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.

Dorico 3 SE Announced

I pivoted over to Dorico last year, and have had great results. I still get a bit of use out of Sibelius[1] for specific needs, but Dorico has become my primary driver. Someone on the Facebook groups for Dorico has worked out some of the kinks to the only limitations I’m feeling with Dorico, and I’m looking forward to exploring his ideas.

What’s very exciting, though, is that Steinberg has just released a free edition of Dorico, titled “SE.” I’m very excited for my students to be able to tap into the raw power of Dorico, compared to anything else available. It’s not just that it’s great software for someone doing serious work, but its treatment of music stands to be so much less in the way of a student than anything else on the market. I remember as a student fighting with Finale NotePad, and struggling to get results that looked passably professional. Nowadays, the engraving you can find on Musescore’s web portal is straight-up gruesome. Dorico acts as a mediator for the intent, though, in a way that I feel much better setting my students up with.[2]

While the limitations are definitely significant, Dorico SE, I think, is the ideal tool to have most of my students inputting actual music they want to have printable as something to play. Whether that’s things they’re trying to share that they’ve learned by ear or something they’ve found online[3]. I’m looking ahead towards being able to produce some aids for them to learn the basics. Dorico’s guided tour feature isn’t a bad start, but the learning curve to music notation software – even when I’d argue Dorico is relatively intuitive – is still steep.

UPDATE: Dorico’s Daniel Spreadbury reached out on my mention of Dorico’s limitations with MusicXML. I was mis-remembering some things, and for that I definitely apologize. Dorico does a pretty good job of importing MusicXML, though I would still actually recommend using MIDI export from MuseScore’s site. That’s not because Dorico can’t handle the import of the MusicXML well; it’s because by importing it as MIDI, Dorico will use its smarts of taking the intended lengths of the rhythms and the notes as pitches and make smarter choices for how to notate the rhythms and the enharmonic spellings than you’ll often find on the MuseScore portal.


  1. Which, coincidentally, just announced a really disappointing change in their upgrade policy that means I won’t be getting any new features until/unless it changes again.  ↩
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGeAm3YBgFc  ↩
  3. Musescore’s portal is actually a pretty good source for just finding music, even if its engraving is poor. Exporting to MusicXML into Dorico SE would be a good workflow for my students trying to get any music that has few enough instruments to support this behavior, but Dorico has had some standing issues with MusicXML – it’s one of the real strikes against it as a program right now.  ↩

Configuring SSH and rsub Without a Config File

I picked up an AWS Lightsail instance to play with while trying to learn a few things for personal hobbies. I’ve really taken to using Sublime Text, and one of my favorite features may be rsub. rsub piggy-backs off of a technology developed for TextMate called rmate. While BBEdit is able to open an entire FTP directory, and of course FTP clients are able to open whatever editor you please, there are times it’s nice to be able to launch into editing directly from a shell.

I got the basic setup from Keyrus for installing rmate on my Lightsail server. Briefly, it’s:

sudo wget -O /usr/local/bin/rsub https://raw.github.com/aurora/rmate/master/rmate
sudo chmod +x /usr/local/bin/rsub

rsub is installed locally through Package Control for Sublime Text.

Unfortunately, I’ve had some issues with my SSH config file, so I was unable to get rsub to tunnel back. If you follow the instructions on the linked post, you wouldn’t have to deal with this. I, however, needed to establish this in my ssh startup command (loaded into the iTerm profile for my Lightsail instance).

I got the answer on fixing the tunnel from Stack Overflow, using the bind address option. On top of that, I declare the identity file of my private key in the SSH command[1] when I’m loading the server, and I wasn’t sure immediately what order to handle those in.

The final command was:

ssh -R 52698:localhost:52698 -i FILEPATHTOPRIVATEKEY username@instance.url

Loaded in that manner, I can just load text files using rsub with ease.

I wanted to share this just to lay out the solution for anyone dealing with the same thing, and because I haven’t had an excuse to post in awhile. None of this would be hard to figure out for anyone doing this on a serious basis, but that doesn’t describe me at all.


