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.
As I wrote about previously (and will do so again), I am working towards a ukulele unit and embedding ukulele in my middle school choir program.
Through past fundraising, I was able to buy 25 ukuleles for the program–very inexpensive Mahalo MK1 models. Parents have funded the purchase of another 30 ukuleles on top of that, giving us enough for every student to use (in class) and to have two spares. While they were backordered on Amazon, I was able to buy the majority of them for less than $25 each. After they came back in stock, the price soared to $36. Thankfully, we only had a few more to buy at that price (I bought additional ukuleles as donations came in).
Most of these ukuleles have arrived and I have started the process of unboxing and tuning. The Mahalos do not come with super strings. That isn't surprising–a good set of Aquilla Nygut strings is at least $9, which is about 1/3 of the cost of these instruments. The current strings will work for now, but in the future we'll have to replace strings, which will also make the instruments sound better. Even so, after a number of turnings (10?) they settle in pretty well, with only slight touch-up tuning required after that point. And to be honest, I don't mind the process of unpacking and tuning 55 ukuleles. There is something therapeutic about it.
I am making my own resources for the beginning unit–loving Notion and its ability to show notes and tabs on the ukulele (yes, also on the iPad). I will write a post about the technology side of the ukulele (and my creation of materials) later. And yes, there will be LOTS of singing. This is a choir class.
What I wanted to write about this morning is how some of the ukuleles are not the same. To this point, we have been buying the butterscotch color–not really attractive–because it has been significantly cheaper. I started thinking about assessment and realized that some kids could take a ukulele home and record video of themselves playing instead of testing in person. Some kids get “freaked out” in person. The problem is that we need all the ukuleles at school for classes–so how would I be able to trust kids to take one home and bring it back in time for the next day of classes, knowing that students are on an A/B schedule and don't think about choir every day? The answer is that I couldn't guarantee that.
We had a little extra money in the choir account (I have to keep some money available for music, for example), so I decided to buy 3 additional ukuleles that could be sent home with students for assessment purposes. At the time, the brown model was $27 versus the $36 butterscotch model, so it made sense to buy some brown ones, with the added knowledge that it would be easy to identify the ukuleles that were loaners.
These ukuleles arrived at my house yesterday (I have been taking advantage of my prime account for free shipping), and I quickly noticed that two of the three brown units were strung differently than the other, and that those two were strung differently than ALL of the butterscotch models we have ordered. Additional inspection showed that the bridge was connected differently on these two brown models (screws versus a rivet)–and they have a different style of fretboard (look at the bottom, near the sound hole).
I actually prefer the bridge and stringing style of these two brown units, and I think they represent OLDER instruments. Both the “unique” brown instruments have serial numbers in the the 239000 range, and all of the other instruments we own are well into the 300000 range. What this tells me is that the slightly older Mahalo MK1s were likely a better instrument and a better deal, even at the low cost range. I am slightly bummed out about that!
The pictures show the ragged quality of these inexpensive instruments. My Makala Concert Electro Acoustic ukulele ($89) is a much better instrument all around that plays better and sounds better.
Again, these Mahalos are functional $25 to $36 ukuleles that are really meant for beginner players–to get you into the instrument before you purchase something a little more expensive for yourself. Ideally, I would have looked at the low cost Kala models, but they still cost $20 more per ukulele, and with 58 ukuleles in total and that would have been more than $1000 more for the project. If we keep going with ukuleles in the future (I expect we will), we can work towards replacing instruments in the future (and perhaps selling these to students at a discount in the process). But you need to start somewhere first.
I received an e-mail this morning that the iPad app Ningenius is on sale for a limited time (Through January 22nd).
Ningenius is a fun app that helps band and orchestra students remember fingerings and note names. Paul Shimmons has written about this app in the past (link #1 and link #2), and I have mentioned it, too (link).
The app is unique that it comes in a student (one person, one instrument), studio (unlimited students, one instrument on one iPad), and school (unlimited students, all instruments on one iPad) versions.
- Woodwinds: Flute, Clarinet, Oboe, Bassoon, Saxophone
- Brass: Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Euphonium, and Tuba
- Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, and Guitar
- Keyboard: Piano and Mallet Percussion (Xylophone/Bells)
The sale prices:
- Student Edition: 66% off! Only $0.99!
- Studio Edition: 50% off! Only $4.99!
- School Edition: 50% off! Only $8.99!
If I were a band teacher, particularly at the beginning stages, I would want my students to have this app, and I would want the school version on my iPad. Additionally, if you would use academic pricing for the app (buying more than 20 at a time through your school) the cost is $0.49 per app (and if your apps are assigned through a MDM, you can take apps back and reassign in the future).
This is a great time to buy the app. I don't normally ask this–but if you know any band or orchestra teachers that either teach in 1:1 iPad Schools or have iPads of their own, send along a link to this post–or just let them know the app is on sale.
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 flat.io, 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?
Sadly, Christmas 2015 has come and gone, and like many of you, we have a few days off of school before returning to the grind (I often consider these the toughest months of the year, in the dead of winter and before another long break).
I received a few tech gifts this Christmas (not the iPad Pro), and I thought I would write about them.
My parents bought our family its third Nest Protect smoke/CO2 detector, which is now in its second version (basically it is thinner). We now have a Nest Protect on each level of our house, and having them also results in a discount with our insurance. We still have five “standard” detectors that we will eventually replace with Nest Protects, too. They also work in conjunction with our Nest Thermostat (now available in its third generation, but we have the 1st gen). One note: make sure to order the right kind of Nest Protect. They come in battery powered and wired formats. Wisconsin building codes have called for wired detectors for years–you should not replaced a wired detector with a battery powered one.
I bought a box of Tiles (4 Pack) for our family. We have placed one on our key rings, and also put one in my son's backpack. Tiles use Bluetooth LE to track items, and they can play a tone when needed. At one point this year, both my wife and I lost keys (We're pretty sure our three year old was to blame) and we didn't want to go through that again (a keyless entry key can be a $400 replacement). As a result, we now have some Tiles around the house.
My parents also answered my single tech wish, buying me the Adonit Jot Dash, which is a battery operated stylus. I have had a number of styluses over the years, including two Adonit Jot Pro styluses, as well as my Maglus stylus. I have had issues with the “discs” of the Jot Pro (over time), as they separate and become unresponsive with continued use, and the mesh tips of the Maglus have always pulled out of their housing. I have been looking for an accurate stylus that isn't a rubber-nib stylus, and the Adonit Jot Dash fits the bill. I am not a fan of rubber-nib styluses as they catch on a slightly dirty (i.e. Real world) screen. There is one caveat to the Jot Dash…if you draw a diagonal line, it becomes wavy if you draw too slowly. This is apparently an issue with the sensors in an iPad. The iPad Pro has more sensors, and of course, you would buy the Apple Pencil and not the Jot Dash. However, for note taking and writing music (Noteshelf, Notion, or NotateMe), the Jot Dash will work incredibly well.
My wife also bought me a new winter hat. Two years ago, we found a unique Norwegian-themed hat at a store called the Uffda Shop in Red Wing Minnesota. It is called an “envelope hat”. My previous hat was black with tan symbols; since that time I bought a blue winter jacket. So my wife bought me a blue hat to match. If the store doesn't have the hat, they will order a hat (they are made by a local weaver). It turns out that my wife was able to get me this hat, even though the weaver was booked through early January. I love this hat–and it has nothing to do with technology at all.