New Accessible Instrument for Young Music-makers

This year was the first time since it began that I have not attended BETT, the UK’s big educational technology exhibition. I’ve been disappointed with it in recent years and thought, “I doubt I’ll miss anything”. Then, recently, I was sent information about an exciting new musical instrument, intended to enable any child to play music, which made it’s debut at the exhibition:

‘Skoog’ is a squashy cube. Technology within its soft tactile surface is linked to a computer. This converts the way Skoog is touched into musical sounds. The development project came to fruition largely as the result of reseach, led by Professor Nigel Osborne of the University of Edinburgh, in Scottish schools.  Nigel Osborne is also a professional composer, interested in all kinds of creative music-making and in improving access to music for disadvantaged groups.

The website describes the instrument thus:

“An expanding range of musical instrument sounds means that there’s sure to be something for everyone. Give a gentle squeeze on Skoog™ for a smooth swell of brass, or how about a subtle twist for a screeching over-blown flute? And with a different note on each side it’s a piece of cake to create chords and melodies.”

The Skoog has been commercially available from March 2010 and has received widespread interest from the education community.
A new company, Skoogmusic Ltd, has been spun out of the University to commercialise the instrument. See the website,

More Than Notation Software

This year, I think the best new software on the music education scene is PROTÉGÉ , From NOTION Music. This is a program with the emphasis on real music! The range of features and ease of use is quite remarkable for a product in this price range (under £50) and it makes a really useful set of tools available to beginner and expert alike.

PROTÉGÉ  is, first of all, score-writing software. In this respect, it has features one would normally only expect at the top end of the market and shows a real appreciation of composers’ needs. Yet, methods of inputting and playing music are easy to grasp, with the most common requirements conveniently to hand in the initial side-bar setting. Consequently, beginners are not confused by too many options, although these are available to the advanced user. A tutorial is available, designed to enable pupils, including those who have only a minimal aquaintance with standard notation, to learn to use the software when the need arises and they are, consequently, most motivated to do so. It introduces elements of notation, along with the ways in which they are entered into a score, in the order they are most likely to be required.

A big selling point is the set of onboard sounds -instruments played by members of the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road Studios. For those who don’t have external studio equipment, the package is well worth the purchase price just to have access to sounds of this quality. Dynamics, articulations and performance techniques will play back with the utmost realism.

The NTempo performance feature allows pupils to have real-time control over tempo, including rubato, fermatas and breath marks. This also makes PROTÉGÉ a very useful resource for instrumental teachers, enabling them to provide an accompaniment without distraction from the pupil’s performance.

After my own company’s MIDIgrid and GridPlay software, I consider this to be the most creative music education resource around. Visit to learn more.

Music Technology in the Classroom

Now that the UK Government’s Curriculum Online project has come to an end, most of the easily-located online material giving pointers to good practice in the use of ICT in the classroom, and how to get started, seems to have disappeared with it. Is it considered that the job is done and everyone is now integrating technology with their other resources and confident in its use? If so, it’s a mega case of wishful thinking!


When software products were listed on Curriculum Online’s database, for purchase with the electronic learning credits (making them free to schools) every product had to be tagged to make it clear which aspects of the music curriculum it addressed, so some principles of good usage were implicit in the information about resources made available to teachers. I believe that much of the information about types of resources and how they might be used in the curriculum will eventually be made available in other ways but, in the meantime, many teachers look in vain for appropriate support in terms of pedagogy.


Last year, in my forum, “Music Technology in Education”, I posted a link to a web-page that provided an excellent starting point for those who, for one reason or another, were just getting to grips with music technology. This link now redirects and I haven’t been able to find the information on the new site, even after receiving directions from the QCA helpline. If I, with all my experience of technology and online resources, am unable to locate the appropriate information then there is little hope for the beginner! I have, however, found the following pages on Becta’s site and recommend them to those who wish to consider the principles.


Inspire Me!   (Select “Music” from the left-hand “Curriculum” menu)

 How To Use ICT in Music
(the link is on Page 3 of the “Inspire Me!” examples)

 See also:
Music Technology and Curriculum Access

Useful Machine for Teachers and Community Musicians

I recently purchased a Roland CD-2e recorder and it’s just the sort of kit I love – compact and versatile, it’s a real ‘instrumental teacher’s companion’.

 It’s primary function is as a portable 2-track (Stereo), direct-to-CD, recording device. There are two internal microphones, or external mics can be connected. It also has LINE input for keyboards, cassette-decks, etc.. You can record either to CD or to an SD card (up to 8GB). It comes with a 512MB card which will record up to 46 minutes of audio. The machine is powered by 6 x AA batteries or the supplied AC adaptor. Mains power is required for operation in CD mode.

For people, like me, who have fought a losing battle with microphones and soundcards to make recordings in lessons, it’s a real boon! Recording couldn’t be simpler and, while the purists can fiddle with placement of the unit or external microphones and settings, it produces excellent results when it’s simply plonked down near the players and Record and Play are pressed on the remote control. It automatically records in the next available slot. This will be great in a workshop situation, where I will be able to make recordings without interrupting the flow in order to fiddle with equipment. The Menu offers a number of “Convenient Functions for Recording”, including “Automatically Starting Recording When Audio Is Detected” and “Inserting a Count Before Recording Begins”.

