Writing Program Notes

This is a short guide I wrote for my students at UCF. I’m putting it here mostly so I can link to it. I’d also appreciate any feedback.

Program notes are challenging for everyone. There are lots of reasons you might struggle to write them.

  • You’ve already written the whole piece. Isn’t that enough? I mean, you wrote a second bassoon part!
  • Your music is a perfect snowflake that speaks for itself.
  • You’ve spent years learning to create things out of sound, not words.

Despite these challenges, writing a good program note for each piece is an important way of relating to the audience that you care about their experience listening to your music. After all, program notes are not a prerequisite course to attending a concert. You should expect that many—if not most—of those hearing your music will not read them. However, a well crafted bit of prose can help a curious listener to better understand you as a composer, you as a person, your music, and maybe even music generally. Here are a few things to keep in mind when composing your program notes.

Consider the Audience

Some people at a concert might have extensive training in music theory. Some of them may be music history buffs. Some may have extensive collections of Milton Babbitt records, while some others have extensive collections of Kenny Chesney tour posters. If they’re in the room when your music is played, you have to assume that they are thoughtful and curious, and that’s about all you can assume. Describe your music in terms that are precise, yet that can be easily understood. This is a difficult balance to strike. Consider this paragraph by Alex Ross describing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings:

The strings begin with a “natural” open fifth on E and B, which pulses weirdly off the beat. The horn starts on the note G-sharp, forming a clean E-major triad, then falls to a G-natural, darkening the harmony to minor—a heart-sinking effect of a kind that appears often in Schubert and Mahler. The horn spirals through a circuitous, spasmodic pattern, creeping along in close semitone intervals and then leaping by fourths or fifths. The tenor recites the Blake text in the space of only eight bars, repeating the major-to-minor, light-to-dark shading of the opening. Afterward, the horn reprises its solo, and at the very end the first two notes are played in reverse order, G-natural to G-sharp. Thus, the piece closes in E major. But it is hardly an optimistic resolution; it is the worm’s victory. Britten had discovered one of the core techniques of his dramatic language, the use of simple means to suggest fathomless depths.

Ross uses some jargon, but always shaped by some non-technical description. Semitone intervals are “creeping along”, while fourths and fifths are “spasmodic” and “leaping”. Remember you aren’t writing a theory dissertation on your own music. Your program notes should find a welcoming middle ground that communicates to novices and experts.

Write What You Know

You don’t need to invent things to make an interesting program note. Some composers are infamous for word-salads of hand-wavy gibberish. Don’t be like those composers. Instead, tell us something that you as the composer know that we as the audience don’t. Think about answering the questions you might ask of the composer of a work you really enjoy. This might be why you decided to write for this particular medium, what the title means to you, anything interesting that came up during the process, or an experience you had working with the performer, commissioning party, conductor, or librettist.

Be a Tour Guide

Invite us into your music and show us around a bit. You have some interesting musical ideas here, and we’ll have more enjoyment and appreciation if we understand clearly what those ideas are. Tell the audience what specific ideas they could listen to in the piece that might help them to understand how the work moves from beginning to middle to end: this could be the main motivic ideas, the texture and orchestration ideas, the relationship between the text and the pitch, or the way different rhythmic or contrapuntal ideas interact with one another. This is a dangerous and slipperly slope, though. Nobody wants to read a play-by-play of the baseball game they’re about to watch. Without spoiling any surprises, tell us in the audience what we sounds we might listen for that will help us to follow along as the piece unfolds. Always remember that you spent more time with this music than anybody, and the audience is likely to only hear it this one time, so it’s up to you to help them get the most out of that one hearing.

Conclusion

Writing a program note can often turn out to be as challenging as—or sometimes more challenging than—writing the piece of music they accompany. However, a good program note can enlighten your audience and get them even more excited to hear your music. It’s also excellent practice for talking about your music, because it gives you some practice in putting together a coherent set of thoughts that you can use when speaking with listeners, performers, conductors, and friends. Communicating effectively about music is one way you can stand out among the many immensely skilled and creative musicians.

New Digs

old and new site comparison
Left, old and busted. Right, new hotness.

