Looking for Relevance

Whenever I read an article about a successful school, or a successful system (e.g. exemplar tech initiatives), I am always looking for one key component: what about music education?  Too often, a discussion of music and other “elective” classes is missing in such reports.  Yes, I am terribly biased–I am a music educator.  But please don’t tell me how good a school is academically if the music programs at those schools are not thriving, too.  As I get older, “thriving” means something different than it did when I came out of college.  Excellence in performance is wonderful–but not if that excellence comes at the expense of 90% of your school NOT being in music classes.  When I contact authors about these articles, they are often shocked that I even ask about music and the electives.  I am often told to contact the school public relations office directly–something I am not going to do, because those people are hired to never give a direct answer.  Do you think a school district will admit it ignores music and other electives when it comes to technology?

Just today, I was reading an article about the technology initiatives in the Denver Public Schools.  I wasn’t able to gleam anything about technology in music and/or the electives in those schools, but English and Special Education teachers were mentioned as having representatives on a district steering committee for technology.  In fact, the Superintendent said, “Because sure, that’s great tech, but if it doesn’t work for English Language Learners or it’s not awesome for special education, it’s really hard for us to purchase.”  What about if it’s not awesome for music? Family and Consumer Science?  Industrial Technology?  Physical Education?  Visual Art?  Perhaps even Foreign Language?  Oh yes, we don’t really TEST in those subjects, so why mention them?

Just once, I’d love to read, “We make sure that all of our electives are able to use the technology, too.”  Actually–I have seen this in action (A shoutout to the music educators in the Westonka school district–your administration, top to bottom, cares), but those situations are the exception rather than the norm.

What can you do with an Apple Watch? (Sung to the tune of “What can you do with an drunken sailor”)

applewatch

There have been a number of posts recently about what you can do with an Apple Watch.  I have had mine a little over a week now.  My primary goal was to get it to get moving again–and I have been doing that.  The lowest I have had the watch–when I charge it at night–was 13%, and that was on July 4th when I was up far longer than normal.

Here is a list of things I have been doing with the watch…

  1. Tracking exercise (steps, exercise, and standing)
  2. Notification and response to text messages
  3. Reading e-mails (From Spark Mail)
  4. Testing the various music apps (from my previous post about the Apple Watch)
  5. Siri
  6. Paying by Apple Pay (NFC).  It flips the salespeople out.  One McDonald’s worker nearly hyperventilated–and I’m not kidding
  7. Set an alarm (the “ding” alarm almost didn’t wake me up–I incorporated the “ding” into my dream for a while)
  8. Set a countdown timer
  9. Check the weather
  10. Receiving notifications about an Apple Maps route (it taps you before the expected turns)
  11. Controlled my Apple TV
  12. Controlled audio playback
  13. Controlled podcast playback (with Overcast)
  14. Customized watch faces (and have used about 4 so far)
  15. “Pinged” my phone (just to see if it works–I usually know where my phone is)
  16. Tracked my heart rate
  17. Used the camera app as a remote to take a picture of my wife and I (With the Glif smart phone mount and a mini tripod)
  18. Used the watch as a Tip Calculator (Calcbot)
  19. Received a weather alert (Tornado Watch tonight, in fact)
  20. Controlled a Keynote presentation (just to show I could)
  21. Tracked exercise (different than the 3 bands): bicycling and elliptical
  22. Checked baseball scores (At Bat)
  23. Looked at photos (yes, they are SMALL)
  24. Tracked my son’s chores with ChoreMonster
  25. Made Dick Tracy type phone calls (this works surprisingly well)

The Apple Watch works well if you want a fitness device that does far more than a FitBit, as long as you are not interested in your sleep patterns (FitBit and Misfit track sleep).  The Apple Watch really shines when it comes to motivating you to move (it really does–if you are the kind of person who buys an Apple Watch, you will also be the kind of person who wants to see all 3 bands completed), and with notifications.  The Apple Maps integration is the feature that was most surprising to me.  I thought I wouldn’t care, in reality, it is a nice addition.

