Using Database Software in Your Band Program

I’ve gotten a lot out of listening to the Class Nerd Podcast and lots of the things that Robby Burns puts out. I was insanely jealous in the Class Nerd episode where Robby described his use of FileMaker in his band program. Unfortunately, I don’t have the chops with a program as complicated as FileMaker to make the best use out of it, nor do I have the resources for a deployment of it in my band program to the extent it would be as useful as I desire for something similar to Robby’s use of it. I tried other solutions, like Airtable, but they didn’t feel like the right fit.

At NEIBA this year, I caught Dave Anderson’s awesome talk that he gave at IBA last year (and described to me in person earlier in the year) about using Google Forms with an add-in essentially as a database for producing email reports to parents on lessons that I’m going to be looking at implementing eventually.

But a bug caught me the other day, and on a whim, I got sucked in to setting up a Ninox database for my band program. I have some insights to share from what little I’ve been able to do with it so far, and why it’s already paid dividends for me in tracking information.

The first question is ‘Why Ninox?’ I’m looking for something about in that budget range, but I don’t want to be paying for a regular cloud service fee. When I caught this bug awhile ago, I tried a few products without success before throwing in the towel. I picked up Tap Forms at that time, but didn’t invest the same amount of upfront work as I just have with Ninox to put it though its paces. Before I’m too far along in Ninox, I might wind up giving Tap Forms a more fair shake, just to see if it does some things better. Obviously, there’s also the band-focused software out there like Charms or Cut Time, but I want to try rolling my own system first.

The main goals I had with a database program were tracking program-level information. I wanted to be able to have a central hub of student information that I could easily extend to cover new vectors (in database parlance, tables). The two primary things I wanted to extend tracking for was instrument rentals and tracking information related to solos.

At my school, I have happily maintained my predecessor’s tradition of requiring all students to prepare and perform a solo at a local solo & ensemble event. After year one, I saw how much some of our students grew (particularly our first-years) through the event. It was also a lot of valuable feedback for me as someone new to the profession.

The only downside is the work of selecting a solo for every student in my program, managing our library, keeping track of payments, and coordinating accompanists without much time in my schedule to do it.

Enter Ninox

After getting a table set up in Ninox with core student information (emails, lesson time, what bands they participate in), adding another table for their solos was a cinch. It’s made it easy to track the information I need to submit for the contest coordinators, and it’s already saved me a lot of time.

Before, I threw together a spreadsheet from information I copied over, and then got to work filling it out, and trying to keep some things up to date. It’d be organized in a different way than my other spreadsheets of student information, and there’d inevitably be friction throughout the whole process.

Being able to link information together in Ninox has saved me a bunch of sanity already when I’m running on less sleep than is ideal. It still has a few friction points in terms of shortcuts and some minor bugs, but I’m getting the hang of its core functionality quite well. It’s also easy to keep the information up to date on my phone (essential when I’m in the workroom on a different floor, and much more reliable than having my fingers crossed that the right spreadsheets have synced in the right folder).

It’s because of these small friction points that I’m hoping Tap Forms might have a bit more for me than I’ve currently seen, but if not, I can live with Ninox.

If you’re looking to give a database program a serious whirl, I highly recommend starting by importing all of your student records from your grading system (Schoology, Canvas, PowerSchool, etc.) Adding students piecemeal is not an effective way to see if a database program is a good fit for you. You’ll also just wind up importing some of those things (like parent contact info) later anyway.

I’m hoping to scale it for some lesson-related tracking as well, but I’m not sure if it will handle the exact needs I have without throwing extra money at it. I’m also not sure how well it could integrate in my current physical set-up for lessons and the needs of my program, but I’ll continue to update regarding this journey.

Managing Multiple Drives and Managing My First Year

I’m well into the start of my first year teaching now, and things are crazy. I wanted to first share a tip I’m using to manage some of the work I’m doing on my own computer for work (I have a PC assigned to me by my school, but I’m working a lot outside of the school day).

I have my primary personal Google account set to my “default” Google account in my browser. The primary benefit of this is that if I click a link to a Google Doc anywhere on the web, it goes into that account (which is the behavior I want). The downside is that when I’m opening up a new tab or window for Google Drive in the middle of work-related things, I’d have to click the account switcher, select my work account, and then wait a second for Drive to reload while closing the first tab. It’s a small inconvenience, but it adds up doing it a lot.

Instead, I’ve bookmarked the Drive URL that I have after switching to my work account. It should be something like drive.google.com/drive/u/(number for that account)/my-drive. Your default account is 0, then each one down the list is another number.

