Celebrate the Arts in you!

In Search of Instant Alpha

In my ongoing test of iPad apps that could replace my MacBook Pro laptop, I find myself once again searching for the best graphic tool to remove backgrounds or features within a photo.

Here is my list of favourite apps, in order of preference, all apps for iPad (some available for Android/Google Play).  Please let me know your favourites… there are not many out there that do the job for more complex photos.

Superimpose X app logo.png

Superimpose X $2.99

Photoshop Mix App.png

Adobe Photoshop Mix – Free

Pages App logo.png

Pages for iOS – Free

Pixomatic app logo.png

Pixomatic $4.99 – Pro version is FREE but has in app purchases (IAP)

Pixelmator app logo.png

Pixelmator $5.99

Pixelmator doesn’t have an exclusive Instant Alpha remover tool but is good for helping to remove it by a variety of tools.  Check it’s current price in your country.




Blooms 21

A few years ago, I blogged about the importance of allowing students the freedom to engage in musical exploration and risk-free play to discover sound creation ideas and possibilities.  This was my slogan I used at that time…

Creation first… theory second

It made my day to come across an article written by Adam Hart at the University of Salford discussing this very notion based on Flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy by Shelley Wright (2012).  It proves that we all progress on a grand continuum of learning in our own way and in our own time.  We build our teaching pedagogy on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us (12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres, but  Isaac Newton in 1675 brought the English translation home to us: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”)

Bloom’s taxonomy flipped (Shelly Wright, 2012)

Hart outlines the challenges of the New National Curriculum of U.K. for the study of music (2014) which extols the importance of a broad, music education, especially experiencing musical creation but without the curriculum leadership.  This sets up a familiar scenario amongst educators which provides vague or no guidance specific to compositional approaches they could use with their students.

This is not the first time I’ve read this jargon-laden curriculum quoted by Hart in his example,

“improvise and compose music for a range of purposes using the inter-related dimensions of music (DfE, 2013: 2). 

This is what curriculum designers write who are not composers and creators of music.  They are curriculum writers (generalists) first with little foresight to collaborate with composers of music, especially popular artists of the day and film score/media composers who reflect the current musical scene and, more importantly, the advancements in technology (particularly mobile technology).

Hart continues to highlight what is necessary to move students from a traditional, skill based approach to a exploratory and experiential learning process where the teacher and peers serve as guides from within the learning circle.   The teacher becomes a “supporter, partner and guide” (Na Li, 2017) throughout this process as the creation journey looks different for everyone – we never actually arrive but continue to hone our skill of sound creation and expression to suit a variety of purposes.

I finish this post encouraging teachers to look at Blooms 21 and its implications.  It is also celebrated as, ‘Backwards by Design’.  It suggests to ‘unwrap’ the big present first, use a specific skill set to assemble the new toy, and to, through experience and experimentation, learn how to use it purposeful to our needs (play).  As students take on music composition tasks (problem solving), together, we see what skills are needed and, in context, model the usefulness of the skills accentuating their value, e.g., I-IV-V-I chord progression, or ostinato pattern writing.  Students keep the skills that serve their purpose in their tool kit of compositional techniques.

In his article, Towards an effective freeware resource for music composition in the primary classroom, Adam Hart introduces a number of free music software to help with music teachers or generalist teachers who are looking for free apps (software) that are built on a firm, pedagogical foundation that addresses music theory, history and composition.


My current dissertation centers around GarageBand for iOS or Mac, free on all new Apple devices which is a mammoth Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) sitting idle on a percentage of 1 billion active devices –including iPhones, iPads, Mac computers, Apple TVs, iPods, and Apple Watches (Apple, 2016).  My dissertation focuses on the value of GarageBand for iOS (and Macs) in a variety of educational settings over the next two years based on my composition experiences with DAWs since the mid-1980s.  Imagine the future of music creation if someone takes the time to show students, teachers, and administrators how to use GarageBand for iOS, an app possibly on your Apple device right now?


Fostering Musical Language

We are living in an age where traditional music notation is no longer a prerequisite to being successful in music creation or performance.  Traditionally, music education has been driven by factual knowledge over musical creation.  Technology has opened music creation to the masses producing music styles that involve traditional composition with notation programs (Finale, Sibelius, etc.),  Digital Audio Workstations via computer (Logic Pro X, FL Studio, Ableton Live, etc.) or mobile device/apps (GarageBand, Notion, Symphony Pro, etc.)  The fact is, mobile technology allows for music creation with results beyond anything seen anytime in the history of music.

Fostering Musical Awareness


Students are influenced with years of school-based music programmes that typically drive music theory and history as the building blocks to musical knowledge.  Isolating music theory in small packages without a larger picture can damper any interests students may have about music, especially what they listen to and participate in outside of school.  Backwards by Design thinking supports this notion that music engagements can start on the other end of looking at a completed work, and traverse backwards looking at how it was created (melody, chords, accompaniment, instrumentation, and rhythm, for example).  Think of the motivation this would create within our classrooms!

