Alternative Concert Assignment

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At our school, music is required for students in 6th and 7th grade (8th grade was made optional this year).  Students have to take band, orchestra, and choir.  We have opened a new school with slightly different boundaries, so I have been teaching “traditional” choral music this year versus the ukulele-based instruction of the last couple of years.

[Side note: we hold two concerts a year, so the ukulele unit moves to the next three months…so we’re still doing ukulele, just not as a part of choir.  It also doesn’t help that our ukulele hanging system still isn’t installed.]

I have been treating students this year as if they chose choir, rather than trying to make the experience not stink for them.  It’s a different mindset, and not all the students are bought into it–particularly those that were in choir last year under the other mindset, and of course, students that don’t want to be in any music class (note: a prior prinicipal insisted that choir was to be an “experience” versus traditional choir).  Last year, my current principal, fully aware of the challenges, suggested that I made the concert optional.  I decided to try it, continuing to call the concert “required” but mentioning it wouldn’t be graded.  About 25% of my 6th grade students did not attend (about normal); about 35% of my 7th grade students missed the concert; and about 50% of my 8th grade students missed the concert.  Even so, the concert was one of my best at this school.

I realize that students missing concerts is often out of their hands.  Parents plan other activities, cannot get a student to a concert, or openly value other activities (even practices for sports) above a concert.  At the same time, choir is a performance based class, and while it may be “an experience,” hopefully the concert can be a positive experience.   A student who has to miss a concert should feel like they are missing something, and it is not crazy to think that they should have to make it up.  Frustratingly, that same principal (no longer our principal) expected band to be band, and orchestra to be orchestra…but choir had to be an experience.  If that seems a little crazy to you, it is.  Thankfully, that mindset is no longer true.

I have tried to do concert make-ups for years, including having students come in to sing with a recording of the concert.  Ultimately, these are simply punitive measures, and the student neither experiences the actual conditions of the concert (with hopes that they would experience the joy of performing) nor does the student help the group with their voice.

So, I looked online for what other teachers have been doing.  Based on that work, I have created an “Alternative Concert Assignment” for students this year.  I still count absences as “excused” or “unexcused,” but either can make up the concert, with a “point” penalty for unexcused absences.  We also grade for formative (20%) and summative (80%) categories; and while the concert is summative, I cannot grade a student individually on their performance in a concert (technology may allow for this someday), so I will be making the concert a huge part of their formative grade.  Ultimately, a student will have to complete the make-up assignment to earn more than a C…and in this day and age, B’s and A’s are usually expected by parents (if they concern themselves with grades at all).  So it doesn’t become a punitive assignment, and makes sure that the student is investing in a make-up activity of similar length to the concert they are missing.

I do expect the requirement of watching a concert and completing a packet to cause quite a few students to decide to attend the concert.

A couple of other notes:

First, we have to give every student a minimum of 50% regardless of whether or not they do any assignment.   Second, the assignment says that a student cannot attend another concert at our school, or at the elementary level, to make up the assignment.  I had students attend a band or orchestra concert of a sibling last year, and then skip our concert.  While I want our students to support each other, I needed to close that loophole.  Finally, I split my concert night into three mini-concerts, which eliminates the need for supervision during the concert with students that are not currently singing.

You’ll find the Alternative Concert Assignment below.  The original is a Pages document (send me an e-mail and I’ll be happy to send it).  I may tweak this assignment over time, but as for now, I’m pretty happy with it.  If you are struggling with students missing concerts and having appropriate make-up assignment, feel free to use and adapt the assignment as you see fit.  As always, support via Patreon is always welcome (and please note that I am not placing this behind a “paywall.”).

For those of you working towards a performance in the next weeks, good luck!

Alternative Concert Assignment (PDF)


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Handel’s Messiah…and Notion

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An image of the original manuscript of The Messiah

When I was directing high school choir, I eventually added an annual goal to sing one movement from Handel’s Messiah with my advanced choir at our Holiday Concert.  I was fortunate in my last few years as a high school director that our district had added a string program, so the school’s orchestra provided accompaniment for that song in our concert (it was a great way to involve everyone).

I know that many groups perform the Messiah this time of year, and would benefit from a digital accompaniment track.

