Review: SmartMusic Music Practice System
I’ve wanted to do some reviews here on the blog, and I figured now is as good a time as any! After the long series on Lord of the Rings, I thought this might be a nice change of pace.
(Disclaimer: I am not an affiliate with SmartMusic or its parent company, MakeMusic. I am providing this review of my own accord and have not received compensation for it).
For several years now, I’ve been using the SmartMusic practice system from MakeMusic (the company who also produces Finale, a music engraving program – think word processing for printed music). While the program is marketed most toward schools and their students, I wanted to talk about the program from my perspective as an adult musician who plays in community groups and gives private lessons.
I first saw a demo of this program back in the mid-90s, when it was called Vivace. At that time it was mostly just an accompaniment system (an intelligent music-minus-one, so to speak), but we were amazed at what it could do. It was pricey – something like $1000 – and then you had to buy separate cartridges (!) for each accompaniment. Over the years, technology caught up with the ideas of what the system could do and the program was more accessible (i.e. 3.5″ floppies instead of game-like cartridges). Thanks to the internet, we don’t even need the disks.
And now we have some really cool stuff that SmartMusic can do!
- PC or Mac
- Internet connection required
- Student subscription: $40/year (you don’t have to be a student to use this one)
- Teacher subscription: $140/year (only needed for creating assignments and grading students – most adult musicians should be fine with a student subscription)
- Instrumental microphone (optional, clips to instrument or shirt, helpful if you don’t already have a high quality microphone): $19.95-$29.95
- Vocal microphone (optional, headset, helpful if you don’t already have a high quality mic): $19.95-$39.95
- Foot pedal (optional, used as a hands-free way to start and stop pieces): $45.00
Can be purchased later, but you have to go through a work-around in order to do it. Doesn’t show up in the online store after you’ve completed your transaction for the software.
When you subscribe, you gain access to the entire SmartMusic library. You no longer have to purchase titles separately. If you have a student account but aren’t enrolled in a K-12 school, just ignore any prompts asking for a school name.
What can it do?
- On-screen sheet music: For exercises, sight reading, and ensemble music, the sheet music is displayed on your computer monitor. A moving green bar indicates each beat, and the computer “turns pages” for you. It also shows you where to go for repeats and instructions such as D.C. al coda. The catch is that you can’t tell it to ignore repeats (at least that I know of – if I’m incorrect I hope someone will let me know in the comments). But it’s great that I don’t have to worry about page turns!
- Assessment: When you play with a mic, SmartMusic analyzes your performance. Once you’re finished with the piece you’re playing, the program shows your score as a percentage of notes played correctly. It also shows you which notes were correct (in green) and incorrect (red). It scores only on pitch and rhythm – not on dynamics, articulation, or tone.
- Recording: The program records you by default (provided you have a mic turned on). After finishing, you can elect to keep the recording. You can also export the recording to MP3 if you want to listen to it outside of SmartMusic. Listening to your own recordings is a great tool for improving your playing.
We’ll start here, as this is why I first started using this system. Most of us don’t have easy access to a pianist who will play whatever we want, whenever we want, so what to do with all those sonatas for our instruments? Sure, we could continue to play just the solo instrument line, but the composer included piano for a reason. Enter SmartMusic, the accompanist who can do anything! While a computer can never truly replace a living, breathing pianist, SmartMusic certainly is useful.
For a lot of the literature, you do need to have your own copy of the solo as the sheet music is not displayed on screen. Some of it is, but I couldn’t begin to guess how many pieces actually have this option available. However, if you’re looking for one of the standard concertos or sonatas (Mozart, Brahms, Weber, etc.) there’s a good chance you’ll find a public domain (free) copy at IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library. You can see what’s available on SmartMusic via the search feature on their website before buying a subscription – that may help you decide whether to subscibe.
With the accompaniments, you have some control over tempo and key signature. If you have a microphone and the foot pedal, you have even more control. This is especially helpful if the piece you’re playing is something that requires a quick entrance or cues from the soloist to the piano, as you don’t have to use your hand on the computer keyboard/mouse, it can stay on your instrument so you’re ready to play. If there’s a spot where the instrument comes in but the piano rests, a notice will pop up that the program is waiting for the mic to pick up a certain note. Once you hit that cue (or foot pedal), the program knows to come in again.
One really cool thing that makes SmartMusic feel almost human is the “follow me” option. If you turn this option on, the accompaniment will truly follow your playing – if you slow down, so will the accompaniment. It’s a fascinating feature, something that can’t happen when playing along to a CD accompaniment.
A handy use for SmartMusic is to isolate passages. If you want to practice just those few measures that keep giving you trouble, you can set the start and end points of a selection and the computer will play just that section. You can also tell the program to loop the section so you can practice just that spot over and over.
Some of the other options here include: toggling the computer’s solo audio on and off (helpful if you want to make sure you’re lining up with the accompaniment), toggling the accompaniment on and off, having a metronome click while you play, different countoff options, and more.
I use this part the least, but still find it helpful.
