Preparing a score for accompaniment files…

It has been a while since I have talked about my process of taking an existing score and preparing it for an accompaniment file or a rehearsal file. I just prepared ten scores for our district’s high school choirs (three high schools) who hold an October joint concert.

Step 1: Obtain the music. It seems obvious, but for my process, you need music IN HAND, not a PDF.

Step 2: Scan each page (each song separately, of course) with NotateMe, using the in-app purchase of PhotoScore. Why NotateMe? It scans nearly as accurately (sometimes more so) than the desktop version, bringing in most lyrics and diacritical markings. Suggestions: scan with a white background, and then use a flash. The better the camera, the better the scan…so think about using a late model iPhone or Android device.

Step 3: Rename the file in NotateMe and export using MusicXML via e-mail to myself. To be honest, my one major gripe of NotateMe is that I just can’t use “Open In” to open the MusicXML file directly into Notion for iOS.

Step 4: Import the MusicXML file into Finale on my MacBook. I actually can edit notes/rhythms easier in Notion (Mac or iOS) than on Finale, but Notion tends to not be so good with lyrics. I like to have the lyrics when I create a choral score…it makes a number of things easier (following a score, going back to edit later, etc.). This is also good if you later plan to export a MusicXML file to a red note/green note program like SmartMusic, PracticeFirst, or MusicProdigy. If I have to arrange something, I use Finale as my primary tool as it has a explode/implode feature. As a tip…voice parts should all have their own line without multiple notes. So, if you have an SSAATTBB score….there should be eight vocal lines, not four. This will save you trouble later!

Step 5: Edit in Finale, or your notation App of choice. If you are a band/orchestra director, you will want to enter percussion parts at some point, as they just don’t scan right.

Step 6: Export at MusicXML file to Notion on Mac. I do most of my note/rhythm editing in Notion, which allows me to swap voices anywhere (not a whole measure) and also shows measures with too many notes. While in Notion, make sure sound assignments are correct. You can name the files correctly and later add a “switch instrument” command to make vocal parts sound like a piano versus a choir “Ah.”

Step 7: Save the file in my Notion folder in iCloud Drive. Notion for iOS uses this folder. So if i have something saved in this folder, it shows up on my list in the Notion for iOS app.

Step 8: Final edits on Notion for iOS (this is a great place, with an Apple Pencil, to add any missing diacritical markings. Make sure tempos are where they should be; create tempos and ritardandos as necessary for proper playback. Why Notion for iOS? The sounds are good, and exporting is incredibly easy. The full sound library is also less expensive on Notion for iOS than any other program (with the exception of MuseScore, of course).

Step 9: Adjust the mixer bar in Notion for iOS to make playback files. For example, bring soprano up above the median line, bring piano below, bring altos, tenors, and basses all the way down. Instant soprano rehearsal track.

Step 10: Export to iCloud Drive as AAC file.

Step 11: Open up iCloud Drive and rename each file (e.g. Song Title Soprano. Otherwise Notion saves them as Title 1, Title 2, Title 3…)

Step 12: Repeat steps 9-11 for each part, as well as a piano only part.

Step 13: Distribute parts as necessary. These can be copied to Google Drive, Dropbox, opened in forScore or unrealBook, and so on.

This sounds like a lot of work, but an average song can have all rehearsal tracks created in a much shorter time than sitting down to play parts. Additionally, you will always have the tracks in the future and that file can always be used again. It is smart to keep the files in multiple organized places, as accidents do happen.

One other note: should you learn that a software program will be discontinued, you should open all of your files (over time) and export them as MusicXML files so as to be able to use them again someday. You could actually do that at the end of your process as Step 14, just to be safe.

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Compose Leadsheets (New App for iOS)

The concept of written notation to digital notation, or handwriting recognition for music, has blown up over the past few years. I still remember the very famous video from ThinkMusicTechnology back in 2013 that resulted in a lot of excitement about the possibility:

ThinkMusic iPad App Kickstarter

It was a great idea, but the Kickstarter failed. Since then, there have been a number of handwriting apps…I will see if I can put them into chronological order (and I am sure I am missing some):

I do know of some other notation apps that are bringing handwriting soon.

When I see a new app that is entering an established field (looking back to 2013 in this case), I always ask: “What is unique about the app that makes it unique/easier/better/more powerful to use than other apps?” Hopefully every app has an answer to that (it is something that I like to ask on the podcast) rather than to be an alternative. For example: Finale has always been about the power user. Sibelius has always been about power and easier to learn. Notion has always been about high quality sounds and logical keyboard commands. MuseScore is always improving and Free. Dorico is focused on quality engraving and logical keyboard commands. As you think about notation apps for tablets and phones…what is the specialty of each of these apps?

I have a bias here, and I want to be clear about it: I find it easier to compose, arrange, and edit with a mouse/trackpad, QWERTY keyboard, and MIDI keyboard. I used Finale throughout college, and continue to use it–and I also use Notion on most projects (they both get used), both the desktop and iOS versions.

