iPad and a Christmas Singalong for Seniors

At this time of year, care homes, lunch clubs and community groups often want to have a a good singalong. All too often, though, they don’t have anyone with sufficient confidence to lead one and provide instrumental support. That was the obstacle encountered by the ladies who put on tea parties for the senior members of our parish. For some reason, all those they usually call upon were unavailable and I was asked, at the last minute, to step in. My solution was a simple one that’s available to many carers, so I thought I’d share it here.

We don’t have a piano in the church hall at the moment and, if we did, I would have been reluctant to use it. I know from experience that making eye contact with members of a group and singing, even unaccompanied, engenders confidence and involvement far in excess of anything possible when dividing my attention between direct communication and providing an accompaniment. In the past, when lacking an accompanist, I have kept myself free to facilitate by providing accompaniments through a computer system running professional music software. That was some years ago, though, and the technology has all changed, with the result that many of the Christmas music files don’t play back correctly on my current software and equipment. The old stuff is buried, deep in the garage, underneath the remnants of my old kitchen! Then, “Yippee!!!” – the iPad came to the rescue.



For a singalong, it’s important to be able to quickly adjust the speed and pitch of the music to suit the assembly. On the iPad I used the very simple Jam Player app to do this. The app also allowed me to move very quickly between pieces, which is another important consideration in this context. The accompaniments were nearly all  my own musical arrangements but a less experienced musician could use music downloaded from iTunes or other online sources. Jam Player will load the music from the Music folder into which the iPad automatically saves downloaded music files. My only quibble with this was that the first playback started automatically as soon as the file loaded, so I had to get in quickly and click “Stop”, so that music started at my convenience, not that of the iPad! That isn’t too big a deal, though, in an informal gathering.

I have been looking, without success,  for  equally simple audio playback with pitch and speed options for PC and Android. There are, though, several players for both operating systems and many non-specialists will be familiar with one or more of them and use them to play their own music collections. Some like  Microsoft’s Media Player will allow the user to edit the speed but the controls aren’t all on one screen like Jam Player’s simple knobs. Slightly more tech-savvy folk may be happy to use a separate app like “Amazing Slowdowner” for editing  files prior to use.

On the PC, Full Pitcher’s “MIDIgrid” and “GridPlay” software provides a very simple playback facility for midifiles, where numerous tracks can be presented on a single screen, ready for playback in quick succession. The end-user doesn’t have to know anything about MIDI or music to use this software but can just “click and play”.

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Sol-fa Syllables for Some Major Scales

Here is another screen capture from the free “Learn Tonic Solfa with GridPlay” software. This grid allows you to play the notes of four major scales on a modulator which is labelled with both letter names and sol-fa syllables:


The various grids included in the software present scales in different inversions for different learning situations. For example, simple songs often use a range from low ‘so’ to the ‘mi’ above the tonic.

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Teachers could edit these grids in the parent program, MIDIgrid, to add other keys or ranges.

Below is a PDF file showing both sol-fa symbols (Kodaly) and notation for several major scales:

Solfa and notation

Support for Non-specialist Music Teachers

One way in which I try to achieve the Full Pitcher aim of widening music access is by supporting non-specialist teachers through resources made available on the website. This includes online playback of all the music, simple software to deliver my own teaching materials and activities, tried and tested over a long career teaching a wide range of ages and abilities (my avatar photo has been around for a while! ), classroom projects, creative activities for children, songs to share

Online Music
Online playback enables teachers, unable to read music or play an instrument, to learn new repertoire. Where they are able to access the internet in the classroom, they can explore the online activities with pupils and use the playback as accompaniments. The website is available worldwide, 24/7, and this is particularly helpful where teachers are working in isolated or poorly resourced settings. The music is available as pdf downloads, of which a significant proportion are free. If the music is too high, too low, or needed notated for a different instrument, I am happy to respond to requests for adaptation.

Creative Software
GridPlay is a non-editable version of MIDIgrid, a remarkable piece of authoring software, which I have used to support my own teaching, from pre-school to adult education and with all abilities. GridPlay Level 1 (3-7) Level 2 (8+) and Carers/Teachers (severe special needs) are not prepackaged lesson plans, suitable only for one situation, on one occasion. Rather they are ‘tool boxes’ of repertoire, virtual instruments and activities which have resourced my own teaching and which I now make available to others.

