Why I Love the Surface Duo

I have been using Microsoft’s new Surface Duo now as my phone for over a week. Given the huge amount of negative press the device has received based on specs and software bugs, I felt the need to chime in with a positive perspective.

I have been an iPhone user for over a decade, since the very first model. Since the iPhone 6, I have been opting for the largest screen size available. I love having a screen I don’t have to squint to see, and room to type.

Reading and Note-Taking Multi-Task Setup

I’m also an avid pen-based note taker. I used to buy the Tablet PCs before the iPad existed. Earlier this year I made the computer switch from MacBook Pro to Surface Book, and am completely satisfied with that decision.

Given my preferences for large screen phones and pen note taking, the Duo is the ideal device. Even in single-screen mode, flipped all the way open, the Duo has a 5.6” display, which compares well to many flagship phones. Put together, the two screens create an 8.1″ canvas. In addition, the 3:4 screen ratio for each screen seems to me much more productive than the tall skinny aspects of many phones. It’s a balance of width and height more familiar from laptops and physical notebooks.

The deep integration of MS Office is also a big plus. OneNote, Outlook, and ToDos are important for me keeping on top of communication and planning. The ability to have two apps open side by side is one of those things you don’t realize you wanted until you have it. How often do you get a security code in email, and need to copy/paste it into an app or website? On a single screen device, this requires a lot of app switching. On the Duo, you never lose the login screen while you’re checking your email.

Another amazing productivity setup: reading or video on one screen, OneNote on the other for jotting down ideas.

Now, to address some of the criticisms. First, the Duo is unfortunately being compared to the Samsung Galaxy Fold. When making this comparison, reviewers obviously complain about the gap between screens. OK, fair enough. Reading or watching a video stretched across two screens in landscape mode is a terrible experience. So don’t do that. Like I said, a single Duo screen is equivalent to many smartphones, and just fine for when I want to consume video. As for reading, the Duo-optimized apps support a book reading mode (two pages), and reading a scrolling page is actually not bad in portrait mode (as long as you can scroll the content around the gap).

Scrolling in Portrait Mode

Other users have complained about software glitches. I truly feel like a lot of this is just getting used to a new device. Sure, sometimes a rotation or keyboard or app switch doesn’t do what I expected it to do. But I feel like that’s a combination of my learning curve and brand new software, which I trust Microsoft to continue improving (they have said there would be at least monthly updates).

The camera is another point of serious complaints. I get it. We’ve become accustomed to amazing quality photos from our phones. The Duo camera takes beautiful photos in certain conditions, and terrible photos in others (low light, especially). But look at it this way. The Duo camera is actually amazing considering it is a 4 mm sensor. The reason for the ubiquitous “camera bump” on other phones is that the sensor depth is a limiting factor in photo quality. Yet I’m perfectly happy with this tradeoff, and the idea of making the Duo thicker or giving it a bump seems alien to its beautiful thin aesthetic. Worse, I’ve heard many users say they want an external camera. So, you’d have to have the device opened to full size to take a photo?! It makes much more sense to flip it around to single screen mode to take photos, allowing for easier handling and stability while snapping.

The battery (batteries) on the Duo provide a full day of moderate to heavy usage. I do occasionally have to plug in in the evening, if I’ve been on it nonstop. But again, this is a failing of many phones, not just the Duo. And like the camera the real performance is actually better than the anticipated performance based on spec comparisons.

Finally, the price. Yep, it’s steep. If you can’t afford it, I totally get it, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a $300 smartphone. But given the two 5.6″ screens and high-quality custom hinge, I think the price is in line with other flagship phones (one place where I’m happy to compare to the Galaxy Fold).

Composition Mode With Thumb Split Keyboard

So there you have it. It’s an expensive yet super productive, thin, adaptable, multi-monitor device that fits in your pocket. And there’s nothing else competing in that space. I will be a happy Duo user for the foreseeable future.

By the way, if you’re a software developer, check out my other blog and podcast at tocode.software.

What to Buy for Your Classroom

In my previous post, I talked about various resources for funding your music classroom. Once you have funds, it's important to know how to spend them. These are only my opinions, but they are backed up by years of experience and trial and error in several different schools.