I find handwriting to be best for writing short sequences of notes (e.g. A sight reading exercise) versus an entire song. I love and adore NotateMe, and would have paid far more for it (it is $70 with the scanning IAP), but I don’t do any editing or writing in NotateMe–I use it for the PhotoScore and export features.

I do find handwriting to be the very best way to add diacritical markings…as these are a pain to add with most desktop/notebook programs, even knowing the shortcuts.

When I watch StaffPad’s videos of people collaborating on a composition to be played moments later via a WebCam connection with StaffPad, I feel the frustration that process would actually take (the first time, it would be fun. The second time…give me Finale or Notion…or MuseScore, or Sibelius, or Dorico…)

So, please be aware of my bias. That said, I realize there are a lot of people–music educators included–whose minds melt with any notation software, and handwritten solutions may be the only solution that works for them.

As a result, we have six solutions for iOS (with more on the way), all that work. The latest of these is Compoze Leadsheets, which is coming from a freemium approach. You get three lead sheets for free’ additional lead sheets cost most, and unlimited lead sheets cost $50. The program works like many others, with some very good integration (so far) of repeats and multiple endings. Other features, including export, are coming in the future…some included with the unlimited version.

My advice? Download it and try it, as you start for free. It works well, and if you haven’t tried handwriting notation, it is worth a shot (no Apple Pencil needed). That said, the program itself isn’t of much benefit to me as I need–from Day 1–the ability to have lyrics and to be able to import or export via MusicXML.

I also struggle with the idea notation apps that are in the $50 range or are subscription based, particularly when there are apps like Notion, where the base app, and all possible in-app purchases are $50 (this gets you a rather extensive sound library AND handwriting in Notion). I’m not against people making money…but $50 apps and subscription models (particularly those without an education version) are a very tough sell for schools.

If you download Compoze Leadsheets, you should also try some of the other handwriting apps, such as NotateMe Now (also free). In 2013-2014, I used NotateMe to have my students compose short compositions in class, and that was a successful unit. There are better solutions in 2017, such as the education versions of web based apps like Noteflight and Flat.io. I am particularly interested in trying Flat.io’s new assignment feature.

I also want to make it very clear that Compoze Leadsheets is BRAND NEW on the App Store–and it should be given some time to mature. As I mentioned, download it, and see what you think. Check in occasionally to see what they add.

News from MakeMusic (Before Apple’s Events)

MakeMusic’s Michael Johnson (VP of professional notation) wrote a blog post the other day regarding Apple’s upcoming Mac update called High Sierra. In the past few Mac updates, MakeMusic had to play catch up to make their software compatible. With Finale 25, Finale looked and acted the same as the previous version of Finale, but was all new under the hood. That rewrite of Finale has allowed Finale to announce that Finale 25 will be compatible with High Sierra—and if any bugs pop up, they will address them as quickly as possible.  SmartMusic will also be compatible with High Sierra. 

At the same time, two other Finale products were not previously updated–and thus are being discontinued. These are PrintMusic and Finale NotePad.  You can still get these on Windows (no longer available for Mac), but even the Windows version will not be developed further. PrintMusic was a less complex version of Finale, and NotePad was even more basic (and free).  If you owned PrintMusic, you can currently upgrade to full Finale for $99. That’s a great deal. 

With many options for notation users, on nearly every platform, it makes sense for MakeMusic to focus on one notation product. There was a time where schools needed the free option of NotePad, but many years ago, MakeMusic chose to charge for NotePad. This forced many users (including schools) to find other options.  This is about the same time that MuseScore came around.  I personally talked to people at MakeMusic at the time to ask them not to do that–especially for schools. After all, most people will later buy what they have previously learned on. NotePad was an investment in future users. A few years later, MakeMusic later changed that decision, but the damage had been done.  As of today, if you need free notation, you choose MuseScore. So it is a fitting time for MakeMusic to say “Goodbye” to NotePad. 

The news about PrintMusic and NotePad is significant, but in no way is it bad.  This is a sign that MakeMusic is making wise decisions that reflect the current notation marketplace and these moves will allow Finale to remain as a class leading product for music notation. 

Some Flat.io Updates

There are two web-based traditional music notation programs…Flat.io and Noteflight. In my opinion, Noteflight is the more mature of the two programs, with a broad spectrum of palettes as well as a wonderful education-based version called Noteflight Learn that comes with a number of tools, including a set of literature. You can subscribe to Noteflight through their own website, or through MusicFirst.

Flat.io has only been around three years or so, and they have traveled a different direction. I think Flat.io is usually easier to use as. As Flat.io grows (much like Noteflight), it does add more features and eventually, complexity. Flat.io has one other strength, which is its ties to Google. Flat utilized Google log-ins, which made its educational version a great fit for our choir program last year (we bought a one month subscription). I should mention that Noteflight now integrates with Google Classroom.

Flat.io recently introduced two features that are pretty exciting. First, they added the ability to have worksheets for the education version. Second, they have now added a feature that allows you to add a Flat.io excerpt inside a Google Doc.

