The Zivix JamStik is Now Shipping

Back in 2013, Kevin Honeycutt (a former art teacher, who is an now educational motivational speaker) tweeted about the JamStik, a guitar controller for iOS (and Mac) that was an Indiegogo campaign. I wrestled with the idea of “buying into” the device, but finally decided to jump on board. The JamStik was being sold at a discount to early backers, and I submitted my $219 to be an early backer to the project.

Well, time passed. The company, located nearby in Minneapolis, Minnesota, took prototypes to various computer and app shows. And I was (and still am) teaching at the middle school level where students are asked to choose between band, choir, and orchestra–meaning that as a choir director I have students who either love singing or cannot play an instrument. This has convinced me that students at the middle school level–even if selected by hand because of their reluctance to sing–should have another option as a performance class–guitar. I understand this is an unpopular stance, but I strongly believe in it. Furthermore, I teach at a 1:1 iPad school, so a guitar controller for iPad makes sense as a way to learn guitar. Small, light, rechargeable, and NO TUNING. Yes, guitarists need to learn how to tune a guitar. But I have never been in a guitar class where all the guitars were in tune (within any individual guitar, or with all the other guitars in the room). Tuning is a skill that can be taught along the way. With this in mind, I saw (and still see) the JamStik as a device with a lot of possibility for education, even at a suggested price point of $299.

The problem was that the JamStik was delayed, then delayed, and then delayed more. Thankfully, the company was busy enough at prodcut shows to demonstrate that it was still in the game. And last month, units to the original 900 backers began.

My JamStik shipped last Friday, and arrived Tuesday night. I have had some time to play with the device, and it is perhaps the first device that I have ever backed that has lived 100% up to its promise (with the exception being the shipping dates along the way). As promised, it is a five fret MIDI guitar controller for iOS or Mac. It is solidly built, and uses real strings with infared sensors. Although it is probably a “toy” for a “real” guitarist, I think “real” guitarists could make real music with it. At the same time, for casual guitar players, like myself (actually, I have a hard time calling myself a guitarist) or for educators teaching (or students learning) guitar, this might be the perfect device in a 1:1 iPad setting.

The device connects to your iOS device (I have used it with both my iPad and iPhone) with a wifi connection, which is broadcast by the JamStik. If you run the JamStik Connect app (free), and JamStik Connect runs in the background on your device, you can use the JamStik with just about any CoreMIDI app on iOS. JamStik Connect broadcasts its own audio (you get a choice of five guitars) out of the iPad, so if you plan to use another app, you have to turn the guitar sound created by JamStik Connect “off.” Otherwise, you get the sound of the other app PLUS the sound of JamStik Connect. This isn't a problem, but it is something that may take a moment to figure out when you hear two guitar sounds out of one app. I do wonder if each JamStik creates its own channel and network name, and I wonder if it is possible to have a room of JamStiks in an educational setting, or if that would be wifi overload. The wifi component surprised me…for some reason I thought it would be a Bluetooth device.

The apps that come with the device seem to be well made…Jamstik Connect works well (no discernable delay) and Jam Tutor is solid. As a music teacher, my only “complaint” about JamTutor is that it doesn't teach guitar from “traditional” notation, which always one of my goals when I teach a guitar class. Think about the power of letting students use JamTutor so they can learn at their own pace, and then supplementing the experience with traditional “guitar” methods including notation and tablature! I have not worked with their sequencing app, JamMix. All the Zivix apps are free on the App Store.

As with all devices, I only see two “negatives” with the JamStik. First, as a MIDI device, you can shift the JamStik up or down an octave or two octaves. You cannot, however, shift MIDI in terms of half steps. I can see the possibility of a basic guitar player wanting to use chords from the key of G, but to transpose the JamStik to another key (such as F or C)…but you can't do this with the JamStik hardware at the current time. You would need some kind of display to show you your transposition, which the JamStik doesn't have. In other words, the JamStik lacks a digital capo. That might be a negative for some owners, but I am not sure if a future firmware update can address this functionality.

Second, the strings, although not actually amplified, are not tuned to the pitches we normally associate with a guitar. As a result, as you pluck the strings, you can hear the “pluck” of the actual pitches, while the MIDI sounds comes through your iOS device. This makes for a small amount of dissonance. I don't know if it is possible to tune the JamStik to the actual pitches (in truth, just being “close” would be enough to solve this issue). Maybe this only bothers me as I am a music teacher.

From what I have gathered, the folks at Zivix have said that the strings are very rugged, although I expect we will see ways to buy replacement strings and batteries soon.

