Creating Music with Apple Apps

As I write this I’m winging my way to Europe to attend the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute.  One of the workshops I’ll present while I’m there is demonstrating how my students have been using three key Apple Apps as part of their creative workshop.

What I love about what Apple have done is that these apps are all fantastic by themselves.  But when you look at how they work together to support the compositional and production process they create their own ‘ecosystem’ that greatly assist students with creating original music.

Music Memos

Music Memos is the newest app.  It’s basically the Voice Recorder app that as been available for iOS for a long time but configured for musicians with a few neat features.

My students use it on their iPhones and iPads for capturing their rough musical ideas when they’re in practise rooms, on the bus or anywhere that inspiration strikes.

Here is a student of mine using it to record some ideas she had for a verse in a new song.

Music Memos has this amazing ability to not just record audio, but to also analyse the timing of the performance and the harmony used.  It is then able to create a session timeline of bars and beats and provide you with information of the chords that were played.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.48.31 AM

It can even provide a virtual band of bass and drums to play along with your performance (of which settings you’re able to configure).

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.48.38 AM

While all this sounds amazing in reality my students haven’t found it hugely accurate with it’s analysis (but this is more the fault of the performers than the app).  With very good performers (like you’ll probably see on YouTube reviews of the App) it works fine but with high schoolers I’ve found the chordal analysis and bass & drums backing very hit and miss.

You will notice in the video that Bella was very intentional about trying to play as in time as possible and strongly outlining the beat – this really helps Music Memo’s with the analysis (but even then, it still got a lot of chords wrong in the analysis).  However, many students struggle to play their parts clearly so the analysis can be rather misleading.

But, this doesn’t diminish how useful Music Memos is in capturing ideas, tagging them with keywords and allowing them to share those ideas with friends.  It really is the perfect digital scrapbook.

However, when the chordal analysis does work it’s amazing as you’re able to import your Music Memos files into GarageBand on iOS or MacOS (including a MIDI realisation of the bass and drums that were added).

GarageBand

Music Memo’s projects are easily able to be opened in GarageBand on the iPad.  This is fantastic as you’re then able to use the amazing ‘Smart Instruments’ to create new chord progressions, accompaniments from a variety of instruments such as keys, bass, drums, strings, etc  For students that don’t play piano or guitar this is a massive support to their songwriting.

However, using iCloud you’re also able to open Music Memos projects into GarageBand on the MacOS.

This is what we did here.  Bella opened her project up so that she could record some MIDI keys and start mucking around with overdubbing vocals, harmony parts, etc  She’s also able to alter the exisiting Music Memos Bass and Drums or she can create new parts using GarageBand’s Drummer tracks.

What is very clever is that GarageBand has created a tempo map of her performance in Music Memos so any loops we drag in to the session will be snapped to the correct timing.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.58.24 AM

However, if we wanted it to be all exactly in time we can do this be deleting all the tempo changes in the tempo track at the top of the window.  GarageBand is then able to conform the original Music Memos performance into time using Flex time.

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The best thing about using GarageBand at this stage of the songwriting process is that the student is now able to start playing around with the structure, instrument choice, drum patterns, add vocal harmonies, overdub guitar solos, etc – basically create a polished ‘demo’ of the song and arrangement.

This is of great assistance to the composer and musicians that are going to be collaborating in a recording session.

If you’d like to download Bella’s basic demo and have a go at creating your own arrangement you can do so by clicking here (please don’t share or sample this work – all copyright is retained by Isabella Ford and St Andrew’s College).

If the artist is really happy with the demo then they’re able to open their GarageBand file in Logic and record in a studio environment.  However, for this project we decided to start in Logic from scratch with the musicians.

Logic Pro X

Once Bella had her song sorted out we went into our school studio with musicians for a few hours.  She played them her song live and also played her demo from GarageBand.  They discussed what feel it should have, and how to structure the piece.  The string player (who also did BV’s) thought through possible parts she could add in and discussed with Bella.

