Paperless composition lessons with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

by David MacDonald on March 10, 2017 · 9 comments

in Tutorials

A version of this post was first published on David MacDonald’s blog This Page Left Intentionally Useless in December 2016.

These four apps and services have allowed me to move almost completely away from paper printouts.

These four apps and services have allowed me to move almost completely away from paper printouts.

When I was a student composer in the early 2000s, every week had a similar lesson-day routine: assemble all my paper sketches and planning, print out any work I’d done in the computer (Sibelius mostly), output an audio file if possible and save to a small flash drive. Each week, I would bring this stack of papers in, my teacher would write all over the paper I’d brought in, possibly sketch some new ideas on a fresh sheet, and send me home. On a good week, I remembered my flash drive. Throughout this process, I must have printed hundreds of sheets each semester, most of which had changed little from the previous week, and none of which would ever be used in a performance. This was mostly the same process I expected my students to go through when I started teaching lessons a few years later.

Last year, though, everything changed. iPad Pro and Apple Pencil have replaced the need for paper scores in my composition lessons. I’m extremely happy with my new paperless workflow and can’t imagine going back to the dead-tree format. I’m sure I’ll continue to refine the system as long as I use it; but, I think in its current state, the basics are working quite well.

I have a few key goals for both me and the composers I’m working with. First, it needs to be simple and automatic. If it’s hard for my students to set up, they will forget something important; if I need to remember to do something, I’ll forget that, too.

Second, it needs to support whatever systems my students are using. The overall objective of this whole pedagogical endeavor is to support their creative work. That might take any form of traditional or graphic or textual score. The creative output of my students should be completely unperturbed by my fiddling with gizmos.

Third, it needs to be as transparent and reliable. My students and I need to trust that when they submit something to me, I will receive it; I need to know that when I send feedback, it will be read and accounted for. I never want my students to be unsure of what I expect of them. Teaching open-ended creative work has plenty of hand-wavy ambiguity already. My computers shouldn’t add any. If possible, they should eliminate some.

The beginning: GoodNotes

I keep a digital notebook for each composer in my studio. There, I record their compositional goals, upcoming recital ideas, and notes on what we discuss in each lesson. I do this on my iPad Pro in GoodNotes, which has a number of excellent features for my purposes.

Here are two of my most-used default GoodNotes templates.

Here are two of my most-used default GoodNotes templates.

GoodNotes notebooks are open-ended sketchbooks. They can include writing, drawing, text, and photographs. So I’m not limited to words; I often draw music notation, music-like sketches, timelines, and stage diagrams. These notes are synced to other iOS devices and Macs over iCloud. This is handy if I ever need to make a quick reference from my phone, or if I want to type a long paragraph of text on my Mac. GoodNotes also allows notebooks to be backed up as PDFs to Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, or Box.

I want my students to always know what I’m expecting of them, so I give each of them a link to their notebook PDF in my Dropbox. That way, they can refer back to previous lesson notes and remind themselves of what they’re expected to be working on for next time.

I write notes during the lesson for future reference by me and the composer. Often, it’s a simple list of concepts, composers, or techniques we discussed.

I write notes during the lesson for future reference by me and the composer. Often, it’s a simple list of concepts, composers, or techniques we discussed.

The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type like this stage diagram.

The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type like this stage diagram.

I know that I described this workflow as paperless; but, I strongly encourage my students to start all of their projects on paper. I know that I’m far from unique among composition teachers in this regard.

When they bring in handwritten work, typed outlines, sketched drawings or other diagrams, I use the very handy Add Image feature in GoodNotes to snap a quick photo with the iPad’s camera that I can bring right into the lesson notebook and write all over — the full John Madden, if you will — without feeling too self-conscious about marring the student’s handwritten work.

It’s easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.

It’s easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.

So yeah, there’s paper sometimes, but it’s not my paper. And I’m pretty quickly ingesting the paper contents into my paperless workflow. As a side benefit, other kinds of things can go into the notebook using the same method.

I’ve included photos of the inside of a piano and the settings on a mixer for later reference and markup.

GoodNotes makes it pretty simple to bring in new “papers” or templates to use in my notebooks. Here’s the one I use for lessons.

GoodNotes makes it pretty simple to bring in new “papers” or templates to use in my notebooks. Here’s the one I use for lessons.

