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App of the Week: PDF Expert 7

Readdle Launches PDF Expert 7, Free Update for iPhone & iPad

Today we are incredibly excited to launch PDF Expert 7 — our vision of what the ultimate PDF experience for every iPhone and iPad should be.

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This week’s update to PDF Expert secures it as my favorite PDF app on iOS. The one and only problem I have been having with it for the past year or two was its lack of integration with the iOS document browser, which shows you the same interface as the Files app when selecting which PDF you want to work with. I wrote about this last week with reference to the OmniGroup’s apps getting support for the native file browser this fall.

Accessing the the document browser is a tap away at all times. A ‘recent documents’ option is also one tap away. This is helpful because PDF Expert does a great job of integrating different options for managing your PDFs. It has Dropbox and Google Drive support. It also allows you to store PDFs locally within the app. This is useful for me when I am creating new PDFs or temporarily making copies of them for the purpose of editing the order of pages, the text of my documents, etc...

The PDF Expert 7 interface. ‘My Files’ are locally stored documents which do not sync to iCloud. They can be viewed in the Files app through the PDF Expert file provider.

The PDF Expert 7 interface. ‘My Files’ are locally stored documents which do not sync to iCloud. They can be viewed in the Files app through the PDF Expert file provider.

I like my ‘one true’ copies of my documents to live in iCloud. I will often take a scan of a stack of concert band parts, drag it into PDF Expert, extract the individual pages into separate parts (Flute 1, Flute 2, etc.), and then save these parts back to iCloud. I don’t want any of the extra files generated during this process cluttering up my documents folder, so its nice to have a quarantined area of PDF Expert where they can live.

The old PDF Expert interface.

The old PDF Expert interface.

The PDF Expert file provider, accessed through the Files app.

The PDF Expert file provider, accessed through the Files app.

These local files can also be accessed from the native Files app as PDF Expert is a file provider.

Furthermore, PDF Expert gets its own iCloud folder where you can store documents by default. This is becoming less necessary because of how easy it is to access the Files interface, regardless of where your PDFs are stored.

As mentioned above, the ‘recents’ option makes it more streamlined to find what you want, no matter which of these methods you have used to store documents.

I am focusing a lot on the file workflow here because PDF Expert 6 already had the best feature set of any PDF app I have used on iOS. A clean interface, great editing tools, the ability to edit the text and images of a PDF (for real!) and more. These features are now all free. PDF Expert 7 introduces some pro features that come at the cost of 50 dollars a year. Some of these features include converting to PDF from Word or Excel files, and the option to customize the look and feel of the editing tools at the top of the screen. I am glad PDF Expert chose these features to put in the paid tier. It is just enough that it will be worth it for some users, but all of the good stuff is still in the free version.

I will probably try the one week free trial but will most likely stick with the free version.

These PDFs are stored inside of iCloud Drive, inside a folder called PDF Expert. Though this is becoming less necessary now that the Files app is integrated more directly into the app.

These PDFs are stored inside of iCloud Drive, inside a folder called PDF Expert. Though this is becoming less necessary now that the Files app is integrated more directly into the app.

The new PDF Expert interface puts the iOS document browser. In this screenshot, I can directly access PDFs that are stored in my musical Scores folder, which is in my iCloud Drive.

The new PDF Expert interface puts the iOS document browser. In this screenshot, I can directly access PDFs that are stored in my musical Scores folder, which is in my iCloud Drive.

Omni Apps are Adopting Apple’s Standard iOS Document Browser this Fall

Adopting Apple’s Standard iOS Document Browser - The Omni Group

In 2019, we think it’s time to retire our custom document browser in favor of using Apple’s built-in document browser—and with our iOS 13 updates this fall we’ll be doing just that. Instead of seeing our custom file browser, you’ll be presented with the standard iOS document browser—just like in Apple’s own iWork apps. Using Apple’s browser, you’ll be able to store and sync your documents using Apple’s built-in iCloud Drive, or third-party commercial options like Box—or even in cloud- or self-hosted collaborative git repositories using Working Copy.

As a user of OmniFocus, OmniGraffle, and OmniOutliner, I am grateful that the OmniGroup is making this change. The Files app on iPad works very similarly to the Finder on Mac these days. So when I open or save a document on an iPad, I want to see that same interface. It's exactly the same as if I were on a Mac. I would never go to the File-->Open menu and expect to see anything other than the traditional Save/Open dialogue box that I see for every other app. This is standard on Mac. (Mostly. Some apps like Microsoft Office still refuse to use it.) So it is only fitting that in iOS, document based apps display the system provided interface for interacting with files.

