Section 2: A Home-made System for the Macintosh, the Experiences and Guidance From John Hebert

John Hebert writes of his experiences setting up a music reading system for his son, Jeff, when Jef participated in middle and high school band. They started by using a PC-based system built to the specifications on Tom Green's tutorial, and then made the transition to the Macintosh. The Macintosh-based system can easily be assembled today and should be considered as a possible solution, especially by those who already use the Mac for other activities.

I'd be happy to share our experiences and tutor folks on using the Mac as a basis for a music system for low vision musicians. The concept of the Mac based system is identical to Tom Green's idea – the difference is using the Mac instead of a PC.

System Requirements are:

  • Apple Macintosh laptop--we used a Macbook Pro, but you can probably use a Macbook Air today with the performance improvements that have been made to it;
  • Computer monitor (we used a 22" monitor). They usually last one school year as the other kids are constantly bumping it or knocking it over, not to mention Jeff's doing the same;
  • Finale music notation software (www.finalemusic.com). The full version of Finale spendy. Make sure you take advantage of the academic pricing, which knocks $250 off MSRP. It is possible that if the end user will simply be using the system to view files, that the free version called Finale Notepad would suffice. I have not personally tested this.
  • USB footswitch and accompanying software, specifically, http://www.xkeys.com/xkeys/xkfoot.php This comes with Controllermate, the software necessary to integrate the footswitch into the Mac;
  • Scanner; and
  • Multi-outlet extension cord – you need to plug in both the monitor and the laptop for extended sessions.
  • There are two primary reasons for choosing the Mac over a Windows-based PC:
    1) accessibility for low vision users is built into the operating system; and
    2) it is a much more robust laptop, especially for a high school student using it every minute of every school day.

    Regarding accessibility, I should point out that this really translates into a stable computer platform, in that the system requires nothing other than the music notation software (Finale) and the software required to operate the USB footswitch. In the PC world, another layer of software is required to lay over the top of the OS, usually Zoomtext, and then Finale, and a macro package to provide additional control, or any other functional software package (Word, Excel, etc) that the user may require is loaded. We found this to be extremely buggy, and it often crashed at the most inopportune moments, many times right in the middle of a concert. Once we switched to the Mac, it never crashed. Not once. Ever. With the Mac, nothing special is needed; zooming and changing of contrast (back on white versus white on black) is built into the Mac OS.

    There's nothing about this system that's inexpensive: the least expensive Macbook Pro is $1,199, a 20" monitor $109 (you can go 27" for about $250), Vesa monitor mount $49, Finale is $350 at academic or theological pricing, a stand $35-80, USB footswitch is $129, scanner $149, extension cord is $30. So all told, about $2,000 for the least expensive setup. A used Mac can shave hundreds of dollars off the system price. If portability is not an issue, say if the system is intended for playing at home, the machine of choice could be an iMac, which can be purchased, used, for $1,000 or less. not only does it offer much better performance, but the screen is much larger, and may negate the need for a separate monitor. The iMac can sit on a small table right in front of the musician. That may not work for some instruments, but it's a start. Regarding Finale, I'd caution against using older versions which you might be able to pick up for less, because of the difficult straits you can get yourself into if an upgrade Apple makes to its OS renders the software unusable.

    We wanted to minimize the different look Jeff's system has. Since the other students are used to seeing music on a music stand, I purchased a Manhasset music stand (MSRP $79.99). I then brought it down to a friend's shop and used a plasma cutter to cut a hole in the back of the stand to route the video and power cables. A Vesa mount (I believe it was a VESA 100mm) is used to secure the monitor to the stand. It's been very robust, and withstood 4 years of high school. We actually had two setups, one at school and one at home. The second setup was a little more portable,using velcro to secure the monitor. We occasionally had to supplement that with bungee cords ... We did take this system on his high school band trip to Hawaii, as well as to Seattle for the All Nortwest weekend. I purchased a lockable aluminum transport box that uses foam inserts you can cut out to protect your particular piece of equipment. The system travelled to both Seattle and Hawaii, to and from performances, and back with nary a scratch.

    Photo of a monitor mounted on a music stand

    Photo from the back, showing the mounting, bolts, and cutout for the wires.

    Here's a picture of the monitor setup, and a picture of the cutout on the back of the stand. I used a piece of rubber hose slice on one side for the gasket so he wouldn't cut his fingers . . . It might have been useful for an adult using this stand to fab up a shelf for the laptop. With high school kids, we wanted to minimize the distance it could be dropped, so we had Jeff put it on the floor when not loading music.

    The use of Finale is the same on PC's and Mac's other than some of the keyboard conventions, which are easily mastered in little time. Tom's tutorial on using Finale is still valid, and is a valuable tool for anyone interested in a system like this.

