The Early Bird Gets the Worm – Especially During the Summer

Since this has been summer I have not had much to keep posted up here. I really like to take my summer time to spend with my children and wife, not to mention that I would just like some time off.

Now it is time to get back on track.

I have anxiously been waiting for the normal summer time updates from a few of the software companies that make music software. This year it seems they have been slow in coming though. Which I suppose is not ALL bad. It does save me money. One of those companies is MakeMusic. They have been teasing SmartMusic users with the upcoming 2011 update. I have been checking their website daily so imagine my surprise when I was reading my morning news feeds on my iPad (late morning – a guy has to sleep in during summer ) and saw a post from Roger Whaley, http://rogerwhaley.blogspot.com/, that the update was out! I almost spilled my cereal!

I quickly visited the SmartMusic website and downloaded the update. If you have never used SmartMusic and you are a Band Director I have one thing to say, you are doing yourself and more importantly you students a huge disservice! It’s plain and simple, no more excuses, just go sign up and get using it. Using SmartMusic gives you the chance to listen to every student as frequently as you would like on an individual basis. It gives the students a chance to gain instant feedback while taking tests. The grade book will save you time and give you a great resource while talking to parents about their child.

Off my soap box though. On to the update. I have only played with it for a little bit and will post more as I discover more. Here is my first reaction, OK maybe more like my second reaction. I say second reaction because I have been watching the SmartMusic website and have been checking out the teasers posted there. This update is packed full of INTERFACE changes not so much FEATURE changes/additions. SmartMusic has been able to do so much and the program in the past has been easy to use the basic parts of those features. Some of the other great features were just too hidden away/difficult to explain to the students that it wasn’t worth rehearsal time to teach them how to use all the features. SmartMusic has done a great job with the redesigned interface in putting features right in our face!

When recording students will be able to more easily understand takes. First of all there is no longer a play AND record button. Thank you very much for that! There is simply a Start Take. Under that there is a drop down MyTakes menu with each time you have played a piece listed. Next to each take is a tempo marked, a percentage (for assessment), and a keep box. It will be interesting to see how many students forget to mark the keep box and to see how this interfaces with the gradebook exactly. The gradebook feature is not working yet, the notice says that it will be a day or two. The new integration of takes will be easier, WAY less pop up screens! My students got confused before too easily. The next section in the interface is the click section. It is now very easy to get students to take advantage of the subdivisions click and accent downbeats. It will also be quick and easy for students to actually use the Loop Section feature for practice. This feature has always been there but my students never used it. Now I know that they will (OK – so I’m guessing they will). It is easy to see the option, easy to setup a loop and  it is easy to also change the tempo as well because tempo is right in plain view as well. The tuner and control levels are so much easier to understand as well because they are not hidden down in several popup menu’s.

Several surprises I noticed are very welcome. When looking at my first song I immediately noticed how much space was taken away from actually seeing the music itself because of the interface controls. I think I noticed that because of using the iPad and always trying to scan music into the computer leaving as little white, wasted space around the printed music. Upon pushing the play (oops sorry – the StartTake) button I love how that interface that is there simply disappears up into the top of the screen into at first just a one line interface and then into nothing. This leaves you with just music! Of course if you want that one line interface to make changes while you are playing, all you have to do is move your mouse up to the top of the screen and it reappears. There is a little pushpin on the left end of the control strip – I wasn’t sure what it did at first – If you click on it the control strip will not disappear. It pins it to the screen.

After playing through the song the Takes control strip allows you to listen to each take, keep a take, or save a take as an mp3. I would like more options, in SmartMusic, of what to do with an mp3. For instance I would like the email option.

When back at the home screen it is easy to make playlists now, saving you valuable time during rehearsal looking for music. As we all know, if you give those middle school students about 5 extra seconds of you having to fiddle with the technology, they WILL find something to do. The setting options on the home screen also bring many options together in one spot. Things like input and output options. I like the effects option – this helps the recordings sound just a little better – who doesn’t like to mess around with making themselves sound like they are in Taj Mahal? I’m not sure what the skip over rests option is yet but I will find that out.

Practice tools are right in front of the students as well – allowing students to use the metronome, tuner and record themselves.

Subscriptions can easily be changed as well. This HAD to have been an option in earlier versions but for the life of me I cannot remember where it was or how I accessed ti before. It makes me want to load up the old version and compare.

There are still bugs they are working out. The piece I loaded in had a very scrambled list of instrumentation. I’m not sure what happened, there was no sense at all to the order – not in instrumental order OR alphabetical even – it was just STRANGE. The Gradebook feature is not up yet. I am sure they will be all over that issue though as schools will soon be in full swing and teachers WANT this feature.

I only wish there were more options for choir teachers. Of course I then stop and remember that this program started as an accompaniment tool. There is so much music in SmartMusic for instrumental AND vocal soloists to practice with. This version brings more of the same. As a Band Director though the addition of the full band and the band method books along with the gradebook are what has made SmartMusic a tool for EVERYONE of my students. (Band Boosters purchasing the computers for practice rooms was of course part of this process as well – THANK YOU)

Now we just need a remote for SmartMusic on the iPad or even the iPod Touch. If you need to see what I mean go to MOTU.com and look at the remote they have set up for Digital Performer there!

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