Category Archives: General Musings

General Musings

Zivix (JamStik+ and PUC+) and Music Education

The Minnesota Music Education Association held its annual Mid-Winter conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Thursday and Friday (there are some events on Saturday, but it has basically become a two day conference).

I always stress the importance of the vendor area, because it is a place where networking happens (and sometimes, impromptu counseling sessions) and it is where music educators can see what is out there in terms of equipment, technology, travel, and fundraising.

I was very pleased to see that Zivix brought a booth to MMEA this year. I love this for two reasons: first of all, they are selling products that can change how we interact with music and technology; second, they are a Minnesota-based company. Their booth focused on the JamStik, and had a lot of interest from music educators (I heard that about 4,000 attendees were registered). The JamStik was also present at TMEA as part of Romeo Music–but their booth at MMEA represented their first “full” presence at a music education conference (they have been at other conferences, such as NAMM, in the past).

In my session at MMEA, I talked about the JamStik and about Zivix. In general, it is a company made up of guitar players and engineers (and a combination of both) that are getting into the “traditional” music education market (they have always been focused on helping people learn the guitar). Their main device, the JamStik+, is a guitar interface that uses Bluetooth MIDI to transmit data to an iOS Device or Mac (soon Android and eventually Windows), meaning that guitar players can interact with apps like GarageBand, or even utilize “traditional” notation apps like Notion. They include a suite a downloadable apps that make the JamStik wonderful for teaching guitar (on screen diagrams and interactions that can be mirrored), and basically, if an app uses Core MIDI, the JamStik can interact with it.

They also have a wonderful device called a PUC which transmits MIDI data via Bluetooth from an existing MIDI device (keyboard, pad) to an iOS Device or Mac. Both are fantastic devices, and one or both can likely fit into your workflow as a music educator.

At any rate, I enjoyed seeing them at MMEA, and I look forward to their future success in music education.

If you would like to know more about Zivix and their products, check out their website. Education pricing is available.

New Single on iTunes…”Piece of You” by Tim Olstad

This is a little bit off the normal path of this blog, but I received the following e-mail from MMEA member Julie Olstad about her son, and I am happy to pass this along:

Our son, Tim Olstad was a finalist on the 2013 season of XFactor. He just released his first single on iTunes. Since he's a Minnesota native I was hoping you could bring this great news to your followers.

Here is a link to purchase Tim's new single, “Piece of You” on iTunes:

Please support Tim as he pursues his career in the music industry!


Technology Resources for Ukulele

54 ukuleles hung on the wall, ready to be used

As my ukulele launch in my middle school choir program draws near (either February 5th or 8th), I have been preparing for that launch. I am choosing to create my own method of teaching ukulele rather than to follow existing methods (e.g. Hal Leonard and Alfred). That said, I do have an eye on those methods as I plan.

While I am preparing, I am finding a ton of digital resources for the ukulele. Here are just a few:

Tuner: Kala Brand Tuner (FREE-created for one of the major manufacturers of all levels of ukulele)

Kala Brand Tuner App on iPad

Creating Ukulele Music: Notion (The most developed music notation app for iOS. For ukulele, creates notes and tablature–does not offer the ability to include chord diagrams for ukulele)

Self-Made Chord Charts: Chord Tunes (Creates lyrics and chords, plus ukulele chord diagrams)

Chords/Fingerings/Tuner: Guitar Toolkit (Guitar Toolkit covers many string instruments)

Ukeoke: Basically the Four Chords app for ukulele (monthly fee)

Futulele: An iPad ukulele app, ideally to be used by students that need accessibility features–thanks to Beth Jahn for the suggestion)

iBooks: There is a lot of ukulele literature on the iBooks Store–for less than what you can buy it in print. Here are just a few titles that are available:

Assessment: I will test most skills in class, but realize that some students will be afraid to test in person. Therefore, we have a few ukuleles to check out overnight. Students can take them home and make a video of themselves (using the stock Camera app) playing the required testing material, and submit the video to me via Showbie. I also use Showbie to create rubrics–allowing me to assess each student–and Showbie's new grading feature allows me to quickly transfer grades from Showbie to our school's student information system.

Web Resources: While there are a TON of ukulele websites out there, I recommend the following sites:

And finally, Amazon. I love music stores–but there are times that the added overhead of a music store cannot be tolerated in the cost of a program. In our case, our entire set of 58 ukuleles (55 to be used in class, 3 to be sent home for practice/performance tests) were purchased from Amazon for under $2000–including setting up a ukulele hanging system with 2x4s and tool hooks. Unfortunately, if we had purchased these through a local vendor, the cost would have been well over $2000. Our ukuleles, Mahalo MK1s are throw-away models if anything serious happens (other than replacing strings). It would be a different situation if we had more expensive ukuleles that would warrant the need for repairs. As a side note, the MK1s do eventually settle into their tuning–and I go through and tune each of the instruments once each day. The instruments I purchased in Novemeber are nearly always in tune. That is a relief–58 continually out-of-tune ukuleles would be a nightmare.

