How I teach composition lessons in the future

In the past, I required students to bring paper copies of scores to their lessons, regardless of whether they were writing by hand or in a computer scoring application. In addition to the irreconcilable mismatches of software, software versions, and operating systems, I need to be able to write or draw on the scores my students bring in. My students would often ““““forget”””” to print, forget the printout, run out of ink, run out of paper, and so forth, and then we would have no way of marking up their work, only looking at it on a screen.

In the future, we avoid printing things. Sometimes we say its for the environment—and for large projects it can be very wasteful—but really we just say that when we’re trying to impress one another. Mostly, it’s because papers get lost. That, and despite the fact that we can throw robots into outer space that take photographs of Pluto and email them back to us, we have yet to build a printer that doesn’t suck. As Jeff Jarvis wrote, “Atoms are a drag. Stuff is so last-century. Nobody wants to handle stuff anymore.”[1] However, the ability to mark up a score freehand in a lesson is critical to expressing ideas in a fixed and clear way that students can take away from the lesson and consider while they continue their creative work.

Marking up a score with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil
Marking up a score with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

The hardware and software of it

I am currently using my 12.9" iPad Pro and Apple Pencil stylus to view digital copies of student scores, mark them up, and send those marked-up scores back to the composers. This workflow combines many of the benefits of printed scores with the convenience and flexibility of digital files.

Students send me their files in PDF format, either by email or through Dropbox/Google Drive/OneDrive file sharing. On my iPad, I share those files to an app called PDF Expert (from the fine folks at Readdle). It’s $9.99 in the iOS App Store and worth every penny.[2] PDF Expert has its own file organization, which is great if you’re going to be using it for a lot of PDFs. Each student has a folder, so I can stay organized and we can compare different projects for a performance, or review progress on an individual project. Once I’ve got the file in the right place, I like to add the date to the beginning of it, since I’m likely to see the same piece again with possibly the same file name in the near future.[3] It’s very easy to shuffle a file over to PDF Expert from an email attachment using the iOS share sheet.

Sharing from Airmail to PDF Expert
Sharing from Airmail to PDF Expert

Notes on the notes

PDF Expert has a ton of useful PDF editing features, but I will focus on the ones that I have found to be the most useful, beginning with the Pen/Pencil Tool. The app allows users to save up to four writing settings. I will usually use colors to differentiate things I thought were particularly good from things that could use some rethinking or correction. Because this is a free-form tool, it allows me to write combinations of words and notation symbols just like I would on paper. I can also draw big arrows stretching across a page to connect ideas to one another, or even create an “architectural” sketch to visualize more abstract ideas.

Even if you don’t have a Pencil or other stylus, you can use your finger. While you are editing, you can use two fingers on the screen to zoom in and out, as well as move around the document and turn pages. I like zooming in really far when I’m using my finger to write, since I can write much more legibly if I’m making those larger gestures with my hand. Then, when viewing at normal sizes, it’s much more readable than if I’d tried to use my dumb meatfingers to draw a quarter rest. While zoomed in, PDF Expert will mask off parts of the page under a blue area. You can’t write on those parts of the page, and this allows you to rest your palm and wrist on the screen while writing. If you’re left-handed, you can tell PDF Expert to flip the protection areas by going to the app’s Settings > PDF > Wrist protection.

Solo score marked up in a lesson.
I used different colors to show things that were particularly effective (blue), things that could be revised (red), and tracking a particular motive (green).

If you’re lucky enough to be using an iPad Pro, I strongly recommend using the Apple Pencil for this. You can actually go in and turn the wrist protection off entirely if this is the case, as the Pencil takes care of that for you. You can comfortably rest your palm on the page and use the Pencil like normal. Another really nice feature here is that you no longer need to use two fingers to navigate the document while using the Pencil, since the app knows the difference between finger-touches and Pencil-touches. This is very clever, and it allows you to treat the PDF almost like a paper document, using your hand to move it around and the Pencil to write. When I am using the Pencil to mark-up scores in PDF Expert, I almost forget that I’m using fancy technology at all. I can just focus on the ideas I’m trying to express. It’s almost exactly the same as using paper and (lowercase) pencil.