To speed up getting there, I usually launch the bookmark from Alfred, as I don’t keep the bookmark tab open for Safari. It’s a pretty simple solution to a pretty simple problem, and I could always use a different web browser for work matters (but I don’t want to).

App updates

OmniFocus 3 has changed the game for me. I was part of the TestFlight for OF3 for iOS, and I’m now in the beta for OF3 for Mac. Tags and better perspectives are helping me manage a ton of work. I’m a bit disappointed that OF3.0 for Mac lacks support for the advanced notifications that OF3 for iOS has, because I’m still taking out my phone to set a reminder notification for tasks. It’ll come in a point update that I”m already excited for.

I’m constantly restructuring my projects and tags to make them work better for me, but it’s not a time sink, it’s just a chance to organize better. I have so much on my plate at work that I think I’d have a nervous breakdown without OmniFocus to keep track of it all.

I’ve finally got Drafts integrated into my workflow. Drafts 5 added some really nice features, and it’s a great fit. Part of the reason it was so essential is because of some degradation of my iPhone 6’s speed (which will cease to be a problem within the month), but it continues to be the first thing I open when someone tells me something in the hallway that I can’t forget. Most of it goes into OmniFocus still. Because of how little email I compose on iOS, I’m still not getting the most out of it, but between updates to my phone or Drafts coming for Mac, it will only be more useful soon.

I’m planning to write soon about how my adoption of Bear has let me keep track of the documents and emails for rehearsals and individual class periods, why Dorico has won me over, and how I’m getting great use of Pages for making materials.

Teaching Scales

I’ve put off posting for awhile because I’m running into some specific formatting issues with the top post in my drafts folder that I’m hoping a friend of mine can help me with.  In the mean time, I thought I’d dig up some resources for other music educators I’ve been meaning to post.  Today I’ve got some handouts for students on understanding major scales.

Beyond just knowing how to play any number of major scales on their instrument, it’s important that students understand the fundamentals of constructing them.  Beyond the muscle memory (that is itself a valuable skill for performing most diatonic music), it forms the basis for understanding a great deal in theory, and specifically serves as the best foundation for learning other scales (minor scales, modal scales, etc.)

While I’m sure there are more ways to conceptualize scales effectively (especially outside of the concert band set-up), through my own teachers and teaching experience, I’ve encountered two dominant approaches that I’ve made handouts for:

The first is understanding them by the circle of fourths.  This is my preferred method for teaching scales.  The way I see it, it builds a more innate understanding of the relationships between keys, which encourages a faster mental turnaround.  Of course, there’s a lot of bias in that viewpoint, because that’s the way I learned my scales.  I was fortunate to my former high school band director—Steve Stickney’s presentation at the 2017 Iowa Music Educators’ Conference on warming up bands, where he discussed teaching scales this way.  He had some useful warmups in his presentation notes that he has graciously permitted me to share.  These are useful regardless of your teaching approach on scales.

The other way that I have been exposed to teaching scales is through a series of rules that focus on the relationship between the last accidental and the name of the key.  While I think this requires more steps of processing longer in the learning process, it does better allow a teacher to guide a student to getting their answer and formatively assess where the comprehension may be breaking down in a lesson more easily.

I know both seem a little wordy, but during my student teaching, I was seeing light bulbs go off for seventh graders who were reading the latter handout after having had scales explained more than once in class.  While I’m fine with my second handout as is, I’d like to update the first for students down the road.  It would probably need to go on to a second page, but I would like to elaborate a bit more and discuss how “adding flats” to a key with sharps is just removing sharps (and vice versa).

I hope others find these useful!  Feel free to drop a line in the comments or on any other platform on the side bar regarding these!

Using Sibelius on a Laptop

In my opinion, Sibelius has some decent and intuitive keyboard shortcuts on a full keyboard, with its heavy emphasis around the numpad.  However, I find it to be essentially unusable on a Macbook Pro which lacks the numpad.  It has a “notebook” shortcut set, but I find that to be just as unusable, and far from intuitive.

I find it important to be able to enter into Sibelius very quickly.  I don’t use a MIDI keyboard input, and in all apps I try to minimize my use of the mouse.  As such, I’ve customized my keyboard shortcuts in Sibelius and I think they’re worth sharing.  Not just do I think they make Sibelius truly usable on my Macbook Pro, but I think they’re good enough that they could be faster for desktop users than moving their hands back and forth between the numpad.

You can download my shortcuts here.  To install them, you simply need to add them to your keyboard shortcut directory.  On OSX, this is located at:

~/Library/Application Support/Avid/Sibelius/Keyboard Shortcuts

You can open Finder, press ⇧⌘G, and paste the above path into Finder to load the folder open.  Here’s a video describing the process:

It’s worth noting that I don’t know if this shortcut file is usable on Windows because of the difference in modifier keys.  If someone would like to take my shortcuts and make an approximation for Windows, I’d be happy to link to it in this post.