One of the tough things that has happened is that the JamStik is now in some Apple stores while some unknown number of JamStik owners are still waiting for their JamStik from backing the product back in 2013. My guess is that Zivix thought they were going to meet all their deadlines, signed a contract with Apple based on those deadlines, and then had issues with parts (a stock e-mail from Zivix, sent to backers who inquire about their missing backed device, explains the part shortage). I think Zivix was requried to ship product to Apple, not having shipped to all backers first. That is a hard thing to take if you have been waiting more than a year for a device–and additionally Zivix's lack of addressing that situation (to date) is a little awkward. I don't think there is any explanation that can soothe feelings after a year of delays and now the Apple store situation. I personally would always to like to see open communication from a company, but I tend to be more patient and am not the litigating type. I also have my JamStik in my hands at this point.

I filmed a video with the JamStik earlier today; I will post that when I get a chance to edit it, which may not be today.

$299 may seem like a lot of money for this device, but a traditional backpack guitar (I have one of these from my time teaching guitar at the high school…it was just easier to deal with than a full guitar while teaching) costs around $200. For the added benefit of being able to bring MIDI into an iOS Device or Mac via a wireless connection based on infared sensors? $299 seems like a pretty good price, and as with all things, I would expect that advances in the product might eventually lead to additional models (a full size guitar?), features, and lower prices. I would also like to see educational sets of JamStiks and educational pricing. If schools were willing to drop thousands on Yamaha's MIE keyboard labs, why wouldn't you consider 30 iPads and 30 JamStiks ($27,000)? The JamStik is a device that could really change how we teach guitar and also help non-guitarists music educators to include guitar in their course load. I am excited to see where the product goes from here.

 

A Comprehensive Music Education Program

Six years ago, I chose to bid from my current high school position in our district to a brand new high school that we were building. Included in that position that was being a part of a year-long planning team before the school opened. During that year, we taught at our existing school but also met frequently to be involved in every aspect of the new school–and ultimately, I had a large part in defining the entire music program at that school (I also had a band colleague in this process).

Although it may have been my driving opinion, we felt that a modern high school should not simply offer band, choir, and orchestra. As a result, we created a program with the following elements:

  • Traditional Bands, three levels, ability based
  • Traditional Choirs (five), two gender-based “beginner” choirs, and then three abiltity based mixed choirs
  • Guitar, three levels
  • Beginning Music Theory
  • AP Music Theory (music theory level 2)
  • Music in History and World Cultures
  • In my last year, we managed to put a Music Technology course on the program of studies, although the course did not have enough enrollment to run (see below). I became convinced that music technology was a needed (an interesting) element to add to the curriculum.
  • We also wanted to consider adding courses such as Jazz Band, Show Choir, and Drum Line.

We built the music program with the idea of, “Build it and they will come.” Even if the courses did not run, they were on the books and could run when they needed to run.

 

Over the first four years of the school, we ran a number of these classes; typically two bands, three choirs, occasional classes in music theory, and regular courses at Guitar level 1, and the occasional level 2.

 

We had a MIDI lab installed when we opened the school, a seventeen seat lab with a computer, MIDI keyboard, microphone, Finale (2010), and other free software (e.g. Audacity). The plan was to use this lab in conjunction with our Music Theory courses.

 

Ultimately FTE ratios became a challenge. In music courses, the minimum cap number of 25 was usually enforced. Any music teacher will tell you that FTE is a deceptive number. There are always courses where FTE is allowed to dip “below” that magic number of 25, and if the district ratio is at 32.5 (as our is), no one is ever concerned if music or physical educaton teachers have a FTE ratio far above that ratio. Counselors I talked to considered these courses “black holes” where you could place students and lower the FTE for other teachers. Ultimately, if your program is a “favored” program of your administration, the administration runs those courses regardless of FTE. As we opened the school, both the Band and Choir were below the “actual” FTE requirements, partially because we opened under the last year of a four-period day where students were strongly encouraged to take two years of math and two years of foreign language in one year while they still could. Choir began with 35 students and band with 105; by the end of my four years there, choir was at 156 and Band at 88 (there was additional growth for next year). I don't want to make the case that we were overloaded with students, but I do want to point out that an additional class or two could have been added, only further justifying our FTE. One year I taught (under the four period day) three choirs and another course (music theory or guitar). But that only happened in one year (year 2, I believe).

 

Logically, courses such as Music Theory are intended as a place for your most gifted musicians who want to prepare for college (I also found that a number of guitar players not in traditional band/choir/orchestra would take music theory to learn how to write music). We will run an AP course of 15 students for a high level science or math course for students wanting to pursue those fields in college–but doing so in music was a hard thing for our administration to justify.