They ended up adding in an extended solo section which is not what Bella had originally intended.

Here is the final result:

We recorded into Logic Pro X through an Apogee Symphony interface using preamps from Grace, La Chapell, Focusrite, Radial and API.  Our studio also has very nice acoustics.  Using equipment and a facility of this quality meant that we were able to get very good sound tracks that were easy to make a rough mix of in a couple hours.

However, the biggest reason why this song sounds great is not because of the quality of our equipment, or the skill of the musicians (of course these things are essential).  It was the effective creation process that these three Apple Apps helped with.  Through capturing ideas in practise rooms with Music Memos, to crafting an effective arrangement  and ‘demo’ in GarageBand, and finishing with recording a live band of skilled musicians into Logic Pro X.

This workflow is what has been key to the success of this song.  And to prove this isn’t an isolated case here are some of the other songs produced by my students in this manner.

 

How to create a positive culture in a music department

Having a music department that gets great results academically and in performance is built upon the culture that is established amongst the students and staff.  It is something I constantly struggle with, trying to get it right for all our (25!) music groups.

The title of this blog post is a bit misleading because there is no magic formula for creating a great culture.  The is no A+B+C = X+Y+Z.  Every situation is unique.  However in my reflection there are a few things that seem to be working for us at the moment.

2015 was a struggle for my department in the areas of my jazz groups and the choirs.  Things weren’t terrible, but they were not optimal.  2016 has started with all the groups and students being committed, hard working, supportive of each other – generally a great culture!

Here are a few of the things I think are contributing to this.

A positive Culture…

  • Takes time
  • Needs to be adaptable to the students you have in front of you
  • Needs to be clearly defined in actions (such as making first jazz rehearsal a blues composition class, masterclasses, creating the expectation that everyone has to improvise), not just words, posters or powerpoints!
  • Requires hard calls taking out negative influences from difficult students (but at the same time finding a place for those students in which they can excel by placing them in different groups).
  • Requires careful planning and communication so everyone knows what is coming up (and then sticking to the plan but also being flexible enough to adjust it if students progress requires it).
  • Empowering a senior leadership group of students but at the same time spreading responsibility across all members – don’t just rely on a few ‘stars’ or dominant personalities.
  • Take time to explore the background to why we do what we do (without spending too long on it) – students must know the context of everything they do and the reason for doing it.
  • When things are not going well talk to as many experienced people as you can and MAKE CHANGES! Don’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. If the changes don’t work, talk to more people, reflect more, and MAKE MORE CHANGES!
  • Hire talent, not a reputation – reputation counts for nothing when coming into a new environment. In fact, many adult musicians/singers/tutors are so wrapped up in their reputation that they think the students have to adapt completely to their style of doing things. This is wrong!!!! Tutors must adapt to the students as the tutors are the ones with fully developed brains (hopefully) and have maturity (not always the case, just because they’re older doesn’t mean they’re more mature!). They must make the effort to meet the students where they are at and to then gently lead them to new levels of attitude and performance.
    I have had a lot of success hiring young and inexperienced (but incredibly talented) tutors.
  • Have fun!!! Be funny. Tell jokes (even if they’re not funny, it’s the intention that counts). No one likes to be around people that are serious all the time.

Now I know a few people read this blog that run successful music departments.  Please take five minutes to reflect on what has created a great culture for your department and comment below – share the knowledge.

Thanks, Duncan

Project Based Learning in music – part 2

This year with my year 13 music students we are deciding to make a point of not focusing on assessment as being the driver of learning in class (as it should never be but is rarely the case in most NZ schools).  Therefore we are deciding to focus on projects our students can complete through the year.  Projects such as making an album, composing for student films, making music videos. You can see details of my holiday planning for this course here.

