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Making Just Intonation Play Along Tracks for Your Performing Ensemble (Using Tonal Energy and GarageBand)

There are a few things that would be helpful to know about my music teaching philosophy before reading this post.

1. I believe that tone production, intonation, balance and blend are central to teaching performing musicians. I prioritize them much higher than fingering technique, rhythmic precision, and even reading comprehension.

2. The way I structure my band classes starts with, is focused on, and always revisits those core ideas.

3. I have accumulated a vast variety of tools and teaching strategies to meet my goals of having superior tone quality, intonation, balance and blend. One of the most essential tools I use is the Tonal Energy Tuning app.

Tonal Energy Tuner

What is Tonal Energy? A hyper charged, power-user app for musicians that has many advanced features, including...

- Tuning drones that can be triggered polyphonically

- Feedback as to how in tune a performer is, which includes a delightful happy face to depict good or questionable intonation

- Drones and feedback can be adjusted to different temperaments

- A metronome (with more features than nearly any alternative on the App Store) that can be used separately or at the same time as the tuning drones

- Analysis tools that depict amplitude and intonation on an easy to read visual graph 

- Recording and play back practice tools for musicians to listen back to their performance

- Automated metronome pre-sets that can be sequenced 

See the video below. I will first depict the tuner playing a Bb drone, then I will show how it can model a Bb major triad all at once. Then I will turn the tuner to just intonation mode, and you will hear that the third and fifth of the chord are appropriately adjusted so that they are in tune with the Bb root. Next, the video will demonstrate how the metronome can be used in combination with these drones.

Imagine now that a student is playing a scale along with Tonal Energy. By leaving the tuner in just intonation, and centering around the key area of Bb major, every note of the scale that I touch will resonate accurately with the Bb, giving the student an accurate reference to blend into.

Developing An Inner Ear for Diatonic Intervals

Much of music is made up of scales. For a student to learn how to most accurately tune different intervals and chords, I have the drone running in the background during most of my teaching in whatever key area we are working in. I then move my finger to the correct notes of the melody to model and reinforce what good intonation would sound like. See below for an excerpt of a song my beginning students might play.

In the video below, watch as I play this song by dragging my finger along to the melody. This happens with a metronome to reinforce the beat. I like that TE has the option to speak counts out loud. In my experience, this really reinforces a concept of strong beats, weak beats, where in the measure the performer is. Other tuning apps have the counting feature as an option, but the sounds in TE sound more natural and less computerized.

Making Play Along Tracks in GarageBand

As you can imagine, I am doing a lot of dragging my finger along while students play for me. This gets tedious. I also want my students to be able to hear these pitch relationships when they practice, so I have begun recording them into play along tracks. How do I do this?

Inter-App Audio Apps and Audio Extensions in GarageBand

In the iOS GarageBand app, audio input is usually performed using either software instruments or by recording audio directly into the device with the microphone. But what you might not know is that you can also create a track that is based on the audio output of a third party audio app. If you have ever used a DAW, think of Inter-App Audio Apps and Audio Extensions like plugins. Once launched, you are kicked into a third party interface (much like using a reverb plugin from Waves or a synthesizer from Native Instruments) which then adds to or alters the sound of your overall project. In a more recent GarageBand update, Apple categorizes Inter-App Audio and Audio Extensions under the External option when you create a new track. 

Audio Extensions are effects that alter your tracks like reverbs and EQs, while Inter-App Audio captures the audio of a third party app and records it into its own track in GarageBand. You can browse the App-Store for Audio Extensions that work with GarageBand. 

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Recording an Inter-App Audio App Directly Into A GarageBand Project

Watch in the video below as I set up an Inter-App Audio App track with Tonal Energy. What I am going to do next is press record, and record my justly in tune play along of Lightly Row into my GarageBand project. I will do this using the euphonium sound. The euphonium drone is one of the roundest, darkest, and fullest sounds, while also containing a great range, so it is effective for most instruments to play along to while also modeling a rich, full, resonant sound.

Accurate Note Input with MIDI Controllers

In this video, you can really hear how sloppy the transition from one pitch to the next is when I drag my finger. Notice also that I did not play repeat notes. It is difficult to play the same pitch twice in a row without Tonal Energy changing itself to that key area. One way around these challenges this is to set up a portable MIDI keyboard with Tonal Energy. The one I have settled in is the CME X-Key with Bluetooth.

It has a sleek look, is very small, and has low key travel. It has buttons for pitch shifting and octave jumping. And Tonal Energy adapts to it in just intonation mode! Watch in the video below. As I change which chord I am playing, TE automatically snaps the third and fifth of each triad in tune, relative to the root. For my Lightly Row performance, I can now hold a Bb drone on in one hand, while playing a melody in the other.

