Category Archives: General Musings

General Musings

Grace VanderWaal on America’s Got Talent

One of my friends at school came in to tell me about a girl on America’s Got Talent who played the ukulele.  Knowing that I had started a ukulele initiative at the school, she immediately thought of me.  I never see broadcast television (live, anyway), so I didn’t know anything about it.  YouTube to the rescue:

https://youtu.be/D67SBSbNPnI

As I just posted on my (personal) Twitter feed, there is a lot to love in the video, and a few questions as well.

I love the girl’s personality.  I love that she is a middle school student (likely grade 6 or 7) and she is writing and singing her own songs.  I love that she has her own YouTube channel with a lot of other songs.  I love that she has her own style.  I love that she is using a ukulele–and a “entry level” ukulele at that (the Luna Tatoo is better than your cheapo ukulele, but it is still an entry level ukulele).  I love that my kids (my own boys and my students)  can see this video and realize that they, too, can create authentic music experiences and even have the ability to write their own songs.  And I love the fact that she uses a capo (and seems to regularly do so in many of the other YouTube videos on her channel).

There’s nothing bad here, but I do have a few questions.  I do wonder if she has a voice coach, as her voice has a breathy quality and she seems to sing in the lower register of her vocal range.  As a choir teacher, I hope someone is building the upper range of her voice even if she will be known for the lower range of her voice.  Right now, she has a Nora Jones factor to my ear–and I would love to hear a voice that can do that and more.  

Many young artists, particularly in this genre of TV show, amaze with one song and then cannot provide that same wonder with a second or third performance at those next levels of the show.  Having seen her YouTube channel, she will very likely keep playing the ukulele and singing–likely more of her own music.  I think she’ll be okay, even if she doesn’t win.  Several ukulele manufacturers should be seeking her out for a contract right now.

Finally, I worry about the future of teen and pre-teen stars.  Although they may be happy with their lives, I look at the examples of child stars and what they do as grown-ups.  Think about Macaualy Calkin, Miley Cyrus, and even Charlotte Church.   It looks like VanderWaal’s parents are active in her life and that the family dynamics are strong (but again, this is television, so you don’t know).  Hopefully that will help her fight the challenges that seem to want to take down young stars in our culture.

I’m excited to see how far Grace VanderWaal can go in this competition.

A Personal Post

It has been a tough year in the classroom, and something happened last week that summarized my year in a single event.

It was about 7:45am, and I was in my office, getting ready to teach, and we were three days away from the concert.

As I was working on my iPad, preparing warm-ups for the day, some students ran into my office.  They said, “Dr. Russell, do you have a red car?”  I answered that I did.  They quickly responded, “You don’t any more.”

Surreal moment.

I went to find my principal, and let her know that something likely had happened to my car, and we went out to look at my car.

A few staff members who teach on the far side of our building (like myself) park on the street outside of our school, which is legal.  I usually end up parking behind our gym teacher, who has a Suburban.

Well, around 7:40 or so, a person who was an ex-felon and driving on an expired license, crashed into my car while parked, and then crashed into the suburban in front of my car.  They then backed up our of my car, losing a wheel, and drove off, eventually ditching their vehicle.  My car was totaled and pushed up over the curb; the Suburban was knocked forward (breaking its PARK mechanism) and ended about 100 yards down the road.  As it was a beautiful spring day, a lot of kids were outside of the school and saw the accident–as did at least one bus driver. Thankfully, no kids were crossing the street when the crash occurred.  The entire incident was caught on our school’s security cameras.


The police eventually caught the person, who did not offer any reasonable explanation for the accident and declined a sobriety test.  The police simply cited the person.

I handled the situation well–I kept a positive attitude, and was able to show our students how to respond to an unfair situation in life.  The gym teacher and I should have been sent home to deal with things (we were not given that chance).  In addition to a busy schedule with Memorial Day camping and a concert the day after Memorial Day, it was tricky to find a used car that fit what I wanted in a newer used Prius (finding a 2010-2015 with a backup camera and Bluetooth audio is a little more complicated than you would think), and sadly, my insurance company gave me a value for my car that is slightly higher than KBB values, but lower than what you could replace the same car for.  The level of detail that the insurance company used to assess the car was shocking…nitpicking every possible flaw on a car that was not going to be replaced. My car wasn’t new…I bought it in 2014 with 160,000 miles, and had just over 208,000 miles on it.  I was content with the car (my 8 year old kept asking when we would buy a new car, and I kept telling him that we didn’t need one) and I fully expected that car to last to 300,000 miles.

