Working from home? Switch to the DIGITAL edition of School Band & Orchestra. CLICK HERE to signup now!

Technology: Rehearsal Software II

Marc Jacoby • Technology • September 17, 2014

Practice software roundup #2: The Jazz Edition

 

In my last article, we looked at three software packages used for performance training. These practice aids have advanced assessment options that “listen” to the performer and evaluate for correct pitch and rhythm. While each has its strengths and weaknesses, they all could find a place in the student’s toolkit of practice aids.

SmartMusic, the most full-featured of the three, provides an ever-growing library of titles of both solo and ensemble music as well as a cloud-based grade book solution for the teacher. The cost, while not outrageous, is a subscription model that the student would need to pay every year in order to gain access to the SmartMusic library.

Pyware’s iPAS (Interactive Pyware Assessment Software) practice system does essentially the same type of assessment as SmartMusic, but only comes bundled with Pearson’s Standard of Excellence “enhanced” method books, which run about $10 per book. The iPAS system also has a grade book solution for directors at an additional cost.

Finally, NCH’s PlayPerfect music practice software, while nowhere near as elegant looking as SmartMusic (nor bundled any content at all), is a great free option and part of an integrated suite of apps (most of which are free, too) that work well together for learning music. While there are many more solutions available that provide accompaniments for student practice, in this installment I will take a look at solutions for performance practice that focus more on jazz and contemporary pop music. Note: the apps highlighted herein all have mobile counterparts in addition to their traditional desktop versions.

SmartMusic’s (www.smartmusic.com) catalog has many titles for jazz and contemporary music including a few of the Jamie Aebersold play-along series, Alfred MasterTracks, and Wynton Marsalis Vol. 1 – 4. One main benefit of using SmartMusic in place of the Aebersold audio recordings is the ability to easily change both tempo and key independently, an essential practice tool for any musician. It enables the student to play along slowly, building confidence along with skill, and then increase the challenge by possibly increasing the tempo or changing the key. Despite being MIDI-generated files, the accompaniments have been well recorded and the tracks themselves sound live and natural, even compared to the great playing found on the original Aebersold recordings. The SmartMusic sound set contains a good collection of instrument samples providing a credible sounding rhythm section and ensemble sound. SmartMusic also has an iOS version that runs on iPads only.

SmartMusic’s main assessment tool, its ability to determine correct pitch and rhythm, really doesn’t help much for practicing jazz improvisation, but is better suited for working on a particular part using written music as the model. If you’re a jazz band director, you’re in luck if your repertoire selections align with the more than 350 full jazz band titles in the SmartMusic ensemble library. This is especially true if you’re looking for beginner or easy-level charts. All of them include on-screen notation, too. If the chart isn’t in the library, Finale files can be imported and used, although it will take more than a bit of tweaking in the Finale playback parameters to make the backing tracks sound as natural as the ones that have been licensed for SmartMusic. Regardless, all students could make recordings of their work by using the recording option (its format is MP3), allowing them to more easily submit recordings of their experience for directors to collect and curate. This is especially valuable when portfolios are used for student assessment and documentation, something we are seeing more and more in education.

Play-along tracks can, in general, provide a much more immersive quality to students’ practice experience and there have been some excellent collections of these as computer technology has advanced and improved. Sibelius’ In the Chair is one that attempted to recreate the experience of that immersive feeling one gets in playing with others in an ensemble. A relatively newcomer to the market is the Tutti Music Player. The Tutti Music Player (tuttiplayer.com) is from Tutti Dynamics, a development company that looks to deliver instruction via video, audio, and interactivity in many areas of training, including music. The company’s platform claims to use multiple video controlled with time shifting (speed control) and looping. It can also provide multiple languages, quizzes, collaboration between users, and usage tracking.

The Tutti Music Player app is available for both personal computers (Mac or Windows) and mobile devices, including the iPad. Last year, the Essentially Ellington program run by Jazz at Lincoln Center provided access to their arrangements with performances by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Additional content can be purchased through the app and includes primarily rhythm section “groove” packages. There are two packages of songs and grooves that focus on New Orleans jazz. One in particular, the percussion/vocal presentation from Shannon Powell of “Li’l Liza Jane” (The Modern Masters of New Orleans Vol. 1), is a classic example of the power of how a couple of simple parts played on top of each other can be effective. The production value is very high, with great sound and high quality video. So much so that you are warned when first downloading a package that it could take some time depending on your connection speed. Once downloaded, the app starts up quickly without delay.