 

Furthermore, it became clear that the MIDI Lab was a poor investment; the MIDI Lab only had 17 work stations, and if you needed a class of 25 to run a course, what do 8 students do while the others work on the computers?

 

As I have written about in the past, I left that school last year, and have taught this year at a middle school in our district which is 1:1. I will be writing about those experiences in the weeks to come. Yesterday I was visting with another teacher in our district, and wondered if my former schools was going to be offering any of the comprehensive music courses we created. I looked at the district program of studies, and all of our “comprehensive” courses no longer exist at that school.

 

To be clear: the program of studies is impacted by the staff at each school, and they have input on what courses are offered. It is possible that the new teachers had no interest in offering those courses. Many music teachers consider themselves specialists: “I only teach ______.” Many teachers do not even want to consider teaching theory, history, guitar, or music technology as a separate course. I understand that point of view, but one of the things I have learned in my educational path is that schools need to offer more than band/choir/orchestra. You might disagree, or you might not feel equipped to teach such classes. But the end result is that you CAN teach those classes. You are a music educator–you are first and foremost a generalist, a common practitioner, and a specialist in your field second to that. If FTE is a factor in your teaching position, why wouldn't you want the FTE from guitar or music theory to keep you at 1.0? Sometimes we are afraid that we will lose kids from traditional band/choir/orchestra if we offer other courses such as “guitar.” You might lose some kids to those classes, and you can take steps to protect yourself (don't make guitar meet an Arts credit–making the course a true elective, only offer it to upper classmen, etc.). But generally, my thought has become: if a kid is in music, taught by a music teacher, they are still in music. MENC (now NAfME) used to say, “Music for every child, every child for music.” When 80% (or more) of high school students aren't in music when band/choir/orchestra are the only options, we're missing a lot of kids, and there is huge potential for growth.

 

Again, I don't know if the new teachers simply didn't want to teach those courses (which didn't always run), but the removal of those courses from the offiicial “program of studies” also shows that the administration of that school did not share the same vision for a comprehensive program in music education. Otherwise, you could simply leave the courses in the program of studies but simply not run those courses. So it is yet a further validation that my decision to move (first and foremost for my family and to work in a 1:1 situation) was the right move.

 

Let me be clear: I am in total support of band, choir, and orchestra in our schools. I love classical music, and I think those programs are relevant for today; I am not sure that our students (or their parents) always agree with us. So, keep offering those traditional music courses, but also consider offering non-traditional courses for that other 80%. But: would you be willing to teach a theory course, or a guitar course?

 

Asking a potentially divisive question

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the AMLE 40th Annual Conference for Middle Level Education in Minneapolis, Minnesota. All of the middle school teachers in our district (four schools) went to the conference, as it is quite literally in our back yard this year. The next conference will be held in Tennessee next November.

There were hundreds of sessions and hundreds of vendors, on a scale a bit smaller than TI:ME/TMEA. Not a single session was focused on music education, and only one vendor, Yamaha, was represented for music education. The thing that concerns me about the lack of music education vendors is that many middle school administrators who would never go to a music education conference were at the AMLE Conference, so there was a bit of a missed opportunity there. A lot of educational technology vendors were also lacking. My technology vendor highlight was to see the Raspberry PI in person, and I’ll be ordering one.

I attended some technology sessions in lieu of any music education sessions, and in particular I was reminded that Common Sense Media has a ton of resources for schools going 1:1 and for parents whose children have their own devices.

By far, however, the most powerful part of the day for me came when I had a chance to sit down and have coffee with two other middle school choral music teachers who also use technology: Sue Bujold and Kim Cory, both from Minnesota (Kim, for the record, also teaches at the high school level). Sue teaches at Heritage Middle School, which was the first 1:1 middle school program in our state, and although Kim isn’t at a 1:1, she uses technology as she teaches her students in the Red Wing school district. We had a great conversation about iPads, apps, and instructional ideas, and I probably learned more from them than they did from me.

At the end of our conversation, we talked about Yamaha’s Music In Education, a general music curriculum based around keyboard instruction. Kim really likes her MIE tools, but I found myself questioning the value of group keyboard instruction in this day and age. I didn’t know much about MIE, but my goal as a music educator is to try to find ways to keep kids in music and to offer courses that appeal to their interests while still providing “traditional” music education (i.e. band, choir, and orchestra). I didn’t mean to disrespect Kim’s choice of tools, and I hope it wasn’t taken that way. So here are some additional thoughts on the matter.

