With technology news lately being dominated by topics such as privacy issues (Facebook) and treatment of workers (Amazon), it becomes easier to dismiss the value that computers and the internet provide us. While I often feel frustrated with the seemingly endless learning and fine-tuning required to keep up with the technology I use, I’m also grateful for the miraculous things it allows me to do, and for the many companies which offer their apps or websites for free. Here are five of my favorite free/low cost applications and websites that every piano teacher and student should know about.
I don’t claim that this list is comprehensive. For example, this pithy list doesn’t include phone apps, which are a huge category in and of themselves. Even so, there are many other computer-oriented apps I could list, such as ear training, reading, play-a-long and transcription apps. The following are simply the five tools I use most often and find most helpful as a piano teacher, and that many of my students use as well.
Virtual library of sheet music / Cost: Free ($22/year for faster downloads)
I’m always surprised when I run into a music teacher or student who has never heard of the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). IMSLP is a virtual library of nearly half a million music scores in the public domain (no longer under copyright protection). In the United States at least, this now includes essentially every music score published before 1924.
Interesting side note: in 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was passed by Congress, which (in my opinion) unreasonably extended existing copyrights for 20 additional years. Blessedly, those 20 years have just now expired, so on January 1, 2019, music from 1923 finally entered the public domain. In 2020 music from 1924 will enter the public domain, etc. This will make many additional music scores available on IMSLP in the coming years.
IMSLP is a godsend for anyone who wants to view, download and/or print PDFs of music scores by dead composers. Beethoven sonatas? Check. Joplin rags? Check. The orchestral score of a Mahler symphony? Check. While not every PDF is the finest quality, there are often several scans available of the same music, so for just about any well-known classical piece it’s possible to download a decent-to-excellent score.
IMSLP’s limitation, of course, is that contemporary publications – such as the latest Urtext score of the Chopin etudes based on the latest critical research – aren’t available. But if you simply want to revel in a massive repository of free sheet music, and to save money when it’s time to explore or learn something new, IMSLP is the place to go.
Music notation software and score sharing / Cost: Free
The days of proprietary applications like Finale and Sibelius dominating and price gouging ($600 – yikes!) the music notation market are now over. MuseScore is free, powerful music notation software that can do nearly everything the proprietary applications can do.
The software is relatively easy to learn, especially if you use it regularly. And nearly as important as its power and ease of use, MuseScore’s support forum is packed with expert users and developers who will quickly respond to your questions and help you find solutions to your notation tasks.
MuseScore also offers free music score sharing, which is a terrific complement to IMSLP. Need a score of Amazing Grace? You can choose between an easy piano version, a fantasy based on the tune, an arrangement for euphonium trio (you needed one, right?), and hundreds of others.
While the constantly-evolving MuseScore may still lack a few tools that composers of highly complex music need, it can do everything that the average music teacher or student needs. Don’t waste your hard-earned money on Finale or Sibelius.
Recording and editing software / Cost: Free
At a certain point, most music teachers and students need to record themselves or others. While there are many powerful proprietary applications available (some of them quite expensive), a good basic and completely free multitrack recording application is Audacity.
Audacity offers the ability to edit and process audio files, burn CDs, and export in a wide range of audio file formats.
While Audacity doesn’t offer all the features of professional recording software, it is powerful enough for the basic needs of most teachers and students.
Website development and content management application / Cost: Free
Eventually just about every musician also needs to build a website. This goes without saying for music teachers, who are sure to benefit from a web presence for their teaching studio. (While it’s ironic and unreasonable, I still find myself questioning the legitimacy and reality of a business that lacks a website.)
There are numerous free tools available for website development, all differing in their complexity and functionality. The one I use and recommend is WordPress, one of the first and still the standard-bearer of free web development applications.
While the learning curve for mastering WordPress is far beyond that for an application like MuseScore, it’s just not that hard to create a basic site. The WordPress community offers hundreds of free and proprietary “plugins” and “theme frameworks” that offer even more power and/or which will make your job even easier. And of course, there are thousands of reasonably-priced WordPress developers eager to take your site to the next level.
I’ll admit I was intimidated when I first decided I had to learn the basics of WordPress. But once I put my mind to it, I found that the app was relatively easy to grasp. That said, it’s easier to use WordPress – which is constantly evolving and being updated – if you use it regularly. If you only use it every once in awhile, you may feel that you’re always starting over at square one.
WordPress offers two options: WordPress.com (WordPress hosts your site) and WordPress.org (you host your site, typically through a third party hosting service). The former is easier for many users, while the latter offers more functionality and power.
Internet blocking application / Cost: by subscription (plans vary)
Since just about everybody needs a website these days, this also means there are millions of websites to get distracted by. If you want to bring discipline to your use of the Internet, and to make time for truly important things like practicing piano or composing, Freedom is your ticket.
Freedom is a simple app that blocks the Internet on your computer for a specified time. Once you’ve launched your session, you will no longer be tempted to quit practicing to check out the latest comments on your Facebook timeline, because you won’t be able to see it!
The trick to using Freedom, of course, is to recognize that you are wasting time online in the first place. Fortunately, it’s possible to schedule a session in advance, so that, for example, between 8 AM and 11 AM, you know you’ll be “free” from the Internet.