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A Communal Video for My Church

Choir (and congregation (and friends willing to help))-

This is a difficult time and it’s hard to see a bright spot – the reduction in social interaction in particular has had a stronger effect than many of us might have expected. For me personally it’s especially hard not being able to see my students and my singers at church.

I have an idea for how we can come together with our voices to present an anthem on Easter morning. By now I’m sure you’ve seen many videos of musicians performing a piece of music on video at their own home and it’s all been combined together. I actually spent last week making one with one of my school orchestras. The trick, as I’ve learned, is picking a tune that is simple/easy enough that people won’t have trouble recording it on their own and providing a way to link the timing of the performances.I’ve made a reference recording for each voice part. (Vocalist friends – don’t think too poorly of me after you listen to these…)

Alleluia – Soprano reference
Alleluia – Alto reference
Alleluia – Tenor reference
Alleluia – Bass reference

In this arrangement:
Verse 1 – “Alleluia” all voices unison
Verse 2 – “He’s my Savior” all voices in parts
Verse 3 – “I will praise Him” key change, voices in parts
Verse 4 – “Alleluia” voices in parts


Here’s how to record:
You will need-
1) a device to record a “selfie” angle video (phone is probably best)
2) another device you can use to listen to the reference recording – you will sing with this while you record your video
3) headphones, plugged into your 2nd device, only in one ear so you can stay with the reference recording. The one-ear thing is important because you need to be able to hear yourself clearly as you sing to make sure you are in tune and making a good sound


Practice with the track a few times – sing with good posture and try not to take breaths sooner than every 2 measures (as on the reference track). Find a good place to record – should be quiet, free from distractions, and, ideally, have good lighting. Set up your phone so it’s well framed on your head and shoulders. Put a headphone on one ear only, connected to your device playing the reference recording. Start recording the video first, then play your reference track. When you hear my voice say “Ready, set, count” then you should count with me aloud as I say “1, 2, 3, 4”. This is to make it easier for me to line up the timing of the videos. When you get to the end, hold for 2 seconds while looking at the camera then stop your recording. Please try to smile (or, if that’s too much to ask, just don’t look angry) and look at the camera as you sing.


I realize this could make you feel very self-conscious and exposed – keep in mind there will be lots of people on screen, and I can do lots in editing to make it look and sound good. This will be more difficult than it seems like it will be, but I urge you to help us out with this. Our church needs something like this right now.

Please send your video to me ASAP (send to aaron@cornerstone-umc.org), but preferably no later than Thursday as it will take me a lot of time to create the combined video from everyone’s clips. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

03.19.2020 – Scrolling Scores for Student Recording

I don’t often mix my educator-self with my composer-self on this blog, but I’ve had an idea I want to post for easy access for any educators who might be struggling with how to teach their music classes in the midst of all the school closings. My students are home for spring break right now, but they will be staying home indefinitely after this week. The good news is that they were all sent home with their school devices (iPads or Chromebooks) and their instruments. (Anyone else’s STEM-sense tingling?)

Many have been passing around the idea of students recording themselves performing at home and then combining all the recordings to make a virtual ensemble performance. I’ve seen some really great guides going around, but I feel like many of them are very complicated for the students to set up and I wanted to come up with a solution to make it as easy as possible for the kids.

Have you ever seen those videos on YouTube with the scrolling score that moves as you listen to the recording of the piece? That stood out to me as the perfect medium for this scenario, as it includes the score with a moving cursor, a metronome click, and, if desired, software playback of the instrument line. Then all that is required is for the student to run an audio recorder, either from a smart phone/other device or possibly on the same device as the video.

Here is a sample of what I might post to my Google Classroom:

We all know that even in the best circumstances when we are in the same room as the students some of them just can’t get their technology set up correctly so I will also add a detailed tutorial explaining how to get everything set up, the importance of using headphones, and more.

The student then just needs to start their recorder, start the video, then play along as the video runs. After that they can upload their audio recording for the teacher to combine using an audio editor with multiple tracks (Audacity is the best free option).

Here are the steps to get this set up:

Step 1: Choose your music notation software and transcribe the parts to your piece.

This step is by far the most tedious, although it seems that PDF-to-score scanners are getting better all the time. My editors of choice are Sibelius and MuseScore (free). As you can see in the video, I set up a prep-measure with count-off beats numbered below the measure. If you want to use the included metronome-click, make sure you turn it on in the playback panel. Rather than creating multiple files, it would probably be most efficient to set up a score and enter all the parts there and then use the included options for creating individual parts from the score.

If you dread the though of entering so many notes into an editor, try to find a colleague who likes to arrange or compose and offer them a pizza or a 6-pack of Corona in exchange for transcribing. It’s a lot of work, but folks who are used to it can do it surprisingly quickly.