Inspiring Confidence
As I have done all the work ‘behind the scenes’, it is not necessary to have any special knowledge of computers or music to get ‘hands on’ with the software although, of course, some musical experience can enable wider application. Nor are these intended just for use seated around the computer, although they can be used in that way. The accompanying e-books  suggest how each activity can be carried out away from the computer and integrated with singing and acoustic instruments.  The latter is the preferred way of using the resources. GridPlay Creative Explorations Level 1 and Level 2 comprise virtual instruments, lyrics of songs, some with sheet music and all with backing tracks, teacher notes suggesting individual and class activities for each grid.

Songs and Activities
here are numerous songs  for which lyrics and playback are provided online,often associated with free PDF free downloads. These songs, located on the Seasonal and Kids’ Pages of the website, are all accompanied by simple creative activities.

Classroom Projects:
The “Creative Classroom” projects pages cover all key stages. There are also teacher notes for non-specialist teachers with copious suggestions for using the Easy/Classrooms Ensembles  as a basis for improvisation.

Why Non-Techie Teachers/Amateur Singers Should Download This Software

Now, here’s an offer that has potential for many musicians! Most would like to be able to create their own scores if it didn’t mean spending weeks learning to use software and parting with wads of hard-earned cash. To celebrate the 500,000th installation of their software, FORTE Music Notation are, for a limited time, giving away the Basic version of their software.Basic is readily accessible by beginners dipping a toe in for the first time, while more advanced versions are powerfully featured in the hands of more experienced users. But, even for those who don’t actually want to create scores from scratch, it has other useful functions.

Singers in amateur choirs often need support to learn their parts and there are several websites which provide free MIDI files for this purpose. FORTE will import these files and display them in notation and then afford various ways to customise them. Providing they have been recorded as type 1 MIDI, as they are on most choral sites, each voice will be displayed as a separate track. Clicking on ‘Mixer; opens the volume control for each track, so the desired voice can be brought out. it is especially effective if a different instrumental sound is used for each voice, which is done by selecting in this sequence: Home – Mixer- Click on track – Properties – Instrument. On the right hand side of the MIxer ribbon is the Master Volume and a tempo slider, so playback can also be slowed down at the same time. Singers can improve sight-singing as they follow the cursor through their part, as the music plays back.

MIDI files can be very useful for the music teacher, particularly in providing accompaniments. Available audio files are often not in the appropriate key and are usually too fast for instrumentalists. In FORTE, MIDI files can be very quickly transposed to any key and this is shown in the introductory video. Tempo sliders are found in the Mixer, Playback and Record ribbons. As described for singers, the volume of each part can be adjusted in the Mixer, to support a particular voice or instrument.

Rounds and repeated accompaniments/ riffs often feature in music lessons and these can be quickly entered in FORTE using copy and paste, as demonstrated in the introductory video. .They can then be assigned distinctive instrumental timbres to facilitate learning of parts.

There are numerous pieces in the program’s library – folk songs, music by a range of classical composers, hymn tunes, etc.These constitute a useful resource for sight-reading and study. They can be printed out for performance, orchestration and arrangement.

All in all, not a bad package for free!!! So get your hands on this lovely gift and share it with your friends. FORTE Basic is available as a free download until 14th September from http://www.fortenotation.com/en/lp/giveaway/

For more information about MIDI files, see http://fullpitcher.co.uk/midifun.htm

Have fun!

Adding Music From CD to iPad, for Beginners

As promised, in this post I will describe adding the music from a CD to the iPad music folder in the simplest, most direct way I can.

Many people now have an iPad as their sole computing device because it’s a supremely simple and portable way to access the things computers are most commonly used for. However, it doesn’t have a fraction of the functionality of a laptop unless you can hook it up to a computer to manage content! So, to add the music from a CD, we must obtain access to a computer running iTunes software (PC or Mac) and  a CD drive:

1. Connect iPad to the USB port of the computer.

2, Open ITunes software and login with the Apple ID used on the iPad.

3. Click on “My Music Tab” to open the music library for the account.

4. Insert an audio  CD

   -A message will appear asking you to confirm that you wish to add all the tracks on the CD to the library.

5. Click on “Yes” to import the entire CD

         – iTunes imports all tracks from the the CD into an ‘Album’ of the same name.