Rule #1 – Buy What You Can Afford

Since our money often comes in small lumps each year, it's important to plan out what to buy now, and what to buy later. If you suddenly receive a large sum from a donor, think about one-time purchases (like a bass xylophone) that are too large for your regular budget. If you only have a small amount to spend, consider what you can still purchase of value (e.g., mallets, glockenspiel, small percussion, books).

Rule #2 – Purchase Instruments that Allow You to Teach a Full Class

I go to conferences and am always wowed by the unique, one-off, authentic musical instruments. However, one of anything, be it a piano or a digiridoo, is less useful than a class set of something. When you have one, you have 20+ students waiting for a turn to try it. There goes your class period, and the students sat and waited for most of it, not learning.

When I'm exploring rhythm with students, it's wonderful to have a set of hand drums, so everyone can learn the same technique and play together. Similarly, for melodic exploration, nothing beats a full set of barred percussion.

Of course it is possible to create rotations wherein each student takes turns but on different instruments. However, when looking to teach not only rhythm but technique, timbre, and dynamics, a homogeneous set is ideal.

Back to rule #1, remember that building a class set of instruments takes time. If you can buy 1-2 instruments every year, you are making progress. One idea I didn't mention in the previous post was to borrow instruments, use them in performance, and then ask for money to help purchase them!

Here is a suggested list of class sets, in the order I would purchase them:

  • Pretuned hand drums – Look for a set of stackable drums of various sizes. Make sure the larger ones aren't too heavy for your students.
  • Barred Percussion – Xylophones with rosewood bars are the gold standard. There are some high quality fiberglass bars that sound almost identical. Metallophones are beautiful in small numbers, but overwhelming if too many. Glockenspiels are excellent for a high end. Look for balance between voices.
  • Recorders – You need at least a full grade set, or find out if students can purchase their own. Make sure they don't buy the very cheapest!!! Also, there are baroque and renaissance models, with different strengths and weaknesses. I like the ease with which students can play low notes on a renaissance recorder.
  • Ukuleles – For older students, the ukulele is a very versatile chordal instrument that fits kids hands and sounds good with their voices.
  • Large drums, cajons, other percussion

Rule #3 – Buy Quality

The axiom "you get what you pay for" is very true for musical instruments. With limited budgets, we're always searching for a deal, but make sure you have the opportunity to play anything you plan to buy. Come to the AOSA conference or a state convention, and visit the exhibitors. Ask questions of veteran teachers, what they like and don't like. (If you want my personal brand preferences, message me).

Rule #4 – Buy Support Materials that Save You Time and Help You Teach

With all of the books and software I've written, the goal has always been to make my job as a music teacher easier, and to save time from boring tasks while making more time for playful, hands-on learning. Be wary of materials that do the opposite – entertain students passively while taking up class time. Our children are surrounded by digital entertainment every day, they need more from us. We need to maximize creative skill-based activities in the limited time we have.

Yet there are certainly requirements in music education that technology can help with. Getting an accurate and documented assessment of student skills, for example. I can take time to pull out my gradebook and hear every single child clap a rhythm, or I can use a tool like Unison.School's rhythm assessment to test an entire class in 5 minutes, and be able to pull up their scores anytime.

Likewise, lesson planning can be an exhausting process. Whether you use a simple spreadsheet, document, or online planner, technology allows us to simplify this task.


Whatever you decide to purchase for your classroom, use it to inspire students to become lifelong musicians. Let me know what you find useful for your classroom!

Advocating for Appropriate Music Classroom Resources

One of the most amazing and frustrating things about U.S. schools is the wide variety of support for music education. While some children have music on a regular basis, others receive instruction every few weeks or not at all. Even when looking at schools that have reasonable schedules and full-time music teachers, there is a huge discrepancy in instruments, resource books, and other materials.

What I have experienced over my career is that, regardless of where you start, it is possible to leave a school with better resources than when you came. Below are a list of resources for funds to support your program:

Class Budget

While music budgets range from $0 to hundreds (or on rare occasions thousands), the first rule is to always spend what you're given. Assuming you don't have the perfect classroom with barred percussion and drums for every child, there's always something to buy.