Using a variety of apps, my goal is to introduce creation of music without the baggage of  having to learn to read music first.  I want to open their minds to the incredible ways mobile tech can allow them to play around with musical sound, rhythm and chords to create music first, then assimilate music theory directly related to their interests.  This is nothing new in other subject areas, but critical to give students the tools to be independent in their trek through music creation.  Many of these apps are available for other platforms, not just Apple.

In the first month of weekly classes, apps were chosen to reinforce that music isn’t determined by their knowledge of theory and ability to read notation.  The goal: sound creation through hand gestures and icons on the screen.  eDrops Nature and eDrops – Bouncing Balls Music App Studio are similar to a pinball game reacting to the laws of physics with the results being a pattern like, musical soundscape.  I demonstrated this by recording one and a half minute of music from eDrops Nature and premiered it over a 4K nature video to stimulate musical conversation with the students.  The questions were, “What would the music look like in notation for this score?”  “Could you do this?” “What are the challenges of notation?”  They were so surprised that there was no music notation, only a game-like screen with falling balls of light bouncing from various points on the screen.  Yes, it is normal for some students to enjoy the game aspect of this app forgetting they are creating sound.

eDrops Nature . Music pinball to create relaxing ambiences on the App Store on iTunes at 1.03.20 pm.png

eDrops Nature


eDrops – Bouncing Balls Music App Studio


The next app is quite a unique one, called Playground.  It provides sets of instruments that react to finger movement.  It has proven to be the students’ favourite app because of its contemporary sounds and tactile involvement.  After a ‘play’ period, we talked about the importance of establishing a beat, like a drummer.  Students need to become familiar with the layout of the instruments and the various icons and triggers that affect the sound creation.  Within the second week of using this app, students had to start to show patterns of rhythm and consistent tempo of finger movement.  You must try this app to understand what this means.  It’s free to try!




Within the third week, students explored Nodebeat.   This is a pattern creating musical app that has a game-like appearance.  It’s an enormous app that has so much to offer and would be better presented over a couple of classes highlighting its capabilities.  Students need time to learn the icons and their associated sounds and instrumentation.  Sound modification is also important within this app.  It is highly customisable.



Next Steps

Students will be challenged to use one of these apps to create a thirty to sixty second musical piece.  I find they are highly motivated when they have an endpoint and useful reason for doing this.  Their music will be promoted on SoundCloud for others in the school (and parents/teachers) to listen to and comment.  It will also be meshed with video of their choosing and placed on YouTube for the same purpose.  The goal is to get their music ‘out there’ for the world of social media to push them along with careful guidance from their teachers.

Please comment and share.  Thank you for reading!  This post will be updated throughout the year.


Summer App Smashing 2017

After two months of summer reflection, I’ve made the following list of apps I’ve used, some paid and most free to accomplish many tasks in place of my laptop.  App smashing is the art of using the best abilities of many apps to achieve your goal.  I’m excited to share them with you.  Please let me know new apps you’ve found that help inspire creation and/or on-the-go working from anywhere.

Graphic Arts Creation

PicsArt Color Paint

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Available for both iOS and Android.  FREE at the time of the publishing of this article.

Basics: This app allows for the use of layers for tracing over a photo for later use, e.g., face, logo, object to get its shape for another purpose.  Many brushes, text, and excellent colour palette and mixer function.

Enlight Photofox (Enlight 2)

Enlight Photofox (Enlight 2) on the App Store Firefox, Today at 12.06.11 PM.png

Available for iOS.  FREE at the time of the publishing of this article.

Basics: This app uses layers to build a photo with numerous effects from tone, vignette, light FX, and Retouch.  Its tools and artistic effects are quite extraordinary.  See photo below for quick example.  You can easily add text, elements, stickers, frame and Meme, then export to a variety of sources.  This company updates its apps regularly.

Marshall (@marshallshawtech) • Instagram photos and videos Firefox, Today at 12.19.44 PM.png

Made by Marshall Shaw with Photofox with photo enhancement, layer for birds and vignette feature.

Pixomatic – layer based photo editor

Pixomatic - layer based photo editor on the App Store Firefox, Today at 12.25.05 PM.png

Available for both iOS and Android.  $4.99 US at the time of the publishing of this article.

This app has superior object background removal ability, especially for difficult subjects, e.g., fine, curly hair.  It allows for the addition of a background and foreground photos, as well as sets of free Packs of background images, and some paid.  This app has numerous refining features, blur, filters, adjustments, distortion, text, cloning, and its impressive double exposure feature which is better viewed on the demo within the app.

Procreate – Sketch, paint, create.