Sometimes, I will want to write more than a few words on the score, especially if I’m just making some notes outside of the face-to-face meeting. For that, PDF Expert also has a Text Tool that allows for typing with either the software keyboard or a hardware keyboard. Don’t worry about typing over the top of things if you’re starting a new text box. You can always move and resize the box after. Often, I will type a few sentences or paragraphs in the black space near the very beginning or very end of the score with more general comments or listening suggestions.

Ensemble score marked up in a lesson.
Writing free-hand with the Pencil allows me to draw large shapes and notation, rather than just typing text.

There are some other tools that you might find useful. Sometimes I want to show that something in a score should be aligned vertically, and I’ll use the Shape Tool to draw a perfect vertical across the staves. Sometimes, I find myself writing the same kinds of things over and over again, and so I create “Stamps”, which are really more like stickers, that can be used over and over again and placed in many documents. For example, I have one for “Dynamics?” and one for “Range?” that come up quite a bit. But often I find it faster to simply scribble these out with the Pencil than switch over to the Stamp Tool. Plus, it takes me out of the paper-and-pencil illusion that I find so compelling.

At the end of the lesson, I send the marked up score to the student in an email. To do this, click the share icon (up arrow with box) in the top right corner when you’re looking at the document. If you use the built-in email client, select Send by Email. I use a third-party mail client (Airmail, at the moment). Either way, in the next dialog box that pops up, you’ll want to be sure to select a “Flattened Copy”. I’ve found this to be the only reliable way to make sure that all of my text and drawings make it back to the student on the other side.

Two taps to export a flattened copy to an email at the end of the lesson.
With two quick taps, I can send a record of everything we discussed in the lesson.

The Grand Finale. Or Sibelius. No judgements here.

The experience of using this system over the last year has genuinely improved the quality of feedback I give and the extent to which students learn from it. I find that because it’s a digital file, I am more comfortable trying things out on it like a whiteboard. As in: “you could write the rhythm like this, or you could split the figure across the two clarinet players like this, or you could use the marimba to selectively emphasize certain parts of it like this.” I don’t have to be precious about the paper document they’ve brought, so we can experiment with the materials right there in the lesson in a way that I wouldn’t be as comfortable doing on someone else’s paper documents. Students can always come back and review the markings, and don’t have to rely on their own notes or memory (though, admittedly, they do have to rely on my notes and handwriting). If I forget to send the marked up copy, I will usually get a friendly reminder within a few hours of the lesson.

Admittedly, there are some drawbacks to my futuristic lifestyle. It doesn’t account very well for works that don’t have PDF scores, whether because there is no score for a work or that the score is not digitized. In the case of scoreless works, I feel like I’m not losing anything by going to the iPad. In fact, while I’ve not had the opportunity to try it, I could use a similar system to sketch concepts in pseudo-graphic-notation and send those notes back. For works that are handwritten, I’m happy to deal with the paper. I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, but when I want to make extensive notes on a handwritten score, I could snap a quick photo-scan with my iPad and write on that PDF.

Another drawback, and this is probably the biggest, is that this stuff is not cheap. I’m using my personal iPad Pro for all of this. However, it’s worth noting that a colleague of mine does have a university-owned iPad Pro that he got with a technology grant. If you’re in a situation where such a thing is available, you might look into it. Be sure to budget for the iPad’s Smart Cover ($59.00) and Apple Pencil accessories ($99.00). And if you need further justification (rationalization?), iPads are of course useful for lots of other things when it comes to both teaching and studying music.

If you have any questions or suggestions about my geeky workflows, please feel free to ask here in the comments or on Twitter. I would love to hear what kind of tech you are using to help your lessons run more smoothly and effectively.