  1. This should also be done in the SSH config file. After trying to configure SSH in Sourcetree with Github, I started having issues SSHing elsewhere through iTerm and deleting the config file solved all of those problems. I have no idea what I’m doing.  ↩

2018 Recap: OmniFocus 3 and my Fall Hardware Bumps

I’ve recently written to end out 2018 about apps that finally stuck this year and the most important book.

The two changes in my workflows this year that made me happiest were my Fall hardware upgrades and OmniFocus 3.

When I got into OmniFocus 2 last year it changed the game for me. To put some numbers behind that, I’ve kept track of 3,211 actions since getting OmniFocus, and completed 523 since the beginning of November alone (when my actions last archived). I keep everything that I’m trying to keep track of in OmniFocus, from new habits and routines, to whatever level of detail I need to break up a bigger project into. I use it to keep emails of things I need to do out of the way (with Airmail links), grading, and just having a list of the things that need to happen before I go home.

OmniFocus 3 came out first on iOS and then on the Mac. The best feature for me on iOS was initially being able to attach notifications that were unbound from due and defer dates. Unfortunately, this still hasn’t made its way to the Mac version, so its usefulness has started to dissipate. But the new tags feature and the accompanying custom perspectives have been awesome.

The custom perspectives feature as it exists today is exactly what I hoped it was back in OmniFocus 2. Now it supports a huge list of arguments, and nested AND/OR functionality that gets me the exact task list I need. With good tagging, this is even more useful (for example, a filter of items that contain the tags that mean something takes place at school, organized by date).

OmniFocus on iOS has become way more useful to me though, with my far more useful XS Max. I felt guilty spending this much money on a phone, but I’ve been holding out for it since its first leak in December 2017. The additional screen size makes it vastly more useful for keeping track of all the information I’m handling on my phone, especially in OmniFocus. Because I was coming from an iPhone 6 Plus, I had a ton of other upgrades along with that screen size including (by my likely faulty math) 240% better processor performance, 3D Touch, Face ID, and an OLED screen, among other things. (As an aside, 1Password’s new AutoFill features that iOS 12 enabled with Face ID takes all the friction of using a password manager away, and actually makes it faster than my bad password practices ever were).

I also picked up an Apple Watch this fall. They were a hard enough tech item to grasp from others’ accounts and using demo models that I really didn’t have a great idea of what to expect. I’m surprised by how easy it is to get drawn into the fitness features, and in love with keeping media controls on my wrist. It’s also changed the way I handle a number of apps (and finally gotten me into using Due to pester me to make sure I get something run down the hall for another teacher between classes or remember a special announcement at the start of class.)

Ultimately, technology is something that I do get enjoyment out of. It’s part of why I decided to blog, and it dominates my podcast feeds. I remember being a kid and playing with the calendar on Outlook wishing I had a job so I could have coworkers to schedule meetings with and use the availability features. As an adult, technology does find its way to make work easier, and some challenges become a bit brighter because of the tools I get to use to solve them.

2018 Recap: Apps that I didn’t ‘get’ in 2017

2018 has been a bumpy road, and there are a few things I want to write as a recap on the year. After talking about reading the Bible in a year, I wanted to focus on three apps that I’d tried previously or owned but wasn’t making very good use of.

Day One

I’d picked up Day One for the Mac back at the end of 2016, but I didn’t really get into it (or ever pick it up for iOS). When they went to a subscription model I originally wrote it off entirely. It was a post over on The Sweet Setup that showed me the role Day One could play in my digital life. To summarize his article, momentos, cards, and letters are easily preserved in Day One as memories, in addition to traditional journaling. I’ve also enjoyed using it to keep track of my life through my first year teaching and things happening on the personal side.

It’s still a bit hard to justify the subscription price, but I look forward to one day being able to print these journals, likely for my kids.