We actually bought 68 ukuleles, as we gave parents the ability to send some extra money to buy their students a ukulele to keep. 10 families bought a ukulele for home. In total, the booster program purchased 28 of the instruments, and parents donated money for 30 of them. Not a cent of this program is on the common tax payer.

I have found out that Amazon's prices fluctuate wildly–the majority of our ukuleles were purchased around $25 each when they were backordered, but the instruments are now $37 each.

This morning, I purchased 2 additional instruments from Amazon: A Caramel (a Chinese brand) Concert and a Caramel Tenor for $75, shipped. I want to give these inexpensive larger instruments a try. It will be nice to have a concert and tenor on hand at school–and also for students that might struggle with the small soprano (thinking about some of the giant 8th grade boys) to try. If the Caramel instruments are any good–I'll certainly blog about them.

I also recently learned that D'Adarrio Ukuele strings are made by Aquilla (considered to be one of the best kinds of ukulele string), so it might be worth buying D'Addario for the savings over Aquilla.

The shift to ukulele is shocking to me–I grew up in the era of Tiny Tim, where the ukulele was a joke to our culture. My training in music education didn't spend one second talking about ukuleles–at any level of my education (K-12, college, or grad school). It appears that the ukulele is as common in many other countries as recorder and guitar are in the United States (although guitar programs are relatively few in number compared to Band, Choir, and Orchestra at the secondary level).

All I can say is this–I have fallen in love with the instrument, and I spend more than an hour each day playing and singing. It has resparked my love of music, and for that I am thankful. I now own two ukuleles (a Makala Concert, and a Kala Banjo Ukulele). There is a good chance that I will be adding a tenor ukulele (or two) to the stable in the near future. We also bought our boys a MK1 Mahalo, with the idea that they will leave my ukuleles alone (they are). When I tune my ukulele, my three year old runs up to me and asks me to tune his, too.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, our integration with the ukulele is right around the corner. I am excited to bring this experience to our students, and to get them singing and reading music in a sneaky way. The possibilities are endless–we'll see what happens!


Creating Video Tutorials for Your Class

My old 2008 MacBook is currently rendering a 20 minute video that I created this evening (really since about 9:30, and it is now 10:40). While I am waiting (I may end up just going to bed), I wanted to blog a little bit about this process.

When our districts went to the middle school format seven years ago, music became a required and every-other-day event for our middle school students. The expectation of the number of concerts per year dropped from 3 (trimesters) to 2 (extra-curricular pay dropped as well, over 40%).

Since I came to the middle school level three years ago, I have used the period of time after my winter/holiday concert and starting of the spring concert literature to meet state standards and do some other tasks.

In past years I have done an extensive composition project (see my NotateMe Now lessons) as well as had students suggest music for our Spring Concert.

This year, we have spent the last 3 weeks doing a major study of the music selection project, which is based on us meeting seven of our state standards. The project includes learning about genre, the functions of music (thank you, Mr. Merriam), researching what music is available for choirs, and actually submitting suggestions. Students wrap up that project today and tomorrow. Some kids are getting a lot out of it, others aren't trying. I have purposely given students time to work in choir–many are choosing not to work. They have the right to choose their desired grade (specific tasks to meet a grade, a way of offering differentiation). I fear I'll be seeing a lot of Ds and Fs–in a school where you automatically earn 50%.

Well, that was the last project. The next project, which I am working on now, is a composition project that asks students to create choir warm-ups. As usual, I create a printed guide that contains everything I am going to teach in class. That document contains answers to big questions, such as, “Why do warm-ups,” and “What is my [as in: me, their teacher] warm-up strategy/order/philosophy.”

I didn't want to give the same lecture to all of my choirs–so I decided to make an instructional video that taught the content about warm-ups, and then a brief tutorial for the app we are going to use.

I was stuck having to go with iWriteMusic Free. I normally wouldn't recommend iWriteMusic to anyone, but we don't have money for apps, and NotateMe Now does not let you write lyrics in the free version. Notion and Symphony Pro are out because they are paid apps.

You can record your iPad on your Mac via a lightning cable (with Yosemite and above) with QuickTime. The problem is that you can choose to record audio from your iPad, or you can choose to record it from your Mac. I wanted both my spoken audio and the iPad's audio (inside iWriteMusic) for students to hear.

What I did was to record my audio on my phone using “Just Press Record” (there is also an Apple Watch application, which is why I have it). Then I imported the QuickTime movie to iMovie, dropped in the audio, and edited out the major bloopers.

