2020 Best Tools for Schools Awards

Mike Lawson • Best Tools for Schools • March 3, 2020

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The winter NAMM show was held this year in January at the Anaheim Convention Center. The show is a chance for vendors to show off their current lineup, and it features a dazzling array of just about every music-related product that you can imagine, and even some you can’t. There are countless performances and presentations at the various booths and some great concerts in the evening. It’s just a great experience.

Each year, SBO presents awards at the show for the best new products for music education. A team of music educators searches the four convention halls to seek out the products that we think will help make your jobs a little easier. We’re not looking for the most glamorous products, and some of the best products are found in obscure locations. That means we have to scour every nook and cranny of the exhibit halls. It requires a lot of legwork, but our team is up to the challenge. Once again, I had the privilege of leading the team, which included returning members Elisa Janson-Jones, SBO contributor and the founder of the International Music Education Summit, and Priscilla Shaw, a middle school band and orchestra director from Denver. We also welcomed two new members to the team this year: Sachi Murasugi, a lecturer for strings from Maryland and Courtney Powers, a high school teacher and clinician from Philadelphia.

The team meets bright and early on Saturday morning for breakfast to discuss the various categories and plan our strategy. Then it’s off to the exhibit halls. 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 discuss what we’ve found. Each team member presents the case for their choices, and after talking it over, we select the winners. There were some tough decisions to make, but we think we found the Best Tools for Schools for 2020. We hope you agree.

Best Teaching Tool for Beginning Students Accord Harmonic Flute – Suzuki Music, $45 and up

Suzuki Music has been at the forefront of ideas for beginning students for a long time. These simple devices play chords when you blow into them. They come in sets of primary triads in major or minor keys, and students of any age can learn to harmonize melodies by ear.





Best Teaching Tool for Young/Elementary Students Essential Elements Music Class Interactive – Hal Leonard, $279/year

This site includes a vast collection of teaching and performance materials that will really help you stretch your budget. It contains hundreds of songs ranging from classics to the latest Disney tunes, each with notation, piano accompaniment, backing tracks, and lyric videos. There are method books for ukulele and recorder, activity pages, lesson plans, listening maps, and Noteflight Premium is included, too. Since it’s intended to replace Music Express, existing members get a discount.



Best Teaching Tool for Intermediate Students  Omniguard – Silverstein Works, $29-$59

Every middle school band director knows the problems caused when wind players have to get braces. This ingenious product protects the lips with a thin (0.1 mm), moldable biomedical material. Unlike most mouthguards, it only covers the front teeth, so it doesn’t interfere with the tongue. Omniguard comes in single or double packs.







Best Teaching Tool for Advanced StudentsSound BridgeLeFreque, $45 and up

This amazing little product promises purer overtones, accurate tuning, clear response, smooth intervals, surround projection, extended dynamics. And it delivers. Placed between the joints of any wind instrument, it overcomes the frequency resistance created by the joints. Endorsed by numerous professionals, Sound Bridge comes in many sizes and metals to match any wind instrument.








Best General Music Teaching Tool Group Education Controller GEC5 – Korg, $2499 teacher unit, $299 student interface

Korg’s GEC series has been a popular piano lab controller for years, but this year’s model takes it to a new level. The GEC5 provides connections for up to 32 stations via Cat 5 Ethernet cables, while the student interface supports two separate audio inputs for keyboard and computer and two headsets with mics, allowing students to share a station. The software interface runs on computers and tablets and easily allows grouping, class lectures and demonstrations, or just individual practice.



Best Private Lesson Teaching Tool Tonara – Tonara, Starting at $11.95/month for 10 students

This private studio management app handles all of the things you’d expect, scheduling, payments, and communication, but adds lesson and practice management and progress reports as well. But the kicker is the AI feature. Teachers can record a piece, send it to students, who then record it themselves. The app compares the two performances and provides real-time feedback! Tonara also provides a service to help connect teachers with online students.









Best Marching Band Teaching ToolQuantum Mark II Marching Snare – Mapex Drums

Long known for its marching and concert drums, Mapex’s Quantum Mark II series of snare drums sets itself apart with an innovative new mechanism than silently engages or disengages snares with a single touch of a button. Available in five colors.






Best New Curriculum – Sound Leadership: Leadership Training for Music Students – Alfred Music, $12.99

The old saying is that leaders are born, not made, but a new leadership curriculum by Scott Lang begs to differ. There are four main sections: Yourself, Your Team, Your Job, and Your Tools. Each section includes guidance and self-reflection activities. While it’s focused on helping the leaders in your ensemble, it’s such a great resource, that it would be worthwhile for just about any student.







Best Modern Band Tool Groovy Loopz – MakApps $9.99

Groovy Loopz is a drum loop player app with “loads of drum loops/grooves” in many styles that are some of the best we’ve heard. You can create setlists or combine loops to create a song. A tap tempo feature makes it easy to set the tempo. A companion app Live Chopz ($14.99) lets you import audio files, identify the sections–verse, chorus, bridge, etc.– and then play them back in any order and change the arrangement on the fly. And if your band gets lost, just tap the correct section and Live Chopz will switch to it and continue playing from the right measure. You can create vamps, too. It’s a great rehearsal or live performance tool.









Most Innovative Teaching ToolImitone, $25

Music technology empowers students to create their own music, but to do that, they need to be able to enter the notes. Learning to play keyboard or using the mouse takes time, but anyone can sing. Imitone solves this by converting pitch to MIDI notes. We put it to the test with some pretty complex lines, and Imitone transcribed it almost perfectly. It works with any DAW. This was one of the more difficult decisions for us as other similar products also do this, but in the end, the company’s focus on education made us give it the nod. It’s still in beta, but is available for purchase now.



Best Tech Tool – Spire Studio – Izotope $299

The first hardware product from Izotope, one of the leading developers of audio production software, lets students easily make quality recordings anywhere. As portable as a mobile phone, Spire Studio automatically detects the instrument, sets levels, and applies appropriate processing. Use the built-in omnidirectional mic or plug into one of the combo XLR-¼” jacks with phantom power. Two headphone jacks let you monitor while recording. The included apps allow you to layer up to eight tracks and automatically master the recording using their award-winning technology.



Best Instrument Care Tool  2-Way Humidity Control – Boveda Starter packs from $29

Changes in humidity can wreak havoc on strings and other wood instruments. While other products can reduce moisture, Boveda is the first product we’ve seen that keeps the humidity in your case at an optimal level (45-55%) regardless of the climate. You simply put a Boveda pack in its pouch, put it in your case, and your instrument is now protected. Each pack lasts from 2-6 months, and replacement packs are only $3.99





So, there you have it, the Best Tools for Schools for 2020. Congratulations to the winners. We hope you find these products helpful and would love to hear your feedback.

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