Embellishing The Track with Other Instruments

The resulting play along track is alone pretty useful for students. Let’s make it more fun by adding a drum track.

We can make it even more fun by embellishing with bass and other instruments. I like to change up the style of these play alongs. Sometimes I don't even pre-record them, I just improvise along with my students to keep things fresh. Be careful though. These software instruments are NOT justly in tune, so too many of them can defeat the purpose. I try to combat this by having the drone be the loudest thing in the mix. Notice in this recording I have tried not to create any motion in the accompaniment that interferes with the consonant intervals in the melody, so that the listeners ears can remain focused on the drone for their reference.

Conclusion

Well, that's it! I can trigger these in rehearsal, sectional, and even share them with my students for home practice. Regular practice with tuning drones has really turned around my band's sound, and gives students the foundations for long term ear skills that will help them to HEAR what is in tune, not just respond to the commands “you're sharp!” and “you’re flat!”

My annual resume… and the things I learned from it

Holy blog-posts-I wish-I-had-posted-at-the-end-of-last-school-year-but-here-we-are-on-the-eve-of-my-new-school-year Batman! I guess its never too late to share some reflections on last school year as I look towards this one. I mention this just to caution you to read it as if I was posting it a month ago.

I am wishing my teacher friends (whether you have been back at school for days now, or are just starting) a wonderful new year!

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read):

It’s summer. I am reflecting on the school year. I had a very successful year professionally. It took a toll on me but I learned a lot. I will be saying no to some things this coming year. I also learned how to accomplish more in less time using tools like BusyCal and OmniFocus. Meal planning for the week was time efficient and healthier. Sneaking exercise into my day doubled as a teaching tool.

...

Prologue

I am nearing the end of a summer vacation that has included everything from cruising the coastline of Kauai with the top down, strolling through the city streets of San Jose with dear friends, to listening to incredible live music in the mountains of Telluride, Colorado. Summer is almost over. As I sit on the couch in Massanutten, VA with nothing in my schedule for the day other than maybe sitting here a little longer, I thought it would be worth finishing this blog post that has been sitting in my inbox for months.

It is time to take inventory of what was, by my measure, a professionally successful year. I have kept busy musically, while learning my limits and what it means to push them. This busy schedule forced me to examine stress (all stress is stress, even good stress), and manage energy and attention. I experimented with tackling tasks in short bursts of free time as well as saying "no." Teacher burnout is a real thing, but it is possible to manage a thick workload when you really love what you do. Warning: this is an out of the ordinary post for me. The following section is a potentially braggy list of stuff I did with my time this year. The tone of this post is even more conversational than usual, but also very practical. If you want to get to the practical part and skip my self-congratulating list of accomplishments, scroll down to “Learnings.” 

Here was my year in “stuff”…

My Annual Resume

Teaching band: First and foremost, if all I did this year was teach music to middle schoolers, I would consider that a success. As a whole, my music department put on over 16 concerts this year. We directed 14 performing groups, which played entirely different music on every one of those concerts. 

Teaching private lessons: The second busiest domain of my life was my private percussion teaching studio, comprised of 25-30 students. Many of these students made local and state level GT and Honor bands, performed successfully at Solo and Ensemble Festivals, made their top ensembles, and demonstrated inspiring levels of musical growth. 

Conference presenting: This year I had the opportunity to present at seven state level music education conferences on subjects: managing time and tasks effectively, getting digitally organized, using an iPad to work with sheet music, and playing in tune with the support of tuning apps. I presented at the Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York Music Educators Associations, in addition to the NAfME Conference in Texas. I consider these trips to be a great way to promote my book and continue to make connections with music educators and technology specialists across the country.

Co Directing the Elementary School Honor Band: A first for me! I had the opportunity to co direct the Elementary School Honor Band in my district, the Howard County Public School System. This 85 piece ensemble rehearsed from January through May and then put on a concert in May. It represented students from every Elementary School in our very diverse school district. 

Taking the Symphony Orchestra to Perform at the MMEA Conference: My orchestra director colleague and I got to take our extra-curricular Symphony Orchestra to our state level music educators association conference to perform. It was nice to exercise my directing skills in a music conference, as they pertain to my career more directly than technology.

Church Music Directing: For the past three years, I directed a contemporary music ensemble at the church where I grew up. I ultimately had to step down from this back in January. More on that below. 

New Podcast: Launched a new podcast, The Class Nerd podcast, with Nashville based educator, Craig McClellan. Episodes 1-10 are already out. Listen here.

Podcasting and Blogging: I managed to update my blog and podcast with content that I feel passionate about, though not as regularly as I wished. I plan to be more regular here this coming school year.

Having Fun! Finally, I managed to have a life! My wife and I went on numerous trips, enjoyed drinks with friends, kept up with a few serial dramas, and more. And I managed to get seven hours of sleep most nights.

