Wolfie app for iPad, by Tonara

Representatives for Tonara have contacted me a number of times about the Woflie app for iPad, which is by Tonara. Tonara is an app that follows you as you play, turning pages. Literature can be bought via in-app purchases.

Wolfie is geared for piano teachers and students, offering subscription based access to literature ($2.99 a week, $8.99 a month). I have blogged about a few other piano apps in the past (Piano Maestro and Flowkey, for example). While piano goes out of my normal sphere of influence for this blog (as the focus is generally on technology for classroom-based music education), some users may find the app of interest.

Pricing for a Wolfie Premium Subscription

The download of Wolfie is free, and there are a number of resources that are given free to the user. The app is intended to be played with a live piano. There are a number of settings, such as practice, listening (with linked YouTube examples), evaluation, and more. There are levels of gameification, which has the potential to spark more user interest in the app.

Gameification in Wolfie

 

If you teach piano or know a student that is learning piano, Wolfie is worth examining. Download the app and try the free content. I can't speak to the pricing for the “premium” subscription–you wil have to decide for yourself if the content warrants $9 a month ($108 a year). I worry about subscription plans for any app–they can add up quickly for a user, and materials you use aren't yours to keep. That said, these companies need ways to keep developing apps and to pay the bills.

Some of Wolfie's Free Zone Content

And if you are a piano player, check out Tonara, too.

 

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mi.1 Wireless MIDI Interface

When is the last time you bought something on a whim, and you were happy that you did so?

Several months ago, one of the projects I was backing on a crowdfunding site (I can't remember if it was a Kickstarter or Indiegogo project) sent out an e-mail recommending another project, the mi.1.

The mi.1, if you look at its Indiegogo page or company website (Quicco Sound), is a small device that plugs into existing keyboards, creating a wireless MIDI interface between the keyboard and an iPad. The “cost” of backing was $35 at the time, and I figured that I couldn't go wrong backing the device.

That device shipped out in October, but some issues with the required app for the device kept the company from releasing the app until this week. Now the mi.1 connect app is available on the App Store, and I can finally use my mi.1.

The mi.1 uses Bluetooth LE to connect your keyboard and your iPad (or iPhone). This was the first time I have used Bluetooth LE, and I'm a bit surpised by it. You don't turn anything on in your Settings…the devices simply talk to each other. I'm a little concerned that some harmful things could be transmitted in such a way (not from the mi.1, but from other Bluetooth LE “senders” out in public), but all the old frustrations of Bluetooth pairing are gone.

The first time you connect the mi.1, you are asked to open the mi.1 app, connect to the device, turn Bluetooth off and then back on, and then update the firmware of the mi.1. This is a twenty second process, and you're good to go.

My initial attempts to use the mi.1 with notation software on my iPad failed, but later attempts were successful (I have been using Notion for most of this testing). The video I created shows me entering notes through my keyboard via the mi.1 to Notion. Latency seems to be good…and it seems slightly faster (i.e. “normal” to send data to the iPad than it does to send data from the iPad to keyboard. I haven't figured out how to make Notion (on the iPad) play back via the mi.1/keyboard.

In 2009, we built a new high school with an embedded seventeen seat MIDI Lab. Every computer had a M-Audio Keystation plus a microphone for each keyboard. These computers (and the furniture in the room) were eventually removed to put computers in every practice room as well as the rehearsal rooms, and the keyboards were distributed throughout the district to teachers who needed them. The keyboards were not Core-MIDI compliant and would not work with iPads. (Interestingly, with the termination of Windows XP support, the computers themselves are no longer useable, and the iPads we purchased while I was at that school are now the only way for students to use SmartMusic in the practice rooms. I would have not expected that sequence of events).

The mi.1 changes the usefulness of those keyboards–and all other non-Core MIDI compliant keyboards, plus it gives you a way to connect a keyboard to your iPad without any MIDI cables. I am not sure what the street price of the mi.1 will be, but if the device is priced less than $50, it will be a cheaper solution than the purchase of a dedicated Lightning to USB Camera Kit adapter and a Lightning cable, and it already is cheaper than most MIDI box solutions (iPad or otherwise). At the moment, the mi.1 cannot work with a Mac, but I see no reason why it could not do so eventually.

There is one other item of great promise…Apple included MIDI over Bluetooth LE as a core component of iOS 8 (and I would be willing to bet that it is hiding in Yosemite as well). The mi.1, in a future update, will be able to connect directly to your iPad without the need for the mi.1 app, directly through MIDI via Bluetooth LE.

Are there any problems with the device? Not really. Some thoughts:

  • The company is from Japan, so communication from the company, both on the website and in materials provided by the company, is a little awkward in English. You can tell that the translators are not fluent English speakers, and Google Translate may even be in play. The company would be well-suited to hire some English experts (or even a British, Australian, Canadian, or American team) to re-work all communications intended for English settings.
  • Although the company missed its deadlines and had some issues with their app before releasing the app, they were much closer to reaching their Indiegogo deadline than other items I have backed.
  • Documentation with the device was limited; some people need much more detailed instructions–even for a product that is simple.
  • I don't have the equipment to test latency…which I imagine will improve as the device can accept input from the mi.1 without the middle-man app.
  • There is a coming update that will allow you to attach to multiple mi.1 units!
  • I, of course, focus on music notation apps as a music educator. I would imagine that this device would be very exciting for iOS musicians. For example, it works with GarageBand.

The device isn't available yet for purchase…but when it is, it is worth a purchase if you plan to use your iPad with a keyboard that has traditional MIDI connections. Those connections are 30 years old…and this device makes them relevant again. I didn't think this $35 crowdfunded device would have much of an impact on my life…I think I was wrong. It may be the best $35 I have spent for a while.

 

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.