Drafts

I’d heard the Mac Power Users go on about Drafts quite a bit, and tried it myself without it really sticking. It was generally just a substitute for my OmniFocus inbox that wouldn’t get processed. With the release of Drafts 5, things started clicking much better. It wasn’t any specific feature contained within Drafts 5 (though I’m getting great use of Workspaces for literal drafts of things I write), but it inspired me to make other tweaks in my workflow (including adding Bear). Until I upgraded some of my hardware, it also served as a better dumping ground for OmniFocus tasks where I otherwise might let things slip, as well as recording things that would eventually go to Day One or other destinations. It does take a bit of added time to process down my inbox in Drafts, but it allows me to make sure everything really does get captured.

My hardware upgrades in 2018 allowed for Drafts to become even more supercharged though. As a method of capture, speaking into it on my Apple Watch is generally the fastest and most accessible thing I have access to. And I don’t have to be concerned about finding its fit in OmniFocus right away (lots of things wind up getting added to an existing Bear note or just getting put straight into its destination, like an email, from Drafts). Drafts also launched its beta Mac version this year. This makes it that much more versatile of a writing environment. Actions aren’t a part of the Mac app yet, so processing Drafts on the Mac is a bit clumsier than it is on iOS, but it’s freeing having all of my text accessible on the Mac.

Drafts works for me much better than the sticky note systems I see my fellow teachers using. As I process things down, I feel like I’m truly clearing clutter from my life. And as I continue to stress my OmniFocus system, it’s a major bonus being able to separate capture from my OmniFocus inbox many days. Now that it is free to use the basic version, it’s worth a try for anyone who makes major use of iOS.

TextExpander

I’ve always been a fast typist, and the idea of paying for a service to save me time typing was really never attractive. I had a free year of TextExpander from a bundle I’d previously purchased, and I redeemed it this year to see if there was anything to it. For awhile, even with its snippet suggestions, I wasn’t getting very much value, but with the start of the school year I’ve finally found its niche. TextExpander is valuable for me not because of reducing characters typed, but in reducing the amount I’m thinking when writing.

First it was with snippets that format date for files (yyyy-mm-dd) and for the way I want it to appear on printed documents (mm/dd/yyyy). This saved me moving up to the number rows and the little bit of mental energy it took to think through my desired date format and the actual day in my menubar. But I was able to quickly branch out with fill-ins for sending cookie cutter emails (like emails regarding a new lesson book or a blurb at the end of an email explaining to the student that I’ve cc’d their parents). It’s not just having my words thought through ahead of time, but when I’m filling forms, the way multiple parts of a snippet can draw from a single field (e.g. if I properly set up a snippet, I can have a student’s name filled in everywhere I need it after I’ve typed it once). I sometimes feel a bit self-conscious about using these snippets when emailing parents, but I also know there’s no shame in trying to cut down on the number of hours I’m working right now. I spend a lot of time torturing myself over phrasing in emails home, and being able to reuse my own words where I can may allow me to have time in my life outside of work.


TextExpander and Drafts both allow for JavaScript to make actions more powerful, and if my life gets any less crazy in 2019, I’ll hopefully find the time to learn the skills necessary to make use of these features. On top of this, OmniJS is coming to OmniFocus (hopefully) in 2019, and there are a lot of things in OmniFocus I’d like to accomplish that I think this will enable. I’m not sure what the best way to learn JavaScript is solely for automation, but I picked up a great deal on m1m0, though practicing some of these early skills has been hard.

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.

I’m Not an Apple Fanboy

For the foreseeable future I plan to use some version of an iPhone for my cell phone, a Mac for my computer, and an iPad for my tablet. I plan to pick up an Apple Watch as my first and future smart watches, and I continue to sink more money into powerful apps that would not follow me if I ever did decide to switch out of the Apple ecosystem.

But while I love their products, and follow their news closely, I am loathe to call myself an “Apple Fanboy,” and I think approaching Apple—or any company—as a fan is not a positive thing.