This morning, a PreSonus presentation from ASME 2017 showed up in my feed, and I watched it.  It featured Chris Swaffer, a developer from PreSonus, which makes Notion) and Dr. Ian Cook.  Chris introduced Notion, integration with Studio One, and the live performance capabilities of Notion ; Dr. Cook discussed Persons’ conducting component (great for college programs).  I have interacted with Chris for a long time (I get the opportunity to try Beta updates for Notion), and it was great to actually see him (he’s in the UK, so he doesn’t make many music education conferences here in the USA).

As I was watching the presentation, Chris mentioned that Notion includes a number of resources, including the FULL MESSIAH.  Remember…Notion comes stock with sounds from the London Symphony Orchestra.  You can buy the full expansion pack of sounds (currently $299–which is a bargain compared to other sound packs from other vendors). Otherwise, Notion (on Mac/Win) is $150.  If you are a director needing a rehearsal or performance tool for the Messiah, Notion would instantly pay for itself.

I didn’t know about these included files, and you can find them in your account at my.presonus.com.  Then follow the links to “Get All Content” and then add the “Notion Score Library” in the “Extra Downloads” area.  This will send you a zipped file of Notion files (all in the Public Domain) that can be edited as necessary.

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In my.presonus.com, look at “Get All Content” with Notion 6.
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The Messiah is included in the “Notion Score Library”

About the Messiah…it doesn’t have text in the voice parts, so if you want those, you may have to add them…and it ships with all of Part 1 and Part 2 as separate files.  That said, as it is a Notion document, you can certainly cut and paste a range of the song and paste it into a new document and add text to those voice parts.

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Here’s the full screen view, in “pages across view” of Part 1 of the Messiah, which is included as a extra download when you buy Notion.

Notion’s sounds are great, and are probably worth the initial cost ($150).  Don’t forget that you can add the iOS version as well, with all add-ons, for around $50 total (bargain!), and anything you do on Notion for Mac/Win will show on the iOS version.

However, if you want to use Notion’s excellent stock sounds and run a humanized performance, you can do so with Notion’s live performance features.  I haven’t done that, but I know that Paul Shimmons did so recently, making his own “pit orchestra.”  Read about that here on his website, ipadmusiced.wordpress.com (link).

And if you are a user of another program, as I am (e.g. Finale), Notion can read MusicXML and export MusicXML, so you could easily to and from Notion.  In other words, you don’t have to leave your current program to add Notion as a tool.  If you have an iOS device, and you are a music educator, Notion should already be one of your tools.


Note: This is NOT a sponsored post by Notion, I just love the program, and yes, I am a beta tester of the product.

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Some 2018 MacBook Pro with TouchBar Reflections

I have been working with this new MacBook Pro for a while, and I had some thoughts that I wanted to share as a ukulele video uploads from my iPad.

  1. I had become very used to an iPad centric use of technology.  I am having to force myself to reintegrate the MacBook Pro into my workflow.  That said, there is no doubt about it…the MacBook is a very expensive secondary device for me, but one that I needed to buy at this point.  There are some thing that only a MacBook can do, and there are times when my family members need an actual computer.
  2. It took about two days to become accustomed to the butterfly keyboard…which is different than the relatively new MacBook Pro that our school district distributed a couple of years ago.  I can now work on either keyboard without thinking about it, but there was an adjustment.  You might wonder why I didn’t just use the school MacBook, but I have a strong belief in doing my own work on my own devices.
  3. USB-C is terrific.  I can’t wait for it to be on my next iPhone and next iPad.
  4. I know I made the right choice with the MacBook Pro over the new MacBook Air.
  5. Many of the big Apple bloggers strongly dislike the TouchBar.  Many of them are programmers, and I think the Function Keys are used in their work.  I find the touch bar to be useful, and I don’t mind two presses to adjust brightness or volume. If I am anything like other users, I hope the TouchBar is here to stay.
  6. The Mac migration process was incredibly easy.  Everything works.  I expected issues.
  7. I’m just satisfied with this purchase.  My last MacBook cost $1500 ten years ago, and over the years I probably put another $1000 into it with memory and hard drives (at least 3…two traditional HDDs and the SSD).  This computer doesn’t have upgradeable memory, and even the SSD might be out of reach for upgrades…and was just under $1850 (I don’t count Apple Care in either purchase).    At the same time, I only expect my iCloud storage to increase for the price point over the life of this computer, and it won’t be long before all of my files are in the cloud, and only the OS and program will be on the Mac.  You can see it coming.