Building Budget

If you don't have a budget, or it is ridiculously small, you should still present your administration with your needs every year. Often, principals have a building budget that can be flexed to where needs are, and by politely making your case, you become part of that process. It's the old "squeaky wheel" cliche, but it's absolutely true. And of course, this speaks to why developing a positive relationship with your administrators is so important.

District Budget

Just as buildings
ften have flexible money, so do districts. There is danger in being seen to go over the head of a principal, but if you are fortunate enough to have a district music or arts supervisor, or have a personal relationship in the central office, it never hurts to let them know your needs as well. In some districts, the majority of funds flow from the arts director instead of the principals.

Curriculum Budget

This is one area that is often overlooked. Districts normally have a curriculum/textbook budget that is separate from the building budgets, and is used in a rotation to supply new textbooks to various subject areas and grade levels. While some districts may reserve this for only "core" subjects (although according to the ESEA act music is a core subject), there is plenty of precedent for including the arts in this rotation.
Even though this money is used traditionally for textbooks, our education system is slowly adapting to online resources. For music teachers, curriculum money would be useful for software services such as Unison.School, or even to provide the instruments needed to teach your curriculum!

Parent Organizations

When district budget options are exhausted, the next step is to talk to supportive parent groups. This can be the building PTO/PTA or a music booster group. These organizations can normally make only concrete supply purchases, but they are often very open to suggestions on how they can help the school. If their children love music, they will want to support you.

Local Grants

Many cities and regions have local non-profit organizations devoted to supporting the schools. Like PTOs, they are made up of local concerned citizens and parents, looking for opportunities to help out.
Grant applications can seem daunting, but the trick is to dive in, and have a clear image in mind about how the resources will impact your students. They are also often looking for particular catch-phrases, such as STEM/STEAM. Since acoustics is a science that can be studied by the vibration of an instrument, there's always a way to tie things together!

National Grants

Large companies such as Target offer school grants, as well as professional organizations like the American Orff Schulwerk Association. Like local grants, you need to detail your project's goals. However, since these groups may not know you as well, it's also important to explain why your school is in need.


Finally, many teachers have had success with Donors Choose, the crowdsourcing of school funding. This allows you to specify materials you need, and go directly to social media and a national network to ask for support. Be sure to check with your district on their policies, as you may need permission first.

So what did I miss? How have you funded your music program?

Assessment as a Percentage of Instructional Time

I’ve been blessed to have contact with teaching colleagues from many different states this summer, through my work as an Orff Schulwerk Pedagogy instructor. One topic that often comes up is the requirements of assessment in various districts around the country. First, let me assure you, there is no consensus. I have taught for many districts where the administrators are far too busy to worry about the music teacher and their assessments, and the teachers are free to plan assessments around their own teaching and their students’ needs. Other districts require one or more district-wide common assessments, sometimes referred to as SLOs, SLAs, or CFAs. In some states, these standardized assessments are even used to evaluate teacher quality.

When one of my districts decided to begin moving toward a common assessment, we discussed assessment as a percentage of instructional time. You would think this is a common discussion, but try Googling my title above. I can find no research directly on this topic.

Since my district was simultaneously adding common assessments to other subjects like Math and Reading, we were able to make the case that the assessments should be proportional to the amount of instructional time available. Let’s say an elementary math class takes one common assessment per week (which seems like a lot to me, but is not unheard of). In Iowa, many students have math for 60 minutes per day. That’s 60 x 5 or 300 minutes of instruction for each common assessment.

In this district, music classes are somewhere between 40 and 90 minutes per week. If we take a figure of 50 minutes per week (for easy math), then it would take 6 weeks to have the same amount of instructional time in music that students receive in math in one week. Add to this lost time in review, with memory retention hindered by the sporadic schedule. So, logically, common assessments should only be given once every six or more weeks, not once per week.

Thankfully, my district understood this logic, and based on various different schedules we settled on 2-3 total common assessments per year for each class. This was enough for us to get a snapshot of our students and how they were progressing, yet not too much to be achievable by an organized teacher. It did not interfere terribly with developmental skill-building, creative exploration, or concert preparation.