  1. Jeff Jarvis. What Would Google Do? (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 85.  ↩
  2. If you’re familiar with music-reading apps on iOS, you may be surprised that I’m not using forScore here. While forScore is a great application that has wonderful features for performers, the way it deals with stored files and cloud services is not well-suited to a lesson situation in which we are regularly moving scores up and down from the cloud, having them sent to us, and sending them back out to others. And frankly, I want to keep my completed work in forScore separate from these working files in PDF Expert. PDF Expert and forScore are both great; but, they’re great at very different things that both just happen to involve PDF files.  ↩
  3. I actually have this automated as part of saving the file to PDF Expert using with a very nerdy app called Workflow. You can see my Workflow and adapt it to your needs here.  ↩

Werner Herzog doesn’t Pokemon

Filmmaker Werner Herzog has been doing a round of interviews in support of his documentary Lo and Behold, which examines the cultural impact of the Internet. In one of the more entertaining moments of these interviews, The Verge’s Emily Yoshida explains Pokémon Go and asks about the cultural impact. Herzog goes full Herzog.

EY: It’s a game where the entire world is mapped and you walk around with the GPS on your phone. You walk around in the real world and can catch these little monsters and collect them. And everybody is playing it.

WH: Does it tell you you’re here at San Vicente, close to Sunset Boulevard?

EY: Yeah, it’s basically like a Google map.

WH: But what does pokémon do at this corner here?

EY: You might be able to catch some. It’s all completely virtual. It’s very simple, but it’s also an overlay of physically based information that now exists on top of the real world.

WH: When two persons in search of a pokémon clash at the corner of Sunset in San Vicente is there violence? Is there murder?

EY: They do fight, virtually.

WH: Physically, do they fight?

EY: No—

WH: Do they bite each other’s hands? Do they punch each other?

EY: The people or the…

WH: Yes, there must be real people if it’s a real encounter with someone else.

The film has been screened at a few festivals after its Sundance premiere, and will be available to us normals 19 Aug., appropriately enough, to buy or rent digitally.

What’s next?

Ivan Hewett writing in The Telegraph about the fetishization of premieres over subsequent performances of still-new works:

The system is geared to produce premieres, not to fund second performances. … Sally Cavender, a long-standing director of Faber Music, bemoans the obsession with first performances. “A premiere is really a lazy and ineffective way of creating an appreciation of new music. You don’t have to programme the other pieces carefully because you don’t know what the new piece will be like. If it turns out to be dud you can just shrug and say ’well, never mind, we did our duty’. Also the audience doesn’t have time to get the sound of the music in their ears, so it’s incredibly wasteful.” Stephen Maddock, Chief Executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra agrees, but points to the practical problem. “There are plenty of sources of funding for new pieces, because organisations want the prestige of being associated with a premiere. But there are very few sources of funding for second and third performances.”

​Compounding the problem, of course, are that many (most?) orchestral premieres are underprepared. Not because the musicians are bad or don’t care, but because rehearsals are wicked-expensive. You’re paying the same world-class players as you are in a concert, but nobody is buying tickets to the rehearsal. Nobody who hears a half-assed premiere is going to ask about renting the performance materials for a second time around.

Simon Holt, a distinguished composer, points to another problem. “Most premieres are winged after too little rehearsal time and as a consequence we too often only get some kind of passing superficial sense of what a piece is really all about,” he says. [Composer Colin] Matthews puts it more tartly: “Orchestras know they can get away with giving the minimum time to the new piece, because no one yet knows how it’s supposed to go!”

And lastly, this innovative and compelling new project described by Vanessa Reed of the PRS[1] for Music Foundation:

That’s why we’ve launched the Composer Fund, which aims to help composers at mid-career, and a new scheme, Resonate. It’s a database of all orchestral pieces composed by British composers since 1990, and there’s a fund to help orchestras with the costs of performing these pieces.”

Can we have something like this in the U.S. please?

