This article was originally written in March 2017. It has been updated to reflect changes to the software and services.
When I was a student composer in the early 2000s, every week had a similar lesson-day routine: assemble all my paper sketches and planning, print out any work I’d done in the computer (Sibelius mostly), output an audio file if possible and save to a small flash drive. Each week, I would bring this stack of papers in, my teacher would write all over the paper I’d brought in, possibly sketch some new ideas on a fresh sheet, and send me home. On a good week, I remembered my flash drive.
Throughout this process, I must have printed hundreds of sheets each semester, most of which had changed little from the previous week, and none of which would ever be used in a performance. This was mostly the same process I expected my students to go through when I started teaching lessons a few years later.
That all changed for me in early 2016, the year the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil almost entirely replaced my need for paper scores in my composition lessons. Five years later, I’m still extremely happy with my paperless workflow and can’t imagine going back to the dead-tree format. I first wrote about my system for Scoring Notes in 2017, and while it has gone through some small refinements and app updates over the years, it is still fundamentally the same.
I have a few key goals for both me and the composers I’m working with. First, it needs to be simple and automatic. If it’s hard for my students to set up, they will forget something important; if I need to remember to do something, I’ll forget that, too. Remember that automation isn’t just about efficiency; it’s also about accuracy.
Second, it needs to support whatever systems my students are using. The overall objective of this whole pedagogical endeavor is to support their creative work. That might take any form of traditional or graphic or textual score. The creative output of my students should be completely unperturbed by my fiddling with gizmos.
Third, it needs to be as transparent and reliable. My students and I need to trust that when they submit something to me, I will receive it; I need to know that when I send feedback, it will be read and accounted for. I never want my students to be unsure of what I expect of them. Teaching open-ended creative work has plenty of hand-wavy ambiguity already. My computers shouldn’t add any. If possible, they should eliminate some.
The beginning: GoodNotes
I keep a digital notebook for each composer in my studio. There, I record their compositional goals, upcoming recital ideas, and notes on what we discuss in each lesson. I do this on my iPad Pro in GoodNotes, which has a number of excellent features for my purposes.
GoodNotes notebooks are open-ended sketchbooks. They can include writing, drawing, text, and photographs. So I’m not limited to words; I often draw music notation, music-like sketches, timelines, and stage diagrams. These notes are synced to other iOS devices and Macs over iCloud with a single purchase from the App Store. This is handy if I ever need to make a quick reference from my phone, or if I want to type a long paragraph of text on my Mac. GoodNotes also allows notebooks to be automatically backed up as PDFs to Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive.
I want my students to always know what I’m expecting of them, so I give each of them a private link to their notebook PDF in my Dropbox. That way, they can refer back to previous lesson notes and remind themselves of what they’re expected to be working on for next time.
I know that I described this workflow as paperless; but, I strongly encourage my students to start all of their projects on paper. I know that I’m far from unique among composition teachers in this regard.
When they bring in handwritten work, typed outlines, sketched drawings or other diagrams, I use the very handy Add Image feature in GoodNotes to snap a quick photo with the iPad’s camera that I can bring right into the lesson notebook and write all over — the full John Madden, if you will — without feeling too self-conscious about marring the student’s handwritten work. When we are working remotely (as we are currently during the pandemic), students can snap their own photos, and I can add them from an email.
So yeah, there’s paper sometimes, but it’s not my paper. And I’m pretty quickly ingesting the paper contents into my paperless workflow. As a side benefit, other kinds of things can go into the notebook using the same method.
In the past, I have included photos of the inside of a piano, settings on a mixer, or screenshots from software for later reference and markup.
Another excellent feature of GoodNotes is the ability to create custom “papers”. GoodNotes actually ships with an extensive and useful set of papers that I use regularly, especially the staff paper and grid paper (nice for diagrams and timelines). It’s very easy to export a blank paper template from GoodNotes and create your own papers to suit specific needs.
For my lessons, I tweaked the default staff paper to include a space for the date, the grade for the lesson, and what I expect them to have listened to and worked on for the next time we meet. I keep an individual, shared Spotify playlist for each one of them, but I am happy if they listen on Apple Music, YouTube, or any other way, as long as they’re listening to the assigned composition.