Over the last few months, I’ve slowly been working on a redesign of my personal site. I had been helping out with several other sites for individuals and organizations, and felt like my old site was becoming the proverbial cobbler’s child. The design language was starting to look a little dated, and it didn’t do anything that might encourage anybody to stop by for a visit.

Last and perhaps most crucial to the rebuild, one of my goals for the year has been to at least make it possible for people to pay me. I don’t want my site to be a store, but if I’m going to go to all the trouble of making a page for each piece I want to showcase, I might as well put a buy button down there at the bottom. I know this is probably something lots of composers are interested in trying, but if you don’t have a lot of resources to hand that off to a team, you may not no where to begin. I certainly didn’t. So I thought I’d share a bit of what is going on behind the scenes on the new site.

The Guts

I like WordPress. Every version of my website for the last 15 or so years has been built using it. SoundNotion, CFCF, Timucua, and a half-dozen other little web experiments are all self-hosted WordPress (aka “WordPress dot org”) using cheapo shared hosting at DreamHost. The domain is registered at Hover. WordPress isn’t the only game in town when it comes to content management systems (CMSes); but it’s by far the most widely used, so there are tons of options for supporting technology, helpful YouTube tutorials, how-tos, plugins, and themes. As I tell my students, if you’re new to this stuff (or even if you aren’t) anything other than WordPress or Squarespace will probably end in tears.

The Pretty Parts

I can be a bit picky with things like colors, typography, layouts, and I’m a total snob about some of it, too. (I’m sure those who have met me have no trouble imagining that.) So finding a theme I like is always a struggle. I don’t want a hand-holdy visual builder, though there are some fantastic ones available, but I do want to take control. The theme here at This Page Left Intentionally Useless is one I built from scratch. That turned out to be a lot of work, so I’m comfortable building on the shoulders of people who know what they’re doing. My new site is built on the default Twenty Seventeen theme in WordPress. I really like Twenty Seventeen; it’s also at the core of the Timucua Arts Foundation site I worked on earlier this year. All the tweaks are nerdy and done in PHP and Sass. Wake up. We’re getting to the good stuff!

I wouldn’t recommend this level of geekery to a normal person. If you want to take control of your site, find one that has some nice customization features baked in. There are some really nice ones you can pick up for under $50, and if you raise your budget to $100 or so, you’ll find just about anything you can imagine. One theme I toyed with a bit during my build is Divi from Elegant Themes. It’s beautiful and highly customizable. At $89/year it’s starting to push into the moderately expensive range; but, you can really do a lot with its drag-and-drop page builder. If that sounds like a lot, there are some great options with less support and fewer customizations on Theme Forest.

The Functional Parts

I could go into a lot of detail on all the plugins I’m using on the site1 and why; but, I think we both know the reason you read this far. You want to know about the money stuff.

There are several ways to do e-commerce. I used Gumroad for many years, which I still think is great. However, I really wanted to be able to take care of the transactions myself. I’m never going to be selling scores at a scale that requires the heft of Gumroad’s server capacity, and I think it’s a better experience for folks to begin and end the transaction on my site.

I’m using WooCommerce, an absolute behemoth of a plugin. It’s maintained by Automattic, the same company responsible for the main core of WordPress, so it’s pretty stable, even if it is a much larger tool than I need for my tiny little shop. That’s ok. As I said, scale isn’t a concern here.

Some things were concerns, though. Most important was that I didn’t want my personal site to scream “BUY MY STUFF” all the time. Obviously, that’s not a common trait among online retailers, so WooCommerce’s default settings needed to be reined in a bit. Instead of a store, I want my site to be more like a portfolio in which you happen to be able to purchase copies of some of the work.

First came the navigation. Instead of letting Woo create its own store page, I decided I wanted to manually create my own listing. I don’t have enough things in the “store” to make this a huge burden.

Next, I wanted a much less aggressive template for each piece, and to even have pieces in the “store” that aren’t for sale. Again, Woo’s default is to make the price and the “add to cart” buttons the first thing on the page, just like an Amazon listing. For my site, I want that to be at the very bottom. This required a teensy bit of code-tweaking to change the template order. I didn’t look too far for a plugin, since I was already doing some template tweaks on the site. You may be able to handle this in a less geeky and possibly more effective way.