Ultimately, I could have saved a lot of money and gone with a Windows machine, but I am pretty firmly entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, and I could have gone with a cheaper MacBook (I could have also opted for a more expensive MacBook with the i7 processor or even the 15″ models).  I know that I hit the sweet spot on this purchase.  I can’t promise that the 2018 MacBook Pro is the computer for you, but it certainly was the right one for me!

Thoughts on the new iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

For the record, I’m not buying a new iPad Pro, nor am I buying a new Apple Pencil.  My current iPad Pro is still (as of today) the most recent version, and it is fine for the work that I do.  As I mentioned in my last post, I just bought a new (refurbished) MacBook Pro, and I won’t even think of updating my iPad Pro until this device is paid for.

The new iPad Pro is incredibly fast–it runs at speeds faster than my new MacBook Pro!  It also loses the home button, the lightning port, and gains Face ID.  I have no problems with any of these improvements–and they only align for an amazing upgrade in a year an a half (or sooner) when I buy my next iPad Pro.  It’s hard to know when Apple is going to update hardware, so I can’t really guarantee that Apple will come out with the next iPad Pro in November 2019.  It will be a “wait and see” situation.  All I know is that I will eventually move to a new iPad model at a natural time in my own upgrade cycle that matches Apple’s upgrade cycle.

The item that surprised me the most was the new Apple Pencil and its incompatibility with the old iPads–including the current 9.7″ iPad.  Our school bought a bunch of the new iPads last summer as our new building houses about 300 additional students (this year).  The old Apple Pencil and the Logitech Crayon work with that iPad (I just ordered two Logitech Crayons for my boys own 9.7″ iPads as a Christmas gift), but the new Apple Pencil will only work with the iPad Pro.

I would have expected some kind of backwards compatibility with the new Pencil, considering the 9.7″ iPad.  But things will go back to normal where the Pencil will only work with the new iPad Pro (that’s how it used to be).  I’d actually like to see an owner be able to use a Pencil with all their devices, particularly their iPad and iPhone, as I have attempted to write on my iPhone many times.

The issue, I believe, comes in charging.  The iPad has a built-in inductive charger that charges the new Apple Pencil (no more lost end caps!), and the iPad has added USB-C in place of the lightning port.  This means the old way of charging wouldn’t work any more. So I think it’s the right move for Apple–USB-C, inductive charging, etc.  I just hope Apple keeps the old Pencil around for schools for a little while, and that they update all of the devices to use and charge the Apple Pencil, too.

If you’re in the market for a new iPad, I can’t recommend the new Apple iPad Pro and the new Apple Pencil enough.   While I think I will always default to the 12.9″ iPad from this time out, the new 11″ iPad should be the equal to a sheet of paper.  This would be a great time to buy an incredibly powerful machine, and it will be fun to see what developers do to take advantage of the new speed of these devices.

Finally…a new MacBook…

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New 13″ 2018 MacBook Pro on the left, old 13″ Aluminum MacBook on the right, migrating from one device to the other using Migration Assistant.

After several years of debating the issue and putting it off, I am writing this post on my new 2018 MacBook Pro.  This has been a long time coming, as my previous MacBook was purchased just over 10 years ago (October 2008), and I have not been able to update the operating system on that computer for three years.

I might have continued to use my 2008 MacBook if Apple’s own programs would have worked on it, but last year’s updates to the “iWork” apps (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers) would no longer work on my old operating system.  On the other hand, all of my other productivity software, including Finale 26 and Notion, worked just fine on my old MacBook.  My old MacBook wasn’t in its original condition, however…I had upgraded it to the maximum of useable memory (4GB on that device) and to a 512GB SSD, because it was so slow.  That solved the problem–but didn’t solve my issues with Apple’s own software, which I use a lot.