In apps like Pages, for example, opening a new document displays an interface that looks and behaves like the Files app.

In apps like Pages, for example, opening a new document displays an interface that looks and behaves like the Files app.

MindNode is an example of a third party app that uses the same Files interface as Apple’s own apps.

MindNode is an example of a third party app that uses the same Files interface as Apple’s own apps.

Apps like OmniOutliner show a custom interface. Fortunately, OmniGroup is changing this behavior in the fall.

Apps like OmniOutliner show a custom interface. Fortunately, OmniGroup is changing this behavior in the fall.

PDF Expert is another example of an app that does not use the native file picker. Hopefully they will get the message and adopt it soon.

PDF Expert is another example of an app that does not use the native file picker. Hopefully they will get the message and adopt it soon.

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!”

A Blogging Experiment

Yesterday I posted The 7 Best Apple Home Devices on this blog. In part this was an effort to condense some of my intense study on the subject of home automation over the past four or five years so that someone could benefit from a broad-stroke overview of how I set everything up.

But this post was also 50 percent an experiment. Two summers ago, I posted The 6 Best Automation Apps for iOS. Strangely, this has become the most popular blog on my entire website, by far. This is despite it not really being about music or education, and despite the fact that blogs like MacStories pump out articles 100 times better on the subject, regularly.

My second most popular post is a video about indexing large PDFs using the musical score app forScore on iPad. It is far less popular from the post on automation, but still far more popular than anything I have ever posted. I feel like it represents my niche pretty accurately.

I did some thinking on what could have made my automation blog post so popular. Was it that the title is concise? Bold? Simple? Was it that it had a bite-sized, concrete, number of apps in that same title? Or was it that I successfully tagged the post so that it shows up in a lot of web searches? I tried to replicate a little bit of that format in yesterday’s home automation post, while still writing about something I am passionate about. We will see how well it does.

And please do tell me if the home automation post was helpful to you in any way.

Off to the Ohio Music Educators Association Professional Development Conference

I am so excited to be returning to Cleveland for the weekend to present at the Ohio Music Educators Association Professional Development Conference.

Here are the session notes of all three presentations I am giving this weekend…

Teaching Intonation with Tonal Energy | February 1, 2019, 12:30 pm | Room 21

Become a Mac Power User | February 1, 2019, 5 pm | Room 21

Going Paperless with iPad | February 2, 2019, f11 am | Room 21

I am wishing all of my friends at Maryland attending the MMEA conference and my students who are participating in the All State Bands a great weekend.

Favorites of 2018 - Apps!

These posts will never happen if I don’t make it fuss free. So here is it! With little introduction or fanfare, the ‘stuff’ that made up my year. My favorite albums, live shows, apps, and ‘things’ of 2018.

Next up, apps!

Apps

Things and OmniFocus

Task management software makes up about 50 percent my time on computing devices so it’s natural that I include what I consider to be the best two apps in this field. After seven years of using OmniFocus, I am experimenting with Things again. I plan to write about this switch in more detail but for now I leave you with this: if you are looking for a powerful way to stay on top of your tasks and don’t mind paying for a premium design, check these apps out.

The Today view in Things displays all of my tasks for the day alongside my calendar.

The Today view in Things displays all of my tasks for the day alongside my calendar.

The Forecast view in OmniFocus is similar to the Today view in Things. Though I have it turned off in this screenshot, it actually displays your tasks inline with your calendar events so you can see where ‘due’ tasks fit into your day.

The Forecast view in OmniFocus is similar to the Today view in Things. Though I have it turned off in this screenshot, it actually displays your tasks inline with your calendar events so you can see where ‘due’ tasks fit into your day.

Health

The Health app by Apple is my hub for collecting all sorts of data about myself from various devices, apps and clinics. It houses data from devices like my Apple Watch, Spire respiratory monitor, Fitbit WiFi scale, and Spark Smart Water Bottle. It tracks data in third party apps like: work outs, active calories burned, steps, heart rate, sleep, water intake, nutrition, meditation minutes, caffeine intake, and blood pressure. It can now even aggregate health data from participating clinics and practices so I don’t have to log into a million web portals. My Quest and LabCorp results are a tap away. The beauty of the app is that it allows me to organize these data points and see them alongside one another so I can draw meaningful conclusions about them. Like for example, I eat better on days when I get more sleep.