What I will have (whenever my old MacBook finishes rendering video) when I am done is an instructional video of 20 minutes that is just about 10 minutes about why and how we do warm-ups, and 10 minutes of how to do the project tasks and use the app. It's a good balance, which will save me endless repetitions–and I can simply drop the video in my paid version of Showbie (another wonderful iPad app…on my “must have” list of apps for iPad educators) so kids can access it any time they need it (or if they are absent…)

Recording the audio separately at the same time as presenting was simply brilliant–I'm sad I haven't thought of this earlier.

I'll see how the kids react to the video. They are so screen minded (especially in a 1:1 iPad school), I am wondering if a video lecture/lesson/demo won't be more interesting to them than if I presented in person. I'll ask them afterwards (and watch them closely).

The end goal is for them to provide warm-ups we can use in choir, and I would even like to share some of them (student names redacted) here on the blog for your use, too. And yes–I need to start work on my warm-up resources again. I can likely do that in the summer, or over Spring Break.

The composition project helps us meet three additional Minnesota State Arts Standards. So there is definitely a method to my madness. There are some “boring” tasks in the process, but in these two projects, students will have suggested literature from an educated standpoint, and experienced composition providing exercises that we can potentially use in our choirs and share with the world.

We have also continued working on our sight singing, even though we're not singing choral literature right now. I'm not worried. If we were already working on our music for late May, they would be incredibly sick of that music by the time of the concert (regardless of their level of performance at the time).

After this short composition project (I'm thinking 2-3 days), we will move to ukulele. I have been having a blast getting instructional materials ready for that, too. If the ukulele is a success, I have some ideas on how we can continue to integrate it into choir even as we return to choir music.

Lots of good stuff to come in the weeks ahead.

Confessions: Ukulele and Guitar

One of the results of my experience with graduate school is that I have become more of a music educator than a “pure” choral musician. While I still love choral music and miss working with high level choirs, I find myself at a place in life (professionally) where I care about what students know and can do, perhaps even more than how well they sing. This can be blasphemy to many “pure” choral educators.

My current teaching “gig” also has stretched my philosophy of music education. As I have stated in the past, music is required in our middle school. We have no general music class, so if students aren't in band or orchestra, they are in choir. Students that don't make it in band and orchestra also end up in choir. As a result, I get a mixture of students that want to be in choir, and those that are forced to be there. This wouldn't be a bad thing if students that didn't want to be in choir would simply go with the flow. Many do–but there are a number of students, the high flyers throughout the school, that seem to thrive on disrupting classes. Choir gets nearly all of these students, as does Physical Education and Art. There is a clear message in our school that our classes “don't really matter,” sometimes even from other teachers in the building.

So yeah, teaching is tough in the environment. I knew this coming in–but I was foolish enough to think that I could make a difference. Three years in, and although I have restored order to a program that had lost order, there is a point at which–regardless of how hard you work–things aren't going to get any better.

Even with the tough job, I don't stop trying to give our students different experiences–and I don't shy away from focusing on our state standards. When our district adopted the middle school model, music moved to an every-other-day subject, flipping with Physical Education. The middle schools then scaled back the number of concerts from three per year (one per trimester) to two per year, based on the loss of rehearsal time (extra-curricular pay was scaled back at about the same time).

What this means is that we have a gap in the middle of the year where there is no pressing concert, and you really wouldn't want to work on music for May in January, as the music would tire out long before the snow thawed.

In the past years, I have held an annual composition project (look at the NotateMe projects from the past), as well as had students help find music for the spring concert.

This year, I have expanded the “music search” project to meet a few more state standards (focusing on genre and functions of music in addition to selecting repertoire). I am shortening the composition project and trying, having students write choral warm-ups. And we are going to do a ukulele unit.

Yes, our Title I school in a generally underfunded district (although we did pass an operating levy AND we are building a new school to replace my current school) is going to have a ukulele unit. Not a single cent is being provided by the district, even though I did ask for support (I didn't ask my own principal, because I know the budget has no wiggle room).

We hold a few fundraisers each year. We sell a local set of restaurant cards in the fall, and coffee/chocolate right before the holidays. I sell lollipops from the choir office before school (Ozark Delights), and kids stop in before and after school to buy them (Did you catch that? They come to me). And we collect, very causally, donations at our concerts. With about 320 performing students, we take in between $200 and $350 at a concert. I used some of this money to buy 25 ukuleles, and parents have donated money for us to buy another 30 (My largest class size is 53).

Ukuleles have become an interest of mine in the past six months. I never really paid attention to the ukulele (and considered it a toy like many people and musicians). However, I kept seeing articles about ukuleles and education. I decided to buy a few ukuleles in October to see how they would hold up in our school environment, and I was hooked. I just watched the documentary “The Mighty Uke,” and I am even FURTHER hooked!

I am not a great guitar player. I like guitar a lot and I love my JamStik. I think guitar should be offered at every high school (I really do–and wouldn't mind seeing it being offered via the JamStik even in independent study cases). I have taught guitar at the high school level with success.