6. Click on “No” to select individual tracks. (Remember that audio files can take up a lot of storage space)

     In the list of tracks, untick all the tracks you do not wish to import. Then click on Import CD (top right of window)

      – iTunes imports just selected tracks from the the CD into an ‘Album’ of the same name.


7.  Start to drag the Album to the left – a list of places will appear to which it can be added. Drag it to the named iPad      and release.

     -iTunes adds the Album to the music folder on the iPad


So that’s it! Of course, we could have imported the audio with lots of changes of settings but the beginner should just accept the defaults.


To add a file to the from the computer to the iPad’s music folder:

1. Open the drop down file menu and select “Add File to Library”

2. Navigate to the file, select it and click “Open”

    -iTunes adds it to the list of “Songs” in the Library

3. From the Song list, start to drag the file to the left

   – a list of places to which you can add it appears

4, Drag the file to the named iPad in the list of locations and release

    -iTunes adds the file to the music folder on the iPad

(Change from ‘Album’ view to ‘Song’ view in the drop down menu, top right of ‘My Music’ window).

iPad Music Accompaniments for Novice Users

Are you a singer or instrumentalist who would like to play accompaniments/ backing tracks on your iPad but don’t know where to start? If so, fear not because here are some simple free, or low cost, apps to get you started:

Many music books now come with audio cds of performance and accompaniment tracks but more and more we are finding that we want to make music away from the home audio system and the iPad has the potential to be a great music player. As a teacher, I’ve noticed that most pupils never use the cds that came with their books. Apart from the inconvenience of needing access to the audio system, I think this is generally because the playback is too fast. With the apps I introduce here it is simple to change the speed, or key, of a piece. There are also more sophisticated ways to personalise playback but I will leave those to a future post.

The simplest way of controlling accompaniment recordings has to be Jam Player   from Positive Grid.

What you see here is exactly what you get – wheels to control pitch, speed and volume and create a simple loop to repeat a section.

Another great player for the novice is AudioStretch from Cognosonic Pte Ltd The free Lite version has some limitations – pitch can only be shifted -2 to +2 steps and tempo control is from 60% to 100%. In other respects, it functions in just the same way as the full version. Again, the controls are very clearly set out:


Either of these apps will load music from your i-Tunes library. You can also use the ‘Open In’ option for Safari downloads or Mail to import files into AudioStretch.

“But, how do I get the music from my CD into i-Tunes on the i-Pad?” you may well ask. This ridiculous process is a source of great frustration to me, too! I will cover it in my next post.

Get Creative with 2-Chord Tunes!

2-chord tunes are a wonderful resource for a creative approach to music teaching! A vast number of melodies can be harmonised with just chords I and V – folk tunes, of course, but also melodies by major composers. See the teacher notes for a classroom project based on “Carnival of Venice”, which can be downoaded from our Easy/Classroom Ensembles page. This uses classroom, or other available,  instruments and body percussion. In my software package, GridPlay: Creative Explorations Level 2, though, one of the fifteen grids (mini-apps) is IVTUNES, in which I’ve designed a self-contained resource for exploring the subject. Teacher notes in the accompanying e-book make it even easier for a non-specialist teacher to introduce a project, with suggestions for using the computer as an integrated classroom resource.

A first step to improvising and composing 2-chord melodies is aural recognition of the chord changes. In IVTUNES, I have designed a grid with which pupils can practise this skill. Words, music and chord symbols for these tunes are included in the e-book. As each tune plays back, accompaniment patterns based on the the two chords can be triggered, allowing experimentation until pupils are confident that all sounds right. Beneath each chord’s accompaniments, cells contain individual notes of the chord, stacked vertically. Pupils can use these chord tones to accompany one of the melodies. Later they can record a 2-chord backing track over which to improvise their own melodies.




A Strummer for 1-Handed Guitarists?

I was very interested to see this contribution to the Disrupt SF Hackathon 2013, in which Yu Jiang Tham introduced ‘Strumbot’, an automated guitar strummer which he had, literally, created overnight. With this, a metal lever moves the pick across the strings according to strumming patterns controlled from a computer, leaving the performer free to concentrate on the chords and lyrics. Yu Jiang created the device to accompany his own singing because he felt “rhythmically-challenged” in the strumming department but I’m sure it would be possible to adapt it  so that a 1-handed player could control the strum patterns with foot-switches. It looks as though this might be a solution for some guitarists.