Step 2: Record a video of the individual parts.

There are a couple of different ways to do this. One is to use the built-in video export (Sibelius and Finale) and the other is to use a screen recorder (compatible with any score editor). Before you do this, now is the time to fine-tune your playback. Decide if you want the metronome on or off and adjust the instrument playback as needed (most score editors have a ‘mixer’ window that allows you to turn up/down the volume on individual instrument playback or mute it entirely).

Option 1 – The current versions of Finale and Sibelius have an option to export directly to video. I used the highest resolution the offered and the file was still surprisingly small. While this resulted in excellent quality, in my Sibelius export there was a noticeable lag between the audio and video. When the beat cursor would move to a note, the note would sound a half-second before the cursor moved. It could be just my specific circumstances that caused this, but I would examine your video carefully to make sure it’s easy enough to play along with.

Option 2 – Using any music notation software along with a screen recorder. It’s an extra step, but it’s far more versatile than the first option. TechRadar has a good write-up on current screen recording software (https://www.techradar.com/news/the-best-free-screen-recorder). The one I settled on is called APowerRec (https://www.apowersoft.com/free-online-screen-recorder?__c=1). Just click on “Start Recording” and it will prompt you to install a launcher and start recording. Note: I couldn’t get the web version to start in Firefox, but it worked in Chrome. I did use the downloadable app which has a 3-minute limit and the watermark you see in the video.

Step 2B: Record yourself playing the part as well

If you want your students to have good tone/phrasing/musicality to follow, you can record yourself performing the piece and add it to the score video. It’s a bit of extra work on top of all of this, but could have a big impact on the results.

Step 3: Upload the video to your platform (i.e. Google Classroom) and assign it to your students.

Step 4: Compile the recordings.

Once you’ve received the recordings from your students, open up a DAW such as Logic, Cubase, or Audacity (free). You can import the audio files into separate tracks after which you can adjust the volume of each and get the timing set up. Hopefully they recording along with the metronome in their headphones, because if not here’s where you could have a bit of a mess. You will have to trim the audio files of any unwanted noise at the start/finish and line them all up on the timeline so that the start of the audio matches. IMPORTANT – take a look at the waveform on each audio track to easily align the beginning of their first note.

Step 5: Profit!

Once you’ve combined and edited everything, you can export a sound file to share with students, parents, your administrators, local news stations, etc. Blast it out on Twitter with a bunch of hashtags. Most importantly, document this as a STEM activity in your evaluation and enjoy the smile on your principal’s face!

I hope this was helpful. There are many specific details about using the score editor and audio software that I did not get into. If you get stuck, there are mountains of info online for just about any issue you run into. Stay safe!

a

07.02.2019 – From ‘Rejected’ to ‘Published’

This year I have been blessed to see a lifelong dream become reality. After many years of hard work I’ve had two of my works picked up by publishers!

Unless you are one of those rare prodigies, as a composer you quickly learn to live with rejection. Many of you will perhaps remember applying for university and receiving rejection letters. While it can be devastating, you eventually move on in one way or another. Imagine, if you will, a lifestyle in which you receive a steady stream of these rejection letters. Composers regularly submit their works for publication, festivals, and competitions. And the funny part is because of long evaluation periods you’ll often forget you even sent out a piece until you receive a surprise downer in the form of an email or form-letter. It’s daunting but, as I said, you move on in one way or another.

For many years I made a go at self-publishing. And not just listing items on my website and crossing my fingers, but attempting to reach out, cold call, and send colorful mailers. I bought a spiral binding machine and a printer that could handle tabloid size paper. I even sourced the perfect off-white paper stock from a local supplier. Sadly, perhaps due to my weak professional networking, it went nowhere. The first piece I ever sent to a publisher was a percussion duet called “Infringement”. I had programmed it for an alumni concert at Oklahoma City University and had been so pleased with it that I decided to try my luck in 2015. Rejected. As were a couple of sacred choral works I shopped around.

My first success was with Carl Fischer, a company I’ve always considered one of the most prestigious publishers in the market. They agreed to pick up one of my pieces for young string orchestra, but the process was not quite what I had expected. I submitted the piece I thought had the best chance of getting picked in the Spring of last year. There was a batch of about five pieces for string orchestra grades 1-2 that I had started the winter before and felt very strongly about. I should pause here to point out that it took me several years before I really understood what makes a good piece for young string orchestra. With my two degrees, I thought I had enough understanding that surely I could easily get something as simple as a beginner orchestra piece published. As it turns out, that was not at all the case. There are a number of nuances that come into play that define the type of piece that an orchestra director will be willing to try out on his or her group. And it goes well beyond simply knowing the correct keys to write in and the ranges for beginner instruments. I didn’t wrap my head around these things until I had been an orchestra teacher for about six years. It was then that I could look and see which pieces I tended to pick for my orchestra, and which pieces my colleagues seemed to favor, and could therefore hone in on what made those pieces as appealing as they are. With that knowledge in hand, I sat down one night and started work on about seven pieces.