So…what did I buy?  A refurbished 13″ 2018 MacBook Pro, i5, 2.3GHz Quad Core with Touch Bar, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB Hard Drive (I wouldn’t suggest buying a MacBook with anything less).  I also bought the extended Apple Care+ warranty (there is an educator’s discount).  I decided to go with the MacBook Pro versus the new MacBook Air because the new Air with the same memory configuration would have been $140 less, with a much slower processor (1.6GHz Dual Core) and no Touch Bar.  So in the end, the speed and TouchBar won me over.  I could have bought a i7 MacBook Pro, but didn’t want to spend any more on the computer (there are other things to buy).

The stereo speakers are a little bit of a surprise, too.  I just sent an e-mail message and was shocked to hear the message “wooosh” from one side of the computer to the other as it was sent.  I guess there is no longer any Mac C-major start-up chime, either.

I’ll also miss the “glowing apple” on the back of my 2008 MacBook.  There is no CD-ROM drive, either.  Other than DVDs, can’t remember the last time I loaded a CD, and I’m not buying music on CD, either.  Actually, with Apple Music (family subscription), we’re not buying any music–just paying for streaming.

I bought the Apple HDMI and VGA USB-C adapters, which will give me a traditional USB port (on each adapter).  I like the future of USB-C.  USB-C is coming on the new iPad Pros, and I think we’ll see it on all of Apple’s products soon.

I won’t buy a new iPad Pro until this computer is paid off (interest free financing from Apple), so I have a double incentive to get this device paid off as soon as possible.

So far, the TouchBar has been useful, and it is surprising to see my 2008 Aluminum MacBook in comparison.  The devices are clearly related–but 10 years has definitely refined the device.  I traveled through Europe with that computer in the summer of 2009, when we accompanied my high school’s Spanish teachers on a European trip.  The MacBook has some dents and bruises, but it has kept working like a champ (even if I have replaced the hard drive various times for size and performance).

I’m getting used to the new keyboard (new to me), which was redesigned for 2018.  I might have considered a 2017 refurbished MacBook Pro, but there were a lot of keyboard problems (my friend and fellow music techie Robbie Burns has suffered through a number of repairs) and I wanted to avoid that model.

I also bought the $199 Education Pro Apps Bundle with the computer…it’s going to take some time to figure out how to use the programs…but it is nice to have them.

Apple’s migration assistant worked flawlessly.  It took a LONG time…4 hours or so…but everything from my old MacBook seemed to come over…and all of my important files are backed up in my 2 TB of data with iCloud anyway.  This is the first time I have migrated a Mac, whereas I have migrated many iPods, iPhones, and iPads over the past ten years.  My wife and her parents recently updated their iPhone 7 models to the new iPhone XR, and Apple has really made the migration from device to device a very simple process.  I’m impressed.

While this isn’t a cheap purchase–it is a device that will be used a lot in the coming years–by me and by my family.  My work flow may even change away from the iPad a little bit as I will have a reliable MacBook to work with (my old MacBook would occasionally power off for no good reason, even when plugged in).  This will be my birthday (just a couple days away) and Christmas present…perhaps for a couple of years. And I have not bought any ukuleles for a couple months (that’s a record).

I hope your school year is going well–mine has been enjoyable so far!  It is hard to believe that we are in November already!

 

Screen Time on iOS 12

We just had a bit of a scare in our house.  Our ten year old told us that our six year old had just bought hundreds of dollars of in-app purchases…

And he was right.

We had always required a password for downloads, but for some reason, when we installed iOS 12, that password setting went to “none.”  As a result, we have $450 of pending charges for in app purchases on our bank account.

The good news?   I was able to contact Apple, through their chat, and they started the process to reverse the charges, usually within 7-10 days.

If you are are used to the “Restrictions” area of previous versions of iOS, it isn’t there any more.  You have to use the new Screen Time app.  The crazy part?  Screen Time used the same password I had created long ago in “Restrictions,” but the choices I had made on my children’s iPads were not the same as I had once made.

So, if you are a parent, and you have children with iPads and their own accounts under “Family Sharing,” it might be worth going into the Screen Time app and making sure that App Downloads and In App Purchases are turned OFF.  Sure, it will be more work to add an app in the future…but that’s far better than a very big surprise in your bank account!