Yu Jiang intends to work on refining this prototype and would welcome readers’ feedback on it. For many, of course, it’s the picking that’s the main thing and they would prefer to automate the chord-formation side of things but I have been asked for information about mechanical strumming, so for others this could be a distinct possibility. I understand that Yu Jiang is interested in looking into chord formation, as well, so do all contribute your comments.

Update 7/02/2014: Here is another adapted guitar with a pedal-operated strummer. With this Ian Pearce can play again  after 47 years:

Have You Got A Musical Ear?

When musicians say that someone has a ‘good ear’, they are not referring to the physical apparatus of hearing: a person can be profoundly deaf and still have an acutely ‘musical ear’. It is the ability to internalise sound that is important to a musician, to be able to imagine a sound when its physical waves  are not present, in order to reproduce it in performance or to notate it.  Many lay people, (and, perhaps,  not a few musicians) think this ability is a rare gift, little short of a miracle. Why is it that many can share the same exposure to music, with some able to  memorise it and play it by ear while others can’t? The magic ingredient is awareness. We are predisposed to let most of what we hear go ‘in one ear and out the other’: we hear but we don’t listen. If we didn’t listen selectively, the barrage of sounds around us would drive us crazy!

Those with a good ear for music have just developed their awareness of how certain musical elements feel to the listener. Singers often recognise the pitch of a note by remembering how they have previously placed it in their voice. Instrumentalists may not be able to notate a melody but have no trouble playing it by ear because they associate the rise and fall in pitch with certain positions and fingerings on their instruments. Some have developed greater awareness and recognise the ‘signature’ of musical elements without reference to a voice or an instrument. Jaques Dalcroze, who developed the famous system of eurhythmics, claimed it was impossible for us to hear a rhythm without tiny muscular responses occurring within the body. I guess we are generally insufficiently aware of our bodies to notice. For most of us, context is important and aural skills developed out of context make very little difference to our musicianship. So, pupils can get full marks in aural tests for grade examinations and still be unable to play anything without notation or to absorb the style of a piece of music in a genre that is new to them. The time spent ‘teaching to the test’ for these exams could be put to better use!

Some years ago, I published a little resource entitled “Rhythmic Reading Through Improvisation” It could equally well have been called “Rhythmic Awareness Through Improvisation”. It is based on the premise that most pupils find their own ideas far more interesting than those of teachers and composers of elementary pieces and will spend much longer focusing their attention on the characteristics of rhythmic phrases if they are being employed in their own improvisations and compositions. The same principle holds true for developing aural awareness of other musical elements: improvisation/composition provides an excellent context for musical learning. Tonic Sol-fa is another example of the benefits of context for aural training. It very quickly facilitates playing by ear in a way that interval identification tests, out of context, do not seem to do.

I revisited these ideas recently when I was introduced to the excellent ‘MusicalEar’ aural training software. This truly is the most musical approach that I’ve come across in a software package and it’s clearly a real labour of love! Training exercises are something most of us stick with because we know they will ‘do us good’ – a bit like taking a dose of medicine, but working the exercises in MusicalEar is thoroughly enjoyable and each is multifaceted. There are, of course, the basic elements of musicianship  but also music  in a variety of genres to explore, some with suggestions for students to try in their own compositions. It consistently links aural and notation skills. There is music to sight-sing with accompaniment, vocal backing groups and choir pieces to take part in. There is also a comprehensive section explaining the theoretical context of the elements studied and lots of ideas for further study. This is a great package for composers, performers and students working in any genre, by ear or from notation, to hone their skills. It will surely give teachers many ideas to develop with their own pupils. You can watch some videos on how it works here.

Access to Music: 3 Magic Flutes in ‘Joyful’ Performance

Here is a performance not to be missed! In this YouTube clip you can see three young musicians from My Breath My Music playing their Magic Flutes along with members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The Magic Flute is a wind instrument developed by My Breath My Music to allow young people with severe motor impairments to participate in live performance. No hand or arm movement is required, the pitch being controlled by changing the angle of the mouthpiece by means of head movements. You can read about the development of this exciting instrument in a previous post at “the true story of a magic flute”    Here, Christian, Glenn and Karin join members of the orchestra in playing an adaptation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. How L van B must love this performance!