We are now nearing the end of term one, and what a busy term its been.  But what is hugely satisfying is that the majority of my class are loving the projects they’re working on and making great progress.  It should be noted that not all students in year 13 music have decided to have a project as a major focus.  They’re quite happy completing the tasks and learning as required by NCEA and that’s great. So, what has this PBL thing looked like this year?  Well, a bit like this:


We started the year spending quite a bit of time searching for inspiration and listing the interests and skill sets of the students.  I’m very big on collaboration and I want the students to help each other out as much as possible.  To keep our ideas and skills at the forefront of what we do we created an Inspiration Wall where students pin up interesting musical related images and text as well as list their outline of their project.

Students have also setup WordPress blogs where they keep a diary of what they’ve found interesting in class and on field trips. Every time we do something in class, or they do some work, they’re expected to document their progress on their blogs. You can see some of them here:

https://jamesmurraymusic.wordpress.com

https://blipblipbang.wordpress.com

https://gusellerm.wordpress.com

https://maxmusic42.wordpress.com

Reading through the blogs you can see we’ve done a few things to focus the students on the craft they need to develop to realise the art they want to produce.  These have been:

  • Guest presenter – Luke Di Somma (local conductor, producer, arranger, composer, MD, etc).  The students were very inspired by chatting to Luke and he dealt with issues such as: where he finds creativity, how he manages his ‘business’, what motivates him, what is required to ‘make it’ in the music industry, etc
  • Visit to local studios and tertiary providers – as recording and technology is a big part of the students’ projects we visited MAINZ and had a great presentation from Ivan Shevchuk.
  • Watching music production tutorials from AVID doing our own mix of the tracks shown in the video.

For the rest of the term we’ve been largely focusing on getting the first part of their projects completed.  This has involved teaching them about how to use our recording equipment and how to mix.  There has been a lot of one-on-one instruction about crafting their compositions and arrangements.  At this stage, we’re just trying to record demo’s of everything as it’s unrealistic of them to produce good quality recordings in term 1 when they have so much learning to do around music production.  It will mean a lot of recording and mixing in term 3 and 4 so we’ll see how we go…

To assist with their learning about recording and mixing we’re going to start a course in mixing through Weathervane music.  Their Instructors Toolkit looks like it could be a great syllabus to work into our music course to advance their music production skills.  I’ll do a separate blog on this once I start using it with my students.

Where to from here…

Well, we’ll need to refocus on what it means to be creative and to make great Art.  We’ve spent quite a while focusing on their craft and finishing the first aspect of their projects, so we need to redress the balance and get focusing on what they are trying to achieve with their project by the end of the year. We’ll get more industry professionals in to talk to us and will visit local producers who can demonstrate their workflow and assist with the discussion around where to find inspiration. Students need to do a stocktake of all they’ve accomplished this term and now that they know what they’re in for need to come up with specific goals that must be achieved in term 2.

We’ll also be joining with the year 13 media class to provide the music for their original short films they’re creating.  This is very exciting and as we’re well setup at St. Andrew’s College with movie composition tools and equipment I’m expecting to see some very professional looking/sounding films in the StAC Film Festival this year.

Effective teaching of composition

I was reading this really interesting blog the other day by Suzie Boss which looks at the research of the New Zealand education researcher and professor John Hattie and how his findings could influence Project Based Learning (this blog is well worth a read, follow the link).

There is a really interesting section of the blog:

But when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of project-based learning (PBL), Hattie has me scratching my head. Part of the challenge is that he doesn’t focus specifically on PBL, and certainly not on PBL that is designed with an emphasis on high-quality teaching and learning. Problem-based learning winds up near the bottom of teaching effects (0.15). Inquiry-based teaching ranks a little higher (0.31), but still below the hinge point. Meanwhile, Piagetian programs, emphasizing challenges that cause learners to apply higher-order thinking and learn collaboratively (sounding similar, at least in spirit, to PBL) rank near the top (1.28).