The Apple watch also shines in any situation where a quick interface works well–Apple TV, controlling audio playback, controlling a Keynote, and so on.  Even the Chipotle app is perfect because it takes a saved order (assuming you like the same thing) and allows you to order it with a single press.  Any time a Staples “Easy” button would work–the Apple Watch works well.  And truly–Apple Pay on the watch is perfect.  Press the lower button twice, pull up the card, and turn your wrist to the NFC reader–and that’s it.  No phone, no card.

Where the Apple Watch doesn’t do well is in situations requiring a lot of text, such as e-mail and RSS readers (and yes, there are a lot of apps with Apple Watch functionality that fit these categories).  The digital crown (a nice feature–the Watch would look plain without it) does a nice job with scrolling (Sometimes I wish I had such a crown on my iPhone!), but the screen still isn’t ideal for text-heavy applications.   I would also like to be able to make the icons larger (I’m scrolling anyway), as sometimes I don’t press the right app button.

I did buy one accessory for my watch other than Apple Care–the watch really didn’t charge well on its side, so I bought a Belkin Apple Watch stand.

Is the Apple Watch worth it?  That is up to you.  I am hoping it is a catalyst for me to get back into shape, and if it does that, it would be worth its weight in gold (so far, so good).  Sure, I could have bought another fitness tracker, but the ones that are out there never appealed to me–and I’m unlikely to buy a Google Wear watch as I don’t own an Android SmartPhone.  I’m a week in, and my wife is already hinting at wanting one–and she used to be happy with her Misfit (it eventually fell out of its little holder and got lost) or her three month old FitBit.  She’s already ready to move to an Apple Watch, so that tells you something (remember–my wife is NOT a tech geek by any means).

[Note: My wife’s FitBit tells the time and notifies her of phone calls in addition to tracking steps and sleep.  I do not believe that her model tracks her heartbeat]

SmartMusic adds choral literature

In the midst of a very big week (the acquisition of Weezic), SmartMusic has now added a number of choral titles to the SmartMusic Library. There are fifty selections in various voicings. This is considered a “beta” effort by SmartMusic, and when you try the literature, they ask for your feedback.

I have only worked with a few titles so far, and had already been making my own SmartMusic choral files for some time. What I learned, making my own SmartMusic files, was to give every part its own line (this can be tricky with mid-measure divisi in parts), and to very carefully decide what measures I wanted to assess (you can do this with the educator’s version of SmartMusic with a full score).

The difference between my own files and these new choral files is that each song is linked to an audio recording (think of the audio sampler recordings sent out by the publishers), and although you can add “your part” as a synthesized overlay, all parts of the audio tracks exist at all times when you work with the music.

I have sent my feedback already, but I would prefer to be able to choose what parts I heard as I or my students sang an assignment/assessment. I would prefer the choice to hear either a synthesized accompaniment or the recorded accompaniment.

The use of an accompaniment is a tricky matter for singers and choirs. In the instrumental world, you want every player to aspire to the sound of a professional player. If you hear a professional recording of Holst’s 1st Suite, that is how you want your young players to sound, too. In vocal music, you probably don’t want your young choir sounding like the St. Olaf Choir (as beautifully as they sing) or like a particular opera singer, as their voices generally have not developed enough to emulate those sounds. While I don’t want to insult anyone, you generally don’t want your choirs to sing like sound sampler choirs, either, which tend to be adults singing with a bit of a “pop” sound.

What ends up happening, then, is a quagmire where to fully represent a song, you might need several recordings attached to it (e.g. An excellent children’s choir, an excellent high school women’s choir, and a collegiate women’s choir), with solo parts recorded by exemplar voices at each level for each part, so that “music minus 1″ audio samples could be used at all levels for all students.

That level of complexity just can’t happen, but that is what would be ideal. Since it can’t happen, I would instead like the choice to use synthesized accompaniments as well as the provided audio recording. It would also be wonderful to be able to upload your own recording (you can upload JUST an MP3 as an assignment/assessment, but I am talking about doing so attached to a score)–perhaps using some of the technology developed by Weezic.

