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Practice Makes Perfect: Apps and Resources to Keep Students Playing Through the Summer

George Hess • CommentaryJune 2021Tech 4 Teachers • June 12, 2021

We’re finally coming to the end of the longest year of your career, a year unlike any you have ever experienced. We’re all breathing a sigh of relief and looking forward to a well-deserved vacation. But as musicians, we know that too long of a break means taking a big step backward. Only the most dedicated students will stick to a practice regimen during the summer, but any playing they do can make a difference when your students return next term.

Students may be tired of online learning, but they haven’t put down their phones. They are connected socially,  play games, watch videos and listen to music. We can leverage this.

Let’s take a look at some great apps and resources that may help inspire your students to engage with music and their instruments.

Peak Performance

Performance assessment programs are interactive apps that record and evaluate your students’ performance. They include tuners, metronomes, and tempo controls, and plenty of content to choose from. Class management tools are built-in, so you can create assignments and track students’ progress. While the content is for all ages, the interfaces are a little utilitarian, so these are best for older students. All of the programs are web-based and work well on computers, Chromebooks, and tablets.

SmartMusic was the pioneer in this category, first appearing in the mid-1990s. Content is king with SmartMusic, and the included repertoire covers a wide variety of styles and instrumentation, including popular method books, band and orchestra works, solos and chamber music, as well as popular and jazz titles, most of which include high-quality accompaniment files. You can also create your own pieces for assessment by uploading a MusicXML file or using the built-in notation editor that is basic but functional. The new Digital Sheet Music Library with over 13,000 PDFs titles is also included, though these are not assessable and do not include accompaniments. All content is searchable with filters for genres, instrumentation, categories, and difficulty.    

There are four levels of tolerance for assessment. Feedback on accuracy for pitches or rhythms is indicated using colored note heads. Incorrect pitches are displayed, and rhythmic errors are shown as early or late. The program does not assess durations and can only evaluate single note lines.

As a standalone app, its class management tools require some effort to set up, but they work very well. Fortunately, there is an extensive library of videos and ebooks to help get you started.

Teacher accounts subscriptions are $39/year. Performer/Student accounts are $29/year, but for 20 or more, that goes down to $13.99. Printing the PDFs requires an additional charge.

The other two programs in this category, PracticeFirst and SoundCheck by Noteflight, share the same algorithm from MatchMySound for evaluating student performance. They provide more detailed feedback to the student than does SmartMusic. After recording an example, a horizontal, multi-colored bar is displayed below the notation. The bar starts out green and centered. Colors change to yellow or red as the accuracy of pitch or rhythm decreases, and the bar also moves vertically to indicate tempo variations. Feedback also includes scores for pitch, rhythm, and duration. Polyphony of up to five notes is partially supported as they can identify when a chord is incorrect but not which specific notes are wrong.

While the two programs may look similar at first glance, there are considerable differences in the workflow.

Figure 1 – The feedback for MatchMyMusic algorithm used by PracticeFirst and Sound Check

PracticeFirst is only available as part of MusicFirst Classroom LMS. While that means a MusicFirst subscription is required, it provides some advantages for class management. Current MusicFirst subscribers won’t have to create a separate class and will find it easy to create assignments as usual. Teachers can define specific parameters or create generic assignments that allow students to choose the content. One unique feature is that students can record and upload video as well as audio.

PracticeFirst has an extensive content library with over 30,000 titles from many leading publishers. The library leans towards band and orchestra works but also includes popular method books such as Standard of Excellence, choral, and keyboard works. You can add your own pieces to the library as MusicXML or MuseScore files. Most accompaniments are MIDI-based playback of the scores, but some works include digital audio backing tracks as well.

MusicFirst subscriptions are $4 per student annually with a minimum of 50 users, and PracticeFirst is an additional $4 per student. It’s worth noting that you can also subscribe to other apps such as Soundtrap and Musition through MusicFirst.