Last, since my scores aren’t particularly interesting to photograph, I hid the “featured image” and “gallery” that Woo wanted to create for each piece. Instead, I just begin each entry with an embedded video or audio player if I’ve got it, followed by a program-note-like description.

The Voice

Re-doing things gave me the opportunity to reëvaluate2 the writing on the site. I like to write long silly things like this that don’t always belong on the main site, but I still love writing words from time to time. Writing a bio is never fun though. I dug back through the series of posts Angela Myles Beeching wrote for New Music Box about a year ago, “Your Better Bio”. I’m still not sure I have it nailed; but, it’s much closer and says more about my music and me as a person than it ever has before. I’m tempted to write a little plugin that randomly changes some of the cheekier bits each time the page loads. Bios are hard and have a lot of different potential audiences, especially on a website, where readers include audiences, performers, presenters, grant reviewers, and hiring committees. Also my mother. Hi, mom.

Conclusion

I consider this project to be very much in the “minimum viable product” stage. I have put a sign-up for a mailing list in a few spots. I thought about the modal pop-up thing some sites used, but I decided that I hate it when those pop up in front of something I’m reading. Why would I shove that in front of people I like? It’s there all the same if you’d like to sign up. I don’t know yet what I’ll put there, but I promise it will be cool. Signer-uppers get a $10-off coupon in my portfolio/store/thing. I’m planning to add at least one more page that has some information on my other weird projects, and maybe some links to a bit of my writing that I end up sharing or linking a lot.

If you have any thoughts on the site, I’d love to hear them. As you can see, I also love talking about making tech things, so if you have questions about anything I’ve done there, I’m happy to answer them.


  1. You really want to know? Ok, pal. Here’s each active plugin on the site as of this writing: Better Font Awesome, Google Analytics by WebKinder, Jepack by WordPress.com, SendGrid, Under Construction, VaultPress, WooCommerce, WooCommerce Services, WP Mail Logging, WP Migrate DB, WP Responsive Embeds, WP Subscribe Pro. Happy now? 
  2. Tip of the monocle to Mary Norris

So-Called Air Quotes

There’s a plugin for that. Express sarcasm and condescension in a way normally reserved for face-to-face interaction, all while working from home.

UPDATE (18 Aug 2017): You can now install this plugin directly from the WordPress plugin directory. Just search for “So-Called Air Quotes” from your WordPress dashboard. Now, it’s official.

How to embed an interactive Keynote on the web

Update 30 March 2017: I made a neat (I think) little tool for generating these iframe embed codes automatically if you don’t want to keep digging around the iframe code.


With the update to Keynote 7.1 (27 March 2017), Apple added the ability "post interactive presentations on Medium, WordPress, and other websites". It’s a little bit tricky to find. Here’s how to do it.

Click "Collaborate"

If you don’t have the Collaborate button in your toolbar, you can also go to Share > Collaborate With Others. I know. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but stick with me.

Set your sharing options.

Select "Copy Link", and under Share Options, set the access to "Anyone with the link". Set the Permission to "View only". Click Share and wait for Keynote to do a little iCloud dance in the background.

Wait.

Depending on how large and complex your presentation is, it may take a while. When this is done, you have a URL on your clipboard. Keynote doesn’t really tell you anything about that, but trust me. It’s there.

Post on Medium

In any part of a Medium post after the title, paste the URL and hit Enter.

After a few moments, the URL will be replaced by an embedded slideshow. Looking good!

Post on WordPress.com

Same as Medium. Just paste the URL into the Visual Editor and hit Enter. It will be replaced with a shiny new embedded slide show.

Post using an iframe elsewhere.

You can also post your Keynote slides as an iframe anywhere else, such as a self-hosted WordPress site like this fine establishment. It takes just a little looking around the code from the WordPress.com embed, and the formula is pretty clear. Start with the URL straight from Keynote’s share menu. Mine looks like this:

https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0BnBgSWdHQbQDKsC4gq1mUbZA#exquisite_corpse

Remove the # and everything after it from the URL.

Now, my example looks like this:

https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0BnBgSWdHQbQDKsC4gq1mUbZA

Place your new link as the source of an iframe.

