Indenspensable Apps For The Ensemble Teacher

I’ve been going to my iPad and iPhone with great frequency during classes over the last few months.

GarageBand – Free (in-app purchase available)

This is so much more than just a virtual instrument or a piece of loop-based composition software. GarageBand has been a daily workhorse for me for the past couple of months. During our daily warmup routine, the Smart Drums are the perfect metronome, without any of the boredom associated with “click…click…click…click…” The students love the variety, and a roll of the dice starts a fresh new rhythm.

In private lessons, it’s great as a quick and easy recording device. Looking at the sound waves in the timeline allows a student to visualize the quality of their articulations and air support.

Fingering for iPad – $11.99

Worth every penny. Hands down the best fingering chart I’ve ever used, including the classic “Handy Manual”. With just a couple of taps, you can see alternate fingerings, trill fingerings, and the fingerings themselves are superimposed over a picture of a real instrument (seriously, how did it take so long for people to start doing this?) The app can also play pitches, which will help your students audiate the pitch.

TonalEnergy Chromatic Tuner – $3.99

My students love the visual aid that this tuner provides. It really helps them understand what adjustments need to be made when tuning. In the warmup rooms before each concert, I pass out a couple of iPads to some trustworthy students, and everybody takes a turn with the tuner. Very easy to use, and the visual quality is why I prefer this to Cleartune or Strobetuner Pro.

ProMetronome – Free ($1.99 in-app purchase to unlock all features)

The best metronome app I’ve found, and it’s well worth the upgrade to the full version. You can tap tempos, pick any tempo between 10 and 300 BPM, subdivide, use different meters, save tempos for quick recall at a later time…it’s feature-rich and idiot proof, and you can’t really ask for more than that.

Hokusai – Free (in-app purchases available)

This is basically Audacity-lite for iPad/iPhone. Need to make a quick recording in your classroom? Hokusai can handle that. Want to send that recording to your Dropbox, or email it as an MP3? Hokusai can also handle that. I haven’t explored any of the in-app purchases and to be honest, I haven’t needed to. Hokusai offers plenty without the need to open your wallet.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License


MMC 2014 Resources

Lots of great resources being shared at the Michigan Music Conference this weekend. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Makey-Makey. Michael Medvinsky (@mwmedvinsky) led a great session on this tool. It’s essentially a circuit board that maps to your keyboard, allowing you to trigger keys with anything that’s conductive. Using a Makey-Makey and MIT’s Scratch software, we built instruments out of bananas, play-doh, artwork, and humans. See the video from the workshop here.
  • Music On Glass. Presented by Barton Polot. Over the course of an hour, participants learned just how easy it is to create music on tablets and mobile devices.
  • Tunecore was mentioned by Michael Medvinsky as a great way to get you and your students’ music out to a wider audience. His classes take what they make from iTunes and use it to help support struggling music programs, which is awesome.
  • If This, Then That. Set up “recipes” to automate parts of your online life. Favorited a tweet but you’d like to file it away for later? IFTTT can send it to your Evernote account. When I hit “publish” on this blog post, IFTTT will send out a tweet for me.
  • Functional Technology. Here’s a link to a Google Doc we’re cultivating, to share technology resources with teachers.

This is just a short list of some of the resources shared this weekend; it’s just barely scratching the surface. If you’re a Michigan (or anywhere in the Midwest, really) based educator, I’d really encourage you to get to the conference one of these years for an inspiring weekend.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Music Tech On A Budget

Last spring, I was asked to create an entirely new music offering at my school, something to expand on our current program of band, jazz band and choir. After all of four seconds of deliberation, I decided that I was going to design a music technology class. My principal quickly jumped on board and said something to the effect of, “Oh by the way, we’d like you to do this on the cheap!”

Great, MIDI keyboards, Ableton Live and synthesizer rigs are probably out of the question. What the heck am I going to do?

This was a question that weighed heavily on me during the summer. I was starting a Master’s Degree, and one of the requirements was to design and present a curriculum in the span of five weeks. It was perfect in the sense that I needed to get this done anyway, but difficult in the sense that we were encouraged to pretend like money was no object. So I decided to design essentially two parallel curriculums, one for a school that spent money like a drunken Gordon Gecko, and one for the real world. Here are some of the things that I came up with.

Digital Audio Workstations (Ableton Live: $30/site, Soundation: Free)

In a perfect world, this class would be using Ableton Live. In fact, my colleague struck a deal with the good folks at Ableton which would have given us some dirt-cheap site licenses. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find the money so we’ve adapted and started using Soundation as our go-to DAW.

Soundation offers a lot of the features that we were looking for as part of a basic music tech class, like the ability to compose using pre-recorded loops, ability to export saved files in .wav format, and the ability to do MIDI sequencing with a piano roll or virtual keyboard.