Home

Apple’s Home app is the hub for controlling my smart home. I can control all of my smart things in the same user interface rather than by punching into lots of different apps. I can also use it to automate different actions. For example, my Good Morning scene automatically runs at 6:30 am every day which turns on my lights, changes the temperature, and lately, turns on the Christmas tree.

My Today view in Apple Health aggregates all of my health data regardless of which app is responsible for tracking it.

My Today view in Apple Health aggregates all of my health data regardless of which app is responsible for tracking it.

The My Home view in Apple Home shows my most used home automation devices and ‘scenes.’

The My Home view in Apple Home shows my most used home automation devices and ‘scenes.’

Tonal Energy Tuner

Absolute must for an instrumental music teacher. Using the new Screen Time feature on iOS reveals that I spend too much time on Reddit. But also that I spend more time than any other app in Tonal Energy. It’s literally running in the foreground all day long while I’m at school, helping students to match pitch, blend, and keep steady time.

Trello

This may be my productivity discovery of the year. Trello is the team project app you have been waiting for. It’s vibrant, Kanbab board style interface will have your team, family, or Dungeons and Dragons group enjoying every minute of collaboration. Bonus points for how well this app integrates with Slack which is my preferred team communication tool.

Planning concerts in Trello allows my team to share todos, check lists, files, and more. We can give items due dates and even assign tasks to other members.

Planning concerts in Trello allows my team to share todos, check lists, files, and more. We can give items due dates and even assign tasks to other members.

GoodNotes

GoodNotes has become my go-to handwritten note application. It acts like a bookshelf of notebooks so to speak. I take a lot of the work I create in iWork, Ulysses, and OmniGraffle, export them as PDFs, organize them into notebooks in GoodNotes, then annotate them on the go using my iPad. My favorite thing to do with it is keep a notebook of seating charts that have my rehearsal annotations on top of the names of my students. I love how you do not need to trigger an annotation mode to start scribbling on a document with the Apple Pencil. It just feels like paper.

Streaks

There are a lot of great habit building apps out there but Streaks has stuck with me because it encourages you to focus on just six habits at a time. When I am building too many habits at once, they start to feel like a todo list. The Streaks method of choosing six, along with its addictive user interface, keep me launching the app, which keeps me working towards my goals.

AutoSleep and AutoWake

Of the ten or so sleep trackers I have tried for the iPhone and Apple Watch, AutoSleep has stuck with me the most. There are numerous things I like about it, but most of all is how it figures out the most accurate number of hours I have been asleep whether I wear my watch to sleep or not. The companion app, AutoWake, wakes me up silently with haptic feedback on the watch. It does this when I am in my least deep sleep within a half hour before my alarm is set to go off. This eases me awake rather than jolting me awake. I plan to blog later this month about how I am automating some cool stuff in my house when I wake up using this app.

WaterMinder

WaterMinder is my favorite app for tracking water intake, mostly because of its well designed and space efficient widget.

Shortcuts

I did not get as much out of the Siri Shortcuts app this year as I wanted to. In fact, I had a lot of bad luck with it. But it is still an app that is working really well for me in a couple of small areas. In one tap, it generates a clean copy of my band's seating chart in GoodNotes for annotations and opens my lesson plan for the day in OmniOutliner. 

The Waterminder Widget.

The Waterminder Widget.

Some of my Shortcuts.

Some of my Shortcuts.

CARROT⁵ Weather

This is my favorite weather app due to its clean and appealing design. It gets my pick this year because of how they continue to innovate the Apple Watch app. My favorite feature of the watch is the customizable complications. Carrot makes the best weather complication for the Apple Watch, maybe the best complication, period. Carrot allows infinite customization for how it looks on the watch, depending on which watch face you like to view it, and even in which corner of the watch face you prefer to keep it installed.

The Carrot Weather app complication can be seen in the lower left corner.

The Carrot Weather app complication can be seen in the lower left corner.

Streaks. Guess I can check off that one in the lower right corner now.

Streaks. Guess I can check off that one in the lower right corner now.

Using BusyCal and OmniFocus to Manage My Time

Back on September 3rd I posted My annual resume… and the things I learned from it. This post was 3,000ish words which honestly feels too long to expect anyone to digest. So I have broken down its meatier portions into a few blog posts which I will be posting here in the coming days. Of course, I do recommend you read a little bit of the original post for some context.

In that post, I discuss a lot of the ways I manage my time. I broke that down into cooking, exercise, and technology tools. Today, I am reposting the “Tech Tools” section of the post where I detail two of my favorite time saving productivity apps for the Mac.

BusyCal

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

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. 





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!