Category Archives: General Musings

General Musings

It has been a rough year!

I teach middle school, but I still don’t consider myself a middle school teacher. Middle school is an interesting age, and teachers often have an elementary approach to middle school. I prefer to work with students as emerging adults, but that approach isn’t always successful–at any age (even with adults!). That said, I no longer see myself as a high school teacher (this was my identity for 17 years), or even as a college professor. I see myself as a music educator that could teach at any level. That change has been a long time coming!

What I have learned over my past two years of teaching middle school is that there are better solutions out there. The best solutions work regardless of personality or charisma. In my current teaching position, I have 320 students in grades 6-8, and music is a required subject (unless a student has remedial classes to take, or they are enrolled in AVID and choose other elective options). What this means is that unless a student plays an instrument (band or orchestra), they are in choir. I also get all the kids who drop or get booted out of instrumental classes. So musically, choir is the end-of-the-line.

I see nearly half of the school population. The difficult part is (without a non-performance option), about 25%-30% of any given grade level is in choir but has no desire to be there. This results in behaviors that I never experienced at the high school level. Those previous behaviors caused the previous teachers to leave this same position. And not to be rude, but of those 25%-30% of students, 95% of that group behave poorly in other classes. On a related note, their parents are either overwhelmed, enabling, or not involved. With those parents (and students), the statement, “It is just choir, so it doesn’t matter,” is used. There is no better statement that you can use with a music teacher to let them know that they and the subject that they are most passionate about are complete rubbish to you. And no, grades are not a motivational tool for most students, and with “Grading for Learning,” students can earn no grade lower than a 50%.

Last year, all but twenty-four 8th Grade students chose a different option than choir. That was determined long before I arrived–but there should have been over 100 8th grade students in choir. In 8th Grade this year, I kept nearly all of my previous 7th grade students (about 95 of them), but an additonal 25 students were dropped into choir who had not taken choir in 7th grade. Those kids were generally not happy to be in choir, and a large number of them made a concerted effort to disrupt the educational environment every day. Sadly, in our middle school format, there was no other place for those kids to go (they aren’t going to join band or orchestra at that point) and there was no ability to change anything.

I have been trying to stay true to myself, and to treat students as the emerging adults that I believe they are. I have modified my expectations about homework (generally, students don’t do homework in our school, so many teachers stop assigning it) and pitch-perfect concerts. My personal goal is my personal survival and well-being, and to have choir be a fun place where kids want to be. I want them to want to take choir at the high school. Last year, I sent 4 students to the high school choirs; this year I sent 31. Some days, it is a struggle to go to work. I miss working with kids that choose to be in choir, and I now understand why my former middle school colleague bid into my former high school position.

Please note: it isn’t the “middle school beast” that ruins my day–I like middle school kids. I really do! But the kids who hate your class and do everything they can to destroy your class can really ruin your day–and they often do. Sadly, that impacts how you react, even though while 70%-75% of your kids (260 of them) want to be there. But we seldom focus on those particular kids.

I was recently reminded of this, as teachers are encouraged to hand out a reward slip to students who are ready, safe, or respectful. Last Friday, we had a rewards day for any student with 25 or more slips, and a HUGE number of students at that rewards day were “naughty” kids. Teachers used those rewards slip to keep those naughty students involved or calm in their classes. Meanwhile, most of our kids–the majority of them “good” kids–sat in their normal classes, because teachers don’t reward them! We need to make sure that we are rewarding the “good kids,” too.

I have to remind myself why I moved to middle school: time with my family (most days, I am home by four and we have two concerts a year, plus I attend our other middle school band and orchestra concerts), the iPad initiative (I have learned SO much), support for my other professional interests (being allowed time to present at a few conferences each year), and the reduction of stress away from a high-profile high school position. There is also the benefit of a guaranteed position (320:1 and rising), as well as an administration that is supportive and encouraging. Additionally, as of next year, all of the students will have been “mine” for the first time. So the culture might very well shift to a direction that I love.