The student project using Soundation was the composition of a five-part Rondo. Students had to use three tracks of pre-recorded loops, and one MIDI track that they composed to create a piece in ABACA form.

Audio editing software (Audacity: Free)

Before this class began, I was relatively unfamiliar with Audacity. After two units using the program, I’m hooked. It’s a high-quality, powerful audio editor, and middle school students were able to use it fluently with a minimum of trouble.

Project #1 using Audacity was lifted straight from the pages of Dr. Scott Watson’s book. Students wrote, recorded and edited a podcast about one of their favorite musicians. To create an effective podcast, students had to import an MP3 clip, cut it up, and fade in and out. Students also had to adjust their own vocal recording levels so as not to interfere with their audio clips.

Project #2 involved students creating a piece similar to Lasse Gjertsen’s Hyperactive or PBS’ Garden of Your Mind. Students learn how to cut up and rearrange audio tracks as well as how to apply different audio effects, such as distortion or pitch correction.

Synthesizer rigs (Audiotool: Free)

Synthesizers are easily the most difficult thing to cover on a budget, at least so far. It’s impossible to replicate the tactile nature of programming a drum machine, but Audiotool makes a good go of it. Audiotool is essentially a virtual synthesizer rig, where students can sample, apply effects, sequence drum machines/synthesizers, apply automation curves, do MIDI sequencing, and a whole host of other capabilities. In short, it’s got the potential to be mindblowing deep and complex.

At this point in the semester, students are just learning the basics. It took only one class to show them how to create multiple drum patterns on one of the virtual drum machines, and add the patterns to the timeline (similar to a piano roll). Based on early impressions, it seems like we could spend an entire semester working in just Audiotool and still only scratch the surface.

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

The Evolution of a Profession

Tonight’s edition of #musedchat had me in the mood for reflection. I graduated from high school in 2004. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2009, and I’ve been teaching full-time for nearly two years. In that time, the field of music education has been rapidly evolving. We are capable of doing things now that were unthinkable when I decided to enter the field of music education.

This evolution was possible thanks to advances in music technology, as well as several very creative individuals constantly pushing themselves to find new uses for that technology. Music technology is serving to revitalize our profession and keep it relevant in the modern world.

Think back to just five years ago. There was no GarageBand, no iOS. Audacity was still in its infancy. We could record our students, but not with the ease of GarageBand, Audacity, or the multitude of multitrack recorder iOS apps. Once the recording was done, we couldn’t upload it to Soundcloud or a similar service.

There were a few pieces of music notation software available, but I don’t recall them being as refined as they are today. I used Finale and Noteworthy composer a little bit at the end of my high school career, but most of my composing was done with pencil and paper. Today, I can fire up my interactive whiteboard and have my students collaborate on a composition with MuseScore or Noteflight. That was our favorite project last year, and I plan on repeating it.

The key thing that music technology has done though, is make existing activities easier. With a few clicks, I can connect to another teacher or a clinician via Skype. I can post an audio recording of my groups online for them to check out and evaluate. I can put a group project on our IWB which the students can see grow and evolve. This ease of use is key as we look to draw more adapters to the available technology, and we look to evolve what we currently have.

Three Days of MMC in the Form of a Tweet

The past few days were spent in Grand Rapids attending the 2012 Michigan Music Conference. It’s always a great way to learn something new, recharge my batteries, and make new connections. What follows are some of the highlights from three days worth of sessions, summarized as tweets (140 characters or less, or your money back.) Bonus points if you caught the Erik Satie reference.

  • Escravos de Jo
  • Engage somebody rather that lecture at them.
  • Encourage play. It’s how kids naturally learn.
  • Using technology you can accelerate artistry and advance music making.
  • The joy of learning overrides all fear. Be child-like.
  • Wouldn’t it be cool if every kid didn’t have “general music”, but just “music”?
  • Feel free to say what you want, but feel free to deal with the consequences as well.
  • Take great care to stay professional on public social media. Know your district policies!
  • – Educator’s learning guide for do’s and don’t’s on facebook.
  • (Electronic ensembles) offer chance to create your own tradition/standards/literature. Lots of freedom.
  • Musicality is controlled by the musician, not the instrument.
  • Give students a goal and tell them how to get there, don’t just mindlessly dictate.
  • Know your teaching philosophy. It will guide everything you do.
  • Delegate, communicate, network, plan, retain, go the extra mile, stay healthy (7 steps to success)
  • We MUST open the doors for students, people, others. NOT close them. (via @nicholas_hardy)
  • We need to find music that connects to the real musical world.
  • Getting your students to compose/arrange gets them making independent musical decisions.
  • Is it a tool for teaching and learning? If yes, you need it. If not, you don’t.
  • Mozart used all the latest technology to create his music. Are you teaching the next Mozart? Do you provide the tools? (via @johnchurchville)
  • The best musicians need to be teaching the youngest students. (@johnchurchville)
  • You’re either part of the steamroller or you’re part of the road.
  • Electronic ensembles/tech classes are a great way to involve the ‘other 80 percent’.
  • An electronic ensemble can foster student creativity like no other.
  • The Pangea Choir Project
  • Use social media in your classroom because that’s what the kids are doing. Engage them directly.