Procreate – Sketch, paint, create. on the App Store Firefox, Today at 12.56.37 PM.png

Available for both iOS. $5.99 US at the time of the publishing of this article.

From Apple:

Apple Design Award winner and App Store Essential – Procreate is the most powerful sketching, painting and illustration app ever designed for a mobile device. This complete artist’s toolbox helps you create beautiful sketches, inspiring paintings, and stunning illustrations anywhere you are. Procreate features ground-breaking canvas resolution, 128 incredible brushes, advanced layer system and is powered by Silica: the fastest 64-bit painting engine on iOS.

This app is worth its monetary value, especially with the Apple Pencil.  Similar with Photoshop, the user will have to invest time to become familiar with the interface and capabilities of this pro app by using Internet searches for help, the app’s help site, and Vimeo and Youtube for demonstration videos… there are plenty.  There is also PDF support on the website for Procreate.   I’ve even seen a user painting directly on the iPad Pro tablet with a special brush which was unbelievable to watch – Sensu brush.  Please tell your artist friends about this!

Video Creation

VivaVideo – Best Video Editor & Photo Movie Maker

VivaVideo - Best Video Editor & Photo Movie Maker on the App Store Firefox, Today at 1.11.21 PM.png

Available for both iOS and Android.  FREE at the time of the publishing of this article.  $4.99 US to unlock all functions.

This app allows for easy video editing with spectacular results if you are looking for template-driven (theme) movie preparation done automatically by the app.  It is similar to the paid online product, Magisto but for far less money, and I believe, superior results and greater control.  This app brings a lot of enjoyment using it.  I highly recommend it.

From the company:

VivaVideo is one of the best Video Editor, Movie Maker, Slideshow/Photo Video Editor with Powerful HD Camera, Professional Video Editing Tools, 1000+ Video Effects and in App Store with over 200 million users.  By choosing from 1000+ user-friendly video effects that range from themes, music, stickers, facial effects,GIFs, filters to animated clips and subtitles, you can create your video work and transform everyday moment into videos of art.  VivaVideo will help you easily create professional-looking video stories, like montage, Meme, collage(PIP), lip-sync, duet videos, etc

Vimo – Video editor + Motion Sticker and Text

Vimo - Video editor + Motion Sticker and Text on the App Store Firefox, Today at 1.23.25 PM.png

Available for both iOS.  FREE at the time of the publishing of this article.

With Vimo, you can create motion photos and videos with the addition of many motion elements.  Motion text and stickers can be synced with exact locations within your video to accentuate your subject with controls from duration, colour, and movement.  A timeline allows for trimming of imported videos, filters, and accompanying music from within the app or from your music library (iTunes).  It is a slick product, more tame compared with the automatic video enhancements of VivaVideo above but equally as enjoyable and useful.

Game of strategy

Tsuro – The Game of the Path

Tsuro - The Game of the Path on the App Store Firefox, Today at 1.34.29 PM.png

Available for both iOS and Android.  FREE – iOS, only at the time of the publishing of this article.

From the company:

Create your own journey with Tsuro: The Game of the Path. Place a tile and slide your stone along the path created, but take care! Other players’ paths can lead you in the wrong direction – or off the board entirely! Paths will cross and connect, and the choices you make affect all the journeys across the board.

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App-etisers for May

I’m excited to share some apps that are new, or just discovered.  I will highlight which features are transformational in the way we (students, teachers, and everyone else) can aid in personal music or art education, whether at school, home, or on the go.

Touch Notation Free – iOS

Touch Notation Free on the App Store Firefox, Today at 12.52.15 PM.png


The fine app (Kawai Musical Instruments Manufacturing Co., Ltd.) has the fastest ‘on the go’ notation entry I’ve ever used – I’ve tried many.  Regardless, finger or Apple Pencil, a few minutes of using, and an exquisite piano sample sound plays your music.  I’m still testing the free version with limitations – try this out!  Full version, with further in-app purchases is about $12 US.

Vanido – Your personal singing coach – FREE

Vanido - Your personal singing coach on the App Store Firefox, Today at 1.06.15 PM.png


Vanido (Himanshu Singh) takes you through progressive, traditional, vocal exercises (chest voice, foundation, head voice, agility) with piano support.  Where this app flies is its visual of your voice as a sound wave-like line that signifies your accuracy to the target pitch.  For hesitant singers, this gives a much needed visual goal to strive for.  It has a basic, colourful display, game-like qualities, and must be used with earphones with built-in microphone.  See if this app supports your independent learning to become a better singer.