 

Finale 26: Thoughts from a Music Educator

I have been using Finale for a very long time. My first exposure to Finale was in college, where one of my professors had worked at Coda Music. We were expected to use Finale, and even played with the “new” Vivace hardware (at the time). If you have been in the music world for any period of time, you’ll know that Coda Music eventually became MakeMusic, and Vivace later became SmartMusic.

I have been teaching 23 years, so I imagine that puts me at over twenty-five years of Finale use. That means a quarter century of Finale use. I can’t believe it—but it’s true.

I don’t claim to be the expert on Finale that Robert Puff and Philip Rothman are; and I wouldn’t dream of pitting my skills against the publishing teams at Hal Leonard or Alfred, nor against the team at Make Music. That said, I’ve used Finale as a tool as a choral music educator, in the classroom, since my first position in the Dominican Republic since 1996. Generally, I have not used Finale as much as a publishing tool, but instead as an accompanist for my choirs. The greatest challenges with this case use were the old challenges of interacting with MIDI, controlling playback in rehearsal, programming tempo changes, and having that become accustomed to how an accompaniment should sound when a live pianist, in performance, does not hold a steady tempo and makes mistakes!

Admittedly, my own use of Finale has decreased over the last few years, partly because of platform, and partly because of features. Don’t get me wrong, I still use it, but I use it as a part of a process instead of as the whole process as I did earlier in my career. In terms of platform, MakeMusic is not pursuing iOS, and I use my iPad Pro for 98% of my computing needs. I also have a REALLY OLD MacBook, a 2008 Aluminum MacBook (renamed MacBook Pro a few months later) that is stuck on OS X El Capitan. As a side note, while Finale 26 does not list compatibility with my old operating system, it seems to run just fine on my ten year old MacBook. That’s pretty amazing as Apple’s own applications will no longer work on my MacBook.

I still use Finale to do most of my heavy lifting as I still work faster on Finale than any other program. I learned how to use Finale, which I fit into the category of ex nihilo music notation programs. Ex nihilo is a theological term that means, “out of nothing,” and that is how Finale works: you start with an empty measure, versus the notation programs that start with a full measure of rests.

If you use Finale, you know that it can literally do anything—things that are certainly far above my pay grade. The Finale team used to publish demonstrations of what the program could do (I wish they still did this!), including a skull notation last year (See https://www.finalemusic.com/blog/halloween-themed-music-notation-discovered/. Mark Adler is awesome.) I made a rosette for our custom ukulele using Finale’s abilities (See https://ukestuff.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/bonanza-tenor-ukulele-cherry/).

I am also a Finale Speedy Edit user. When I started on Finale, that was the standard approach, and I think that the Simple Note Entry Method has been stressed in Finale workshops for at least a decade. The Simple Note Entry Method allows you to enter everything as you go, including dynamics and diacritical markings. I still can’t force myself to enter notation that way.

Finale is so feature rich that it is easy to think that you can’t learn to use it—you can. But there is always more to learn. I remember sitting in a session by Tom Johnson in October 2011 (Wisconsin MEA), where Tom showed that you can select a range and transpose with numbers (6 & 7 for whole steps, 8 & 9 for octaves), and I thought of, “I have been using this program for how long and it can do THAT?!?”

As for recent versions of Finale, Finale 25 was a complete under the hood reworking of Finale 2014. I have been told that Finale 2014 was full of outdated code. Imagine that Finale was a car. Finale 25 basically put a whole new engine in the existing car, and allowed the car to run as it always had—except with the latest technology. It is amazing to me that Finale 25 was able to allow Finale users to continue to use the program without changing workflows.

Finale 26 is the next major update for Finale.

One of the things I love about Finale 26 is that when you open an old Finale file, the program asks you if you want it to apply new features, including spacing for articulations and even linking Garritan sounds to parts. Perhaps Finale previously linked audio parts for you, but I had never seen this functionality in the past. When it comes down to allowing Finale to make these changes, professional engravers may not want expressions to self-adjust. As a music educator, I think: “Will this make my Finale files look better?” “Yes.” “Then by all means, apply your Finale 26 magic.” I have opted to let Finale 26 update every older file as a default setting. After all, why not?

