Paperless composition lessons with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

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On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and Philip Rothman talk about how to set up a seamless paperless composition lesson system for teacher and student alike, using the iPad, Apple Pencil, and several apps like GoodNotes and PDF Expert. Listen now:

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This article was originally written in March 2017. It has been updated to reflect changes to the software and services.

App icons for GoodNotes, PDF Expert, Dropbox, and Spotify
These four apps and services have allowed me to move almost completely away from paper printouts.

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.

Template screenshots from GoodNotes
Here are two of my most-used default GoodNotes templates.

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 write notes during the lesson for future reference by me and the composer. Often, it’s a simple list of concepts, composers, or techniques we discussed.
I write notes during the lesson for future reference by me and the composer. Often, it’s a simple list of concepts, composers, or techniques we discussed.
The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type like this stage diagram.
The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type like this stage diagram.

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.

It’s easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.
It’s easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.

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.

Import custom pages screenshot
GoodNotes makes it pretty simple to bring in new “papers” or templates to use in my notebooks. Here’s the one I use for lessons.

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.

Folder listing in PDF Expert screenshot
Student uploads to Dropbox are automatically downloaded to the sync’d folder in PDF Expert.

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.

Marked up scores like this are sync’d back to the student’s shared Dropbox folder right alongside their lesson notebook.
Marked up scores like this are synced back to the student’s shared Dropbox folder right alongside their lesson notebook.

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.)

Conclusions

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.

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Comments

  1. Peter Hamlin

    Great to see this. It’s really helpful to see these examples — thanks!

    I have a Surface Pro 3, and find that it can do all the things you mention in addition to running any desktop software you want (i.e. Sibelius and Ableton Live), and I also really like StaffPad, which is a fantastic music notation program designed for pen input on the Surface — a really wonderful way to create music examples for class, annotate them, play them back electronically, etc.

    (And plus, Sibelius now supports pen annotations.)

    Thanks for the post, David — I like how you’ve rethought the flow of work that seems to work extremely well.

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks for the comment Peter. I’ve tried a Surface Pro, and one of my students actually brings one (Pro 3, same as you) to her lesson every week. I’m a big fan of tech in general, and I use the stuff that works best for me. In a lot of cases today, that’s actually more about services anyway. As much as my post talks about apps here, it’s the Dropbox service that really makes it go. Beyond that, one of the things I like about my workflow is that because I’m just dealing with PDFs, I could pretty easily swap in a different app, or my students could try a different scoring platform, and nothing would have to change.

      1. Peter Hamlin

        Good points!

        And, yes, you’re right about pdf’s. I’m using a Windows program called Drawboard to annotate pdf’s. Nice for students that the marked-up result is readable on literally anything — MacOS, Windows, Android, iOS, Chrome, etc. We all have a lot of choices.

        Also, by the way — I’m in agreement with you on staying away from music notation software in the early stages of composition. I’ve become very aware of how powerful sketching is — and I tell students, sketching means improvising, singing, making crazy diagrams on a sheet of paper, verbal narratives or poems, jamming with friends, dancing, etc. etc. Music notation software is a really terrible way to develop musical ideas because it’s so two-dimensional.

        So, yes, I really liked the free-form approach you have here. You’ve given us a good model for teaching that is personal and human while using technology in a thoughtful way.

        And, yes, great point about “services.” I’m interested in web-apps like Noteflight since it can be used on literally any platform. I hope things generally move more in that direction.

        Again — thanks for an inspiring article. I’m 66, now in pre-retirement half-time teaching, but I like being inspired by new ways of connecting to my students.

        1. David MacDonald

          Yes! I’m in total agreement with you here!

          I’ll have to check out Drawboard. Thanks for the tip! As you can probably guess from my post above, I’m always looking to try new things.

    2. Bill

      Hi Pete,

      What would be a comparable app to GoodNote that you run on your SP?

      1. Peter Hamlin

        I use Drawboard for annotating pdf’s.

        I use OneNote for more complex notes and things that need to be organized into multiple levels (different notebooks/sections/pages). It’s good for combining ink with multimedia stuff (i.e. YouTube embeds, photos, etc.)

        I use Google Keep for very short reminders.

        I could theoretically use OneNote for all of this, but partly out of habit I’ve categorized my uses in these ways.

        I use Windows (personal preference/office/classroom), MacOS (work lab), Android (my phone) and iOS (iPad mini), so I tend to prefer apps that work on all those. OneNote and Keep are good examples — so I have my info available on all those devices. Drawboard is, I think, Windows only and is designd with the Surface in mind — but since it produces pdf’s, I do have access to the files on all devices even though I ony run it on my surface.