Art Break – FREE
Art Break. Draw, Relax and Get Things Done on the App Store Firefox, Today at 1.29.02 PM.png

Art Break: Draw, Relax and Get Things Done (Tarasov Mobile) gives you a unique set of tools (brushes) that motivate an exploration of your love (or lack of) for drawing on a tablet (available at Google Play) with or without a stylus.  Students love the brushes that augment your line as you draw – ribbon, shaded, fur, web.  If you remember the popular Spirograph set years ago and the excitement that it caused, the next set of brushes bring a new level of amazement for users of all ages.  Mirror ribbon, symmetry ribbon, and symmetry fur are worth a look.  There are in-app purchases to upgrade to Premium version and remove Art Break watermark from your drawings and the addition of more brushes for Premium users in next updates.

This photo is from a student’s first use of the app over 10 minutes.


Here’s a glimpse at what software/apps I use frequently to explore and create music (notation-type apps).

There are many companies offering incredible music-making apps for mobile devices that make music creation easier and inexpensive (most free).  I have been a user of Finale for Mac for over 25 years.  With the advent of tablet technology over the past 8 years, my allegiance has changed supporting companies that are re-inventing music creation, and in a mobile manner.

Finale is my absolute preference for large score, orchestral works, however, they have produced nothing for composing ‘on the go’ via a mobile device.  Their $600 US hefty entry fee for their flagship software stops me from recommending it to few.  It will become a relic of the past.  They have student prices and other entry level software packages with less features, however mobile apps offer an impressive alternative, especially with the aid of a stylus, sampling and creating sounds, and work almost anywhere capabilities.

Notion offers the most beautiful, sampled instrument sounds (London Symphony Orchestra) on all their versions, desktop and mobile devices.  Working ‘on the go’ is extremely important to capture ideas while sitting on the bus or subway, then continuing at home or work via cloud technology.  Notion allows this from finger-gestures, Apple Pencil, music keyboard, and mouse input.  Thumbs up, Notion (PreSonus)!

[Personal note: each orchestral instrument has various techniques as sampled sounds included, for example, French Horn includes hand-stopped or muted notes and glissandi.  This is one of the many reasons I use Notion for its ease of use to add these effects or articulations.  Check out my brass piece, ‘I Saw Three Ships’ on SoundCloud that demonstrates this.]

On the bus or subway – iPhone or iPad


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Notion for iPhone/iPad

Symphony Pro 4

Symphony Pro 4 $9.99 US

SP5 Public Preview Signup Firefox, Today at 10.50.38 AM

Symphony Pro 5 Beta

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Symphony Pro

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GarageBand for iOS

GarageBand for iOS is an absolute favourite, now updated with more performance capabilities.  I will celebrate the day when they add notation capabilities.

Personal note: This app awaits its entry into schools to help visualize music for so many disinterested students having to endure a skill or knowledge-based curriculum, rather than a holistic, creation-based one.  Share your thoughts on this, please.


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Stave’n’Tabs for iOS

In this example, Stave’n’Tabs handles triplets fairly well compared with other music notation apps.  I’ll keep my eye on this app over the next year.

Teaching or at home: iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, MacBook, iMac


SCORECLOUD | Free Music Notation Software - Music Composition & Writing Online Firefox, Today at 11.29.29 AM.png

ScoreCloud Studio Mac or PC -Free with upgrades

ScoreCloud is known for its ease of input by a variety of means, especially great for school use with students inputting their music by keyboard, voice, or recorder!

Music Notation Software. Create Sheet Music with Finale Music Firefox, Today at 11.34.16 AM.png

Finale for Mac                                      $600 US


Notion 6 for Mac     $154 US

Music Notation Software. Create Sheet Music with Finale Music Firefox, Today at 11.34.16 AM.pngSave


Creativity and Assessment Process MShaw.jpg

This infographic is to help in my understanding and planning for promoting creativity and its assessment in the local schools in Hong Kong.

Looking first at the end goal – what you want your participants to know, understand, and be able to show, is nothing new.  The Understanding by Design Framework is effective pedagogy that ensures what you intend, happens.  (PDF resource available here)

The Primary Years Programme (PYP – International Baccalaureate) has assessment models that are extremely student-focused to ensure success and cater to the diversity of learners within any classroom.  These methods, again, not new, but valuable ‘best practices’ to strive for, formative being the most important for my purposes in the local schools of Hong Kong.  Have a look at the ‘Making the PYP Happen’ PDF.

Bloom’s revised Taxonomy (2001/1956), aids in task creation with a plethora of verbs that help target the Higher Order Thinking Skills, analysing, evaluating, and creating, so important to our students today.  There are many outstanding resources available online (one here).

Evaluating your current school’s assessment practices.  I’m looking at a blend of the valuable Confucian heritage cultural practices and influences in local schools and the above-mentioned methods to integrate the best of each.

Creativity in an ESL Environment.  Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – 4 important C words for the 21st century classroom.  These are helpful hints on how to work with English as a second language learners with limited vocabulary and comprehension.

Please let me know your thoughts on this.


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