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.

Limits Set Me Free!

Rory’s comments on “What Second Life Should Learn From Myst” really resonated with me and it struck me that would-be music improvisers could also learn from Rory’s improvisational theater experience. Improvisation seems to be more frequently encountered in drama than in music, other the jazz idiom, so beginners may find this a fruitful seam of ideas to mine.

As always, ‘freedom’ is an illusion! If we can do absolutely anything, we invariably do absolutely nothing because we don’t know where to start! The composer, Stravinsky, said that the more restrictions he placed on himself, the more inspired he was to write. I’m certainly more ‘fired up’ to compose if there is a clear brief and is the reason I find it so absorbing and rewarding to write for beginner performers. It makes one really strive hard to distill the musical experience and to draw upon the potential of each note and technique accessible to the player.

Like Rory, I need to be emotionally engaged by the ideas I’m working with but I think that actually communicating such engagement in a piece of music is a difficult task for the improviser/composer because it requires a synthesis of all the playing techniques and sound qualities of the instrument(s), placed at the service of the emotion.

Beginners may find that another good starting point* is a focus on the sound qualities of their own instruments. What is the emotional ‘feel’ of the same few notes played in each register of the instrument, or on each string? How does changing the articulation alter it? Initially, try letting the music grow naturally out of the instrument.

*See “The Rhythmic Basis of Melodic Improvisation” for an alternative starting point.

“Say That Again” – Repetition in Improvisation

When I was looking through some easy classical piano anthologies for examples to illustrate the “I’ve Got Rhythm…” article , I was struck by how much repetition, melodic as well as rhythmic, the tunes contained. I knew there would be plenty of combinations of two phrases – ABAB, ABBA, etc., but I wasn’t prepared for the number of pieces (or sections of pieces) that were built on a single rhythmic pattern. I’m always trying to drive home the point that less really is more if you want to create a memorable tune but I don’t think I’ve ever suggested sticking to a single rhythm.

Once the beginner improviser has absorbed a feeling of phrase length, the next challenge is to strike a balance  between repetition and variation: too much repetition is boring – sorry Schubert! – while too much variation will quickly lose the listener. The problem is that, if you’re going to repeat a phrase, you have to remember it.

A good way to work on memory is to create tunes four phrases long, in which the first idea is played three times and then a different idea is used for the fourth phrase, rounding off the tune. Actually, this is a very common structure in melodic construction, although the fourth phrase is often an extension of phrase three rather than a new idea. Lots of ‘Blues’ use this idea. In fact, once you begin to look for it, it crops up all over the place!

The next stage is to to improvise using two or three phrases ABAB, AABB, ABAC, ABBA, etc.. A really extravagant use of resources, apparently! :>)

Playing Away

This is the time of the year when music publications aimed at teachers and musicians are full of ads for summer schools, which must mean that it’s time I got around to updating the “Creative Workshops” page on the Full Pitcher website. As our “Get Creative!” pages are resources specifically to support creative music-making, I only post details of courses with a focus on improvisation & composition (I’d be delighted to hear from anyone running such a course, anywhere in the world) but there are hundreds of other UK courses available, covering everything from bagpipes to music technology.

Every year, Rhinegold Publishing produce an “Annual Guide To Summer Schools”. This year it’s a 52-page small-print publication! This is sent free of charge to “Music Teacher” subscribers but non-subscribers can purchase it from the publisher’s website. For experienced amateurs, the breadth of choice is just amazing! But, if you dig around, there is also plenty on offer for less experienced musicians and for children.

Here, I’d like to introduce you to two small UK venues which are big on broadening musical experience and fun:

First, there is the Hindhead Music Centre, where the calendar of summer courses embraces both children and adults, with tuition levels from beginner to diploma. There is even a course, “Discover Music!” for children who don’t yet play an instrument and those who have just started. The centre is a country house, set amidst acres of National Trust commons and there is free time in which to swim in the pool or explore the glorious countryside.

Another of my favourite places is Benslow Music Trust, where adults can enjoy a mind-boggling range of courses – classical, folk, jazz, world music – you name it, they do it! It’s a friendly place and there are courses at various levels. Benslow courses are mainly short weekend or mid-week courses.

The Role of the Amateur

That amazing organisation, CoMA (Contemporary Music for Amateurs) is putting on a 1-day conference, next month, to explore “the role of the amateur in contemporary music”. Now, if you think that is only of interest to weird folk who use their musical instruments to create ‘traffic’ noises and turn up their noses at anything ordinary people recognise as a good tune, then think again!

“Changing Dynamics” is about reaching out with new music, making amateurs the centre of the creative hub of 21st century music-making. CoMA knows all about that: since its foundation in 1993, it has commissioned numerous works from leading UK and international composers and formed amateur ensembles to perform them. The CoMA summer school and regional events often prove to be life-changing experiences for those who discover that they are creators, not just consumers of music.

At CoMA events, amateurs and professionals come together to create and perform exciting new works. The guiding principle placed before the commissioned composers is to create a repertoire that is artistically challenging yet suited to the technical abilities of amateur musicians. Amateurs are introduced to all kinds of improvisation and there is tuition in composition for absolute beginners, as well as fresh inspiration for experienced composers.

“Changing Dynamics” is for “musicians, music teachers, schools, festival organisers, local authorities and music organisations” and will be held at Blackheath Concert Halls, Trinity College of Music, London, on 22nd February. See, for further details.

Have Fun With MIDI!

With so much emphasis on downloading audio to play on iPods, mp3 players, etc., many people who have discovered online music only recently are unaware of the fun and usefulness that can be derived from the many free MIDI resources available.

In order to play music in MIDI format or to use simple music software, most basic users have no more need to know anything about the technicalities of MIDI than Internet Explorer users have to grasp internet protocols befiore they can go browsing. Suffice it to say that MIDI is a ‘language’ in which music instruments and devices which control them can communicate. Very often, this communication takes place without the user being aware that the sounds emerging from the computer are in this format. Games and music played by simple software send MIDI messages to the soundcard, which automatically interprets and performs them, through its in-built sounds. Since midifiles (they have the .mid extension) only contain instructions for playing the music, not the sounds themselves, they are very small. Even if you only have a tiny hard drive, you will be able to save thousands of them!

Nearly all computer operating systems have a default media player installed which plays any midifile you click on. There are hundreds of sites where you can play, or download, files in practically any genre. (If you’d like more information about playing/downloading, Check back -I’ll post a link when I get an opportunity to upload the relevant article.)

Probably the best, and most useful, player for beginners is VanBasco’s Karaoke Player. This plays .mid and .kar files. The .kar files have lyrics which can be displayed by the player. Volume, key and speed of playback can be adjusted and playlists created. This has lots of potential, both for home use and for use in community/classroom situations. On the VanBasco site, there is lots of helpful information, including how to combine playback with live recording of a vocal. It is a great place to begin an exploration of MIDI on the web.

Click here for a free download!

Get vanBasco’s Karaoke Player NOW – totally FREE!

If you’re feeling more adventurous and you’d like to get into creating your own MIDI or Karaoke files, the free Anvil Studio software looks user-friendly. there are several ways of inputting music. Notes can be entered on a stave, by means of an onscreen music keyboard or guitar frets. It allows the mixing of MIDI and audio tracks. You can download it at