The best features of both of these tools (Flat actually gives you all key features free, without any classroom features, and limited personal storage; Noteflight gives you a very basic version for free) are paid; and as such, you aren’t likely to have both available for your classroom. You will have a very hard decision to make. People can, of course, buy personal subscriptions–but then you also do not have access to the education features.

I do like the idea of worksheets in Flat.io; and I really like the ability to embed Flat.io in Google Docs. So many of my undergraduate and graduate papers would have been so much easier to write with those tools! At the same time, I like the direction Noteflight is going with Noteflight Learn–and both programs are adding new features on a regular basis.

Both programs work “In the Cloud,” and can be used on most devices–however, the iPad is known to be less responsive as a platform to many web-based programs. Flat is working on a iOS version that should be coming out soon.

I can’t tell you what to do, and there are certainly enough users to support both platforms–and it is fantastic that both are committed to education. I would suggest signing up for the free version of each, trying them out, and choosing the one you like best.

PlayScore Pro

One of my long-term tools when it comes to dealing with MusicXML files is SeeScore, which is a (paid, but there is a lite version) app that is a MusicXML reader. When I have an issue with a MusicXML file, I often need to determine whether the problems are created by the program that creates the MusicXML, or the program that is opening the MusicXML. If a score opens cleanly on SeeScore, I know that the problem lies with the app trying to open the MusicXML file; and if SeeScore doesn’t display it correctly, the problem was with the program that generated the MusicXML file.

You might wonder why you would ever need this ability–but when it comes down to contacting a company for technical support, it is best to have all possible information available to you.

In my opinion, SeeScore is the best MusicXML viewer on iOS…but it lacks features that would make it a replacement for apps like forScore and unrealBook, as well as the new generation of MusicXML and PDF viewers, such as Newzik and Gustaf. I do believe that the engine from SeeScore can be licensed by the company and used by other programs, much like the handwriting feature used by MusicJot and Notion.

The company that makes SeeScore is Dolphin Computing, and they were kind enough to contact me a while ago and ask me to look at their scanning app, PlayScore. PlayScore comes in two versions…a Lite Version and a Pro Version. It is also available on Android Devices, much like NotateMe. You can find the PlayScore website at http://www.playscore.co.

The app can use a picture that you take, or select a photo from your camera roll, recognize it, and play it. You can adjust the tempo, and you can even create a playback loop on the screen. There is also an accompaniment mode (great for singers) that ignores a melody line and only plays the accompaniment. In my trials using my iPhone 6S, the playback is very accurate. PlayScore does not seem to recognize repeats or multiple endings, nor does it attempt to recognize lyrics.

Now, however, I have to talk about my use of scanning software, and in that context, where PlayScore needs to improve to be a solution for me. I recently prepared rehearsal tracks for our high school choir programs to use this fall. My tool Music Optical Character Recognition of choice is usually NotateMe, on my iPhone, as it scans music (with the camera) and pulls in most diacritical markings AND lyrics. It is incredibly accurate, even with large scores. There is clean up to do–but I am spared hours of entering things into a notation program. NotateMe is a $70 when you add the PhotoScore In-App Purchase, but it is a purchase that pays itself back in time within a few uses. Once I am done scanning, I can export the scan via MusicXML to Finale or Notion (ultimately, I use both) and I can honestly say that NotateMe is on my essential tools list. In truth, NotateMe didn’t arrive as a scanning app, but its scanning component is far more valuable to me than its notation component.

PlayScore has potential, but it is lacking in three areas that I hope that Dolphin Computing will address in future versions.

First, it can only work with one page at a time. Time is essential to me, so an accurate scan is important…but I typically want to scan, edit, clean-up, and then produce. I don’t want to keep going back between scanning and editing on the same song.

Second, you have to use iTunes to copy files from PlayScore to anything else…and to be honest, many users don’t even connect their devices to iTunes any more. When you have Apple Music (or Spotify) for any kind of music you would ever want, and you buy streamed movies from iTunes or Amazon…why would you need to connect to iTunes? (Side note: if you still use iTunes, don’t feel bad…but many people don’t). PlayScore should be able to export directly out of the app to another app, AirDrop, or e-mail.

Third, there is another app, Sheet Music Scanner, which is less expensive, and while it does not scan everything (e.g. Triplets, lyrics) you do get multi-page scanning, as well as the ability to import PDF files. I would like to see PlayScore add more features. If Dolphin does so, I will certainly follow up with another post.

In conclusion, PlayScore is a photo-based scanner that scans one page at a time with great accuracy–but needs some more features before I could use it in my work flow. PlayScore would work well for someone like my dad (now 72) who sings in a male chorus and does not play piano. He likes to practice his part, and could use his iPhone and PlayScore to work though a score and practice on his own. You may recall that I reviewed the app What’s My Note, which is another intriguing app that scans music and allows you to play any note by touching it. PlayScore would be a better fit for someone who wants to hear all the parts at a set tempo. PlayScore might be the app you are looking for–and if so, you can buy it today on the Apple App Store or the Android Play Store.