Another excellent feature of GoodNotes is the ability to create custom “papers”. GoodNotes actually ships with an extensive and useful set of papers that I use regularly, especially the staff paper and grid paper (nice for diagrams and timelines). It’s very easy to export a blank paper template from GoodNotes and create your own papers to suit specific needs.

For my lessons, I tweaked the default staff paper to include a space for the date, the grade for the lesson, and what I expect them to have listened to and worked on for the next time we meet. Here’s my GoodNotes lesson notebook template.

Transferring ideas: Dropbox

I mentioned it briefly in my description of GoodNotes, but it’s worth mentioning the way I’m using Dropbox here.

Each student has a shared folder that they use to submit their scores (PDF) and audio (usually MP3) prior to our meetings. If I have an article I want them to read or a score I’d like them to see, I can place it in that Dropbox as well. I have a Dropbox Premium account, so storage is not an issue for me, and the file history is great for when files are accidentally deleted or overwritten. I have the Dropbox client running on my Mac, so even if a student uploads materials immediately before the lesson, the files are right there on my computer before we’re done with small talk.

The business end: PDF Expert

PDF Expert was the primary focus of my love and attention in a post on my blog last August. I won’t repeat too much of that here as much of it hasn’t changed. However, the thing that has evolved over the semester is my methods for getting files in and out of PDF Expert.

Student uploads to Dropbox are automatically downloaded to the sync’d folder in PDF Expert.

Student uploads to Dropbox are automatically downloaded to the sync’d folder in PDF Expert.

There is a lot to love about Dropbox, but its iOS client is not one of them.

Thankfully, PDF Expert has pretty good hooks into the Dropbox API so I don’t have to deal with the limitations of the Dropbox client too much. It allows me to select certain folders, such as the one I share with each composer, to keep synced to my device. Since we’re mostly dealing with PDF files and small-ish MP3s, the sync is pretty quick and doesn’t take up too much space on my iPad (which has 128GB storage, plenty for this use). The sync here isn’t quite as quick as on my Mac, but a pull-to-refresh gesture will force PDF Expert to check for new changes and download them.

Marked up scores like this are sync’d back to the student’s shared Dropbox folder right alongside their lesson notebook.

Marked up scores like this are sync’d back to the student’s shared Dropbox folder right alongside their lesson notebook.

Throughout the lesson, I write on the student’s score in PDF Expert using colored pencils, highlighters, and typed text. Each changes if very quickly synced back to the Dropbox folder, and students will get to see these as they continue working.

Because this is happening on a PDF copy of the file rather than the Sibelius or Finale files (I don’t think any of my students has jumped into Dorico yet), they won’t overwrite my comments until they upload a fresh score the following week, and if they really need them, they could always change the file name anyway.


It may surprise readers — especially readers of this blog — that I have not mentioned any music notation apps I’m using on the iPad. That’s because I’m not using any.

There are two reasons. First, I don’t actually use much music notation software in lessons; the main focus of our conversations is music, not scores. Second, there really is not a scoring app for iPad that comes anywhere near the power and flexibility needed for creative contemporary classical music — perhaps a subject for another post. Some might be nice for sketching ideas; but, I still think paper (or digital paper in GoodNotes) is best served for open-ended sketches that may only bear a passing resemblance to music notation and have as many annotations as noteheads. If there ever were a professional-grade entry into the iPad scoring software market, it would have a much greater impact on my work as a composer than my teaching methods.

Probably my favorite part of the paperless workflow that I’ve outlined here is that functionally, it’s nearly identical to my ideal paper workflow from a pedagogical standpoint. It focuses on eliminating the most cumbersome and mistake-prone elements of my paper workflows and adds a number key benefits for both me and the composers I’m working with each week. I think my students have written more and improved faster this semester thanks to the newly clarified expectations, and I’m spending less time and energy keeping track of stacks of paper and moving notebooks around. I have even been able to teach a few lessons remotely over Skype, and the experience has been a completely reasonable approximation of a face-to-face composition lesson.

Using these apps and services, I have eliminated many of the frustrations and frictions of paper-based lessons, allowing us more time to focus on creativity, expressiveness, clarity, and cohesiveness. In other words, music composition lessons that focus more on music composition.

GoodNotes is $7.99 in the App Store. PDF Expert is $9.99 in the App Store.