What’s more, many of the essential components of PBL turn out to be highly effective. Formative assessment, critical for project success, comes in at 0.90. Feedback, another key to PBL, has an effect size of 0.73. Challenge and practice at the right level: 0.60. Valuing error and creating trust: 0.72. It’s hard to imagine a PBL classroom where those factors are not present.

When Hattie himself synthesizes what matters most for learning, he describes an effective classroom in language that is completely consistent with a PBL environment:

Visible teaching and learning occurs when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, students, peers) participating in the act of learning.

I imagine I’m probably like a lot of teachers (especially music teachers) in that every minute of every day is filled up with teaching, meetings, running co-curricular groups, developing resources, marking… (hands up if you’re one of those teachers to barely knows what the staff room looks like at lunchtime?).  The last thing I get time for is to look at educational theory, pedagogical techniques, etc.  Any PD I do is usually specifically musically related, rather than on a broader educational level.

So this is why I like summer holidays so much, it gives me time to look at blogs, read some Hattie, and reflect on my teaching practice.  Reading the above part of Suzie’s blog made me realise why I’m turning out to be such an effective teacher of musical composition.

I’m not trained in composition, I don’t like to compose myself, it isn’t something I was ever interested in doing as part of my study and I certainly don’t feel the need to inflict my deep angst on the world in a musical format.  But over the last five or so years my students have been showing a huge level of ‘value added’ with their results.  My good students who are passionate about composition produce great art, but I’m most pleased with those who maybe don’t have great background knowledge but end up showing a huge improvement.

Without intending to, I’ve employed many of the above methods quoted above, specifically:

  • A huge amount of formative assessment – when students have a composition due to hand in at the end of the term they must hand in their drafts at least three times over the preceding four weeks.
  • Feedback – every time students hand in a draft I give them written feedback via email and through annotating their scores (if applicable). I will try to follow this up with one-on-one verbal feedback but I find this is not very effective – too often students don’t take in what I say to them and repeat the same mistakes.  Written feedback provides them with the information that helps them make the most improvement in successive drafts and submissions.
  • Challenge and practice at the right level – even though I haven’t specifically intended to run a project based learning course (until 2015) I’ve kind of already been doing this with composition.  I provide the students many options for the basis of their composition (such as compose for film, compose for a special occasion, compose in response to an artwork, etc – and for each of these I provide multiple films, special occasions, artworks, etc).  What I find is that with these parameters students are able to jump into composing at the level they’re happy with.  I have some very advanced students who compose for full orchestra (one student this year composed a full two hour long musical – and it was really good!), some students are more comfortable composing for singer/songwriters while others compose electronic works with Apple Logic.  Everyone is working within their areas of interest and these then develop into strengths.
  • Valuing error and creating trust – this is very important to the creative process of composition.  And it features hugely in my feedback.  I try to find a balance between encouragement and correcting basic errors (mostly encouraging as composition is a very sensitive and emotionally ‘risky’ thing for students to do) but I always try to emphasise that they must ‘put themselves out there’ and take risks.  That is the only way great art will result.  This sums it up (thanks @ginippi for the image):
    10877618_10204176690032199_1572360879_n

The only other important thing that I do that isn’t mentioned (but there is probably a special Hattie term for it anyway) is modelling the creative process.  While I don’t compose great art, I do understand the compositional process and can model many ways of composing.  Showing students how to start is hugely important.  Giving them a toolbox based on practical demonstration works well.  Textbooks and handouts? – next to useless.

I’ve often felt that maybe I’m not doing a very good job with composition as I’m not presenting a formalised method each year that has me explaining concepts from the from of the class – i.e. chalk and talk.  But when I look at my NCEA results of my students and listen to their recordings I realise that isn’t the case.

As this is supposed to be a technology blog I’d better quickly mention how my students go about submitting their drafts for formative assessment.

