After 10 years, you have worn me out and I’m leaving you.
Former Smartmusic Advocate & Cheerleader
I’d been using Smartmusic for weekly sight-singing homework since 2010. Sure, Smartmusic was always quirky, clunky and time-consuming but it offered two unparalleled featured for teaching sight-singing: a sequential sight-reading curriculum and a self-grading option for student assignments.
The sequential curriculum I used was through a book/resource they offered entitled 90 Days to Sight-Singing Success by Stan McGill & H. Morris Stevens, Jr.
Essentially, the book’s method consists of 90 days of exercises with three exercises per day. Of the three daily exercises, I would choose the exercises that I thought were most useful and give my students one of those as their homework assignment for the week. This one book essentially stretched into 3-4 solid years of homework assignments and improved all of my students greatly. (Click here for a list of my entire curriculum for Smartmusic)
While this curriculum and system had been successful for developing sight-singing skills for all students, it was immensely tedious. The first major reason was that I was unable to view the entire book online; through the Smartmusic platform, each exercise needed to be clicked on to be seen. My workaround was owning a physical copy of the book and labeling the most effective exercises that matched up with my criteria. My book was numbered with exercises from 1 to 135, matching up to their exercises. By marking down my 3-4 year curriculum in the physical book, and later putting it into a chart, I just needed to find the exercise on Smartmusic by the Week, Day, and Exercise Letter than aligned with the assignment number I had created on my chart.
While I found it to be a lot of work to set up each individual assignment and then place them into units for each level of student, I believed it had been worth it. It was especially time-consuming and tedious because of the numerous parameters that are required when creating each assignment. Since each assignment is new, the parameters have to be manually set one by one.
The self-grading option was a great feature for two reasons: I didn’t have to grade my students’ work and they were aware of their grade immediately upon completion of their assignment. After knowing their grade, they could opt to attempt the same exercise over and over again until they received a grade they were satisfied with before submitting.
With all the benefits listed above, problems arose because the self-grading is quirky. First off, a student who is slightly flat or sharp is marked wrong. A student who is slightly late or early on a note is marked wrong. Sometimes, Smartmusic doesn’t “hear” correctly and marks things wrong for no apparent reason.
Over time, Smartmusic migrated from a downloadable program to a web-based platform as they continued to “improve” it’s features without improving the user experience. On top of that, when they switched platforms, I again had to re-create the same 135 assignments.
Just as I thought my work would be done then, I found that Smartmusic would make annual adjustments/improvements to their features which then required me to have to “modify” all 135 assignments, one by one.
How and Why I made the Move
About 5 years ago, I purchased Sight Reading Factory for the purpose of using in the classroom during choir rehearsals and it quickly became the most effective tool for teaching sight-singing in class. I set and saved the parameters that I wanted for each exercise (the key, time signature, types of rhythms, range of pitches, level of complexity, etc.). With the click of a button, my smartboard would be ready to offer 3-4 exercises in a row for my choir.
Last year, instead of placing all of my students on Smartmusic for homework, I decided to try the student subscriptions for my top students, moving my strongest sight-singers to the Sight Reading Factory platform. I figured that I could focus on creating my own curriculum to challenge my top students. I also felt offering a level of sight-singing that aligned directly with my state’s standards would be helpful prior to our state’s solo adjudication festival. (Sight Reading Factory aligns to the standard levels of many states)
Right off the bat, I recognized 3 major differences between the new SRF level I provided my advanced singers and the 4 Smartmusic levels that the majority of my singers were enrolled in:
- Using SRF, I had to listen and grade each assignment.
- Using SRF, while students had endless takes, each take offered a brand new assignment. (not the opportunity to retry the same exercise)
- Using SRF, creating an assignment was extremely quick, especially when duplicating the same parameters from one assignment to the next.
All in all, I found grading assignments was fast, about 30 seconds per student. These experienced students seemed to prefer their experience with SRF more because they weren’t graded prior to submitting their assignments. It turns out many students had found themselves trying to earn a perfect score even when the computer would incorrectly mark pitches/rhythms wrong or when any trained ear would have given them a perfect score for their performance; in other words, they needed Smartmusic to see that they were perfect even when they knew they sang perfectly and it was the program’s grading system that was imperfect.
Even with these quirks, I fully intended on repeating the same dual system this year: most students using Smartmusic while the advanced students using Sight Reading Factory. But here is what changed:
1. Smartmusic offered us terrible customer service
Apparently they are so understaffed, they cannot handle their orders, even ones from long-standing customers. I followed several threads of other music teachers as well who couldn’t get enrollment/renewal codes for their students during the first month of the school year. At the same time, I was able to call Sight Reading Factory and on one try, speak directly with one of the owners of the company. In one conversation, he was able to link my choir students to the band, orchestra, and AP music theory teacher. Now, our high school music department can work together with a unified sight-reading goal.
2. It turns out my students enjoy Sight Reading Factory more
My students told me they felt relieved that they no longer saw those “red and yellow” wrong notes/rhythms that deducted points, even when they in fact were singing the correct pitches/rhythms.
On a side note, Smartmusic now allows us the option for choosing between several sensitivity levels for self-grading. It sounds great, except my entire curriculum of 135 exercises needed to be edited one-by-one in order to change the grading sensitivity of each assignment.
3. Sight Reading Factory accurately tells us the number of takes each student attempts
If we believe on grading this skill based on effort, we can choose to give the students a minimum number of attempts that guarantees them a specific score.
In a recent Choralosophy Podcast, Chris Munce advocates for giving the students full credit for their homework assignment if they either sing the assigned exercise perfectly or attempt 12 takes. Unlike Smart Music, each take is a brand new 8 measure exercise.
After each take, Sight Reading Factory gives the student the ability to hear their performance, hear the correct pitches/rhythms, AND hear their performances at the same time as the correct pitches/rhythms. As a result, most students can easily recognize when they are correct prior to submitting for a grade.
I’ve adapted and modified Chris’ concept into my choral program. Here is what I’ve written into my Choir Handbook regarding weekly homework on Sight Reading Factory:
Assignments will be posted on Sight Reading Factory on Monday and expected to be completed by Friday, class time. This gives you 4 nights to complete the weekly homework assignment. Homeworks, in total, are worth 10% of your overall grade.
You and your teacher will ensure you are on the appropriate level.
Each assignment will be scored out of 4 points. You must complete your assignment by the due date. Late assignments will receive 1/2 point deduction.
Here is how the scores are earned:
4/4 – you have either performed your exercise perfectly OR made 12 attempts. To be clear: if you make 12 attempts, you will receive 4/4, regardless of how many mistakes you have made.
3/4 – you have made less than 12 attempts and have less than 3 mistakes. (rhythm or pitch)
2/4 – you have made less than 12 attempts, had numerous mistakes, but did make a complete attempt from start to finish.
1/4 – you submitted an assignment and demonstrated minimal skill.
0/4 – you did not submit the assignment.
The key to being successful in music literacy/sight-singing is being consistent and not giving up.
Last Words for Smartmusic
For my choral program, Smartmusic’s time has come and gone. I will miss having the automated grading, but I now believe I can give more to my students with Sight Reading Factory.
If you find yourself interested in purchasing their product, which is quite reasonably priced, be sure to type in the code “choral clarity” to receive 10% off your entire order!
I’ve written several previous posts on Sight Reading Factory, as it has been key to the development of my choral program. Check out these below.