Here’s the basic formula:

<iframe src="[[[ICLOUD URL GOES HERE]]]?embed=true" width="640" height="500" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="1" referrer="no-referrer"></iframe>

So my example now looks like this:

<iframe src="https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0BnBgSWdHQbQDKsC4gq1mUbZA?embed=true" width="640" height="500" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="1" referrer="no-referrer"></iframe>

You may want to tweak the width and height numbers to suit your needs. Apple made them 100% and 100%, but that isn’t going to work for this kind of context.

Example!

Note that this feature does not currently do much more than a straight-on shot of each slide. It doesn’t do transitions or even simple builds. So you may have to design slides expressly for this purpose. Also, if you’re using any fonts outside of the collection available on iCloud Keynote, they probably won’t render correctly. But even with all those caveats, this is still a dang cool feature that I’m hoping to use a lot.

New Year’s Goals and Strategies

Resolutions are dumb.

Resolutions tend to be arbitrary and unrealistic. The new year is also somewhat arbitrary. However, the holiday break does allow me a bit of time to reflect on where I am in my life and my career, and that’s worth doing.[1] Instead of resolutions, I’m going to focus on some goals and themes for the new year.

Goal: Say no more. I have too much stuff. I like doing nearly all of it, but doing this much of even the most exciting stuff can be stressful.

  • Strategy: Default to “no”. I’m an appeaser. I tend to always say yes because I was taught to be nice. The new strategy is any time I’m asked to do something, my default is no. Convince me.
  • Strategy: “Hell yes” or bust. I read this somewhere, so I’m not claiming it as my own. My new barrier for a “yes” is that if the answer isn’t “hell yes!”, then it must be “no”.

Goal: Be outside more. I’ve lived in Florida for four years, and I’ve probably spent less time outside than when I lived in Michigan for the six years prior. This is particularly weird, since the four years in Florida coincides with some healthy lifestyle changes.

  • Strategy: Run outside, dummy. Yes. I live in the Sunshine State and do cardio inside. My new default will be to run outside. Because Florida.
  • Strategy: Find good gear. Ok. This is actually cheating, as I’ve already done it. I got some sweet new running shoes in November.

Goal: Make more music. I really like making things for my various work responsibilities. I do honestly get some creative satisfaction from writing a really good assignment, slide presentation, or multiple choice question. But that’s not the same as having written a thing and hearing it performed. I think I’m actually procrastinating on my writing by working.

  • Strategy: Let work slide when it’s not on the schedule. This is going to be hard. I like being thought of as a dependable person. I’m going to start dividing my schedule into specific times for course prep, grading, etc. If it doesn’t get done in that window. I’ll pick it up during the next one.
  • Strategy: Schedule listening time and writing time. I’m particularly embarrassed that I’m writing this down, since it’s something I ask my students to do all the time. In fact, I have actually asked students to show me their Google/iCal/Outlook/paper calendars with these things blocked out. By following the previous strategy, I think (hope?) that this one will become more manageable.

  1. For those living on an academic or orchestra-style fall-winter-spring calendar, I also recommend an “annual review” of sorts in May(ish).  ↩

My paperless composition lesson workflow

These four apps and services have allowed me to move almost completely away from paper printouts.
These four apps and services have allowed me to move almost completely away from paper printouts.

This fall, I wrote about how I had used my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to replace the need for paper scores in my composition lessons. Since then, I've continued to revise and expand my technology use into a completely paperless workflow for working with composers.

I'm sure I'll continue to refine the system as long as I use it; but, I think in its current state, the basics are working quite well. I have a few key goals for both me and the composers I'm working with. First, it needs to be simple and automatic. If it's hard for my students to set up, they will forget something important; if I need to remember to do something, I'll forget that, too. Second, it needs to be as transparent and reliable. My students and I need to trust that when they submit something to me, I will receive it; I need to know that when I send feedback, it will be read and accounted for. I never want my students to be unsure of what I expect of them. Teaching open-ended creative work has plenty of hand-wavy ambiguity already. My computers shouldn't add any. If possible, they should eliminate some.