  1. Students email me their Sibelius files (if their composition is a traditionally notation based composition) and provide a print out so I can annotate it (I used to do all printing or just write comments referencing bar numbers but I didn’t find this effective – plus printing takes up too much of my time).  If they are working on Logic or Studio One they can email me Dropbox links of their DAW session and bounced MP3’s.
  2. With the second to last draft submission I will ask students to do their own analysis of their composition.  They use Screenflow to ‘talk through’ their composition explaining why they have done what they’ve done.  As much as possible I encourage them to analyse within the context of the musical elements (timbre, form, texture, melody, harmony, etc).  By doing their own analysis of their composition its amazing how many things they’re able to fix up before I give them feedback.  This self-reflection is critical.
  3. I email back students comments and will annotate their scores if applicable.  This has to happen with 48 hours for effective learning to happen and to see a change in the draft that is due the following week.  Therefore I have to schedule into my timetable a period of marking each week and make sure nothing gets in the way of it.
  4. For the final submission I make sure I scan the annotated scores and keep a copy for internal and external moderation of my marking.  It’s really important students get their work back to help them improve for future years of study.

If you want to hear some of my students work, the musical I mentioned above (“Suspect”) is now available on iTunes.

suspect banner

The Seven Sharp programme from TV1 did a really interesting article that you can view by clicking here.

I know people may have suggestions for improvement around student submissions other than email & Dropbox (Moodle, Google Hangout, One Note, etc?) so please comment below if you think it can be done better.

Thanks,

Duncan 🙂

What is the best DAW for schools?

Just so everyone is on the same page… a DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation) is the software on a computer that you use to record and mix audio and MIDI.  With the dramatic increase in computing power combined with falling costs now anyone can have a fully fledged recording and mixing system on their computer (or iPad or iPhone!).

In the past it was too expensive for schools to have recording systems (after all, who can afford an SSL, Neve or API mixing desk?) but now with cheap microphones and interfaces made in China, combined with powerful (and relatively cheap) computers any high school music department can have a recording ‘studio’.

The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.
The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.

So… what DAW or recording/mixing software should schools use?  There are so many options.

Here is your answer… Studio One Free from Presonus.

Why?  Here are my reasons:

  • It’s free (for the basic version) – students can download it to their own laptops and home computers right away and get playing around with it.
  • It’s cross platform – i.e. it works the same on Mac and Windows computers.  Therefore teachers can be assured that all students are working on the same software so they don’t need to know how to use multiple pieces of software.
  • It comes with good MIDI instruments so students can plug in a MIDI keyboard or other controller and get recording very quickly.
  • If you want to see how quickly you can download, install and record with it I’ve made a quick overview video that you can see here:

Some commons questions I get from teachers at workshops when I say this:

  1. So why not Garageband?  Well… I love Garageband (it is actually better than Studio One Free in many ways), but it only works on Mac computers so if you have students in your class with Windows laptops it creates issues in that you’ll have some students on Studio One and some on Garageband.  Many teachers are fine with that so if you’re one of those go for it (I have students using both DAW’s) but in the interest of keeping things simple… it’s probably best to keep all students on the same software.
  2. Why not Pro Tools… isn’t that industry standard?  Yes it is.  It’s my personal DAW of choice.  But it’s sooooo expensive!!  No way most high schools can afford it.  I had 12 Pro Tools 001, 002 and Mbox systems at an old school (an investment of around $15,000 at the time) and all those systems a long time ago became obsolete.  Pro Tools is much better now that you don’t have to have AVID/Digidesign hardware to use it, but for the software it’s still too expensive in my opinion.
  3. Why not Apple Logic Pro?  I also love Logic and it is now amazingly cheap.  But once again… Mac only.
  4. Why not Reaper… isn’t that also free?  I’ll get into this more below.
  5. Why not… blah blah blah?  There are many DAW’s out there and if you as the teacher are more comfortable in teaching those to your students (and your students can afford it) then go with them.  But if you’re new to this… stick with Studio One.