For my university students who have a finite 15-week semester, I create a PDF that includes blank pages with numbered weeks and import that as a multipage document at the beginning of the term. If I end up needing more pages, GoodNotes makes that very easy. Swiping past the end of a document instantly creates a blank version of the last page. For my private students, I use a single-page GoodNotes lesson notebook template, and I extend that notebook for as long as they study with me, a new page for each lesson. Since they don’t get a grade, I leave that part off of their template.
Transferring ideas: Dropbox
I mentioned it briefly in my description of GoodNotes, but it’s worth mentioning the way I’m using Dropbox here.
Each student has a shared folder that they use to submit their scores (PDF) and audio (usually MP3) prior to our meetings. If I have an article I want them to read or a score I’d like them to see, I can place it in that Dropbox as well. I have a Dropbox Plus account, so storage is not an issue for me, and the file history is great for when files are accidentally deleted or overwritten. I have the Dropbox client running on my Mac, so even if a student uploads materials immediately before the lesson, the files are right there on my computer before we’re done with small talk.
The business end: PDF Expert
PDF Expert by Readdle Inc. is — as far as I’m concerned — the best iPad app for working with PDF files. And since my students are all working in different applications for their compositions (and I can’t easily open notation files on my iPad), we exchange scores as PDFs in a shared Dropbox folder.
There is a lot to love about Dropbox, but its iOS client is not one of them.
Thankfully, PDF Expert has pretty good hooks into the Dropbox API, so I don’t have to deal with the limitations of the Dropbox client too much. It allows me to select certain folders, such as the one I share with each composer, to keep synced to my device. Since we’re mostly dealing with PDF files and small-ish MP3s, the sync is pretty quick and doesn’t take up too much space on my iPad (which has 128GB storage, plenty for this use). The sync here isn’t quite as quick as on my Mac, but a pull-to-refresh gesture will force PDF Expert to check for new changes and download them.
Throughout the lesson, I write on the student’s score in PDF Expert using colored pencils, highlighters, and typed text. Each changes if very quickly synced back to the Dropbox folder, and students will get to see these as they continue working. PDF Expert has a highly customizable toolbar for editing and annotating documents. I have a number of saved pens, highlighters, text styles, and stickers (mostly for theory assignment grading, but that’s another topic).
Because this is happening on a PDF copy of the file rather than the Sibelius or Finale files (I don’t think any of my students has jumped into Dorico yet), they won’t overwrite my comments until they upload a fresh score the following week, and if they really need them, they could always change the file name anyway.
PDF Expert is free to download with an optional Pro annual subscription for $49.99 for additional features. I am a happy subscriber, but the main things I do in my teaching — organizing, opening, and annotating PDFs — are included in the free version (see the comparison table).
(There is also a Mac version of PDF Expert that can sync with the iOS version.)
It may surprise readers — especially readers of this blog — that I have not mentioned any music notation apps I’m using on the iPad. That’s because I’m not using any.
There are two reasons. First, I don’t actually use much music notation software in lessons; the main focus of our conversations is music, not scores. Second, there really is not (yet!) a scoring app for iPad that comes anywhere near the power and flexibility needed for creative, contemporary classical music. (Regular readers will be familiar with my extended search; if you’re not, take a look at our reviews of StaffPad, Symphony Pro, Komp, and MusicJot.)
Some apps might be nice for sketching ideas, but I still think paper (or digital paper in GoodNotes) is best served when starting a new piece. This is because open-ended sketches may only bear a passing resemblance to music notation, and may have as many annotations as noteheads. If there ever were a professional-grade entry into the iPad scoring software market, it would have a much greater impact on my work as a composer than my teaching methods.
Probably my favorite part of the paperless workflow that I’ve outlined here is that functionally and pedagogically, it’s nearly identical to my ideal paper workflow. It focuses on eliminating the most cumbersome and mistake-prone elements of my paper workflows and adds a number key benefits for both me and the composers I’m working with each week. I think my students have written more and improved faster thanks in part to the newly clarified expectations, and I’m spending less time and energy keeping track of stacks of paper and moving notebooks around. I have taught lessons remotely over Skype and Zoom, and the experience has been a completely reasonable approximation of a face-to-face composition lesson.
Using these apps and services, I have eliminated many of the frustrations and frictions of paper-based lessons, allowing us more time to focus on creativity, expressiveness, clarity, and cohesiveness. In other words, music composition lessons that focus more on music composition.
GoodNotes is $7.99 in the App Store. PDF Expert is free in the App Store with a $49.99 annual Pro subscription option for some features. There is also a Mac version of PDF Expert which syncs with the iOS version.