Realistically, however, things will stay basically the same, and I will have to continue to deal with the 25%-30% of kids that are in choir that don’t want to be there. That situation has resulted in a whole new level of stress which I don’t think I will ever like or get used to! My college choir director, who is retiring this year, often said, “Every hospital has its bed pans.” He was so very wise in sharing that statement with us.

In our disrict, we have bidding rights that come with a four year mandatory bid. If you bid somewhere, you teach in that position for four years. So I can’t go anywhere else for two more years without leaving our district, and there is no guarantee anything will open in our district at that time, or that I would want to bid to another position at that time. As a result, I have to try to fix the problem from the inside out. That partially means advocating for some kind of class that isn’t performance-based (our administration is set against a general music class). I personally want to work on introducing a music technology class, but need to figure out how such a class doesn’t become a draw away from traditional band, choir, or orchestra. The other thing that I have needed to do is to find middle school management solutions. I found two solutions that worked this year which I will keep using, and I also have given up on some solutions. The next few posts will talk about these items. In particular, I will discuss “above-the-line” and S-Cubed. Stay tuned!

P.S. Our last day with students is on Friday.

Thoughts on the Music Publishing Industry – Part 2

Before I go any further in this series, I think it is important to note that I am an “end user” in this industry. I have done some arranging, and I have also prepared some larger works (public domain) for use with choirs. I am very familar with Finale and Notion, and am growing more familiar with MuseScore. For the most part, Finale and Sibelius are the major tools that music publishers use to finalize a piece. Many hours can be spent “print setting” a piece. In choral music, the process is generally straightforward, as the biggest concern is printing all parts in an octavo (smaller page size) format, whereas instumental music offers many challenges in both a master score and individual parts. Most composers compose directly to MusicXML, and software of nearly any kind can print both scores and parts. But creating a published piece requires much more finish work, as well as cover art, composer notes, and anything else included in the final printed masterpiece. Then of course, there is marketing, audio recording (samples), printing, storage, shipping, and all the other overhead costs of a piece.

I honestly don't know the cost distribution of a music publisher, but my guess is that the composer/arranger receives 10% or less, and that the license fees of a pop song are perhaps 25%. I believe that music is sold to music stores at a discount of 25% (75% of MSRP), leaving somwhere between 65% and 40% of the cost of each piece of music to the music publisher. When the sale moves to the online format of the music publisher, they may make between 90% and 65% of the cost of the music–with the purchaser often picking up the shipping (the website costs are negligible, perhaps an extra 3% of overhead with credit card fees. Normal website costs are part of doing business these days).

So, with that in mind, let me express some of my frustration with things as they stand and how they can be addressed:

  1. Music purchased in a digital format should NEVER cost as much as paper. At certain times of the year, I can purchase sheet music from a local music store for 20% off with free shipping. If I order a digital copy, it costs the full cost PLUS shipping (and my local music store doesn't see a cent).
  2. I “get” that some people love paper music and hate digital music. I can only assume two things when this occurs. First, they haven't tried apps like forScore or unrealBook tied with an AirTurn foot pedal. Second, digital music is paper music digitized, not music optimized for a digital screen. So that said, have the engravers tweak the digitial music you are paying more for to specifically work on the screen of an iPad (with hundreds of millions sold, that's a good start), which will then scale well to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (which still lacks a good PDF music reader) or future iPad “Pro.”
  3. That said, any printed music that makes staves miniscule should stop the process. Earthsongs and Oxford…some of your scores are horrendous to read if you are over 40.
  4. Storage of paper music stinks. Collection of scores after a performance and distribution is a challenge, and some kids fail to turn things in until the very end of the year. Sorting scores (in instrumental music) is a pain. Digital music can solve all that (after the piece is used, it is deleted or recycled). An online database could easily track what a school (not a director, as those change) has purchased, allowing that school to redownload and print as necessary.
  5. We (educators) can photocopy cheaper than you can print. Covers are pretty, but are not needed with digital music. We want the first page to be music, with “extra” materials at the end. For a digital score, pages should be re-numbered. Save the money and do away with the fancy covers that end up dating the scores in five years anyway. So if your school isn't 1:1 iPad or Surface (or a future Chromebook tablet), you can still photocopy. Remove the cost of printing, stapling, handling, storage, and shipping from the cost of the music, and make it less expensive for all of us. Make digitial copies we can print the standard.
  6. With that digital copy, be bold. Include the MusicXML file so we can convert songs easily to rehearsal files. Include rehearsal audio files (like Carl Fischer).
  7. Make a way for us to “trade in” printed music (or simply recycle) for the number of copies we have (thus showing those copies in our school's databae), either for free or a ridiculously low cost (covering the cost of the person who has to enter the data). Help us remove our sheet music storage rooms. Paper is terrible. It becomes brittle, gets abused by students, is suceptible to water, fire, and insects (the school where I taught in the Dominican Republic lost all of its music to termites. My father's male chorus had their music library flooded), and even professional drying didn't save all of it).
  8. Rewrite the terms of your copyright agreement to allow for things like creating “keepsake” CDs for students, posting on YouTube and SoundCloud. Encourage people to share those recordings. Also modify your copyright terms to allow directors to revoice music as needed.
  9. Change copyright to require each SCHOOL to own the music, and make sharing or lending illegal.
  10. Obviously, allow schools to use purchased digital music in lieu of printed sheet music in 1:1 situations.
  11. Never, EVER, sell us a piece that is in the public domain without letting us know that it is available in the public domain. Help us to use our limited money to buy music that supports living compoers. Some teachers may still want a printed copy–if so, fine. But most teachers would appreciate the customer service.
  12. Offer schools the ability to buy a set of music versus indvidual copies. In choir, treating a song like a band score, authorzing use from 1-25, 1-35, 1-50, 1-75, and unlimited. Those price points could change (increase) from year to year, but once you buy the set, they stay with your school. With band scores, allow owners to use as many copies as needed for their school.
  13. On a related note, if schools consolodate, their libraries could legally merge.
  14. Never, EVER, let anything go out of print. Ever. Always make it available. If I can reasonably recreate a piece in a couple of hours, so can your engraving experts. They might even correct original mistakes in the process.
  15. That said, when there are errors in your music, and they are reported, update the scores, and upload the refreshed versions to the overall database, with a note that errors were corrected! Furthermore, if you are updating scores, update fonts and beaming at the same time. Just because the original printing plate was horrible doesn't mean that you can't make it better today.
  16. Stop with the practice of developing your own app for every publisher, where music has to be locked into the app or printed. This is complete DEATH in a rehearsal (“Okay, now open the Alfred App. Now the Hal Leonard App). Everything should be in an unlocked PDF.
  17. You know all those workers who handle all your music in your warehouse? They can become compliance experts, traveling to schools and checking that the music being used is legally purchased and owned. Don't sue those who are not in compliance–bill them for the cost of the music. This could also be passed on to the independent music stores who are getting cut out of the action.
  18. I would love to see a Pandora of music, a site where all publishers made their works available, and schools could register to use “x” number of copies per year at an annual fee. You would have every song at your fingertips at a cost that could be defended to administration and budgeted. Furthermore, use would be tracked, and then payments would be sent accordingly to both the composer/arranger and (if necessary), the performing artist/song writer (pop music).

The world has changed, and paper resources are on the way out. It is time for music publishers to embrace the new paradigm, and in fact, to profit from it. There has to be a realization that school budgets are shrinking, and that schools are simply not going to be able to buy music as they have in the past. There are ways to sell digital music (such as Graphite Publishing and BandWorks) that make it possible for schools to afford music and use it digitally, while still paying the composer and the publisher. I know that change is scary–but right now, the music publishing industry–even with its attempts at some apps–is out of date with the changes in technology and funding that we are seeing in our schools.