I subscribe to r/Apple, and listen to the Mac Power Users podcast and am a member of their Facebook group. I see a lot of posts on there, and miss very little from the RSS feeds of MacRumors, 9to5Mac, and AppleInsider among other blogs that focus on topics related to— or exclusive to the Apple ecosystem. On some of these sites (such as the MPU group), I see healthy discussion that allows me to get more out of my devices, and sometimes discourse over broader tech ideas. However, I see a lot of very different coverage from some Apple news sites or communities I visit.

First, I want to acknowledge something about the sites whose content I’m discussing. Apple is one of the biggest companies in the world, and there’s a lot of discussion from an investment perspective that happens. And it’s not just these sites I’ve mentioned that do it; I see a great deal of web coverage out there on any tech companies that is also market discussion. It’s hard to separate, and there’s certainly an audience of people who aren’t geeks who have an interest in Apple (or any tech company for that matter) that is purely financial.

Regardless of the motive for the coverage, I see a lot of content that seeks to defend Apple regardless of its errors. Recently, this has been discussion about the Macbook/Macbook Pro keyboard issues, battery throttling, or the market performance of Apple’s product lines in 2018. There is great effort to take legitimate grievances about how Apple has handled problems they’ve caused themselves and dismiss them. Obviously, in the broader climate of news coverage, this happens in far more nefarious and impactful ways than discussing dust under some keys, but it’s nevertheless strange to see sites dedicated to covering Apple exclusively dismissing these problems in their editorials.

I’ve also seen responses to accusations about Apple stagnating, that focus entirely on the sales of Apple compared to its competitors and making the wrong conclusions. When people complain, for example, that iOS’s notification system is archaic and a problem, Android’s fragmentation isn’t the answer. Or when the Touch Bar on the 2016–17 Macbook Pros is highlighted as missing the mark, Microsoft’s bad Surface sales [1] fails to solve Apple’s own failure. There is a current reward to Apple playing it relatively safe in choosing new features, but Apple would probably be seeing the same revenue with an iOS release that added some keyboard buttons to the iPhone that are arbitrarily locked to the iPad.

There are certainly cases to be made in defense of Apple in these instances, but the nature of most of the arguments I’m seeing is somewhat disingenuous. With the battery throttling, for example, it was somewhat blown out of proportion in its severity[2], but the people writing Apple a free pass on their deceptive comments and lack of transparency aren’t giving us a more accountable tech sector.

And while Apple’s received a few knocks of bad press recently, I don’t want to cast this as a 2018 issue in coverage. The same approach to issues like labor with Foxconn and Steve Jobs’s professional behavior is a problem. While I don’t think that a tech blogger ultimately should be held to the whole book of journalistic ethics, things are still out of perspective. And community members and fans of Apple products shouldn’t get a free pass either. Too much criticism that could actually improve products and services is met by a cadre of internet knights who feel that one of the five richest companies on Earth need their defending.

I don’t want to leave this post as some sort of hit piece on Apple itself. There are ways Apple has impressed me as a company, particularly by encouraging iPhone users to sign up for Donate Life, and the stance they took over the San Bernardino[3]. And regardless of their failings as a company, the products have still very much earned my preference. At the end of the day, I’m much more critical of Apple’s treatment by its fans than the company itself.


  1. I know this is the only story/narrative I’m sourcing in this article, but there are two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to individually call out any individuals who I’m criticizing in the Apple press for a number of a reasons. The second is that I know this is the single point in this post someone would be most inclined to leave an angry comment about.  ↩

  2. My iPhone 6 is feeling pretty slow these days, but I don’t think that older phones being less desirable is anything new. I don’t think any more iPhone users have gone out to get new phones due to throttling than Galaxy users have gone out to get new phones due to lack of updates or battery degradation that doesn’t see throttling. All the same, the problems with other phones don’t vindicate Apple’s missteps on their own. This sort of “look at this other company,” deflection is what I see 11 year-olds doing when they’re reprimanded for being on their phones. It’s not an acceptable standard for adults, much less multibillion dollar companies.  ↩

  3. While it’s easy today to see the positive PR that built, and be cynical about Apple’s privacy stance as nothing other than marketing, it was a ballsy move at the time. It’s easy to forget how much negative reaction there was to this in general.  ↩