In addition to accommodating transposing instruments, the option in much MIDI software to change the key of playback has proved a useful accessibilty tool in many other situations. Now, with the CD-2e, I can treat audio in the same way. In addition to changing key, pitch can be adjusted and the tempo slowed down. Other useful functions are a tuner and “Center Cancel”. The latter cancels the portion of the sound that is heard in the centre of the stereo image, such as the main vocal, making it less audible. In this way, the user can enjoy simple karaoke or practise singing or playing an instrument with a commercially-recorded backing.

Spring Music for Families and Friends

The uncommonly warm and sunny February weather in the UK has made the big outdoors the place to be and I’ve certainly not been tempted to spend extra time at the computer. Now, it seems, we are about to plunge back into winter again and exploring spring music and activities at the computer seems like a good idea.

The Spring Fun page on the Full Pitcher website has music playback, lyrics and activities for a selection of seasonal pieces to share with family and friends. There are lively activities for Cuckoo, a Tyrolean folk dance with a yodelling chorus, and Hot Cross Buns,  while Morning Has Broken and Winter, Goodbye provide gentler moments. Spring is the theme from the Vivaldi concerto, with lyrics added and ideas for improvisation.

Spring Fun

Functional Forums

I have long wanted to improve two-way communication with visitors to my sites and have been frustrated by the lack of feedback and by the very small amount of real communication that seems to take place online. That’s one reason why I set up this blog and I have been delighted to create new connections through it. I also wanted to further The Full Pitcher’s mission of helping those whose musical interests are not well-served in the, mainly commercially-focussed, music scene to locate the information and resources they require and to share their ideas.

I have been nervous of setting up the forums I wanted The Full Pitcher to provide because of the technical, financial and labour implications. I’m pleased to say that, after much thought and research, I have now found a, modestly-priced, hosted solution that seems to provide the features I require. I have set up my bulletin-board with several forums, matching the special interests identified by my visitors.

The forums will, of course, enable members to provide mutual support but I intend them also to be bulletin-boards in the traditional sense of a place where members can publicise their events and courses, etc. and where The Full Pitcher can post links to the specialist resources it makes available online. At present, forums are set up so that anyone can read them but only registered members of the board can post. Posts will be rigorously moderated, on a daily basis.

Forums Homepage
Class Music Teaching
Instrumental Teaching
Music & Disability
Family Music
Music Technology in Education

Rethinking Music Notation

When Jim Plamondon left a comment on my posting, “Sol-fa, So Good!”, suggesting a visit to his site describing a new instrument he is developing, I clicked through for a quick visit. It was getting late, so I didn’t intend to stay long. Next thing I knew, though, it was well into the next day and I still hadn’t got round to reading about the new instrument!

What Jim presents on is not just a musical instrument but a whole new system of music notation, simpler than Common Western Musical Notation and one which sweeps away the inconsistencies and consequent stumbling blocks to musical literacy.

A few years ago this would have been an alarming prospect for music educators: how could a parallel system, however pupil-friendly, be integrated into the present musical scene and with the existing mass of repertoire in standard notation? Today, developments in computer notation make it possible to transpose easily between various systems based on equal temperament. In my current score-writing software, Sibelius 4, I can present a score in standard notation, solfa pitch symbols, solfa and rhythmic notation, guitar tablature and graphic score. Perhaps, in a few years time, ThumMusic will be added to the list.

The ThumMusic system combines tonic solfa with a visual representation that is consistent across clefs and octaves. It is totally compatible with CWMN, underlining the patterns of relationships between intervals. The ‘Thummer’ is the first instrument in which the layout conforms to the pattern of intervals – the layout and fingering are the same in any key or octave. You can see how it works with an onscreen layout linked to the computer keyboard. I think this, in itself, is a great little tool for learning major and modal scales – once the pupil has learnt the fingering for C major/A minor, they can play the scale from any tonic and read off the note names. There is constant aural, visual and tactile reinforcement of pitch concepts.

Just as harpsichord, clavichord, church organ, piano, celesta and synthesizer all share the same keyboard layout but each have their own characteristic sounds, appearance, playing styles and repertoire, ThumBoards could take many forms. Although the Thummer promises to be a really simple and highly motivating instrument for the beginner, the video demonstrations show it will have considerable expressive potential in the hands of a fine musician, and bear in mind that this is a prototype instrument.

Check out this project, which could conceivably be the biggest thing to hit the musical world in a long time! I’m sure Jim Plamondon would really appreciate your feedback.

Not So Fast!

One very useful contribution that a computer can make to the instrumental lesson or practice session is providing accompaniments. Even where the teacher is able to play a piano accompaniment, it is often preferable to be able to focus on the pupil’s performance without the distractions of accompanying.

