Alison Armstrong is a singer and high school music teacher at an international school in Laos, a developing country just between Thailand and Vietnam. Alison's main passion is providing her students with opportunities to compose new music and explore their identity through music. It shows, too, because she's been doing amazing work with her students.
Alison hosts a music blog, but I became aware of her when she started posting online that she'd recently discovered the excellent music notation software, MuseScore. I'd written a tutorial for MuseScore last year, and I am working on an update to that now, so I thought an interview with a musician actively using it might prove to be enlightening. It was a bonus, for me, that the musician in question was also involved in education, the one industry that truly puts software to the test.
Seth Kenlon: How did you find MuseScore?
Alison Armstrong: I completed a Coursera MOOC through the Sydney Conservatorium called The Place of Music in 21st Century Education that suggested a range of open source programs to use with students, and MuseScore came up. But to be honest, it was seeing one of my students using it, of his own accord, in preparation for composition class that led me to actually download it and use it.
SK: How much previous experience with notation software had you had prior to MuseScore?
AA: I've used Sibelius since 2000 as my go-to notation software and used GarageBand as my go-to DAW (digital audio workstation) for inputting MIDI both for myself and my students. I also keep up to date with programs for composition through following what's going on with the guys at NYUMusEdLab. Now I use MuseScore and Soundtrap.com with my students because they work across platforms.
SK: Was there a learning curve?
AA: No, most of the commands are the same as Sibelius, and the biggest difference is in not having the number pad to select rhythms. This hasn't been a problem, though, as once a rhythm pattern has been input I tend to copy and paste it anyway.
SK: The way I found out about your blog was a post you'd made online about how you'd figured out how to tie JACK, xjadeo, and MuseScore together. Since people immediately asked you for tutorials, I gather it's a fairly common puzzle. How did you figure it out?
AA: I learned using Google searches and by reading a number of forums. I actually watched a tutorial in how to do it in Spanish (I don't speak Spanish), got the gist, then found a comment on a forum explaining it in English. I used to be terrified to figure stuff out on my computer, but I read enough forums and found there's always an answer out there, and if there isn't, I ask the people I follow on Twitter.
SK: What's your input method? Do you mouse around, use keyboard shortcuts, or do you play notes in through MIDI?
AA: Definitely keyboard shortcuts and then copy and paste.
SK: What do you use MuseScore for? Are you doing conductor charts and individual parts?
AA: I use it to teach my students how to get ideas down for a film-scoring project. My students are 14 or 15 years old, and most can't read a note, but this is a simple enough program that they can input ideas and make sense of what notation does. They know what music for films should sound like, and this program gives them control over their ideas.
SK: What's your compositional process? Do you compose in MuseScore or do you use it just for orchestration?
AA: To be honest, I haven't composed anything on it yet. I've been using it for three weeks because I was getting frustrated with the licensing issues to set up Sibelius. Now that I've familiarized myself with it, I'll likely do some choral arrangements on it. I'm more of an arranger than a composer. In terms of process I tend to type in the melody and then sing to myself what I would naturally harmonize with the melody and then type it in. I test out my ideas on my unsuspecting choir, they give me feedback, and I act on it.
SK: How did you find JACK and xjadeo?
AA: Both of these I found because I needed MuseScore to be able to play at the same time as a movie. A forum suggested these programs and, luckily, they did exactly what the forum said they would.
SK: Are there any features that MuseScore has that other notation software does not?
AA: I'm still exploring, but once my students have finished experimenting with it, I'm sure I'll be tweeting all about it.
SK: Are there any features that MuseScore should have, but does not?
AA: The piano function (accessed through pressing P) is not as intuitive as it is in GarageBand (accessed through pressing Command K), where you can play in your music on your alphabet keyboard and you can see the letters (ASDFGH, etc.) assigned to notes (CDEFGAB, etc.)
Adjusting the volume of individual notes (velocity) would be useful too. In programs that use MIDI, they usually use color to show how hard a note is to be hit (with red being really hard).
I recently read how the MusEdTech guys at NYU have been testing their programs with the visually impaired. As a teacher, I always have to think about how the user interface can impact a student's ability to use it. Also, language is a big barrier, and having all the menu items available in other languages would be invaluable.
I would love for MuseScore to have a "Getting Started" tutorial for first-time users. In my classroom, there's always that one kid that wasn't paying attention to the teacher's instructions. I can picture it being aimed at different levels "First time writing music," "First time using a composing program," "Old pro, let me skip this tutorial and figure it out for myself."
SK: How's the learning curve for your students using MuseScore?
AA: Those who already read music understand it pretty quickly, but they do everything with a mouse, which is frustratingly slow. I am always sure to show them how to use the alphabet keys, up and down arrows, and copy and paste to type in material quickly. Mind you, I was the same when I first came to composing on a computer.
AA: I used to use Audacity. It's always good to be able to point students in the direction of open source applications—thanks for reminding me what's out there.
SK: Is it important that artists are able to be creative on computers with little-to-no financial barrier?
AA: Absolutely. I'm in the process of setting up my own home studio, and the financial barrier is a big one. I would like to see more programs funded through crowdfunding. I simply cannot afford to upskill in music technology and teach those skills to my students without open source applications, and schools are also often unwilling to spend the money.
SK: Has technology changed the way you approach your own musical process?
AA: Yes, I'm an amateur opera singer and choral arranger, with nowhere to sing, but technology has allowed me to create backing tracks and loops of my voice. Last year I recreated an Enya piece live for a local art gallery because of a looping station I had set up. Also, when my husband and I perform covers at our local pub, we store all the lyrics and chords on an app rather than constantly losing our sheets of music.
SK: The obligatory music question: you're stranded on a desert island, what three albums did you bring along?
AA: I can't even imagine the potential quiet of a desert island. Nope, this question is too hard, particularly as I've been teaching music all day!
However, albums I have presented for Album Club (like a book club, but with albums) have included "Young Modern" by Silverchair, "Hideaway" by the Weepies, and "Whatever and Ever Amen" by Ben Folds Five.
SK: Why is music education important? The vast majority of musicians aren't exactly known for having high paying jobs as musicians.
AA: One of the biggest questions we have to ask is, "Who Am I?" Music forms so much of a part of our identity, it needs a place in the curriculum for students to explore what that identity is, and to see how other people and cultures see themselves, too.
SK: What do you love most about teaching music?
AA: Just like most teachers, any spine-tingling moment, whether it's a "light bulb moment" or the magic of performing in perfect synchronization with the other musicians around me.
I also love the challenge of breaking down feats of genius (symphonies, award winning albums, exceptional live performances) into their component parts to help my students see the possible in the impossible.