(h/t @ArmandoBayolo)

  1. Performing Rights Society is the UK’s version of ASCAP or BMI. Like most non-US countries, they only have one PRO.  ↩

The other other emails

Franklin Foer in Slate on the prospect of Russian-sponsored, politically motivated email hacks:

We know that the Russians have a further stash of documents from the DNC and another set of document purloined from the Clinton Foundation. In other words, Vladimir Putin is now treating American democracy with the same respect he accords his own.

What’s galling about the WikiLeaks dump is the way in which the organization has blurred the distinction between leaks and hacks. Leaks are an important tool of journalism and accountability. When an insider uncovers malfeasance, he brings information to the public in order to stop the wrongdoing. That’s not what happened here. The better analogy for these hacks is Watergate.

I don’t think it’s surprising that people say rude and impolitic things about people they don’t like when they’re sending what they believe to be private emails. I really don’t think it’s very surprising that political operators are trying to pressure journalists. What is completely baffling though, is that a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, we still can’t figure out how to secure email systems.

Value of Silence

Those that know me in meatspace know that most of my waking hours are spent with headphones in my ears. Mostly, I’m listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Music is simply too distracting. However, when I’m in the throes of a particularly knotty creative problem, I find that I have to take a few days or even a week away from that. I need to give my mind enough space to be bored and wander off in search of novel solutions. Some research on the issue of silence bubbled up through social media recently[1].

A writeup at Nautilus summarizing a few studies leads me to believe I’m not alone in this regard. Studies trying to show increases in certain kinds of brain activity were linked to music ended up showing that the silent control subjects had better results than any of the musical styles tested.

In fact, two-minute silent pauses proved far more relaxing than either “relaxing” music or a longer silence played before the experiment started.


The total absence of input was having a more pronounced effect than any sort of input tested.

And of course, even in an artform constructed ostensibly of sounds, there are many opportunities for us to use silence[2] as impactfully as any other sound.

Even though we usually think of silences as a lack of input, our brains are structured to recognize them, whenever they represent a sharp break from sounds. So the question is what happens after that moment—when silence continues, and the auditory cortex settles into a state of relative inactivity.

​This is one of those many great times when something that was widely understood intrinsically is proven by science. It’s a nice reminder all the same: ignoring the space between sounds is a significant abdication of our responsibilities as composers and performers.

  1. No, the research isn’t recent; only my attention to it is.  ↩
  2. asterisk  ↩

“Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy”

This is not a random op-ed from some hippy academic. These words are signed by the entire Washington Post editorial board.

The Republican Party has moved the lunatic fringe onto center stage, with discourse that renders impossible the kind of substantive debate upon which any civil democracy depends.

I get that the Post tends to lean left. It’s also easy to be desensitized to the insanity after all these months. The language describing Mr. Trump in this editorial is a helpful reminder.

Music Brand Suggestions, part 1

I know. The word “brand” is gross. It doesn’t have to be, but it certainly gets used in lots of gross ways. I’m not interested in that discussion. Here are some humble suggestions for naming your next concert series, mixed ensemble, self-publishing cooperative, interactive aesthetic experience collective, netlabel, or hip gastropub-slash-concert-venue.