Again, it was a blessing that I wasn’t in the car (some days I sit in the car, listening to the radio and finishing my coffee before facing the day), or that it didn’t happen while my family was in the car.  The cabin was safe, but there would have been some physical damage from the impact.  I am also thankful that no kids were hurt in the accident, and that I could use the opportunity to teach students how to respond to yucky situations, and to teach them about how insurance works and why we need it.

Oh…and here is the replacement car I chose: a 2010 Prius Level III with Backup Camera and Bluetooth Audio.  Sadly, this now puts us another 5 years in car debt.

Maine now hates iPads

That title gets your attention, doesn’t it?  Over the past two days, a single news item has been circulating the tech blogs.  The best example comes from Fortune: http://fortune.com/2016/05/23/maine-schools-ipad-macbook-air/

As a person whose iPad is his primary device, the fact that single voices (read the article closely) are dominating the conversation:

Even students were harsh, with one saying that iPads are designed to “play games on” and ostensibly not to be used for work.

And another:

One teacher said that students often use the iPads as “toys,” adding that they have “no educational function in the classroom.” 

Let me be very clear: iPads aren’t perfect.  Classroom management in a 1:1 has been a nightmare, because Apple has been slow to provide appropriate tools.  We deal with gaming every day.  We deal with misuse and mistreatment of devices.  We deal with off-task behavior.

If you think that Chromebooks or MacBooks are going to stop gaming, you are fooling yourself.  If you think kids won’t mess around on a Chromebook or MacBook, you are living in a fantasy world.

“These devices are only for serious work.”  Yes, that’s because there are NO HTML 5 or Flash-based games on the web  [There are.  More than you can count].

With iOS 9.3 (released this Spring), Apple finally introduced management features that are going to change the game  (yet again) with iPads in the classroom.  These tools are just 3 years too late.

And to the teacher that says iPads have no educational value, my answer is, “Seriously?!?”  In the world of BYOD and 1:1Chromebooks where such programs are less favorable to music education, we are always told, “Surely there has to be some educational value to using these devices in music.”  My response would be that the quoted teacher isn’t a very good teacher if they can find NO educational use for an iPad in their classroom.

The article also critiques using the iPad for Word Processing (Too bad Pages and Word are available for the device).

Let me translate that for you: “The iPad doesn’t have a keyboard.”  I heard that argument from some of the English teachers in my school about a month ago.  I have a Bluetooth keyboard for my iPad, and there is nothing stopping a school from requiring students to provide an external Bluetooth keyboard.

We purchased two hundred keyboards when we went 1:1 .  Most of these haven’t been used at all.  When our English teachers wanted to use them, it turns out the keyboards do not have individual Bluetooth identifiers, so all of them show up as the same keyboard in the pairing process (even though all of them have unique BT addresses).  As a result, an entire class can’t pair at the same time, basically requiring so much time to pair that it becomes pointless to use them–and you want students to unpair after using the keyboard so they don’t accidentally hijack someone else’s iPad that forgets to unpair in another classroom.

So I get it–iPads aren’t perfect.  But the solutions keep getting better.  MacBooks are wonderful, but the clamshell device doesn’t fit well into most music classrooms.  

Incidentally, this news item came out a few days after Google announced that Chrome OS will soon be able to run most (if not all) Android apps.  Having taught in an unrestricted app environment–I can tell you exactly what is going to happen when the “best” Android apps are on every student Chromebook.  Google promises central control of apps for schools–but implementing that procedure is more difficult than simply saying that you will provide it.

And to readers in Maine–you don’t all hate iPads, but you should know that the tech press has basically said that you want to ship every iPad out of your state.  If you like iPads and can see that they have some benefit in education–you might need to speak up, as your voice is clearly not being heard.

MI Guitar

What do you think about this?