Play by ear: I’ve enjoyed working with this section, especially since I feel it’s my weakest area as a musician. The computer plays a series of notes, then you have to reproduce it on your instrument. After you finish the exercise, the program shows your grade. The first exercises are very easy, then progressively get more complex. You can adjust tempo, key signature and range. I got cocky when I first tried it out and jumped ahead several sections. That was humbling! I haven’t worked on it recently – I really need to get back at it as I did find it a useful exercise.
Scales and arpeggios: This section presents scales, arpeggios, and more in various patterns. Sometimes approaching things from a different way can solidify what you’ve learned. I found this section most helpful for vocal warmups as I could focus on my voice instead of playing along on the piano. The music is displayed on screen and you’re graded on your performance.
Sight reading: Sight reading is an important skill for all musicians to have, but it’s not always easy to practice. SmartMusic presents short pieces with a timer that lets you study the piece for 30 seconds. After that, the program counts off and you have to play the piece. As with other sections, the program gives you a grade after your performance. The pieces gradually get more difficult.
This is the part that really appeals to my band geekiness! I call it Guitar Hero for Real Musicians™.
SmartMusic offers a ton of ensemble music for practicing. It’s focused heavily on school band, but they do have a good selection of more difficult pieces. They also have some music for orchestra (string and full) and jazz band. For beginning students, there’s a selection of method books. (Update: they now have choir in beta!)
My focus is on band. Many of the standards are there (Holst suites, etc.) plus some newer pieces. You can choose whichever part you need or want (i.e. 1st, 2nd or 3rd clarinet). The sheet music displays on screen, but you can use your own paper music if you prefer.
As with the exercises, the ensemble pieces are assessable. You’re not required to have it grade you (there’s a button to toggle assessment on and off), since you’re not doing this for class. But it can be very enlightening, that’s for sure! I usually keep it on – I like seeing how I do. My husband has an uncanny knack for guessing my score within a couple of points, without actually watching my performance. I’ll finish playing and I hear him call out a number from another room. It’s usually close. I’m not sure whether to be impressed or disturbed.
You can change the tempo of the piece, but with restrictions. It works great if the entire piece is one tempo. However, if you have a piece with multiple sections (i.e. Armenian Dances), you can’t really set them all before you start playing. You’re at the mercy of the computer. You can set your start and end measures to isolate one section and adjust tempo that way, but then you’re only playing that one section. If you’re at a point where you need to run through the piece, you just have to suck it up and play what SmartMusic gives you (or it adjusts the entire piece up or down – not just the one section in the middle you need it to adjust). This applies to accompaniments which are MP3s (not MIDI), which most of the ensemble music seems to be. To me, this is definitely a downside.
One thing I love about this is the chance to play pieces that I might not get the chance to play with live ensembles. Some of the music I played in college isn’t feasible for community groups for various reasons, and it’s nice to see some of those again. Even in the community groups, large ensembles don’t often repeat pieces in successive concerts. This way, I can play something like the Holst suites to my heart’s content and not wonder when we’ll do it again in community band. No, it’s not quite the same as making music with other people, but it’s still a lot of fun.
- iPad: SmartMusic now has an iPad app. As I don’t own any iDevices, I can’t comment on how well the app works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like there are any plans for an Android app since SmartMusic is focusing on schools, and the schools tend to own – you guessed it – iPads. Maybe by the time I’m ready to get a tablet for myself they will have given us non-Apple folks something. Until then, I’ll make do with my laptop.
- Finale: If you use Finale, you can export your pieces as SmartMusic accompaniments. I haven’t used it much yet so haven’t figured out all the settings. The one concerto I exported ended up with a “runaway train” effect when I tried to use the “follow me” option. I need to experiment more.
- MP3: It’s possible to upload MP3s to use as accompaniments. I have not yet tried this.
- Jazz Improvisation: I know there’s a section for working on improv, but it’s another feature I haven’t tried.
Overall, I’ve been happy with my subscription and plan to continue. I like that my subscription includes access to the entire library – not just music for my primary instrument. This makes it great for multi-instrument families who aren’t trying to access it for school assignments. I can use it for clarinet, bass clarinet and voice, and my husband uses the same account to access horn music.
I would love to see them add the ability to mark up the on-screen music. Musicians need to be able to mark notes in their music, such as fingerings, breath marks, rhythms, stylistic notes, etc. Being able to do that would be immensely helpful! Especially for my students as I coach them through their school assignments. If you want to see what types of things we musicians write in our music, try this link. (Here’s a link to the home page of the NY Phil archives)
I hope they add more functionality for setting the tempo on MP3 accompaniments, especially for multi-section pieces. That would help so much when playing through a piece.
I also hope they’re able to fill in some noticeable gaps in the literature, though I suspect it’s more on the publisher’s side than SmartMusic’s. Where’s Frank Ticheli? And Stephen Sondheim? One of my Broadway vocal compilation books allows access to accompaniments for all the pieces except the two by Sondheim. Not cool. I’m calling out the publishers on this one. Embrace this technology – don’t be the kid who refuses to play well with others.
Not sure you’d like it? Maybe you have a friend who uses it and you could try it out before committing. Or just go ahead and buy a one-year subscription and see how you like it after a year – you can choose not to renew if it doesn’t float your boat. (And it looks like they have a 30-day window for returns)
That concludes my first review. I plan to do others from time to time, and I hope you’ll find them useful. Please feel free to ask me questions.