Thoughts on the Music Publishing Industry – Part 1

It is mid-2015, as as much as technology has impacted our lives, as musicians, one area where technology has had little influence is the music publishing industry.

While there are still hundreds of music publishers, many exist (distribute and print) under a larger “umbrella” of a handful of publishers (Hal Leonard, Alfred, and Carl Fisher, to name a few). As a choral director, I saw the average price of new scores raise to $2.25 per copy. Meanwhile, education is in the process of eliminating printed resources and using public domain or group-sourced textbooks authored by their own teachers. Ultimately, this means that schools can place more money into technology devices and delivery systems than curriculum (paying teachers is far less expensive than purchasing books).

Where does this leave music, where most educators are consumers and not composers?

The quick answer: not in a very good place. I do not know many schools that have an increasing “music” budget each year–and in fact, I know many schools that receive less funding today than they did ten years ago. This means that schools are unable to purchase as much music as they did in the past, meaning that they have to turn to four solutions: using existing music, borrowing/lending, public domain, or photocopying.

There is nothing wrong with using existing literature, but this means that you aren't buying the most recent pieces by today's composers/arrangers, and you are also not buying pop music that kids want to study. I'm not saying you have to program a lot of today's music, but you should probably be programming some of today's music. Additionally, your existing music may be missing copies or the copies may be in poor condition. The end result? Publishing companies sell less music if you aren't buying new music.

I have no problem with borrowing/lending, but in some sense, it seems that borrowing/lending is also a breach of copyright. Think about it: someone's purchase of music was an agreement, I believe a non-transferrable agreement, between you and the publishing company to have ensembles learn and perform that music. The copyright does not allow you to arrange the music, rearrange the music, re-voice the music, make take-home copies of the music, record the music, make a CD of the performance, share the performance via Google Drive, or share a video recording of the performance on YouTube. Since the copyright is intended to be between the purchaser and the publlisher, does the purchaser have the right to lend music with others? Probably not. And in the end result, publishing companies sell less music if you are borrowing/lending music.

Let me add an additional thought here: having students share a single copy of music between two or three students is also against the spirit of Copyright. The concept is one legal copy for every user of the music. This includes solo and ensemble literature–you are not supposed to make photocopies of music for students to practice at home and then use the same two printed copies for every student that competes on contest day. Under copyright, every student should be using their own purchased printed copy, if the piece is under copyright. And if something is out of print? If it is under copyright, you still need to pay for the ability to use that music.

The public domain is a wonderful source for music, but you need to make sure that the piece is truly in the public domain. Furthermore, there is no editor of public domain literature, so some scores provided by well-intended arrangers are full or errors. And you should find no “pop” music in the public domain, as you know that the original pop artists and song writers will not be receiving any income from public domain publications. The use of the public domain will cause publishers to sell less music.

Photocopying music is illegal, unless you have either purchased the music and it has not yet arrived (at which point you need to destroy the photocopies) or you have contacted the publisher, paid to make legal copies of an out-of-print but under copyright piece. You can also make a photocopy of up to 10% of any score for educational purposes–but you can't photocopy all 100% and distribute it in 10% chunks to your students. Obviously, if you are photocopying music, music publishers sell less music.

Arranging music yourself, unless you are using public domain resources or freshly composing new material, is also against copyright. If you make an arrangement of a song that is on the radio, you have to get permission (and likely pay royalties) to do so. I one made an arrangment for Women's Choir and orchestra of the song “Requiem” by Eliza Gilykson, and receieved written permission from Ms. Gilkyson to make the arrangement but not to publish it (later, Craig Hella Johnson made an arrangement for SATB and made a lot of money on royalties, which I did not). If you make an arrangement of an existing piece under copyright, that is also against copyright. Generally, composers and publishers don't want you to mess with their stuff, even if it means revoicing parts for a boy with a changing voice. Chances are they aren't going to “hunt you down,” but you need to understand that arranging existing is generally against copyright.