The beginning: GoodNotes

I keep a digital notebook for each composer in my studio. There, I record their compositional goals1, upcoming recital ideas, and notes on what we discuss in each lesson. I do this on my iPad Pro in GoodNotes, which has a number of excellent features for my purposes.

Here are two of my most-used default GoodNotes templates.
Here are two of my most-used default GoodNotes templates.

GoodNotes notebooks are open-ended sketchbooks. They can include writing, drawing, text, and photographs. So I'm not limited to words; I often draw music notation, music-like sketches, timelines, and stage diagrams. These notes are sync'd to other iOS devices and Macs over iCloud. This is handy if I ever need to make a quick reference from my phone, or if I want to type a long paragraph of text on my Mac. GoodNotes also allows notebooks to be backed up as PDFs to Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, or Box. I want my students to always know what I'm expecting of them, so I give each of them a link to their notebook PDF in my Dropbox. That way, they can refer back to previous lesson notes and remind themselves of what they're expected to be working on for next time.

I write notes during the lesson for both my and my student's future reference.
I write notes during the lesson for future reference by me and the composer. Often, it’s a simple list of concepts, composers, or techniques we discussed.
The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type.
The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type like this stage diagram.

I know that I described this workflow as paperless; but, I strongly encourage my students to start all of their projects on paper. I know that I'm far from unique among composition teachers in this regard. When they bring in handwritten work, typed outlines, sketched drawings or other diagrams, I use the very handy "Add Image" feature in GoodNotes to snap a quick photo with the iPad's camera that I can bring right into the lesson notebook and write all over—the full John Madden, if you will—without feeling too self-conscious about marring the student's handwritten work.

It's easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.
It’s easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.

So yeah, there's paper sometimes, but it's not my paper. And I'm pretty quickly ingesting the paper contents into my paperless workflow. As a side benefit, other kinds of things can go into the notebook using the same method. I've included photos of the inside of a piano and the settings on a mixer for later reference and markup.

GoodNotes makes it pretty simple to bring in new "papers" or templates to use in my notebooks. Here's the one I use for lessons.
GoodNotes makes it pretty simple to bring in new “papers” or templates to use in my notebooks. Here’s the one I use for lessons.

Another excellent feature of GoodNotes is the ability to create custom "papers". GoodNotes actually ships with an extensive and useful set of papers that I use regularly, especially the staff paper and grid paper (nice for diagrams and timelines). It's very easy to export a blank paper template from GoodNotes and create your own papers to suit specific needs. For my lessons, I tweaked the default staff paper to include a space for the date, the grade for the lesson2, and what I expect them to have listened to and worked on for the next time we meet. GoodNotes Lesson Notebook Template

Transferring ideas: Dropbox

I mentioned it briefly in my description of GoodNotes, but it's worth mentioning the way I'm using Dropbox here. Each student has a shared folder that they use to submit their scores (PDF) and audio (usually MP3) prior to our meetings. If I have an article I want them to read or a score I'd like them to see, I can place it in that Dropbox as well. I have a Dropbox Premium account, so storage is not an issue for me, and the file history is great for when files are accidentally deleted or overwritten. I have the Dropbox client running on my Mac, so even if a student uploads materials immediately before the lesson, the files are right there on my computer before we're done with smalltalk.3

The business end: PDF Expert

PDF Expert was the primary focus of my love and attention in my post from August. I won't repeat too much of that here as much of it hasn't changed. However, the thing that has evolved over the semester is my methods for getting files in and out of PDF Expert.

Student uploads to Dropbox are automatically downloaded to the sync'd folder in PDF Expert.
Student uploads to Dropbox are automatically downloaded to the sync’d folder in PDF Expert.

There is a lot to love about Dropbox, but its iOS client is not one of them. Thankfully, PDF Expert has pretty good hooks into the Dropbox API so I don't have to deal with the limitations of the Dropbox client too much. It allows me to select certain folders, such as the one I share with each composer, to keep sync'd to my device. Since we're mostly dealing with PDF files and small-ish MP3s, the sync is pretty quick and doesn't take up too much space on my iPad (which has 128GB storage, plenty for this use). The sync here isn't quite as quick as on my Mac, but a pull-to-refresh gesture will force PDF Expert to check for new changes and download them.