So here are some things I learned...

Learnings

Too much stuff!!!

Wouldn’t you be surprised to know that I learned this amount of commitment is not sustainable! This year was very busy, and while I said a moment ago that I managed to have a life, I still need to have a better family balance with work. Looking back on all of those conferences, that was seven weeks out of a 40 week school year that I could have been cooking dinner with my wife, listening to music in the dining room. I don’t regret any moment of those conferences, but I would like to achieve a better balance next year.

Transition time is key

I also continue to realize how important transition time is. The colorful blocks in my calendar app had to be touching to fit all of my commitments into my schedule this past year. Having an extra 20 minutes here and there between stuff in my calendar helps me to stay on top of the logistic things that are the glue that hold the rest of the ship together. It also gives me a greater sense of calm and peace which allows my brain to better process what I have just done and approach what I am about to do with better clarity.

Just say no

I have been practicing saying no over the years. But sometimes saying no to prospective commitments is easier than those that you have been engaged with for years. In the thick of the school year, I had to let go of a job I have held for the past three years running a contemporary music ensemble at the church I grew up in. It was as an engaging task on multiple fronts, but I was ultimately not giving it the time it needed and so I had to make a choice. 

I will be making numerous other choices like this next school year. For example, I don’t think presenting at seven conferences is going to work out for me every school year, so next year I am aiming for one. And if my proposals are not accepted at any of them, I will present at none. But I will most likely pick one that has been an engaging source of professional community for me, and attend that one simply to learn.

Time and energy management

One of the challenges that increased the intensity of all of the above commitments was that my work day frequently only included one period of planning a day. This was a choice I made to see more of my students in instrument sectionals. It is hard to appreciate my own decision while in the weeds, but I think time will prove that this was a good choice.

This left me with some options… Wake up earlier and get some extra work done. This requires me to go to bed earlier. Which I never did. So the cycle would continue onward and I would wake up late. This means that I only have lunch and a planning to do any prep work for my day. Which also means I need to catch up after the school day which is actually when my mind is most focused on what I need to do. The problem is that two nights of the week I am running straight home to teach private lessons. The other three I am teaching an after school Jazz Band or Percussion Ensemble, then I am running straight home to teach lessons. Some nights I was not able to catch up until as late as 8 or 9. But then I am too tired to do anything other than watch Netflix. Not to mention I am too removed from my school day to meaningfully reflect. So I sit on the couch. And then maybe after an episode of Westworld, I take care of some email and tasks. Then I go to sleep late. Not too late to get a solid 6-7 hours, but too late to wake up early and get a head start the next morning. 

Of course, this includes little time for cooking or exercise. 

So how did I manage this? Barely… but I made some progress…

Cooking and Exercise

Exercise ended up getting the shaft towards the middle of the year. As I mentioned earlier, I am too tired at 9 pm, so I have to do it at 5 in the morning or most nights it wouldn’t happen. 

I was motivated to do this only if I was working towards something. So for the first half of the year, my wife and I registered for what felt like every 5K offered in the state of Maryland. This got me running whenever I could, even during small 30 minute cracks of transition time in my schedule.

I am also very competitive with my orchestra teaching colleague. We both have the Nike+ Apple Watch and during the months of fall would constantly compete over who could run more miles by comparing the Nike+ leaderboards every day in class. Finding a friend or coworker to work out with can be very motivating, especially when you talk about it constantly throughout the day.

We also learned to “cheat” by turning things into workouts that might otherwise not be considered exercise. We have to tear down the entire cafeteria table layout and set up 85 chairs and stands every Tuesday and Thursday morning for our before-school Symphony Orchestra rehearsals. If you do this really fast and run an Apple Watch “Other” workout, you’d be surprised how many calories you can burn. We got that routine down to seven minutes by the middle of the year. And I can do it in 16 by myself. #proud

When it got cold outside, we decided to change it up. Our principal had a pull up bar sitting in his basement. We asked for it and decided that we would start doing pull-ups at the turn of every class period. Educators as we are, we decided that we would use this as a teaching tool. Much like playing an instrument, if you do something in small increments consistently, you get better. Who knew? Not our students... they continued to think our leaderboard of pull-ups was a competition until the last day of school. But some of them caught on. We were modeling how to develop skills with consistent work ethic. It is a good message to put on display. And my upper body got way stronger.

Alright, to my final work out hack. Fact: Young wind instrumentalists don’t know how to breathe properly. To make a good sound, you have to take a deep and relaxed breath in. Kids don’t know how to do this. But the body knows how to do it naturally… when it is out of breath. So for a sectional lesson or two a year, I try to put my students into this state by making them work out as a warm up. It started with jumping jacks, but I found that didn’t wear their energetic little bodies out enough so I took this 7 Minute Workout App (this is another great way to sneak workouts in to your work day, by the way), and projected it onto the big screen in my room. I did this for an entire rotation of sectionals this year (which is seven school days long). And I teach three sectionals a day. That is three high intensity workouts a day for a week and a half. Those kids have never made a fuller, fatter tone (that lacks any sense of control whatsoever... you kind of have to tell them that, and then express the need to breathe deeply but then have a consistent airflow out).