Unfortunately, I have met many colleagues who tell a different story about their districts. In some cases, districts will require teachers to assess every state or national music standard every grading period, and do multiple assessments for one standard (pre, mid, post). This can amount to 50+ assessments in a year, for each class. If we go back to our 50 minutes per week estimate, these teachers see their students 1800 minutes in a year (10/day x 180 days), and must test every 36 minutes, which would be every single music period!!!

No wonder some of these teachers are ready to quit. No wonder they don’t want to do creative, in-depth, student-centered, engaging lessons that take months to develop, despite the fact that every evidence suggests this is what students crave and need from a music program. They are literally forced to turn music class into a boring drill and test class.

One reason I started Unison.School was to help teachers quickly assess their students. The rhythm assessment that I created there can be quickly taken by students with access to any device: tablet, laptop, or desktop. Teachers can rotate students back to a few devices while continuing instruction, or bring in a class set of devices and test everyone within a 5-10 minute window. Students enjoy the “game” of the test, and class continues on quickly. Teachers have access to all the scores without typing or writing down rapidly as the students work.

But even with digital solutions like mine, testing every day in music class is completely inappropriate and unwarranted. We must establish some sanity around the amount of time spent assessing compared to instructional time. Even the U.S. Department of Education recognizes this. According to their Testing Action Plan from 2015, they state that standardized testing should be no more than 2% of instructional time. Even though this refers to state-mandated standardized tests, the number 2% is the only guide I can find to refer to any assessments, and I think it’s a good start. Obviously, informal formative assessment happens minute-by-minute in the music classroom and elsewhere. I am not suggesting this should stop. Rather, we should limit assessments that interrupt instruction to a reasonable percentage of class time, say 2-5%.

If you are in a district that is struggling with this issue, I would love to hear from you, and please feel free to share my thoughts with your administrators (I’d even be happy to contact them myself if you want). We must all fight for sanity and a quality music education in our school programs.

Becoming a Programmer & Entrepreneur

I am just about two weeks into the first summer of my post-teaching career. What was my part-time enterprise of app-writing for the past three years is now becoming my full-time endeavor. 

I started out with an interest in iOS apps. I’ve been a big Apple fan since the first iPhone, and always wished there was a way as a teacher to keep track of my classes and lessons on my phone. So I created a lesson-planning and calendar app specifically for music teachers. I had to teach myself the Swift programming language, how to save and access data from a server, and many other new skills. (This wasn’t really my “first” tech, as I’ve been running WordPress websites for years).

After finishing my planning app, I taught myself Java and converted the entire program to Android. Then, I followed up with a pocket xylophone app and a staff music player app, for students and teachers who either don’t have access to an instrument, or have a disability that interferes with playing. 

This past winter, as I was making the decision to take a break from teaching, I decided that if I was serious about making a living on software, I couldn’t be writing every program for each device separately. This led me to Xamarin, which is built on Microsoft’s .NET platform in C#, and allows you to create apps for iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac with a lot of shared code.

Once I had a foot in the Microsoft world, I realized that I could make not only apps, but websites and web apps with this same language! This is when I started to build Unison.School, which will be the home of my future music-teacher offerings. I’ve created an online xylophone, piano, and staff player, which is free for everyone. I’m also building a set of assessments for schools to use to quickly check and record student skills. You can see the first grade rhythm example online now. 

Of course, there’s always more to learn. I spent an entire week building up a login, registration, and subscription model, so that teachers can use the services when I launch them. Yesterday, I began teaching myself how to do unit tests, which are automated tests that ensure your code is working well.

It’s definitely frustrating if you find yourself not making progress for 2-3 hours, but there’s always a breakthrough eventually. And I have to admit, I’m loving working from home, at my own pace, and by myself. 

Xamarin FTW

When I started programming professionally two years ago, being an Apple fan, I rode the Swift wave. It was clear, easy to understand, and seemed beautiful compared to Objective-C, which I never really learned to use, but can read well enough.

Pocket Xylophone App

Music Teacher Planning App

With my first few apps complete in the App Store, I had the itch to learn more, so I turned to Android and Java. The transition was surprisingly smooth, and I discovered that Java and Swift have more in common than not. Sure, there are some frustrations, like needing to remember ALL THE SEMICOLONS!!! And there are way too many different types of objects. I mean, there’s Integer AND intString AND string. What?