David MacDonald is a composer and educator based in Orlando, Florida. He holds a MM and DMA from Michigan State University and BM from the University of Missouri. He teaches music composition at the University of Central Florida. You can find more about his music his site, get in touch on Twitter (@davemacdo), and contact via e-mail for remote composition lessons or other inquiries.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Hamlin March 10, 2017 at 12:05 PM

Great to see this. It’s really helpful to see these examples — thanks!

I have a Surface Pro 3, and find that it can do all the things you mention in addition to running any desktop software you want (i.e. Sibelius and Ableton Live), and I also really like StaffPad, which is a fantastic music notation program designed for pen input on the Surface — a really wonderful way to create music examples for class, annotate them, play them back electronically, etc.

(And plus, Sibelius now supports pen annotations.)

Thanks for the post, David — I like how you’ve rethought the flow of work that seems to work extremely well.


David MacDonald March 10, 2017 at 1:07 PM

Thanks for the comment Peter. I’ve tried a Surface Pro, and one of my students actually brings one (Pro 3, same as you) to her lesson every week. I’m a big fan of tech in general, and I use the stuff that works best for me. In a lot of cases today, that’s actually more about services anyway. As much as my post talks about apps here, it’s the Dropbox service that really makes it go. Beyond that, one of the things I like about my workflow is that because I’m just dealing with PDFs, I could pretty easily swap in a different app, or my students could try a different scoring platform, and nothing would have to change.


Peter Hamlin March 10, 2017 at 1:29 PM

Good points!

And, yes, you’re right about pdf’s. I’m using a Windows program called Drawboard to annotate pdf’s. Nice for students that the marked-up result is readable on literally anything — MacOS, Windows, Android, iOS, Chrome, etc. We all have a lot of choices.

Also, by the way — I’m in agreement with you on staying away from music notation software in the early stages of composition. I’ve become very aware of how powerful sketching is — and I tell students, sketching means improvising, singing, making crazy diagrams on a sheet of paper, verbal narratives or poems, jamming with friends, dancing, etc. etc. Music notation software is a really terrible way to develop musical ideas because it’s so two-dimensional.

So, yes, I really liked the free-form approach you have here. You’ve given us a good model for teaching that is personal and human while using technology in a thoughtful way.

And, yes, great point about “services.” I’m interested in web-apps like Noteflight since it can be used on literally any platform. I hope things generally move more in that direction.

Again — thanks for an inspiring article. I’m 66, now in pre-retirement half-time teaching, but I like being inspired by new ways of connecting to my students.


David MacDonald March 10, 2017 at 1:36 PM

Yes! I’m in total agreement with you here!

I’ll have to check out Drawboard. Thanks for the tip! As you can probably guess from my post above, I’m always looking to try new things.


Bill March 10, 2017 at 2:07 PM

Hi Pete,

What would be a comparable app to GoodNote that you run on your SP?


Peter Hamlin March 10, 2017 at 3:21 PM

I use Drawboard for annotating pdf’s.

I use OneNote for more complex notes and things that need to be organized into multiple levels (different notebooks/sections/pages). It’s good for combining ink with multimedia stuff (i.e. YouTube embeds, photos, etc.)

I use Google Keep for very short reminders.

I could theoretically use OneNote for all of this, but partly out of habit I’ve categorized my uses in these ways.

I use Windows (personal preference/office/classroom), MacOS (work lab), Android (my phone) and iOS (iPad mini), so I tend to prefer apps that work on all those. OneNote and Keep are good examples — so I have my info available on all those devices. Drawboard is, I think, Windows only and is designd with the Surface in mind — but since it produces pdf’s, I do have access to the files on all devices even though I ony run it on my surface.


Derek Williams March 10, 2017 at 12:42 PM

Very useful, thank you David. I purchased GoodNotes on the spot. Great little app.


David MacDonald March 10, 2017 at 1:09 PM

I really like GoodNotes for normal notetaking as well. It’s great in a meeting to not have a physical wall of a laptop screen between me and the other person. It’s also nice to not have the mystery of what is on the other person’s screen.

GoodNotes has some really neat hidden features as well. It’s doing text recognition in the background that lets you do a text search on your notes later, even if you wrote them with the Pencil instead of typing.


Peter Hamlin March 10, 2017 at 3:24 PM

Yes on that! Typing on a laptop seems very disruptive — I have the same feeling about taking notes in meetings and classes. And I also believe that the free from of the drawing page is much better for note-taking than linear typing.


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