Nowadays, much student repertoire is available with CD accompaniment. This can make practice much more enjoyable in the early stages and, at a more advanced level, pupils have much needed opportunities to become familiar with the accompaniment. All too often, though, the CD recordings are too fast for the pupil’s tempi, particularly in the early stages of learning a piece.

Until recently, MIDI was the only way of varying the speed of accompaniment without changing pitch. Many teachers who are familiar with a MIDI sequencer have been in the habit of preparing files for the use of their students. These could be played back on the pupil’s computer with a simple media player but, in order to have the flexibilty to change keys and tempi, a more sophisticated MIDI sequencer was required. There are, now, one or two simple players that are accessible to less-experienced users. VanBasco’s Karaoke Player is a great piece of software – very well featured, simple to use and free! Tempo and pitch change is available and individual tracks can be muted, so that most files can be played with, or without, the solo line. A number of educational publications are supported by midifiles, including some ABRSM materials.

Even better, it is now possible to slow down audio recordings. This can be done with one or two new CD recorders but, as yet, the hardware is expensive. Audio-processing software can also provide this facility and the “Audacity” software is an excellent free example. However, this is probably a bit intimidating for someone who just wants to play files. For simplicity, “The Amazing Slowdowner”, from Roni Music, would be a better bet. This costs about $49 and, for that modest sum, you get the facility to play and process music directly from CD.

“SmartMusic”, of which more later, is a whole computer-based accompaniment system available, on a subscription basis, from I was delighted to discover that SmartMusic 10 includes a load audio function, which opens wav, mp3 and aif files. It can vary tempo and pitch and allow passages to be looped.

Songs for Summer

I’ve just spent the  half-term week walking Dorset’s Purbeck Hills and glorious coastline. It’s been some years since I managed to get away to do some serious walking  at this time of the year, and it was wonderful to wind along the paths in all all their flower-lined splendour. We had plenty of rain but, apart from a dismal first day spent  ‘mud-skiing’, every walk had a few sunny hours and, after all, the rainfall is what makes England such a green and pleasant land!

Back in harness to the tyrant computer, I’ve adapted the ‘Summer Fun’page – for sharing by families or friends – to The Full Pitcher’s new formats. This is a selection of pieces from the ‘Miscellaneous Scores’section of the catalogue for which playback is is available in streaming Flash-Audio format. Flash is already installed in 97% of the world’s browsers and our music is streamed at speeds suitable for 56k modems, so this resource should be available to most users. The Flash-player opens in a very small  pop-up window and there is a pop-up of lyrics for each song, so both can be simultaneously displayed on screen. Schools can display them on an electronic whiteboard or a large monitor. Each song has activity suggestions for mixed ability groups and maximum inclusion. There is a song for which the group is encouraged to create their own lyrics, rounds, simple improvisation ideas and an arrangement of Schubert’s infectious “To Wander”, with new lyrics. I can dally on this page when I check the website and relive my holiday!

I hope you enjoy it!

“Summer Fun” with The Full Pitcher

High-School Band:Involving A Pupil With Special Needs

One of the most rewarding of my recent online activities must be an exchange of emails with an American high-schooler.This wonderful child was looking for a way to share the joy she experienced as a member of her school band with one of the school’s special needs pupils. She had some excellent ideas of her own and sought advice as to whether she was on the right track. She explained that the challenge was to find a way to involve him in the band without detriment to the performance of this competetive and advanced ensemble. A few weeks later, I was thrilled to hear that the school had put my suggestions into effect, to the general delight of pupils and staff. I thought I’d share these ideas here, as they may be relevant to other schools:

“It really brightened my day to hear from a young musician who has given so much thought to sharing the wonderful gift of music!

Providing a suitable instrument for a disabled player is a very individual thing but I can make some suggestions that have proved useful in similar situations. As you have worked out, any electronic instrument could be used with headphones, so that the band’s performance is not disrupted. I believe, though, that a more truly inclusive solution is to feed the sound output into a small keyboard amp, the volume of which can be controlled by the conductor or by the special needs teacher/facilitator. It may not be the case with this young man, but the contribution of people with severe disabilities is often surprisingly musical and appropriate. Even if this boy’s performance leaves much to be desired, he could have the satisfaction of joining in ‘live’ when the band’s going at ‘full throttle’ and could be easily silenced when his contribution is inappropriate. This would be educational for everyone. :>)

An electronic keyboard is an extremely versatile bit of kit for a lifeskills program and, if one is available, it could be used in the manner suggested. For the more physical experience that you are exploring for your friend, Yamaha drum pads are worth considering. Higher specification sets, like the DD35 and the DD55, are touch-sensitive and have a hand-percussion mode. The DD55 has two foot-switch inputs built in. Any kind of switch can be attached. This could be useful if the conductor wanted, for instance, for the pupil to use a single sound and he was unable to confine himself to one pad.  A MIDI facility makes it possible to attach a switch box, enabling several switch-users to play a variety of percussion ‘instruments’ through the drum machine.

Thank you for exploring this issue. I hope my reply will be useful to you and that you will let me know how you get on. Do get back to me if you have any further questions.

Happy music-making, everyone!

Best wishes,