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Technology: Rehearsal Software

Mike Lawson • Technology • July 21, 2014

Practice Software Roundup #1

 

“Practice makes perfect!” That’s what my fourth-grade band director said as I struggled to play a BH major scale on my trombone. Practicing was boring – and quite frankly, the only thing I wanted to do was play the glissando at the end of the song. Now that was fun! But practice I did. In between weekly lessons, I diligently went through the scales, exercises, and songs from the Rubank Method book each day, never really sure if I was doing anything correctly because I was too wrapped up in the process of playing; holding the horn, moving the slide, breathing, embouchure, and so on. This was way too much for a fourth grader to be thinking about, let alone evaluating what was coming out at the end of the bell.

Wouldn’t it have been great if there were somebody or something that could listen to me practice and at least tell me if what I was playing was correct? Well, today, with the ever-increasing power of computers, the patient “listener” can sit beside your students and let them know if they’ve played correctly – to a point. Let’s look at three software applications that purport to do just that.

 

SmartMusic

You’ve probably seen or heard something about MakeMusic’s SmartMusic intelligent accompaniment and practice application. This incredible piece of software has its roots in a stand-alone box released in the 1990s called the Vivace Personal Accompanist, an approximately $2,000 device that used data cartridges (at $30 per piece) with accompaniment files to instrumental concerto literature. The “magic” of this device was its ability to follow the performer, adjusting the accompaniment tempo accordingly. It even waited for the pickup notes before beginning to play. Fast forward 20 years and both the box and accompaniment cartridges have long disappeared, now replaced by software with access to an online library of over 30,000 titles including full ensemble literature and most major method series – even Rubank! In addition to the accompaniment capabilities, SmartMusic is most known for its assessment tools that “listen” to a performance and evaluate for correct pitches and rhythms.

Also gone is the high price, as now MakeMusic utilizes a subscription model that seems relatively reasonable. The software itself is free, but teachers and students pay a yearly fee for access to content and, for teachers, additional access to a cloud-based assignment and grade book system. Educators pay $140 per year and students $40. There’s also a “School Practice Room” price with no per-student fee that will help make access available to all students enrolled in a class. And there’s even a discount for households that have multiple students: $40 for this first and $20 for each additional household member. SmartMusic’s minimum system requirements are pretty low. Just about any computer from the past five years (ancient in technology terms) will easily run the application, and even older machines can run it, although some features may not function.

The software is very well laid out, making it easy to find music titles. Users can either browse by category (Solos, Exercises, Method Books, Jazz Improvisation, Full Ensembles, or Sight-Reading) or search by keywords. You can further refine your search by Instrument, Category, Skill Level, Genre, or State List. Once you have found a particular title, you then download the accompaniment file to the library on your computer. While the assumption is that the student will have purchased a printed copy of the music to play from, many of the titles have on-screen music that scrolls while the accompaniment is playing. This is convenient, but does require getting used to reading music in this fashion. The Ensemble (Band, Jazz, or Orchestra) category has over 4,000 titles with printed parts, effectively solving that age-old excuse of, “I left my music at school so I couldn’t practice at home.”

The accompaniments are quite well done, with a very high quality sound. Because they’re essentially MIDI files, there is a lot of fine control available. It’s very easy to change the instrument (and appropriate transpositions), as well as control tempo. You can also select a range of measures and loop for repeated practice. It also provides a very powerful assessment tool as it “listens” to the student’s performance and compares it to a model. It provides immediate feedback, evaluating for correct rhythm and pitch. Students can repeat their performance, as well as record the various takes that can be submitted to the teacher.

The teacher’s assessment tools and grade book provide a quick way to create assignments that are instrument or student-specific. And, if you use Finale, you can create your own custom SmartMusic files. Even if you work in Sibelius, you can export files out as Music XML format for easy conversion into Finale, and then save them as SmartMusic files. SmartMusic includes a tuner and dynamic fingering guide. There is an iPad version of SmartMusic that has most of the features found in the desktop version, and since your subscription follows you regardless of the device you’re using, it’s easy to move from desktop to mobile.

 

Pyware iPAS

Pyware’s iPAS (Interactive Pyware Assessment Software) practice system does essentially the same type of assessment as SmartMusic by evaluating students’ performances for accuracy in pitch and rhythm. iPAS comes bundled with Pearson’s Standard of Excellence, an “enhanced” method books which run about $10 per book. There’s a teacher’s edition of iPAS that includes an assignment and grade book system, as well as a tool for creating custom content (from Sibelius, Finale, or any MIDI files) for the iPAS system. The teacher’s edition lists for $400. There are Mac OS and Windows versions available.

Once the student logs into the program, it will start with a practice tip (such as, “Good posture is important for a good sound.”) before moving to the chosen exercise or song. There the student will have the option to either listen or practice before choosing the assessment option. On screen, the iPAS display of notation is a combination of a traditional five-line staff with the piano-roll view in many MIDI recording programs. When the student completes an exercise, the program returns a score with breakdowns for note and rhythm accuracy. A recording is also made that can be sent to the teacher.

Graphically, iPAS isn’t nearly as clean and contemporary looking as SmartMusic, but it is functional and relatively clear in its layout. The accompaniment sounds are very low-fidelity synthesizer quality and not very realistic sounding. It looks like programs did running under Windows 98 (which, in fact, is listed as part of the minimum system requirements) with blocky looking fingering chart graphics and plain navigation buttons. iPAS also comes with a built-in tuner and metronome.

 

PlayPerfect

For me, the surprise app here is NCH’s PlayPerfect music practice software. While the user interface is nowhere near as good looking as SmartMusic, nor does it come with any content, PlayPerfect is free and part of an integrated suite of apps that work well together for music learning. Aside from PlayPerfect, NCH publishes a notation app called Crescendo, TwelveKeys transcription app that can change the tempo of an audio file making it easier to transcribe, PitchPerfect tuner, plus a number of recording applications.

Aside from a few demonstration songs (such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Happy Birthday”), PlayPerfect doesn’t have any content of its own. You can load songs created either in their notation app, Crescendo, or from a Standard MIDI File (.mid). I was successful at opening some MIDI files but not others. The error message didn’t help much but I think the problem was with unquantized MIDI files. You should be okay if the MIDI file was exported from a notation program.

The program has two modes, Play and Practice. Play mode will play the song for you while the notes change color, helping you keep track of where you are in the song. Practice mode is where you can test yourself for pitch and rhythm accuracy. The program uses a “follow the bouncing ball” method of keeping your place in the music.

There are three ways to test yourself in Practice mode; play along with a metronome, with a metronome only during the count-off, or no metronome at all. You receive instant feedback while playing along. Correct notes turn green and incorrect ones turn red. The program will also flash words of encouragement or admonition depending on how well you’re doing. If you’re missing a high percentage of notes it may flash “Concentrate!” or something similar. At the end of the piece, you’re presented with a score window showing percentage of correct and incorrect notes. Scores can be saved along with information such as the tempo and amount of time spent on the piece. You can also save an audio recording of your performance and send it to someone in an email message.

PlayPerfect is never going to be on par with SmartMusic but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a place in your students’ practice routine. In some very informal tests with fourth-grade students who were learning the recorder, they had no trouble understanding how the program worked and enjoyed testing themselves and comparing scores. One important downside of PlayPerfect is that it is for Windows only. Although, I tested it on an Apple laptop running Windows within the virtual machine app Parallels and had no problems. NCH (nch.com) publishes a number of music and non-music related apps for Windows, Mac OS, and both iOS and Android mobile devices.

 

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. Dr. 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-ROMs for Rowloff Productions. 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.

 

 

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