2019 Best Tools for Schools Award Recipients

Mike Lawson • Best Tools for Schools • March 1, 2019

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The winter NAMM show held each year at the Anaheim Convention Center is the premier event for the music industry.

Over 20,000 manufacturers, publishers, luthiers, and retailers display their lineup for the year, and it’s where we get a first look at new products. It’s an awesome event, and for gearheads like me, it’s like dropping a kid in the middle of the largest FAO Schwarz in the world.

Each year, SBO magazine presents its awards for the best products for music education. A team of educators scours the entire convention center — no mean feat (pun intended), as most of us walk close to 10k steps — and then meets to discuss their findings and choose the winners for each of the various categories.

I had the privilege of leading this year’s team and which included Elisa Janson-Jones, an elementary/middle school teacher in Colorado, Priscilla Shaw, a middle school band and orchestra director from Denver, Don Rovero, a beginning and modern band director in western Massachusetts, and Vince Avery McCoy, a middle school modern band director from Brooklyn. In addition to their teaching jobs, Don, Priscilla, and Vince are also involved with the Little Kids Rock program, and Elisa directs an online PD series.

The day starts at breakfast where we discuss the various categories and plan the strategy. Then we’re off and running. When something catches our eye, we stop and chat with the vendors and get more details. At the end of the day, we meet to choose the winners — not an easy task — as there are a lot of great products out there. Each team member presents the case for their choices, and after talking it over, we select the winners.

So, without further ado, we present the Best Tools for Schools for 2019. We think you’ll like the choices.


Best Teaching Tool for Young/Elementary Students

Suzuki Music Pads

Combining movement with sound, these colorful percussion pads are just a blast. The set includes eight soft pads that each play a note using Suzuki reed technology when stepped on. We all saw adults playing songs and just having fun. You can just imagine how kids will respond.



Best Teaching Tool for Intermediate Students

pTrumpet Hytech

You may be familiar with Warwick’s colorful, lightweight and inexpensive pInstruments for beginners. The pTrumpet Hytech is the next evolution in plastic instrument technology. It’s a beautiful looking and sounding instrument, It now has some metal parts including the mouthpiece, yet was still lightweight (1.4 lbs) and inexpensive. Our team thought this had the most potential for marching band, but that it sounded good enough for concert band and orchestra as well.



Best Teaching Tool for Advanced Students


The Internet has made it possible to connect with people all over the world, and one result has been recordings being made with musicians in different locations. This usually meant sharing files, with each recording their parts on their own. Sessionwire makes it easy to do this in real time. Musicians can use any DAW on either side and record directly to the master DAW, and the high-quality video interface makes it seem like they are just on the other side of the glass. The world just got smaller.



Most Innovative Teaching Tool


This amazing app was our only unanimous selection—the hardest part was deciding which category was the best fit. In the end, the augmented reality component led us to Most Innovative, and it really is. This app does so many things and does them well. At the most basic, students play songs together, and the app evaluates the performance. But to make the music more interesting, you can add virtual AR performers to fill out the band, and performances can be recorded and shared. The program has an extensive library of music, and you can also add your own. To top it off, it’s free.



Best Percussion Teaching Tool

Rock and Roll It Drum Studio

Rock and Roll It instruments have been around for a while and are generally marketed as toys, the unique feature being electronic instruments that are flexible and can be rolled up, making them highly portable and easily stored. But the new Drum Studio model caught our eye. Like the original, the Studio model includes five drum pads and four cymbal pads. You

can connect an audio source with backing tracks and record and playback. This new version adds two foot pedals for more realistic drum experience and can connect to your computer, which takes it well beyond the toy level.



Best Jazz Teaching Tool

The Real Book Multitracks Play-Alongs

There’s nothing revolutionary about this series of fifteen books, but it gets a thumbs up for overall quality. Each volume includes ten songs from the Real Book in C, BH, EH, and bass clef versions, and a code to access high-quality backing tracks online. The play-along engine works on any computing device and lets students control the tempo and instrumentation. It’s a great tool to quickly get your combo on the same page and up to speed.





Best Marching Band Teaching Tool


Only a flutist would have noticed this product, but once the team heard about it, we all agreed it was ingenious. Flute players have a hard time hearing themselves when playing outdoors and the wind plays havoc with playing technique and intonation. Win-DFender not only blocks the wind but also redirects the sound towards the player. Simple and brilliant.



Best Modern Band Tool

PT-01 Scratch

More and more, music educators are recognizing that there are new ways to make music and the need to address them if they are going to relate to today’s students. Turntablism is one such method, but let’s be honest, most music educators don’t have any idea how to deal with it. Jesse Dean Designs has your back. They took an inexpensive portable Numark turntable and tricked it out a bit. Then they wrote a complete curriculum for teaching scratching in your classroom that has been successfully piloted in the UK. Welcome to the 21st century.



Best Director’s Tool

Body Beat Sync

Billed as the “world’s most versatile metronome,” Body Beat Sync lives up to the hype. Students can wear the device and not only hear and see the tempo, but also feel the beat. But what’s really cool is that you can synchronize multiple units wirelessly. You can also create tempo maps. Hand one of these to each of your section leaders and listen to your ensemble tighten up in a flash.



Best Concert Band/Orchestra Teaching Tool

Smart Music

Smart Music has been around for a very long time, so why is it winning an award in 2019? Simply put, the new online version is a significant improvement in every way. What always set SmartMusic apart was its ability to evaluate student performances, and when SmartMusic first moved online, I noted [SBO, August 2017] that it no longer had that capability. Happily, that feature has returned. By moving online, students can access

the program using virtually any computing device connected to the Internet, and the cost has dropped dramatically, making it affordable for any school. To top it off, the repertoire has been expanded, the new sight-reading tool instantly creates exercises for your entire ensemble, and a notation editor has been added to create original material within the program.



Best Instrument Care Tool

Key Leaves

Another straightforward, yet brilliant idea that solves a big problem. Key Leaves are a prop that you hook onto two keys on your sax when you put it away that causes the G#, C# and EH keys to remain open so the pads can dry. Voila! No more sticky keys.




Best Tech Tool

Xtrax Stems

One of the things I’m often asked is how to remove vocals or other parts from a recording so they can be used as practice tracks. While there have been some ways to do this, they were never all that good nor were they all that easy. Enter Xtrax Stems. The program

separates any source into three parts–vocals, drums, and music–and does it cleanly and easily. Instant pro-quality backing tracks.



There you have it, the Best Tools for Schools for 2019. We hope you find these products helpful and would love to hear your feedback.

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