Both Philip Rothman and Robert Puff have indicated that new features in Finale 26, such as articulation stacking, do not downgrade to Finale 2014 or Finale 25. I don’t see this as much of a problem. As a music educator, I have no need to run three different versions of Finale on my computer (nor a copy of every available professional notation software). If you are music educator who is a Finale user, I’d simply let Finale 26 install and allow it to remove Finale 25 at the same time. Again, why not? Once running Finale 26, when would you ever need to downgrade any Finale file to an earlier version of Finale?

The only thing that concerns me about Finale 26 is that the export of MusicXML files defaults to a compressed format—and I do a lot of exporting of MusicXML files into programs that read uncompressed formats (.xml). I have had to regularly rename MusicXML files for a while (Finale saved files as .musicxml vs. .xml); now I’ll have to take special care to adjust Finale 26 MusicXML export settings so my other apps can read those files.

I’ll be honest—I’m not sure that I’m a powerful enough Finale user (even having worked with thousands of scores) to claim to see a speed difference with Finale 26 (Philip Rothman has documented this in his review), and as I have mentioned, my MacBook is so old that I doubt I would see the difference. (I’m waiting to see what Apple might introduce with a new MacBook this month). I’ll just take everyone’s word on the matter. I never thought the Finale was slow in the past, so if it’s faster, that’s just a bonus to everyone.

Yes, there are things that I wish were easier on Finale. I wish you could swap voices in a partial measure versus a full measure. I wish that ukulele chord diagrams were easier to work with. And while I understand there are third party scanning apps, as a music educator who makes rehearsal and accompaniment tracks, I wish scanning (and improved scanning) had never been taken from Finale. I also wish that Finale highlighted a measure when it contained too many beats for a time signature.

What I can tell you is that Finale still is the best solution for me when it comes to doing a lot of editing of a scanned MusicXML file, when dealing with lyrics, or when I am creating a score from scratch. There is a learning curve with Finale, just like any other full-featured notation application. The program isn’t “easy” to use, but it isn’t rocket science, either. And if you want a program that allows you to create any kind of score that you can imagine, Finale’s your solution.

No, I can’t compare Finale to the latest versions of Sibelius and Dorico. As I have previously mentioned, I struggle with apps that start with existing rests (e.g. Sibelius and MuseScore) as much of my workflow requires editing existing measures, and working with programs that require a full measure of beats at all times creates more challenges for me when I am when editing music. As for Dorico, it simply doesn’t offer the tools I need for my job, so I don’t want to go there yet. My workflow will continue to center around Finale and Notion.

If you are a music educator, and you already use Finale, should you buy Finale 26? I would say, “Yes.” The program works as it always has (with some added shortcuts), but the new version will automatically make anything you create look better than it ever has—even your existing files. I also think there value in purchasing the upgrade to insure the future of the program. These updates require thousands of hours of work, and also include technical support. This is obviously not free, and while we live in the world of the $0.99 ad-supported app on your phone, the last thing I want is to work on a score and have an ad pop up (Note: MakeMusic has NOT threatened to do this—I’m just making a point about sustainability). It is worth mentioning that MakeMusic has offered sale prices on past upgrades at various times, so if you can’t swing the upgrade financially at this time, be sure to jump on sale prices down the road.

If you are new to the notation world, should you buy Finale 26? That’s going to have to be up to you. As far as I know, every major publishing house interacts with Finale. Finale is one way to get custom accompaniments into SmartMusic—but is no longer the only method (and SmartMusic even has its own embedded notation program). What I’d say is that if you plan to do a lot of computer notation work, Finale is a very valuable tool. If finances are an issue, I’d start a savings jar and work towards purchasing the very affordable Educator version of the app (Educator pricing). And to those of you who use MuseScore, I think it is wonderful to have another app where you can bring your (MusicXML files) for publishing. I have been surprised how much I like having multiple solutions on my computer, and I think you would, too. If you haven’t tried Finale before, a 30 day trial is included when you download it.

In conclusion, Finale 26 is a solid update that will make your notation files look better. I’d recommend it. You can download it and purchase it at finalemusic.com.


Note: While I have been a Finale user and owner for more than twenty five years, I was provided with a copy of Finale 26 for review purposes.