I made this before I thought it would be worth sharing, as such, I didn’t document every change from the default. Feel free to share in the comments anything that’s different that I don’t mention. Maybe there’s a way to compare my shortcut file with the default with a script.

The biggest change is how I rebound the numpad.  As in Avid’s keyboard shortcuts, 1–9 on the numpad are mapped to 1–9 on the top row of the keyboard.  The top row (on Apple’s default keyboard, the characters =,/, and *, which cover the accent, staccato, and tenuto on the first page of the keypad) are bound to ⇧-, ⇧=, and ⇧⌫ on the number row.  The numpad “enter” is rebound to \ (which does ties on the first page of the keypad) between return and delete on the regular keyboard.  The forward and backward keypad buttons (+ and – on Apple’s numpad) are rebound to = and – without shift on the number row.  This lets you use the entire keypad without moving your fingers from the home row.

Other, less significant differences that I’m aware of:

  • ⌥⇧+2–9 are add below
  • ⇧, is advance caret (from when I was trying Dorico)
  • ⇧. activates the “Dot Undot Rhythms” plug-in (also inspired by my Dorico trial)
  • ⇧0 is bar rest
  • ⌥M triggers marcato accents.
  • Accidental parentheses is ⌥P (this is just a shortcut to the “bracket accidental” action on the accidentals keypad, and is subject to the same finicky behavior there)
  • Some rebinding done in the “Moving” options
  • I had ⌘P as export>pdf actually because I almost never physically printed directly from a dialog during my undergrad. It’s not the case in this file, but it might be useful for others.

There are some shortcuts that are worth noting that I’m unsure if I changed:

  • ⌥F is fermata
  • ⌥O is Optimize Staff Spacing
  • I might have moved other things around under Layout shortcuts
  • ⇧N is stop playback
  • ⌥⇧H toggles the selected “invisibles” in the View pane from showing or note showing.

The following bindings are open and might be useful if there’s something you really want bound that I don’t have bound: ⌥+0, ⌥+1, ⌘+1, ⌘+0

It’s worth noting I don’t have the following actions keybound:

  • Beaming – none of the actions on the third keypad are bound, I just change over to it
  • Breath marks – Individual symbols can’t be bound in Sibelius, but I think I’m going to use the Scoring Notes’ breath line workaround down the road.  Lines can be keybound and I think custom lines can be as well.
  • Barlines – I don’t see a way to bind a shortcut to just open the barlines pane (like you can the time signatures, etc.), and no single barline type is worth binding to me, but it might be to you.

Shortcomings:

  • When you’re entering in text, you can normally use a number of shortcuts to put in symbols (like ⌘4 for a quarter note in the text).  I believe these shortcuts only work with the numpad numbers, and I can’t find a way around this.  Would love to hear otherwise in the comments.  See below
  • I don’t know that it’s possible to do tab notation with the default keyboard shortcuts without a numpad.  My shortcuts don’t fix this and I don’t know that there’s a way to do that.

I do all of my work in Sibelius without using my MIDI keyboard.  The three main advantages of using one to me are:

  • Pre-selecting your octave instead of changing it after inputting the note (and thus hearing only the note you intend)
  • Putting in chords all at once
  • Velocity for playback

I am not so bothered by the first or third points for it to be a consideration, and I work primarily on wind parts, and the second part is fairly moot unless you’re editing primarily for piano parts.  To me, the speed of doing everything so fluidly without moving your hands from the computer keyboard makes this set-up more viable than using a MIDI keyboard.

Here’s a video demonstrating these keyboard shortcuts in action.  This video is primarily aimed at just demonstrating workflows in Sibelius for students to get a better handle on the software, but hopefully it demonstrates the speed at which you can work in Sibelius with these shortcuts.

 

Edit 1/26/18:
I’ve discovered that you can customize the shortcuts for inserting special text.  I have miraculously ignored the Word Menu options under Preferences since I bought Sibelius.  It’s worth noting that there is nothing visually distinguishing about the way it’s bound by default and the way it needs to be bound for use on the number row (both say, for example, on a quarter note ⌘4).  You also need to change them in each category, the most important for note values being “Tempo Words.”

I have modified this on the upload of my keyboard shortcuts I have posted, however I do not know if this is stored in that file.  You may need to fix this yourself.  Please let me know one way or the other whether this is remedied by my shortcuts file if you try it.  If it’s not working, try setting this file in:

~/Library/Application Support/Avid/Sibelius/Word Menus