What sets SoundCheck apart is that it is connected to a full-featured notation program, Noteflight, and a subscription to Noteflight Learn, which provides content and class management tools is required. Both Learn and SoundCheck integrate easily with most popular LMSes such as Google Classroom, Canvas, and Schoology, and it’s also available through MusicFirst.

SoundCheck comes with a basic content library of about 500 examples, but any Noteflight score can be used in SoundCheck. With the thousands of scores available in the Noteflight community, you won’t be at a loss for materials, and of course, you can create your own in Noteflight. In addition, the Noteflight Hal Leonard content libraries with over 2000 titles for band, orchestra, choir, guitar, piano, and pop music, as well as the Essential Elements series, are available as add-ons.

Noteflight Learn starts at $69/year for the first ten users and $2/year for each additional student. All content libraries can be added for an extra $3 per student per year, and SoundCheck is also $3 per year. It’s worth noting that each feature can be added independently, so you can have a different number of users for each add-on.

Just Play Along

SoundCheck has one additional feature: it integrates with another performance tool, Essential Elements Interactive (EEI). EEI is a standalone website that supports the Essential Elements beginning ensemble series. There are separate sites for band and strings, and as with the other programs, class management tools are provided.

Each song and exercise in the book has a professional recording of the melody and accompaniments in up to seven different styles. The notation is displayed on-screen, and the student can choose to play along with either or both tracks.

There are tutorial videos for things like embouchure and posture, along with worksheets and handouts for theory and additional exercises. You can upload your own resources, too. You can create both written and recorded assignments and add your own, including SoundCheck assessments.

Essential Elements Interactive is included with the teacher edition of each Essential Elements book, and student accounts are free. Print editions are $55, and digital editions are $44.

Jazz it Up

If there’s a weak point to the programs we’ve discussed, it’s jazz and popular music. Let’s look at some other resources.

Jamey Aebersold has long been at the forefront of jazz education, and his play-along series of books have helped countless musicians learn to improvise. You can now stream the recordings from all 133 volumes in the series. There are three versions for each song: piano trio, piano/drums, and bass/drums, all recorded by top professionals. Unlike the CDs, you can also adjust the tempo and pitch within reason. Subscriptions are currently $5/month or $50 annually.

Figure 2. iRealPro has chord charts for thousands of songs.

The one thing missing from the Aebersold subscription is the actual books. You can, of course, purchase them individually, but that can get expensive. One solution is an app found on just about every professional musician’s phone or tablet, iRealPro. This simple app displays the chord changes to a song in lead sheet form that you can easily transpose to any key. The content is cloud and crowd-based. Users upload individual songs and lists to the forum, where anyone can easily download them to the app. In the rare event that you can’t find a song, you can quickly input it in the app as a new song. The app also includes rhythm section playback in dozens of jazz and pop styles. The performance will do in a pinch but is pretty stiff. IRealPro is $15 for iOS and Android and $20 on Mac. (Sorry Windows users)

If you want to quickly create your own backing tracks, Band in a Box is the answer. BIAB has been around forever and is available on Mac or PC. It includes hundreds of styles, including many “Real Styles” that were recorded by pros and sound surprisingly good. The included song library is pretty limited, but a quick search on the Internet will produce thousands of songs, and you can enter your own as well by just typing in the changes. Band in a Box not only generates rhythm sections but also melodies and solos purported to be in the style of famous musicians that make great sight-reading exercises. The program isn’t cheap though, starting at $129 and up to $669 for the complete package. My suggestion is to purchase one of the mid-level versions and create backing tracks for your students as needed.

Making it Happen

All of these great tools won’t amount to much if your students don’t use them. After a dysfunctional year like this, there’s a tendency to want to play catch-up, but you should avoid the temptation. We play music, but practice is work. Students are just as worn out as we are. The focus should be on fun. Encourage students to play what they want. Creating games and competition can help too, but keep expectations to a minimum. Your ensembles will reap the benefits from any engagement with music that your students make this summer.

Dr. George Hess is professor of music at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur

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