The 7 Minute Workout app.

The 7 Minute Workout app.

On to food. My wife is super generous about cooking dinners and picks up a huge weight there. But we don’t have any time to cook the other meals of the day. So what do we do?

Our grocery list starts with the following...eggs, onion, green pepper, salmon, chicken, sweet potatoes, avocados, and asparagus. Some weeks we stock up on yogurt and nuts. I am a creature of habit and can eat the same thing every day for a while before needing to change it up.

So every Sunday, we buy all of this stuff I just mentioned. Then 1-2 dozen eggs, an onion, and a green pepper go into a bowl with salt and pepper. Next, we pour this mixture into these silicon muffin tins and cook for 20-30 minutes at 425 degrees. I eat two of these with a half avocado every morning. I can make close to the best cup of coffee imaginable in under seven minutes with Blue Bottle coffee, an Aeropress, a Baratsa Virtuoso grinder, and this kettle

This is a slightly fancier recipe for the eggy things. By the way,  Paprika  is a killer app for recipe planning.

This is a slightly fancier recipe for the eggy things. By the way, Paprika is a killer app for recipe planning.

Next is lunch. Easy. All of those other vegetables get roasted with coconut oil, salt, and pepper, until lightly browned. Then the chicken and or salmon goes in the oven until it is just barely safe from poisoning me. I pre-pack these into my Prepd lunch box modular containers and all of it fits in my backpack. No need to bring a lunch box. I supplement with nuts and RX Bars.

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Tech Tools

Now on to time and energy management. Tools that help me manage the many events in my day and the tasks I squeeze in the cracks. BusyCal is my go to on the Mac. It looks and feels like the macOS Calendar app in nearly every way with a ton of great power features on top. It has weather integration, the ability to tag events with people, and more. My favorite is a persistently open “Info” panel on the right side of the screen. Instead of double clicking events to see the notes and location I have assigned them, I click once. And instead of a floating modal box, I can always see the contents of my events. This feature alone is worth the 50 dollars for me. Especially because I use the notes field to track what my private students are working on and I hate clicking so many times in the standard Calendar app to get this info to show up in those modular pop-over windows.

Each lesson, I type student’s assignment into the “notes” field of their block. My “Lessons” calendar is in Google Calendar, and I have published it to a password protected part of my website for private students only. This way, they can log in to see when their next lesson is, and also what I assigned them recently. Now there is no excuse for them to say they forgot what I assigned. And it cuts down tremendously on unneeded parent communication. 

Check out the right side of the user interface of BusyCal. Reminders and an edit window can be persistently visible on the screen.

Check out the right side of the user interface of BusyCal. Reminders and an edit window can be persistently visible on the screen.

OmniFocus has been my “todo” app for years. OmniFocus has a great feature called Review where you set your task lists to be reviewed every “x” days, weeks, or months. Every day, it rolls up projects that need to be reviewed. If I wake up up early, this is what I do the moment I sit down at my desk. But it is also possible to do in little spurts throughout the day. This ensures that things don’t slip through the cracks. 

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OmniFocus just released their version 3.0 for iOS. This introduces some killer new features. First of all, the Forecast view now shows your tasks inline with your calendar so that you have better context for when you should be working on them.

Next, OmniFocus 3 supports a tag that will show something in the Forecast even if it is not due. While Reviewing, for example, I simply swipe left on the tasks that I want to be thinking about for the day, and it adds them to the list. 

Forecast view shows me my todos in context with my calendar events.

Forecast view shows me my todos in context with my calendar events.

OmniFocus now allows you to assign multiple tags to the same task, so I have began including tags for energy level. “Low,” “Medium,” and “High” help me to filter items based on my current state. If I have five minutes, and haven’t eaten in a while, I can look at all the “Low” energy tags and get one or two done. 

Conclusion

I don’t have a grand way to conclude these 3000 words other than to say that I am very proud of my year. I am hoping that next year looks different. I’d like to be less busy, but more importantly, I want to be more focused. Chopping off “domains” of life should afford the opportunity to do fewer things better and with more peace of mind. For now, I think I am going to go for a run and try to enjoy this last week of summer. Please reach out to me if this post was helpful to you in any way shape or form. It took a lot of time to write. I thought about keeping it in a journal for only me, but was encouraged that it could benefit other teachers who are at similar risk for burnout or simply want to increase their productivity.

Expect more blogging next year! Until then, enjoy these final days of summer and have a wonderful school year!