So what about Reaper?

Reaper is awesome.  It’s not exactly free, it just has an unlimited trial period.  But you can purchase it for your school at incredibly cheap prices (non-commercial licences are only $60 USD but you can get it cheaper if you purchase in bulk as an educational institution).  But, for working with MIDI keyboards (which is a big part of the level 1 Music Technology Unit Standards in New Zealand) it has proven to be too complicated for many teachers to setup… which is why I suggest Studio One.

For NZ teachers who are using the ‘SOND’ unit standards, 26687, 27703 and 28007 Reaper is probably a better bet.  For the level 2 and 3 standards your students need to be using fully parametric EQ’s and compressors that have ratio, threshold, attack/release and knee controls.  Studio One Free doesn’t allow you to use EQ’s and compressors (although the paid versions of Studio One that you can see outlined here do allow you to use better EQ’s and compressors) which is why if you’re wanting to stay with ‘free’ software, Reaper is a great choice.

So in summary…

  • In setting up a music technology programme at your school that uses MIDI (such as NZ schools wanting to teach the level 1 ‘MUSTEC’ standards 27656 and 27658) download Studio One Free.
  • If you’re an NZ school wanting to offer the ‘SOND’ standards 26687, 27703 and 28007 either buy Studio One Artist upgrade ($93NZD per licence currently…edu discounts may be available by emailing Presonus) or use Reaper (unlimited trial or purchase at very cheap prices).
  • If you are a school that is wanting to offer a full on studio experience then it’s probably advisable to purchase Pro Tools, Logic and Studio One Pro eventually.  But before you spend any money make sure you are absolutely certain that you need them, it’s very easy to waste money on software you hardly use!

Any suggestions or disagreements?  Please use the comments section to give your opinions on what you’ve found works well in schools.  But before you do, please ensure that the opinions you share are based on actual classroom and student experience.  I’ve had people in the past say that you must use Pro Tools with students as that is what is in pro studios and tertiary institutions, but when I’ve dug further I’ve found out these people have never taught in high schools let alone have had to juggle limited financial restrictions that most high schools struggle with.  What we are teaching should be recording and mixing, which can be done on any decent DAW.  Skills are easily transferable between software platforms.

Anyway, enough of my soapbox, let me hear what you have to say.

Oh, btw, Merry Christmas.

Duncan

Welcome to my new blog

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Hi there,

I’m a teacher of high school music in New Zealand who really loves music technology and the opportunities it is opening up for students.

I’m constantly experimenting with new technologies and teaching methods.  Some of these I get to share on teacher professional development sessions I run.  Feedback I get from teachers is that they find the information and teaching and assessment concepts really great, just a little overwhelming.

So this blog will be the way I share the new things I’m doing, the new technologies I come across that can assist teaching and hopefully provide a forum for other teachers to share their ideas.

A recent blog that was published about me and all the ways I used technology in the composition and production of an original school music (“Suspect”) can be found here:

http://eblog.stac.school.nz/2014/10/23/suspect-the-murder-mystery-musical/

(btw, if you want to hear the music of “Suspect” you can purchase it on iTunes).

Over the next few weeks (well, once Christmas is out of the way…) I’ll be documenting my journey in creating a project based learning course for my year 13 students that I’ll be running in 2015.

In the standards based assessment system that we use in New Zealand (NCEA) I find my students are at times more concerned with ticking the boxes of assessment requirements rather than being concerned about the information and skills they are learning.  Running a music course in which students choose their focus and work on major projects through the year is my attempt to get students passionate about learning, developing their craft and producing great art!

If you’re a music teacher make sure you check out my website http://www.learningideas.co.nz where you can purchase Ear Training and Music Technology resources.  These are specifically written for the New Zealand curriculum and assessment system but teachers in other countries do find them very useful.

Duncan 🙂