  1. Nobody speaks Latin. Besides, all the really cool Latin music-y words are already taken. Speaking of music-y words, none of those either. Save your fortes and pesantes and maestosos for the score.
  2. If you had to look it up in a dictionary or thesaurus, nobody else knows the word either. I know you’re clever. You don’t need to prove it to me every time you hand out a business card. More importantly, the rise of the web and social media has made it crucial for people to easily spell your name without looking it up.
  3. Spaces are ok. InterCapped names were really cool right around the time the lowercase i- prefix was cool. Apple has moved on.[1] Join them.
  4. Your name need not define you. It’s ok just to have a name that only you find meaning in, as long as it’s cool. Some of my favorite names in concert music mean nothing: Sphinx, eighth blackbird[2], Sleeping Giant, The Knights, Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth. Even though the name Sō Percussion[3] indicates something to do with hitting things with other things, note that they aren’t mentioning anything about being a quartet. Think here about rock band names. Do you get any inkling of what The Beatles, Nirvana, or Tool are from the name? No. And that’s totally fine. Apple is not a fruit company, and Coke won’t get you high.
  5. Check your namespaces. If you can’t get a reasonable domain name, Twitter name, Instagram name, or others, look for something better. It’s not worth the hassle of explaining that you can be found at “lorem ipsum hyphen quartet dot com” but “lorem hyphen ipsum” on Twitter and “the real lorem ipsum” on Snapchat and “not the fake lorem ipsum” on Instagram.
  6. Shorter is almost always better. It’s easier to remember, easier to type, and fewer characters in a tweet.
  7. Give yourself room to grow. Your name shouldn’t limit you or lock you in. If the name of your concert series is “Biennial Orlando Piano Extravaganza” you’re locked in to a schedule, a location, and an instrument. Also, you’ve brought shame upon yourself and your family by using the word “extravaganza”. If you were to start an ill-planned Tumblog called “One Surrealist a Day”, you’d better be prepared to post something every day! If, on the other hand, you just called it “Exploring Surrealism,” you’d get to post whenever the fish moved you to drop kick a Monday.
  8. No puns. Stop it. If you thought you might want to use a pun name, you should probably just ask somebody else to name it for you. Save yourself from yourself.

Stay tuned for a future installment on visual identity.

  1. They still make and sell iThings, but none of the newly launched brands use the i-, and some of the software products (Photos, Calendar) have actually been rebranded without the i.  ↩
  2. I’ll play along with the casing convention.  ↩
  3. The diacritical on the ō is a little precious, but they answer to “So” just as readily as “Sō.”  ↩

Avid plays chicken with Sibelius users, loses.

Philip Rothman at Sibelius Blog:

So, after all the sturm und drang about subscription vs. perpetual licenses, revised price schemes, and deadline extensions, Avid has once again dropped the price of an upgrade for users of Sibelius 7.5 or earlier who have missed the 1-year window to upgrade. The price for those users is now $199 USD, available from Avid’s online store.

Music and the news

Will Robin reporting on Eun Kim’s concert project “Sing Her Name”, a benefit for Black Lives Matter:

“Everyone knows the name Sandra Bland” — who died in police custody in Texas in July 2015 — “but most people don’t know that there are five other black women who were killed that same month,” Ms. Lee said. Proceeds from the benefit will go to the Center for Constitutional Rights, African American Policy Forum and Black Women’s Blueprint. The orchestra will perform music by African-American and female composers, including Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

The concert will also feature the premiere of Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard,” which sets a new text by the poet Sharan Strange memorializing Ms. Bland. “What I’m bringing to it is the emotional side,” Ms. Bryan said in a recent interview. “Being able to mourn what happened, but also celebrate her spirit.”

Part of me really likes the idea of classical music engaging with current events. It’s something classical music usually sucks at, in part because it’s usually made so much more slowly than pop or folk music. It’s also really great to see more non-white-male names on concert programs.

Another nagging part of my brain wonders if classical music can ever really have as much to say about current events when doing so requires text, which is not part of most of the music I write and listen to. So often, the music doesn’t add anything, as Bryan describes her music does. I hate to dump on her when she’s involved in such a cool project, and I don’t know anything about her music. She says she’s “bringing the emotional side”, “mourning”, and “celebrating” to the poetry. I would imagine that the poet might argue that the text does those things pretty well already. On the occasion that music attempts to describe this kind of situation without singing, speaking, dance, video, or extensive program notes, it comes across as a maudlin caricature of a mid–20th-century film score.

I’m not sure where that leaves us (and by “us”, I mean “me”) for classical music and politics, or stories generally. I would like to be able to engage things like this in my work, but I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do without adding things that are outside of it, like text or video. Even if I were able to solve that problem, even if I were to finish a score that spoke some truth (Truth?) to society, it would still not be a completed piece until somebody else gets involved to perform it.

Is this a thing other composers and classical musicians struggle with? I would love to be turned around on this.