The ukulele offers a whole different experience than the guitar. With its four nylon strings, small size, and small cost, it isn't threatening at all. While I am nowhere near a ukulele expert, I was playing songs on one of the school's ukuleles within minutes of picking it up. I think I could get good at it. And while I have had methods classes involving nearly every instrument–I don't think my skills are that far above any other person's.

What I found out about the ukulele, after doing some research, is that you can get into one very cheap, there are a ton of free resources on the web (from music to videos), and that it isn't a toy–it is a real instrument. There are true virtuosos of the ukulele. It doesn't hurt that the ukulele is incredibly popular in folk music right now, either.

I'm kind of hooked, and I think my students will be, too. The other day one of my worst students asked to hold and look at a ukulele–and I very hesitantly handed one over to him. I was afraid that he would smash it (this wouldn't be out of the question). Instead, he held it very gently and examined it closely before handing it back to me. I was shocked–it was a bit like experiencing the ending of the “Greatest Christmas Pagent Ever” in person.

Granted, there will be challenges ahead. While true of all students, students at our school are exceptionally talented at giving up on things once hard work and commitment are concerned. There is a point where the ukulele will require work (changing chords, for example). But I am hoping the instant playability of the ukulele will translate to a new experience with our students.

Do I want choir to turn into full-time ukulele class? No, of course not. First of all, we follow Dale Duncan's S-Cubed sight reading method every day (except for concert week). Second, we will get to our spring music eventually (the goal is the beginning of March). At the same time, one of the other qualities of ukulele is that people usually SING with them. So we will be doing that, too–and may even have a chorus of ukulele players accompany one of our songs in the spring concert. And on any day that gets weird (shortened schedules, large number of kids gone for an activity), we can pull the ukuleles off the wall and get playing.

And I'm already thinking that with only 4 strings, and soft nylon strings, ukuleles are a better match for middle school than guitar. While the exact chords may not translate to guitar, the interaction with frets and finger positions would allow many students to transfer to the guitar at a later time (sadly, our high schools do not offer guitar any longer now that I am no longer in a high school position).

We will be hanging the ukuleles in the back of the choir room off of 2x4s. We have about 40 feet of back wall space, which is split by an electrical conduit (the room was built with 2 outlets, and sometime they added a few more with conduit). So I can do two 18-foot runs of 2×4's. Menards sells “U” tool hooks (2 for $1.50) that can be screwed into the 2x4s to hold ukuleles. Each ukulele requires 8″ of space (giving it plenty of side room), meaning that I can hang 54 ukuleles, and have one ukulele to spare. I am buying the 2x4s (two 10 foot, two 8 foot), and our awesome custodian will mount those to the concrete wall for me (I don't have a hammer drill). Then I'll do the drilling and installation of the U tool hooks. For less than $100, we will have a very functional ukulele storage system, which could be painted at a later date.

As for the ukuleles, I am convinced that Kala makes the nicest entry level ukuleles, although I am far from an expert. That said, the Kala Sopranos start at $55, which was out of our budget. As a result, we are going with Mahalo MK1 models–which have been $26 each (plus tax) or less from Amazon. I ordered them on back order, and most of them are arriving in the next two days. The four “trial” MK1s have held up well, and after a few days of string stretching, have held up their tuning. I am also thinking about buying a large humidifier for the choir room (in Minnesota, we only really need it in the winter months). The entire cost of all 55 ukuleles will be less than $1,500–significantly less than many individual large band instruments!

[Side note: Amazon has had crazy pricing. Last week the MK-1 was $23.26. Eariier today it was $24.75. Right now, it shows as $36.69. Before Christmas break, they were $37 each. We still have 6 ukuleles to order–waiting for money to come in from parents–and $12 per ukulele is a huge difference.]

I had vinyl decals of the choir logo made last year, and we will put those decals on the back of each ukulele, and each will be numbered as well.

The only eventual need will be replacement strings for the ukuleles, which are slightly less than $10 each. So at some point, we'll need another $500 for strings–which may be an annual cost.

How often have you brought a potential program-changing project to your students for less than $2000?

So…my confession is that we're going to be using ukuleles in choir. In the process we will be meeting state and national standards–and we'll be singing choral lit (eventually) and singing along with the ukuleles; and we might just hook a few more kids into “music” for their lifetime, even if they normally hate choir.

I can live with that.

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

P.S. I stopped by our local music store tonight and they had a Kala Concert Banjo Ukulele in stock. I immediately fell in love. I don't think a musical instrument has ever called to me like this–the only thing I can compare it to is the draw that Apple products have for me, and if you know me, that's a strong statement. I already have the Kala MK-CE coming for my use; how do I make an extra $300 to buy a banjo ukulele?





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