Also, I would like the ability to see ALL parts (full score) or single parts. For assessment, single parts are wonderful, but most of the time, choral singers are used to following the full score, which is much easier to follow than a band score.

With full score examples, SmartMusic has the potential to be the place where choir directors would go to find music, much like many band directors (I know many band directors who only choose music that is available on SmartMusic).

If you are a choral director and have a subscription to SmartMusic (if not, the $40 annual student subscription will give you full access to the literature), check out the choral music on SmartMusic and give them some feedback!

P.S. I would love to see the “legacy” SmartMusic vocal literature updated to include the scores (right now, the legacy vocal literature only provides an accompaniment and interface box, as it dates to the days when SmartMusic was called “Vivace” and ran on an external unit and required “carts”)

News from Zivix (Makers of the JamStik+ and PUC+)

If you don’t know Zivix, it is a Minnesota company that has made two digital music products: a MIDI guitar called the JamStik and a MIDI interface called the PUC.  Both items are now in their second generation, delineated by a “+”, which add Apple’s Bluetooth MIDI interface to the devices (the original versions each acted like a wi-fi hotspot).

As I have blogged about in the recent months, Bluetooth MIDI is a game changer as connection is a breeze, and you don’t need wires between your digital instrument and your primary device (so far, only recent Macs and iOS devices), all with very low latency.  Currently, there are only a handful of Bluetooth MIDI devices, but I expect to see many more in the months to come–it will eventually be a standard feature in every digital instrument.  But for right now, old MIDI devices need a interface to become Bluetooth MIDI, and that is where the PUC+ comes in.  The PUC+ can be attached to any kind of existing MIDI device by the 30+ year old 5 pin plug, or wit Bluetooth.  The PUC+ was just announced by Zivix this past week (see video at the bottom of this post).

Yesterday as part of Summer NAMM, Zivix announced a new partnership with Hal Leonard.  From the press release:

“We are pleased to be partnering with Hal Leonard, a company that has been a pioneer in the music education industry and one that has helped shaped its foundation with it leadership over the years,” said Ed Cannon, chief executive officer, Zivix LLC. “This relationship allows us to better engage with the music industry by introducing our award-winning products, and associated software applications for music education. Through Hal Leonard, and their strong dealer network, we gain a fresh perspective and potential integration opportunities, as we continue to innovate and offer easy to use tools and technology to allow more people to engage in learning and playing music.”

“This partnership is a result of continued emphasis and focus on providing solutions to our customers that enhance opportunities to bring in new players and provide creative tools for existing musician. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have the jamstik+ SmartGuitar and the PUC+ Wireless MIDI Interface in our product portfolio.” said Brad Smith, Senior Sales & Marketing Manager of Hal Leonard Corporation. “With us working together, we see a long term vision providing a gateway between their technology and our content to have more people get involved in guitar and new engaging options for existing players”.

Put in simple terms, Hal Leonard will be distributing the JamStik+ and PUC+, and Zivix will be able to access some of Hal Leonard’s outstanding guitar method content.  As music as the music publishing industry bothers me in regards to digital sheet music (or the lack and/or restriction thereof), Hal Leonard’s reach is much greater than “just” sheet music, and they already have existing agreements with other software and hardware providers such as Noteflight and AirTurn.

Currenty JamTutor, Zivix’s “linked” iPad App, teaches guitar via tablature (people don’t even know they are learning tablature).  In the “guitar” world, this is a valuable skill.  The Hal Leonard methods (whether the Hal Leonard Guitar Method or Essential Elements–both are basically the same) focus on teaching traditional notation first.  As music educators, we want guitarists who can read both notation and tablature.  So as you can surmise, I am excited about the opportunity for Zivix to bring Hal Leonard’s notation-first content to Jam Tutor.

This is great news for Hal Leonard, Zivix, consumers, and music educators.