By the time I had completed several Android apps, I understood the concepts now and how they came about. I even made a post about iOS/Swift and Android/Java conversions to help those who were following a similar path. Sure, Swift was simpler, but it is also (for now) Apple only.

While looking for a multi-platform approach to programming, I explored RemObjects Elements compiler, which lets you code cross-platform in Swift! At first I was ecstatic. However, I soon learned that this was a DIY solution with not enough support for a still support-needing newbie like me. While the tools seem to work as advertised, the debugging and setup were confusing to me. I would try it for awhile, give up, come back a month or two later, try again, and still ended up giving up.

Meanwhile, I decided to move on and explore desktop environments. Transitioning apps from iOS to MacOS was both easier and harder than I expected. The code re-use was amazing, but the difference in methods on classes with the exact same name drove me nuts! Next, I delved into Windows-side, with Visual Studio, C#, and UWP. C# is very similar in syntax to Java, which made this transition fairly painless. It was fun to see the three (Apple, Android, .NET) different approaches to UI. Apple’s Storyboards are great for beginners, because there’s literally no coding involved at first, just drag and drop. Yet when you want to make fine-tuned changes, I find XML (Android) and XAML (.NET) simpler to understand, since you can see the visual AND the code side-by-side. Having already worked on websites for years, the syntax of XML/XAML is similar enough to HTML to pick up right away.

Finally, I learned that the Xamarin tools for Visual Studio were now free to try and use for individual programmers! With Xamarin I can make an ASP.NET web-based app, with partner apps on mobile devices, and share a single code base for the business logic! The only thing that needs to be tailored to each is the UI. (Note: I know that Xamarin.Forms is a cross-platform UI builder, but I have heard less than positive reviews, and I’m going to stick with building native UIs for now).

So, what am I building? Well, I’ve been a teacher all my life. I would like to build solutions for other teachers and schools, to help teachers quickly and effortlessly do the paperwork tasks they need to do, and free them up to spend more time face to face with students. Stay tuned for more info!



Education and Technology

My son is in upper elementary, and his school day looks amazingly like my school day back 30 years ago. A bit more computer work, more time spent testing and reading, and unfortunately less social studies (and possibly science, although I’m not sure elementary students ever got all that much). But they still have home classrooms, arts and phys. ed. classes a few times per week, lunch and recess. Despite all the hubbub of “Common Core Math”, his homework assignments are not completely different from what I was given.

As a lifelong educator, union member, and public school supporter, there is something encouraging about this incredible length of stability in our system. Yet as a person who embraces, studies, and works with technology, I am concerned with the future, and what it brings for public schools.

Teachers are constantly asked by administrators to demonstrate how they are “incorporating” modern technology into their teaching. Many of us will point to the students typing away on computer keyboards instead of hand-writing assignments, and teaching them to use simple applications. Yet the real technological disruption in education is perhaps still to come.

Within the past year, I have taught myself, at home and online, how to be an app programmer for iOS and Android. I paid for no schooling, and required no tools except a Mac laptop. I learned quickly and efficiently because I was self-motivated and studying something I loved.

Imagine if this type of self-guided study truly catches on with our children. Already, many kids are learning to program mods (modifications) for the popular Minecraft game, or creating and sharing games using block-based code on scratch.mit.edu. Companies such as IXL have complete home-testing programs in math and reading. Homeschool parents probably are more familiar with the vast online choices than I am.

Certainly, current apps and websites require a teacher or knowledgable parent to guide students in the learning process. But I have little doubt that the technology will continue to improve, to the point that digital assistance will serve most of the current mentor’s role. Would this mean the elimination of schools as we know them, and the teaching profession?

Obviously, not every subject matter lends itself equally to a digital medium. Physical education, art, music, social skills, will likely be among the last holdouts for human contact. I could see schools becoming more community-centers, where children and families gather to share and learn together, before returning to their homes to continue their studies online. I also think it likely that this transition will continue to erode universities, then high schools, with elementary schools being the last to be dismantled from their current structure.