    The most time-consuming aspect of the process, whether using a PC or Mac bassed system of this type, is what's necessary to do to get the music ready for reading ahead of time. With band music, at least, some editing is going to be needed. you can't just scan the sheet music or load a file the teacher has prepared for the rest of the class, or use an electronic versions of music from the publisher unaltered. Because of the way that the music is displayed on the system, you have to look at the music in a linear fashion - measure 1 through measure 99999. Repeats are not possible, at least I didn't find a way to encode the music in such a way as to make the system return to a particular point previously in the music. So I had to lay out all of the music such that it was laid out end to end, from the first measure to the last. I made sure that I always numbered the measures in Finale, and when I had a section repeat, I would simply add the suffix a, or b to the measure number so Jeff could keep track of where he was. This sounds a little confusing, but it's only time consuming. I might find, for example, that measures 1-10 are straightforward, but measure 11 calls for a repeat back to measure 1.

    Here's an example from his band music:

    music notation taken from a band score

    Measure 9 (annotated on the left) continues on through to measure 16 and then repeats back to measure 9. I would have to lay it out end to end, measure 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 9a, 10a, 11a, 12a, 13a and so on. Upon reaching measure 16a, the next measure would be measure 17, and continue on through the music. Just pretend that repeats were never invented by music publishers to save space on the paper ...

    When I first started using this system, the learning curve was steep because I had never used Finale, which is not an intuitive piece of software. Extremely powerful, it is used by professionals all over the world to creating scores, so user friendliness was not one of the primary considerations. Once you get used to the nuances (and the occasional bug), you can be very productive.

    At first, I entered Jeff's music into Finale manually, as it seldom exceeded 1 page. That works fine in middle school. Enter high school and it's not unusual to face five-page pieces that have to be entered. So I switched to scanning the music in using Smartscore lite, which is built into Finale. It's a good utility, but like any character-recognizing software, is accurate only about 70% of the time (on a good day). That means that after you scan it, you have to go back note by note through the piece to make sure it scanned in correctly. Ad of course, you have to deal with any repeats as mentioned above.

    A few words about the USB foot switch. Like Tom's system, this is used to page the Finale software forwards as a musician is playing the music. It is also used to page backwards. When rehearsing a piece, it's not unusual for the conductor to say "Let's start back at measure 24 . . . .". Keep in mind that while there is a search function within Finale, because you laid out the music linearly, measure 24 might not be the same in the system, so the musician has to be able to page back to the correct "page" in the piece. This switch is very easy to program, and in fact was one of the most foolproof parts of the system. The Xkeys foot switch comes with a software package that allows you to program the three pedals on the device– no programming skills required whatsoever. The software package will translate the foot switch actions into key activations. For example the "Page Down" key is used by Finale to advance the music one page. I programmed pedal A to "Page Down." I programmed another pedal to "Page Up", allowing Jeff to back up in the music. He got pretty adept at paging back 30 or 40 measures when the conductor wanted to go back and cover another section of the music. Follow the instructions that come with the foot switch – you really can't mess this one up.

    Although Mac laptops are more expensive than PC's, we easily offset the expense by not having to buy software like ZoomText and the Mac's ability to take hours of heavy use and the rigors of being in the hands of a teen ager with ADHD (think of the screen being opened and closed several times a minute.)

    The number one challenge facing any musician that wants to use a system like this? Someone to put the music into Finale. It takes someone with specialized skills as a desire to make sure it's right, with the time available to do the work. I budgeted about 1 hour per page when I first started, and that was about right. Once I started scanning, that was cut in about half – still a significant investment, as high school musicians tend to come home with 10 or 12 pieces, that all have to be scanned in ...

    All in all, it was a fun journey, and deeply satisfying as I watched my son grow from a middle school brass player struggling with low vision and learning music to an accomplished high school musician who made All-State three out of his four years of high school, and was selected for the MENC All Northwest Band his senior year, along with 250 of the best musicians in an 8 state area of the Pacific Northwest. The highlight of the experience was all 250 of these musicians packed onto Seattle's Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, and give one of the most stirring performances I've heard . . Maybe ever. Here is a Youtube video of the band playing "Italian Rhapsody." If you look carefully toward the back, you can see Jeff in the brass section, who happens to have a monitor on his music stand, while the others have paper. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v1Nm92UDME.

    We're very proud of what he accomplished, and it definitely made a big difference in his high school years, as he was able to participate, compete, and succeed with his sighted peers.

    Don't hesitate to ask questions, and you can route questions your receive my way, I'll answer as my schedule allows. I may be reached at john.hebert@ge.com

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