(The PUC+ Announcement appears below)

MakeMusic Acquires Weezic

Weezic Logo

In May of 2011, I had a rather direct conversation with a VP of MakeMusic about the iPad.  At the time, the iPad was relatively new (the iPad 2 had just been released), and I was arguing for SmartMusic on the iPad.  At several music conferences that year, MakeMusic representatives had discussed (with me) whether it made sense to have a web-based SmartMusic platform, or to go device specific.  In the end, MakeMusic chose the iPad, and it didn’t choose wrong.  The iPad is a wonderful platform for SmartMusic, and thousands of students are using SmartMusic on their iPads.

But none of us expected the impact of the Chromebook in education.  As you can see from various posts on my blog, if you have a choice, the Chromebook is the wrong device for music education.  Chromebooks are the result when a district chooses the device, or a music teacher can’t afford iPads (With all sincerity, a MacBook or Windows computer is a better option for music than a Chromebook).  This doesn’t mean I am anti-Chromebook, but we have to be honest and admit that they are not the best device for music.

That hasn’t stopped thousands of schools from adopting Chromebook 1:1.

If every student has a Chromebook, what do you do about SmartMusic?  Nothing.  You either have to have students with access to Mac/Windows/iPad, or they can’t use it.

Meanwhile, a number of other players have entered the field of green note/red note programs.  One of those programs, which won an award at NAMM this past January was Weezic.  Weezic is a French company which has offered green note/red note feedback, provided a library that sold songs individually, gave users the ability to purchase a song to be put into Weezic’s format, and recently was moving towards letting users upload their own MusicXML files, as well as audio and video files that–using Weezic’s proprietary algorithms–would sync the visual music created by the MusicXML file to the uploaded audio and video.  Furthermore, Weezic was promising to have a conservatory feature (school mode).

The crowning achievement (if this wasn’t already enough)?  The latest version of Weezic, although already an iOS app, was running on ALL platforms with HTML 5.  Had Weezic come out this fall, MakeMusic would have had a lot of competition for SmartMusic (along with new multi-platform solution, PracticeFirst).

Although I have been aware of Weezic for a long time, it was not a solution for me as it didn’t have the literature I needed, and I didn’t want to pay someone else to convert literature for me.  However, as Weezic announced new features early this winter (allowing you to bring your own materials into Weezic), I made sure to visit their booth in February at TMEA, and saw most of these features in action.   I felt, at the time, that Weezic had the best chance to be a SmartMusic competitor, particularly if it was priced right.  However, after building up a lot of steam in February, the company had gone quiet, and today’s news explains why.

The news from SmartMusic today is that they have acquired Weezic, and it just makes sense.  In doing so, they eliminate a competitor while incorporating their technology, meaning that we will see a platform-agnostic version of SmartMusic sooner than later.  Earlier this year (before today’s news), an reliable source told me that MakeMusic would be (at least) several years away from releasing a web-based version of SmartMusic.  I wouldn’t expect to see a web-based version of SmartMusic any time soon (think fall of 2016, perhaps), but MakeMusic now has the technology in hand to make this happen.

This is a great acquisition–the best I have seen from the company since it brought Michael Good on the staff; and in fact, it is the first “major” good public news in a long time.  It shows that MakeMusic was able to assess the market (i.e. Chromebooks), realize they couldn’t react to the market while continuing to develop and support their existing products, so they acquired Weezic for their staff and technology.  Unless the web version is a “knockout,” I would expect to see continued development of the Mac/Windows/iPad versions, although a web-only product could be an end goal for the company.

Do you remember how long it took for the iPad version to come out?  Expect a similar length of time for a web-based SmartMusic, and perhaps a product that slowly adds functionality (just as the iPad version did).

MakeMusic is also opening an office in Europe, which is a good sign for the future of MakeMusic as it attempts to make a stronger effort in the European market (a place where Sibelius has reigned supreme).

The only negative part about this acquisition is that some Weezic users will lose access to the songs they have been using (and perhaps purchased).  It would be nice if all of Weezic’s library could be rolled into the new SmartMusic (whenever that comes) for those users in particular.  I would also like to see Weezic’s ability to connect audio and video to a MusicXML file brought to SmartMusic.

In closing, this is great news for MakeMusic, and it will be exciting to see the changes in SmartMusic as a result of this accession.

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