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/mi-guitar-by-magic-instruments–3#/

One of the Apple bloggers that I follow (Steve Sande) posted about this product.

I’m personally a little hesitant about it.  While I like the idea of a full size guitar, I am not crazy about wires and the need for 8 AA batteries.  It also seems that the instrument is contingent upon the app, at the cost of $0.99 per song or a monthly fee to unlimited songs.

And when all is said and done, you don’t actually learn how to play the guitar.

I’m partial to the JamStik because it gameifies the learning of a guitar and you leave with a transferable skill.  And if you want to play without being able to play, they are now offering the AirJamz as a Kickstarter.  But then again, I am a music educator who taught class guitar and is currently teaching ukulele…so I am always going to have a focus on the real-world application of such a product.

That said, you may be interested in the MI Guitar, as a fun product or even for students with special needs or for music therapy.  Either way…check it out as a product of interest.

The health of the music publishing industry?

Earlier this week, the news broke that Alfred Music, which I consider the #2 music publisher in terms of size (this might be incorrect, but it is how it feels–particularly in comparison with Hal Leonard), was acquired by Peaksware, the company that owns MakeMusic.

Philip Rothman wrote about the acquisition at the Sibelius Blog, and this quote from his article has been percolating in my brain the last few days:

Peaksware assumed the role of creditor by purchasing Alfred’s outstanding debt from its lenders and then exchanging it for Alfred’s assets.

I have already stated that I don’t understand the financial aspects of the music publishing industry.  I don’t know how much it costs to print music.  I don’t know how much it costs to store unsold music.  I don’t know how much it costs to ship music.  I don’t know how much is paid in royalties for arrangements of pop music (back to the original artist).  I don’t know how much is paid to the arranger.  I don’t know how much is paid to the music store that sells a title.  I don’t know what it costs to record a demo track.  I don’t know what it costs to produce a parts and accompaniment CD for a choral octavo.

Most of my professional life has been spent on the choral side of music education, although I attempt to stay up to date with band, orchestra, and general music (not to mention other forms of music education such as guitar and electronic music).  Right now the average choral octavo costs $1.95 (or more), and an accompaniment CD is typically $26.95.

From the teacher’s standpoint (and budget) this is too much–from any publisher.  You can buy an audio recording of a song for $1.49 (or less).  Why should a paper copy cost more than a “real” recording?  What ends up happening is that schools don’t have the budget to buy music at those prices.  

But things cost what they cost, and nobody would ever guess that the publishing side of music might not be as lucrative as it seems–and that is what the Alfred acquisition is telling me.  While financials were not disclosed about the acquisition, Alfred had debt that was purchased, and the debt was exchanged for assets.

We are entering a period of time where some of the costs of the publishing industry should be decreasing, by offering music directly via PDF, moving the costs of printing to the purchaser (or onto a digital device).  This should allow publishers to lower the cost of music while increasing their cut, and potentially increasing the cur to arrangers as well.   Paper copies could be offered for a premium to those that desired them.  This will impact some positions in companies (printing, shipping, storage) as well as the role of the music store. 

I would also love to see an “Apple Music” approach to published music, giving you full access to everything for a set price per year–with special pricing for education.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a set formula for music when it came to funding from your school–as well as the ability to get rid of music libraries and all of the hassles of processing, distributing, collecting, erasing, replacing, and storing music?

I fully understand that music publishers have been fearful of copyright infringement in the move away from paper.  However, it is time.  Photocopiers have been abundant for more than 30 years, and if you haven’t seen the scanning ability of phones these days, check out Readdle’s Scanner Pro on iPhone.  I have been using Scanner Pro for personal documents in the past weeks, and I cannot believe how well it works.  This could be used for music, too.  Just saying.

 Peaksware is situated in the ideal place to lead the music publishing industry in a new direction, as the business is already focused on technology and its use with music (and music education).   And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alfred begin to add some other music publshers to its portfolio, as it modifies its business practices under Peaksware.

Hal Leonard also has the potential with its connections with Noteflight and Noteflight Learn.

I’m hoping the “big boys” of the music publishing industry can use these changes as a way to lower prices and to make their companies profitable.

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