What I found myself saying was that I would rather offer guitar (or even ukelele) to students as a general music option, and to teach music through guitar (not just notes/chords), versus a keyboard method. So if questioning the usefulness Yamaha MIE isn’t enough, I ask this question as well: “Does a keyboard-based general music method meet the music needs of the ‘80%’ in 2013, or would we be better served going another way?” Or better yet, for the non-music major, are keyboard skills essential? Granted, I am not a high level keyboard player, so a full-blown pianist would have another opinion, as piano playing is their hobby and life. But just because I play tuba, and I like tuba, I don’t think for a minute that every student should play it.

After our chat, I found myself wandering to the Yamaha MIE booth, and I asked all kinds of questions and listened to the entire presentation. I have not personally used the method, so my observations are limited by lack of experience. MIE is made up of a group of sixteen specially-outfitted keyboards. One keyboard becomes the master, and is linked to a computer. That master keyboard is then daisy-chained via MIDI to each of the other fifteen keyboards, which can be split into two sides (there is even a plastic cover that can go over the center keys of the keyboard), giving each student a two-octave keyboard. The master program provides content and accompaniments to each half keyboard, even allowing for assessments. The latest version of MIE also lets an iPad link to the computer, controlling many things remotely, so you can move around the room as students work. Students work off of a large spiral-bound workbook of songs that teach different concepts in music education, all based around the keyboard. The program currently costs $24,500 which included a three-day traning session for the music educator. The current system is MIE 3, and existing MIE 2 keyboards can be upgraded to MIE 3. If you are a MIE 1 school, you need to buy new equipment. The $24,500 also includes a MacBook Air and an iPad mini for the instructor to use in the MIE lab. New teachers to an existing lab can be trained for $1,800.

I find myself to be skeptical of the keyboard itself, which does not even offer MIDI via USB (which has been around for years). At the price of each individual device, it is unfathomable for Yamaha–who makes the unbelievable AvantGrande digital piano–to be selling a piano with 1990s technology at 2013 prices.

I don’t want to make anyone mad, but even after going through the MIE vendor presentation, I’m still questioning the use of a keyboard-based general music curriculum. Granted, if you have an existing MIE lab, and you love it, then by all means, keep using it. But if you are thinking about buying a lab for $24,500, then maybe there are other approaches you might want to consider. These other approaches all cost less than the MIE lab, and don’t require an entire room to be devoted to a lab. My current school had an MIE lab, and I have no idea of what happened to it (general music was killed in favor of a middle school model where every student takes band, orchestra, or choir–and those that don’t want music usually find themselves in my choir class). Here are some ideas:

1) Purchase 30 guitars at $200 each, plus $1000 of accessories (strings, string winders, etc.) and books. Attend the annual guitar education sessions in your area (look at guitaredunet.com). Remember: teaching guitar does not HAVE to be “just” notes, chords, and tabs. The challenge here is to break the “traditional” music education mindset where those of us who teach band, choir, and orchestra simply don’t want to teach guitar.

2) Purchase 30 iPads at $599 each, plus a $50 in apps for each device. Teach about music through GarageBand, or even piano skills with apps like Piano DustBuster. You might want to factor in cases, too.

3) Or, even further, when they are available, purchase the iPads and then add a keyboard like the Miselu C.24 that is coming soon (it’s an iPad case that is a keyboard). The price should be less than $200 each. These keyboards–with 24 keys, almost the same as a single side of the Yamaha MIE, could then be used with the iPads for apps like GarageBand..

4) Consider a set of Zivix JamStiks to be used with the iPads, allowing you to teach guitar with the JamStiks.

Again, these are just thoughts of mine as I question a 100% keyboard-based general music curriculum. I’m not sure I would recommend the MIE approach in 2013. In my opinion–and that’s all it is–there are probably better options in 2013. If you have an existing Yamaha MIE lab, by all means, keep using it. But when MIE 4 comes out, and if you can’t upgrade…then maybe it is time to look elsewhere.

NOTE: Sue Bujold also wrote about AMLE today, and in doing so, she reminded me that various middle school music programs were featured as entertainment throughout the day.  So music did have a role in the conference–but not in sessions or in the vending area.  Maybe that is the fault of middle school music teachers not proposing sessions (I will for 2014), but still, if you wanted to find things, you had to do so outside of our area of expertise, and try to make things fit into music.

Sue makes an exceptional point that sometimes non-music teachers could learn a lot from music teachers, as we deal with situations that the average teacher does not.  Sue deals with 500 students every two days (more than double my load), by herself.  That makes an average class size of at least 50 students.  Most classroom teachers wouldn’t know what to do with 50 students for a class, or how to deal with them every-other day.  So…read Sue’s blog.  She doesn’t post often, but when she does, it is worth reading–and I hope she posts more in the days to come.