The Tutti Music Player

The Tutti Music Player window contains three main areas: a control strip, video view, and music notation view. The control strip provides mixing board style controls for each instrument including standard functions like solo, mute, and volume. It also provides a way to control what is displayed in the other two sections. Click on the camera icon and the video view displays that particular instrumentalist, sometimes with multiple camera angles. Click on the notation icon and the notation for that instrument is displayed. Unfortunately, only one camera and notation view can be displayed at a time. What is possible – and useful – is the ability to solo one or more instruments while watching another’s video view. For example, I encourage my bass player to practice along to just bass and drums while watching the drummer’s video view, and vice versa, enabling them to see and hear how both of their parts work together while playing along.

In general, the Tutti Music Player is a great concept, but falls short of its potential in a few ways. The loop feature is hard to set accurately using only the scroll bar for beginning and ending points. Apps that display a waveform representation of the sound are much easier to adjust when setting loops. Even then, the loops seem to have a bit of a hiccup each time they repeat, no matter how close you set the in and out points. At this time, not every song or groove style has controls for changing the playback speed/tempo, so if you can’t play the piece at the given tempo, you probably won’t use the software as effectively. Tempo control is also dependent on the platform you’re using. For example, “Li’l Liza Jane” has tempo control on the iPad but not on the Mac version. Finally, it seemed that no matter what platform you’re running the app on, video and audio sync slowly drifts apart. The developers obviously realize this and have a “resync” button for just that purpose. Again, the content is excellent with great performances by the Jazz at Lincoln Center ensemble and pro rhythm section players.

Other popular jazz practice tools are the auto-arranger-style apps, like Band-In-A-Box by PG Music. This popular program has been around since the early 1990s. It has gone through many updates, with new features continually being added. Unfortunately it can only run on either Mac or Windows computers, and has no mobile version available. If you’re looking for a mobile practice app, check out iReal Pro (formerly iRealBook and iReal b) by Technimo (irealpro.com). Created by brothers Massimo and Alessandro Biolcati), they also have two other apps, GuitAfrica and Drum School.

iReal Pro

Originally, iReal Pro ($7.99) started out as a simple digital substitute for the fake book known as the Real Book. Popular amongst jazz players, the Real Book is a collection of famous jazz songs in lead sheet format. The iReal Pro doesn’t provide notation of the melodies (which would require copyright permission and licensing) but simply the chord changes. It comes in handy on gigs when the bandleader would call a tune that you weren’t familiar with or had forgotten what happens at the bridge, for example. It has now developed into a play-along app similar to Band-in-a-Box, where just by entering the chord changes, the app builds a rhythm section accompaniment for a selected style.

Speaking of styles, iReal Pro only comes with three styles: Medium Swing, Bossa Nova, and Rock. Additional styles can be purchased for $5.99 per package (jazz, Latin, and rock). Songs can be created directly in the app with the built-in editor. Just like BIAB, you add chords by typing in the root and chord suffix, after which iReal Pro’s intelligent arranger function builds the tracks based on your style choice. They might not be the hippest sounding tracks in terms of their feel or instrument sound quality, but they do the job of providing a solid accompaniment to practice along with. The app also provides controls to display the chord changes and play in any key, or set tempo and control the relative volume of each accompaniment instrument. The “Practice” feature allows the user to set automatic key and tempo changes for each successive chorus. iReal Pro is available for iPhone, iPad, Android devices, and MacOS.

In the end, there’s no one solution that will cover all your needs all of the time. Each of the above apps has features and benefits that aren’t available or as well developed in the other. Both SmartMusic and Tutti Music Player have great sounding accompaniment tracks, although SmartMusic has a much larger library at this time. Tutti’s video view lets you focus in on one player’s physical performance. iReal Pro is a very convenient reference and practice tool, but the accompaniment tracks sound stiff and square compared to the other two. And only SmartMusic has built in assessment tools that are especially useful in documenting student success and outcomes. All three have a place in the practice routines of both myself and my students.

 

Dr. Marc Jacoby is an associate professor of Music at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where he serves as Jazz Studies coordinator and teaches in the Applied Music and Music Education programs. Jacoby is the co-creator and contributor to TheMusicInteractive.com, a website that distributes music games and activities designed for interactive whiteboards and mobile devices. In addition to his own titles, Jacoby has developed educational multimedia including games for Yamaha / PlayinTime Productions, Mark Wessels Publications, and CD-ROM’s for Rowloff Productions. Dr. Jacoby is a certified Apple Pro Apps trainer, an artist/clinician for the Yamaha Corporation and Vic Firth, Inc., a Sibelius Ambassador, and has served on the Educational Advisory Committee for Latin Percussion, Inc.

 

 

 

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!