Let's be honest here…musicians and music educators break Copyright with near reckless abandon, and only use Copyright as an excuse when they are fighting against new approaches or concepts. There isn't a teacher alive that hasn't re-worked a part, made a photocopy so that a student can take a copy of the music home, or shared an audio recording. Many more have either posted videos of their ensembles on YouTube or have allowed parents to post their own recordings (yes, we could be considered accountable to ask students and parents to remove illegal recordings of our groups on YouTube and SoundCloud). Even more troubling? School districts airing concerts over public access are also in breach of Copyright unless written permission is granted for every song! You can make an audio recording or video recording for your own educational use (e.g. playing back for students afterwards), but you are not automatically granted permission to share. The positive news is that the music publishers seldom go after people who break copyright (even the mass photocopiers who clearly only purchase a few pieces for groups of 50). But as economics in music publishing continue to slide–perhaps they will start doing so to get income back!

I will conclude my thoughts in the next post. In that post, I highlight problems with the current system and offer solutions that would not only give education better tools, but also help the music publishing company ensure that they were “getting paid.”


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, 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 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,, and Touch Notation, as well as mention of StaffPad, NotateMe 3, and Sibelius. Aren’t options wonderful?

One Step Forward…and Two Steps Back

In mid-March, I was happy to receive this e-mail message from Sheet Music Plus:

Sheetmusicplus is finally moving away from the “one-time” digital print model to PDF format, and doing away with their iPad app.

This is a huge win for everyone, from sheetmusicplus to the consumer. I think that sheetmusicplus will experience higher sales, higher customer satisfaction, and lower cost of operations (I had to call in a couple of times when printer issues caused a misprint [even after the “test”] and the print count had to be reset). They also don't have to maintain their app, and their product can be used on ANY platform. As for the consumer, they now have choice when it comes to displaying the music (e.g. using forScore or unrealBook instead of the sheetmusicplus app), and for those wishing to use digital music, they don't need to print it out first and then scan it in again. As a further bonus, since the music is in PDF format, it may be readable with PDFtoMusic Pro, which can convert a PDF generated by a music notation program into a MusicXML file. Most of us want MusicXML files so we can manipulate music or make accompaniment/rehearsal files–most of us are not selling scanned/recognized music on the black market to make a living.

To date, none of my purchased scores have been converted to PDFs. I was going to see if I could convert a sheetmusicplus PDF with PDFtoMusic Pro–but I cannot test that yet.

Again, the move to PDF away from having to print a digital copy or use a proprietary app is a wonderful change in the industry.

And then this e-mail arrived this past week from Alfred, one of the large music publishers:

Alfred went forwards in terms of technology (Hal Leonard has been offering their own system, SheetMusicDirect, for some time) by offering Total Sheet Music, but in terms of usefulness, this model of distribution–print to use or use a proprietary app–is the wrong direction for the industry.

As a teacher in a 1:1 setting, it is hard enough to keep students in the app you want them to use. When each publisher has their own app, a nightmare scenario is created where choir members have to change apps for songs from different publishers. Furthermore, the interaction of every app is different. Most of these services still don't have a way to purchase or distribute a library for students. And from a financial aspect, the companies are still getting face value for the music (when my local music store gives us 10% off on paper music). So as it stands, there is no reward for moving to digital, other than for the company, which gets to keep all of the profit and shares nothing with the local economy. Don't get me wrong–these companies deserve to make money–but when you change the delivery model to a digitial model, the economics change drastically.

I will work on my manifesto for the music publishing industry at another time–but what I wanted to share today was this related news from two different companies in the music publishing industry. I would rather see more of the first news than the second.



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