Introduction: From Paper to Pixels

by airturn

If you are a musician who uses sheet music, then no doubt you’ve either experienced one of these painful situations yourself, or at least can shake your head in some pretense of sympathy (and yes, these all actually happened to me):

– I’m running through the airport in a mad, mad dash to catch a connecting flight with 50 pounds of music threatening to dislocate my shoulder.  I swear that all my paper music is threatening to become a cruel form of the Inquisitor’s rack in the worst way.
– Speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike from Philadelphia to an important audition in New York City, I realize with horror at the halfway point that I forgot to pack the music I needed to accompany my client, a talented young clarinetist.  There’s not enough time to drive back home to find the music, and there’s no point in continuing the drive to New York.  I have ruined his audition and kicked my professional reputation into the gutter.

– A week before violin auditions, I’m at the library trying to collect all the pieces that the applicants are preparing.  One of those pieces is an obscure Russian concerto that – lo and behold – is nowhere to be found in the library shelves.  Or the local music store.  I’m told that, given the byzantine Russian export laws at the time, that it would take months before a copy of that piece could be tracked down and delivered.  I pray for an incapacitating pestilence for this applicant.

– I’ve been invited to perform one of the piano parts in the nefariously difficult Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.  With the potential for an ensemble train wreck written precariously on every page of music, and given my general distrust of the reading skills of page turners, I want to handle the page turns myself.  But the pianist who invited me says that she doesn’t want to be “shown up” by having to rely on a page turner alone, so she insists that I use one of her student page turners right before the performance.  I reluctantly agree.  I give the young Asian student with dubious English comprehension strict instructions NOT to turn any pages until I signal with a clear head nod, and she nods her head nervously.  Bad sign.  We get to the middle of the first movement, and I’m reading the middle of the left page, hands flailing on the piano and concentration intent on maintaining the tight musical ensemble.  Suddenly, without warning, the page turner bolts up and turns the page – a FULL page too soon!  I’m in shock.  Public musical train wreck ensues, and it is ugly.  I swear my eternal hatred for human page turners from that point on.

For the vast majority of musicians, dealing with heavy tomes and binders, misplaced scores, shipping delays, and illiterate page turners is just part of the self-fladulating sacrifices we deem necessary in the service of our beloved art.  Blood, sweat, tears, and countless hours are devoted in the daily study, practice, and mastery of an instrument, so the hassles of paper scores are considered just another necessary evil. But what if it were possible to be paper-free?  If musicians didn’t have to deal with the clutter, bulk, and other limitations of physical space when it came to paper sheet music?  And just as manual mechanical typewriters have gone the way of Salieri symphonies in the wake of word document programs on Mac and PC computers, what if there were digital ways of working with sheet music that were actually better than physical paper?

Skipping forward several years from the above examples finds me in a completely different place when it comes to my sheet music:  I have become, in essence, a “paperless pianist”.  My entire library of 6,000 scores is digitally contained in a sleek, 1.2 pound mobile computer called an iPad.  Here’s a peek into what this world looks like:

– During a local concerto competition, I run into a flustered pianist who is apologizing to the violinist he was going to accompany that he has forgotten to bring his music (Ah! How painfully familiar that sounds!)  I ask him which concerto he is missing, pull up my computer, and within seconds I have the missing piano part.  I offer to either send the part to a printer, or to let him borrow my computer to read the music digitally.  He looks at me like I’ve grown a second head.

– I’m finishing a tour with a flutist when we get a last minute invitation to appear on a popular TV show.  I have 3 days to put together an entirely different program than what we had just performed, including a request to transcribe some pop songs from MP3 audio files (the sheet music didn’t exist).  I transcribe and arrange the music digitally, and download the other pieces for the program from the internet directly into my computer.  No paper or printer needed.

– A young violinist approaches me with a fiendishly difficult piece for violin and piano that is required for a major international competition.  Given the difficulty of the piece, I recommend that he use a computer to read his music and a page turning pedal to turn his pages hands free.  That enables him to not only mark up his score in bright colors and highlights, but also to be able to see the full score as opposed to just his solo part so that he has a complete view of both his and the pianist’s parts.  During the competition, all the other competitors need to have multiple music stands to unfurl rows of paper music.  The violinist I’ve been working with needs only one stand to hold his computer and places his page turning pedal on the floor.  The violinist goes on to win the competition, including a special recognition of “best performance” for that piece.

I’d like to propose something quite radical to musicians who have nostalgic devotion to their coffee stained scores and stacks of curled, yellowing sheet music pages: that becoming a paperless musician is not only a way of being environmentally friendly and a matter of physical convenience, but that it also leads to faster, more effective learning and performance of music.  In essence, I posit that becoming a paperless musician will actually give you the tools to become a vastly better musician.

In this series of articles, we’ll explore what it means to go digital, why it offers the best solutions to musicians from all walks of life, and walk through how to transition from paper to pixels.  Most musicians I’ve met who work regularly with various versions of paper sheet music (scores, binders, fake books, lyric sheets, chord charts, etc.) are understandably daunted by technology.  Think of it:  we’ve spent most of our lives working on mastering the acoustic aspects of our art with very little exposure to technologies outside of recording and amplification.  With that in mind, I hope to make this a friendly, easy to follow guide to help my fellow musicians discover the amazing possibilities of going digital and becoming completely paperless.