  2. Derek Williams

    Very useful, thank you David. I purchased GoodNotes on the spot. Great little app.

    1. David MacDonald

      I really like GoodNotes for normal notetaking as well. It’s great in a meeting to not have a physical wall of a laptop screen between me and the other person. It’s also nice to not have the mystery of what is on the other person’s screen.

      GoodNotes has some really neat hidden features as well. It’s doing text recognition in the background that lets you do a text search on your notes later, even if you wrote them with the Pencil instead of typing.

      1. Peter Hamlin

        Yes on that! Typing on a laptop seems very disruptive — I have the same feeling about taking notes in meetings and classes. And I also believe that the free from of the drawing page is much better for note-taking than linear typing.

  3. Dan

    This is exactly the kind of post I was looking for; explaining someone’s workflow for sketching ideas on an iPad using staff paper, but not using handwriting to notation conversion. I will check out goodnotes and other things like it. Receiving my first ipad next week…Thanks very much

  4. Steve Steele

    Notation programs have their place. I teach species counterpoint and find Notion iOS and/or StaffPad very useful for teaching, sketching and writing exercises and ideas. I like and use GoodNotes but my handwriting has never been great but I’m just as fast with notation programs and the Apple Pencil as I am with pencil and paper. Orchestral sketches are particularly good on the iPad with Notion iOS. The sound set for Notion iOS is pretty good and you get instant feedback.

    I also use Keynote and Affinity Designer to manipulate EPS files (notation saved as postscript), quite handy for putting together fairly quick examples of reduction analysis.

    I prefer Apple Music’s classical music selection. Apple has a nice collection of classical CDs from their iTunes library that are available in the Apple Music subscription.

    Great article though. Spot on.

    1. David MacDonald

      Hi Steve, thanks for the comment! I agree that notation apps have their use, but I try to model “professional” quality output when I can, and Notion and StaffPad simply aren’t up to that. The other important thing to me is that I never want a student to make a decision about what to write in a composition based on what they know how to do (or what is easy to do) in a software application. For example, when I see students starting in Musescore, they’ll pick a key signature and time signature at the beginning and then never change it because it creates a bunch of empty 4/4 bars that they then dutifully fill. That’s letting the software control more than I want of the composition.

      I’m going to push back on the idea of sketches being good in Notion (or any app) because it doesn’t allow for any amount of ambiguity. I want to be able to draw a contour line without the individual pitches for a fast run, or just the rhythm without the chord voicings for an accompaniment figure, and so on. Notation apps just don’t handle this kind of incomplete information very easily.

      Having said that, I would definitely use something like Keynote or StaffPad for creating things that I want to show and immediately play back in a theory classroom, and I think teaching species counterpoint is a great example of how that could work. I have done some of that in the past when I assign theory assignments to be completed in Sibelius (First), but I wouldn’t want to do it for a one-on-one composition lesson.

      I think you’ll find that Spotify has more-or-less caught up with Apple Music for classical, but the reason I use it is that my students can access it in some form for free. That’s one reason that I’ve been considering moving my listening assignments to YouTube, which also often has live performances of works that are hard to find commercial recordings of. I’ve also heard good things about Idagio for classical music, and of course Tidal has high quality audio and better recording credits than either Spotify or Apple Music. And if I can’t find a recording of something on Spotify, they’re still responsible for listening to it!

      1. Steve Steele

        Great to hear from you David. I’m glad to see another stellar article about the iPad OS experience in the music classroom. Thanks for sharing your considerable experience with the rest of us. Reading your article from a few years ago really helped fill in the gaps I’m my early workflow.

        Being able to notate a short orchestral cue, while sitting on park bench, the reheat hall, or anywhere else that’s not my studio, then exporting it to MusicXML has completely transformed my workflow. As you know, MusicXML isn’t perfect, but at least I can get my ideas down in notation form.

        I’ve also had pretty good success with music OCR programs, such as Music Scanner. NotateMe and OCR Scanner. While not perfect, with simple notation, good lighting and a camera from a recent generation iOS device, I can generally save quite a bit of time.

        And of course, the pandemic forced me to begin teaching remotely and I’ve found some excellent iOS applications that have allowed me to be creative while presenting over a network. I’m sure you’ve found yourself in the same situation so I’ll stop here and look forward to further articles from you in the future!

        Take care!

        Steve Steele

      2. Roberts Hansons

        Recently I have found an excellent notation app for Ipad – Noteability Pro. The app is very customisable, the output is absolutely professional. Some capabilities are stunning, so-called grafical notes, for example. I think, it is only professional notation app for Ipad at the moment. It has a sister app for Mac, which is now free.

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