Pedal Point Duets-Lesson Plan

The idea for this lesson plan came from Dr. Scott Watson’s book, Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity. The book is filled with excellent lesson plan ideas and other information that can help inspire you to better integrate technology into your music classroom.

While reading Dr. Watson’s book, one particular project grabbed my attention, the pedal point duet. This seemed like an excellent project for a couple of reasons: It’s simple and accesible enough for even young musicians, and it offers a great intro to composition in advance of the large group composition project undertaken by my jazz band every year.

To intro the project, I recorded a couple of examples with GarageBand and played them for the class. I demonstrated how the ‘pedal’ tone could change rhythm but not pitch, and how a simple melody could be an excellent compliment to the pedal. We then went over some basic parameters for the project, and I set the jazz band to work.

For this project to be a success, the teacher must be constantly working with the students, offering feedback, criticism and coaching. The students might also need some assistance with notating some of their rhythms, as well as some gentle reminders of the composition parameters. For a more detailed lesson plan, I urge you to check out Dr. Watson’s book.

Pedal Point Duet

Pedal point is a technique that has its roots in medieval organ music. Despite its age, composers still use it today because it yields a great sound. Pedal point involves a sustained tone (the ‘pedal’) in one instrument while the other musician performs a melody. You will use these techniques in writing your own duet, to be performed and recorded.


  1. Your target length for this duet is 16 measures. The pedal note MUST be the first note of the B-flat blues scale; the melody MUST begin AND end on the first note of the B-flat blues scale. Your pedal can be either a low note or a high note.
  2. You should only write music that you can perform yourselves.
  3. Using clapping, improvise a short rhythmic pattern. Share this rhythm with Mr. Guarr.
  4. The rhythm you composed in step 3 will become your pedal. Mr. Guarr can help you notate the rhythm if you need.
  5. Each partner will be responsible for writing 8 measures of melody and 8 measures of pedal. The pedal can change rhythm but not pitch.


  1. Keep it simple!
  2. Consider the relationships between rhythms in each parts. Do they make sense together? Are they easy to play together?
  3. Good writing uses repetition. Don’t be afraid to repeat a phrase! Good writing uses repetition. Don’t be afraid to repeat a phrase!
  4. Rests might help your piece “breathe” a little bit.
  5. Rhythmic call and response between pedal and melody might sound very cool.
  6. Play your piece frequently as it develops. Does it sound good? If you don’t like what you have, what can you do to change it?
  7. HAVE FUN!


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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Get Smart

I am fortunate to work in a school district with great community support. We have rarely, if ever, had trouble passing bond issues and everybody in the community is genuinely proud of the education we provide. The fruit of one of our more recent bonds is interactive white boards (IWBs) in every classroom.

I’ll admit it, I was pretty skeptical at first. Despite spending a lot of time doing research over the summer, finding good activities and resources for a secondary instrumental music class was difficult. There were vast amounts of activities geared toward the elementary classroom, but I had a hard time seeing how I could adapt those to a classroom with 60+ kids with instruments in their hands.

Two weeks in, I realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The IWB has become an integral part of our classes. Toward the end of the summer, I stumbled across the Sioux City Middle School music tech wiki, put together by Pat Toben. There’s a wealth of resources on there, including the always enjoyable iNudge and Incredibox. Those got used quite a bit during week one so that the kids could experience some music creation right away.

The IWBs also made me re-imagine some activities that I had been doing for awhile. In David Newell’s book Teaching Rhythm, he outlines a plan for using rhythm flash cards as part of comprehensive rhythmic literacy. We used rhythm flash cards last year with success, so for this year I put together a few random rhythm generators for the IWB. We’ve got one for duple meter, and one for triple. The rhythm generators are also constantly evolving, and will soon include an unusual meter generator as well as a compositional element for the students.

I also teach a jazz band that features a couple of bassists who are new to the genre. They are talented, but have never seen a walking bass line. Not a problem. Just open up Sibelius or GarageBand so they can see/hear the line.

There are also big plans for the future of the IWB in my classroom. Last year, I had the jazz band collectively compose a piece of music. This year, the project remains the same but the kids will be better able to see the piece develop. Rather than write things down by hand, we can plug lines into the Korg NanoKey and the students can see them pop up instantly on the screen. This will eventually allow us to take the collectively composed piece, and have the students go up to the board and experiment with creating harmonies just by clicking and dragging.

The key to making this all successful is ensuring that the technology available to us is enhancing the classroom rather than controlling it.