Here at SmartMusic, we pride ourselves on having a music library like no other—currently home to hundreds of methods and thousands of ensemble and solo pieces (and counting) ready for teachers to assign, and students to practice. We recently sat down with CJ Garcia, who works on the team responsible for developing repertoire for the SmartMusic library, to give users a glimpse under the hood and provide insight on how repertoire is carefully created, maintained, and improved upon over time.
1. For some background, what is the main function of the Repertoire Development team?
The main focus of the Repertoire Development team (we call ourselves RepDev to save ink and syllables) is to create, develop, and maintain the SmartMusic library. The team includes the roles of Manager, MPEs (Music Production Engineers), and Content QA Specialists. Our Manager sets priorities of what content we need to develop, the MPEs (my job title) then develop the content, and a QA Specialist then reviews the content before we release it to our users. Everyone on our team also has a degree in music including composition, production, and education. Even though we are working in a software company, we are all primarily musicians and look at the content with a musician’s eye.
2. Can you provide insight into the process of how new music gets into the SmartMusic Library?
There’s a lot of nuance but our process of getting content into SmartMusic has 3 basic steps: License the content, prepare the content for SmartMusic, and release the content.
Licensing the content: As much as we’d love to just develop the latest and greatest pieces that are requested or make an arrangement for the most trending pop song this week, getting approval to use a piece of music in SmartMusic requires a lot of conversations with publishers. That process starts with our Licensing team, building a list of pieces we and they would like to see in SmartMusic. Once an agreement is reached and a license is signed, the content can start development. The publisher will then send the assets needed for RepDev to build the content for SmartMusic.
Preparing the content for SmartMusic: When working with our publishing partners, we require PDFs of the published parts, audio recordings of the pieces that match the notation, and the music notation files themselves. When publishers send us notation files for SmartMusic, RepDev must edit them for display in SmartMusic. Sometimes, like when the notation isn’t available digitally, we even engrave the content in-house. Ultimately, the files are moved to a MusicXML format and uploaded to SmartMusic. Next, we need to create a midi file that contains a beatmap of the included audio recording. We do this using DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software to map the tempo found in the recording, then upload the recording and beatmap to SmartMusic. A beatmap is critical, as it is the part that synchronizes the metronome clicks to the recording.
Release the content: After we have all of the XML files, the midi file, and the mp3, a QA Specialist accesses the content like a user would and can put the piece through its paces. Any mistakes are noted by the QA Specialist and then fixed by the MPE. After this back and forth is complete, the piece is then ready to be released!
3. How has this process evolved, and how does it continue to evolve?
Anyone using SmartMusic within the last year may know that there was a large transition in 2016 from our desktop version of SmartMusic (what we called Classic SmartMusic) to the web-based version of SmartMusic (what we now just call SmartMusic). As our team aids this transition, our workflow has changed immensely. The way SmartMusic now operates by using web-based engines and universal files like MusicXML offers us a great deal more flexibility, transparency, and speed when creating content.The flexibility that web-based SmartMusic provides means that we are able to implement new features as we go and not have to learn a whole new process with each new song. These incremental changes always result in getting more content out faster for our users.
4. With the most extensive online library in the industry, what sort of maintenance is required for the thousands of existing titles? How does the team apply developments in the technology?
This one is going to be a long answer, haha.
Regarding the process, we begin with the customer. Essentially, a customer contacts our Customer Service (CS) team, and if the issue is about notation, assessment, or the beatmap, the CS agent will report the problem to our team for review. Because performing maintenance on existing content is a high priority for us, we have a dedicated MPE evaluating and fixing content each day of the week when a customer reports an issue. We rotate through our team and call this person the “Dev on Deck.”
For example, whenever a ticket from CS comes in on Tuesday, I will stop what I’m doing, evaluate the ticket, and if it can be fixed in a timely manner. I will give the CS agent an estimate about how long it will take to fix, then I will fix the issue. Our QA Specialist verifies that the issue no longer exists, and then we contact CS to give the customer the good news. Most of the time, the turnaround on an issue is within the same day. However, some issues take a bit longer to fix, like a method book with 500 exercises. Some issues need to be fixed by an app developer, like a piece that opens on one platform but not another. And there are some issues that we simply can’t fix, like editorial concerns where we must honor the published part. We try to report all of this back to our CS team so the customer knows we thank them for reaching out. We also do our best to keep an eye out for problems in SmartMusic—on social media, support forums, and amongst our own educator friends—but the best thing to do is contact us!
I think it might be interesting to peek behind the RepDev curtain and hear how our team approaches corrections to a larger project, like a method book.
Sometimes, a method book can exhibit multiple opportunities for improvements that our team must address all at once. An example could be what we refer to internally as “Canonical Titles.”
In some content, we were able to develop an exercise in a method book where each transposing instrument could have had a different title. For example, where the concert pitch instruments had a title like “10. Concert C Major Scale,” the Bb Instruments such as Clarinet and Tenor Saxophone used the same accompaniment, the same notation (transposed of course), and the same beatmap, but when a user clicked on the Bb Instrument, the title would maybe read “10. Bb Major Scale (Concert C)”. Same would go for Eb, F, and even some percussion exercises. The only difference between these instruments was the title they were given, and they were all stored in the same exercise. When we migrated content to the web, occasionally the content got split out into different exercises. Though the content may still work just fine, it created many extra steps for the teacher to assign a single exercise as they now have to assign two or more titles based on the instrument that gets used.
We rebuild these method books so that they work in a similar way to when they were in Classic. To accomplish this, we must be diligent: reorganizing the files, updating the notation, re-uploading each exercise, testing the book, and if I was the one who did the rework, there could even be typos that will need correcting 😉 Doing all of that can take weeks, depending on how many instruments and exercises there are in a book. We also must work carefully, as we know the current book is actively being used! So we decided that the best approach is to rebuild the title as a brand new version, then once we archive the old version, our educators can do all of the assignments at once with reorganized titles.
5. How do these developments improve the overall experience for teachers and students?
When we rebuild a method book, our customers have a better experience making assignments. That’s a big win for everyone. And the incremental development of tools allowed by a web-based platform means that we can create content faster with each new development. That’s another big win for everyone. We also think rotating MPEs each day can create more wins for customers, as we try to correct an issue the second it’s reported to us.
I also want to reiterate that we are a small team, and we must constantly balance the need to perfect our existing content, while adding to the library more and more. Even before the web-based SmartMusic, I can’t think of a time where I was twiddling my thumbs! Our team is always working hard to deliver the best content we can for our users because we have all been on the other side of it either as teachers or students at one point. We know the value that this brings to a classroom and we want to make that experience the best. 2020 has thrown us all curveballs we weren’t expecting, but we are working to make sure that the content you get in SmartMusic is something you can rely on.
I want to end by saying thank you to all of our SmartMusic users. You have so many unique, creative, and different ways to teach and learn music. I have nothing but gratitude to all of you, for choosing us to help shape your classroom this year and beyond. Not just because of my job, but because I know what you all do matters immensely. Because what my music teachers did for me mattered immensely. It’s that impact I know you all have on your students that makes me work harder every day. Keep up the good work, continue to help shape lives for the better, and know that we’re in your corner.