I don’t want my teaching colleagues and future teachers to be out of work. I don’t want students to become automatons who can’t interact with other humans. But not wanting this to happen doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And fighting disruptive technology has proven nearly impossible in every other field. I believe 50 years from now, we will have fewer teachers, fewer schools, and more digital education. I think we should talk about how we get there without ruining teachers’ lives or trusting faulty software that isn’t ready to be as effective as those devoted teachers.

And I think, as educators, the time will come, sooner or later, when our old saying, “do what’s best for kids,” will point not at us, but at our machines.


Hello IMEA friends! Below is the link for the slideshow in today’s presentation.

Scheduling and Supporting the Elementary Music Classroom

And here are email links for the presenters. Feel free to email any of us with questions.

Tim Purdum tim@cedarrivermusic.com

Jim Stichter jim.stichter@uni.edu

Matt Willand willandm@waterlooschools.org


Feel free to check out my other music teacher resources, such as the Creative Sequence book series and Music Teacher app!



CS Music Teacher App Version 1.0 is out!

I am very proud to say that my first functioning app is in the iOS App Store! Learning to code an app was a huge undertaking for someone without any official computer science training, but I enjoyed the challenge. Next step is to keep refining/fixing any bugs and transfer the app to Android. After that, I hope to expand the features of the apps to include daily and monthly planners, grade books, etc.

If you want to learn more, check out Creative Sequence Music Teacher

Fiscal Responsibility Doesn’t Mean Free

In the past week I’ve had to live through two crushing blows to the public schools that I love and believe in. I am a citizen of Cedar Falls Iowa, and this past Tuesday we had a vote for a school bond to build a new elementary, upgrade the others, and generally make sure that we could provide quality education without overcrowding. The bond garnered 57% positive support; unfortunately these bonds require 60% to pass. Instead, our school district will waste more money on portable classrooms and other band-aid solutions, until such a time as funds come available to build. 

This was followed in Thursday by the announcement that Iowa governor Terry Branstad vetoed $55 million for K-12 education, as well as funding for our state universities. To fully understand the underhandedness of this move, one must first understand that the school aid funding was set long (100+ days) after legally required at a 1.25% increase over the past year.  The only way Democrats agreed to this very low funding increase was in exchange for a one-time allotment of $55 million on top. See the problem here? The republicans got exactly what they wanted, which was to shortchange education. 

In both instances, the argument against funding usually is made with the label of “fiscal responsibility.” In other words, the crooks in the school district(s) are only going to waste our money anyways, and I can’t afford more taxes, and they should find another solution. Locally, it was even suggested by the “Vote No” ringleader that the district hold a bake sale. A bake sale, to cover $30 million in needs.

Of course, I’m fairly certain his kids don’t go to the public schools…and neither do many of our state (R) representatives. I get that they have no interest in funding public education, when a lot of that money will go directly toward proud union members like myself who will inevitably vote against them. What they keep your attention off, however, is how much damage this attitude is doing to our communities in the meantime. Oh, we won’t see it yet, we’ll have to wait for these underserved kids to grow up and be under-performing and problem-causing adults. 

What I don’t get is why anyone who does want a good community would ever would vote against a bond or for republican representatives. 

Let me make it very clear. We the people are the government. We elect them to represent us and do what we want. We collectively agree on things that matter like schools, roads, police, etc. We pool our money based on ability to pay (based on income or the cost of our house), and use it to achieve these ends. If you really believe our taxes should always go down and never up, then you don’t actually believe in the value of any of those services I mentioned. It also makes you pretty selfish, in my opinion, as the people without private resources (money for private schools, health care, food, housing) are the ones hurt the most by cutting taxes and spending. 

I know there must be a balance, and that government is as capable as businesses of being corrupt or inefficient. But I think locally, statewide, and nationally we are living through a grand experiment, and time and again, the cutting of taxes and services is showing to be detrimental in the long run. And I believe that I can trust my local school board to spend money wisely, and if they don’t, I’ll remember at election time. But I won’t support starving our children’s education because I don’t trust “the government.” It’s time for us all to stand up for public education and put our money where our heart is.