Ensemble score marked up in a lesson.
Marked up scores like this are sync’d back to the student’s shared Dropbox folder right alongside their lesson notebook.

Throughout the lesson, I write on the student's score in PDF Expert using colored pencils, highlighters, and typed text. Each changes if very quickly sync'd back to the Dropbox folder, and students will get to see these as they continue working. Because this is happening on a PDF copy of the file rather than the Sibelius or Finale files (I don't think any of my students has jumped into Dorico yet), they won't overwrite my comments until they upload a fresh score the following week, and if they really need them, they could always change the file name anyway.

Conclusions

Probably my favorite part of the workflow that I've outlined here is that functionally, it's nearly identical to my ideal paper workflow from a pedagogical standpoint. It focuses on eliminating the most cumbersome and mistake-prone elements of my paper workflows and adds a number key benefits for both me and the composers I'm working with each week. I think my students have written more and improved faster this semester thanks to the newly clarified expectations, and I'm spending less time and energy keeping track of stacks of paper and moving notebooks around.

GoodNotes is $7.99 in the App Store. PDF Expert is $9.99 in the App Store.

  1. Each term begins with composers setting goals for what they want to write in the near future. We discuss how these projects will contribute to a well-rounded portfolio and encourage them to stretch out and try new ideas and techniques.
  2. I give each student a grade from 1-5 based on their lesson preparation. They're evaluated based on what we had discussed the previous week, so this is another reason it's so handy to share the notebooks. It's also nice to show them right there in the lesson what grade they got to make sure they are aware of how they're doing and understand what the expectations are from week to week. Lastly, I don't always log in to the LMS right away to enter the grade, so this is a nice way for me to make a quick note for myself. I usually enter all the previous grades on Monday morning as I flip through notebooks to prepare for the week ahead.
  3. I mentioned earlier that I shared a Dropbox link to the lesson notebook PDFs. That was a slight over-simplification. I actually have a background service which copies a lesson notebook into each student's shared folder any time it is updated. That app is called Hazel, and it's wonderfully nerdy but a bit beyond the scope of this write-up.

Sibelius has terrible default beaming. Here’s the easy fix.

Sibelius does a pretty good job in the vast majority of its default settings. There’s one thing that it does that I simply do not understand: eighth notes in 4/4 time should be beamed in twos, not fours. If you are doing some fast 2/2 music, this could make sense; but, this is an edge case for most of the scores I see. It’s possible to use the beaming controls on the third keypad layout to correct each beam individually. This is pretty tedious, and you shouldn’t use it for “global” changes like this.

The more powerful fix is to set up the beaming when you create the meter. This is super-simple, if a bit hidden. Instead of taking the default 4/4 from the Time Signature dropdown, you can make your own. To start, click “More Options”.

Time Signature Options

In the Time Signature dialog, click “Beam and Rest Groups”.

Time Signature dialog

In the Beam and Rest Groups dialog, change the field labeled “Group 8ths (quavers) as:” from 4s, to 2s. Enter 2,2,2,2 to group eighths in pairs.[1]

Beam and Rest Groups dialog

Click OK a few times and place your new time signature. Now you’ll see the correct beaming for eighths in 4/4.

But I’ve already written the music with all these bogus beams, you say. Don’t worry, If you replace a four-eighths–4/4 with a two-eighths–4/4, you’ll be asked “Do you want to rewrite the following bars up to the next time signature (or the end of the score)?”. Answer yes, and your beams will be corrected.

Conclusion: Remember that beams are for performers, not for composers or theorists. They aren’t there to do anything other than make the metric pulse clear when there are lots of notes together that might confuse things. You’ll find other beaming practices in earlier music, some of it not even very old, that makes the rhythms harder to read. They might show syncopation or implied meters; in vocal music they could even show melismas! Learn from that music, not its engravers. Unless you have a really good reason, beam your eighths in twos any time you have a quarter-note pulse.


  1. Pro tip: If you are a keypad jockey like me, you might be happy to know that you can use a period dot as a separator instead of a comma and never take your hand off the keypad.  ↩

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.  ↩

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.

Also:

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  ↩

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.”  ↩