In October of last year, I received a response from the strings editor at Carl Fischer. Another rejection letter. I had received one the week before from another publisher. So it goes. In my reply, I thanked him and said that I would be happy to send him more of my work if he was willing to receive it. An hour later, 9pm on a school night, I got a response inviting me to go ahead and send him more. Waaaaaaaaaaat. I immediately went back to my studio and started going through the pieces I had been working on. Three of them were ready to send, one of them which I quite liked still needed a bit of editorial cleaning-up. So I worked until after midnight to get everything ready. Eventually I sent four more pieces. A couple of (very long) days later, he wrote back with the good news that he wanted to publish one of them, Siberian Hunt. There was the usual give-and-take of editorial requests, and he was patient enough to answer all my naive first-timer questions. Not long after that, I also found a publisher for the percussion duet I had sent out a few years ago. So I went from ‘zero’ to ‘two’ in the blink of an eye.

2019 has unquestionably been one of my best years. I have so much to be thankful for in my professional and personal life. My advice to those wanting to be published is to keep working hard and be persistent. As saturated as the market is for beginner music, one can’t really expect success without putting in the time to understand what makes a piece appealing to the director you wish to sell to.

Cheers,

a

Links to the pieces:
Siberian Hunt String Orchestra grade 1.5
Infringement Percussion Duet grade 4-6

01.18.2019 – MuseScore 3

Years ago when I started into composing, my weapon of choice was Sibelius. Actually, to be totally accurate, I spent quite a lot of time fiddling around in an old program called Cakewalk before sticking with Sibelius at the encouragement of my first composition professor.

Pedantry aside, what finally drove me away from Sibelius after years and years of loyal service was the total overhaul of the interface after version 6. Far too many of the tools were moved from one menu location to another and I ended up spending a frustrating amount of time searching for them again. I also became aware of some unfortunate staff changes at Sibelius headquarters, and that was enough for me to return to MuseScore. At some point, I had given it a try, but the first version of the program was not refined enough to serve my needs. By the time I was ready to abandon the Sibelius ship, MuseScore was well into version 2. And what I experienced was a totally different program than version 1. Notation and layout tools were easy to find in the menus and note entry was a breeze. Since then, it’s been my tool of choice. The obvious bonus here is that MuseScore is a free piece of software. I have used it for a fairly diverse range of applications. I have written solos, string orchestra pieces, choral pieces, and I’m even finishing up a piece for full orchestra. While I have from time to time encountered challenges with no obvious solution or workaround (piano pedaling doesn’t work the way I wish it would and the options for measure numbering and time signature don’t quite meet my needs for my full orch score), it has been a real pleasure to use.

This takes us to the present. Version 3 of MuseScore has just been released. While I would love to jump in and offer my unequivocal support, my advice for now is to wait, especially if you have already been using version 2. Right now there appear to be some compatibility issues between version 2 scores and MuseScore 3. Scores created in v3 are also not compatible with v2. For now there don’t appear to be enough features to really warrant moving up from 2 to 3. And finally – and this may just be a glitch on my part – when I installed v3 on my home desktop, MIDI input stopped working for BOTH v2 and v3 (ironically I can still use MIDI input in Sibelius on that machine…)

If you have not used MuseScore before, I would say go ahead and get v3. Aside from the issues I mentioned above, it seems to be a slight improvement on 2, particularly in terms of automatic layout adjustment. But if you have scores from v2 and have projects you need a stable engraver for, give v3 a little time to work out the bugs. That’s my plan, anyway.

Cheers!

a

01.02.2019 – Happy 2019!

Greetings, and Happy New Year!

If you are just coming to this site for the first time, welcome! My name is Aaron and I am a composer, educator, and music minister living in the Dallas area. Though this blog may appear a little sparse for now, there are two things I have planned to remedy that: first, I intend to regularly keep this page stocked with insights and information relating to my work as a composer; and second, I will be taking some of my favorite blog posts from before my WordPress was hacked and reposting them here for posterity and amusement.

I hope, wherever you are, your 2018 ended well and you were able to carry joyful experiences and lessons learned into the new year. 2018 was a good year for me professionally, and I will be working hard to make sure 2019 is better yet.

Cheers!

a