

So what I’ve learned so far is that if you want to follow this path to make rehearsal accompaniments, generate PDFs from Finale.

I have made rehearsal/accompaniment tracks for some time, and I usually prefer to do so from Notion (on the iPad) because it is so easy to use the “mixing board” to elevate one part and mute/lessen others and then to export audio.  Of course, this means that choir members have no actual “voice” to follow other than a piano sound.  As a result, this PDFtoMusic Pro solution for $199 might be worth its weight in gold for some people.

It also leads me to wonder why the notation programs haven’t included this technology in their software–if Myriad can do it, certainly others could (or the technology could be licensed).  Wouldn’t that be a great feature in the next Finale/Sibelius/Notion/MuseScore?

If you would like to hear what this sounds like, I have embedded a couple of SoundCloud clips below: one of “Everlasting Melody” generated soprano-strong from Notion, the other generated from PDFtoMusic Pro.