My 4-C Setup as a Digital Sheet Music Musician

by airturn

To recap a bit, I described “4 C’s” for what you need to get started as a digital sheet music musician.  These 4 C’s are  as follows:

1. Computer
2. Content
3. Containers
4. Controllers

While I’m waiting for feedback from some of my digital sheet music-using colleagues, I thought I’d start the ball rolling by sharing what my 4 C’s entail (and hopefully giving my colleagues a bit of a template to follow with their submissions, hint hint).

What I Do As A Musician

I’m a collaborative classical pianist (polite-speak for “accompanist”, or “someone that plays nice with others”) that performs with all sorts of musicians, mainly instrumentalists.  I work with a lot of flute players, as well as violinists, violists, and just about any other instrumentalist that you would find in a classical symphony orchestra (and then some).  I’ve played in lots of places around the world and have made a number of recordings, several of which you’ll find on iTunes, Amazon, and other online music resources.  I also work with orchestras – mainly accompanying private rehearsals between the conductor and visiting soloists, but also accompanying for job auditions, and sometimes even playing as part of the orchestra.

Why I Switched to Digital Sheet Music

Because I play with so many different kinds of instrumentalists, I have an enormous repertoire of music to work with.  I always struggled with having all the music I needed on hand, and carrying everything I would need for a tour or even a full day of rehearsals would be a major pain in the you-know-where (shoulder).  I also have a terrible habit of forgetting things, like car keys, children, business cards, and of course, paper music.  I wanted to find a way to be able to carry my entire library with me everywhere I went, easily and without being a pain in the you-know-where (brain).  Being able to call up any piece instantly was another huge benefit I saw from switching to digital music.

My 4 C’s

1. Computer – I actually use a number of computers, depending on the task at hand.  For the vast majority of rehearsals, recordings, and live performances, I use an iPad 3 (the “new” iPad, as Apple likes to call it).  I like its portability and relatively good battery life (although you need to keep the iPad 3’s screen brightness at 50%, keep wifi turned off when you’re not actively using it, blah blah – but I digress, we’ll get into all those nitty gritty details later).

I get asked to write arrangements from time to time, so for that I use a MacBook Pro (having been a longtime steadfast Windows champion, I can hear my Mac friends cheering now…).  If I have access to my grand piano at home, I can hook up to it via a MIDI interface to write my music (my piano has a MIDI strip installed.  Very cool to be able to play an acoustic instrument and get a digital output!  Thanks, Cunningham Piano!)

I used to teach a number of private students, and still get asked for a private lesson here and there from both younger students and professional colleagues (yes, professional musicians get lessons from each other – it’s a cool thing when you’re open-minded enough to keep learning!).  For those lessons, I tend to use a Lenovo X200 Tablet PC.  It’s an older machine, but I really love the way I can draw my annotations on the music naturally with the digital pen.  I sync my Tablet PC up with my iPad via wifi to show my Tablet PC’s screen on my iPad using a neat application called Splashtop.  That way I can keep my iPad next to the student on the piano music rack and stay seated in a position where I can observe the student and not have to constantly get up and down to show what I’m talking about on the music – the student sees the markings I’m making on the music right on the iPad.  Cool, eh?

2. Content

Since most of my music is made up of classical music in the public domain, I use a website called the International Music Score Library – to get most of what I need.  The sheet music is completely free and downloads as PDF files.

Occasionally, I won’t be able to find something on IMSLP.  My second go-to site for classical sheet music is  This is a commercial site so I have to buy my music there, but the prices are very reasonable and the sheet music downloads as PDF files.

To read music on my iPad, I use an app called forScore.  forScore is a full-featured PDF reader.  I can mark up the music in different colored inks and highlights, rearrange the pages in any order, and even create PDF files from photos taken from my iPad 3’s built-in camera or from photos I’ve emailed to myself from my iPhone 4S.

Another iPad app I regularly use to read music is DeepDish GigBook.  I work from a large 300+ page PDF file for playing music at church.  Rather than having to flip through the pages to find the hymn I need, I use DeepDish GigBook’s Super Bookmarking feature to extract each song as if it were a standalone file.  Making setlists for Sunday worship is a breeze thanks to these Super Bookmarks.

If I find myself teaching without my Tablet PC, I’ll use MusicReader PDF on my iPad.  I find the ink marking a bit easier and faster with MusicReader PDF, particularly if I’m turning pages hands-free at the same time (more on that later).

If I need to get access to more popular music (Broadway tunes, Jazz favorites, Movies music, etc.), I use a website called  Musicnotes has a free iPad sheet music viewing app.  The first time I logged into the app with my account information, I was pleasantly surprised to find that every single piece of sheet music I had purchased from them (and subsequently lost) over the years instantly appeared in the app!  Now all my sheet music is truly “unforgettable”!

To read music on my MacBook Pro, I use a program called MusicReader PDF 4.  This is different from the iPad version, made by the same developer.  While the iPad app is just a PDF viewer (with the ability to mark up the music in colored inks), the Mac/PC version of MusicReader PDF 4 has a lot more features for not only viewing and marking up your music, but also creating PDF files from scratch, using scanned or downloaded images as sources.  Remember the size 12 feet and shoe size 7 illustration?  MusicReader PDF 4 does a really good job of making awkward things fit by utilizing a variety of screen viewing options.  For my MacBook Pro laptop, I use MusicReader PDF 4’s half-screen viewing option.  This allows me to see the top half of a page, then the bottom half, then the top half of the next page, etc. etc. so that I don’t have to squint at teeny tiny notes squished the wrong way on my horizontal screen.  You can even adjust where the half page breaks so that you aren’t cutting off an important piece of music between page turns.  There are a bunch of other neat tools that come with the program, but we’ll cover those in more detail in a future post.

To teach with music on my Lenovo Tablet PC, I use both MusicReader PDF 4 and another PDF program called PDF Annotator.  I absolutely love the smooth inking quality with PDF Annotator, making it a great teaching tool.  Page turns can be a bit slow, and there’s no way to create set lists/playlists (a feature I use regularly with MusicReader PDF 4 for recitals), so I don’t use PDF Annotator for performances.

3. Containers

Since 99% of the time I’m working with acoustic grand pianos that have music racks built in, I don’t really need a container.  However, on occasion, I do run across a piano with a broken or missing music rack.  In those instances, I pop my iPad out of my Adonit Writer Plus Bluetooth keyboard case and set it within the frame so that the music is vertical.  The Adonit Writer Plus case has magnets in the cover that can secure the keyboard in almost any angle, making it pretty flexible as an ad hoc iPad music stand for my needs.

In the past, I’ve also used a case from Targus, which had the ability to rotate the iPad for both horizontal and vertical views.

4. Controllers

I used to teach video lessons using a connected to a large monitor.  To mark up the music, I used a digital drawing pad called the Bamboo Tablet, made by Wacom.  The Bamboo Tablet would connect to my laptop via a USB cord and allow me to use a digital pen like a mouse.  It took a little getting used to drawing with your eyes on the screen and your hand in another place, but if you can get used to working with a computer mouse, then you’ll have no problem adjusting to one of these pen tablets after some practice.

Teaching video lessons with my computers and a Wacom Bamboo Tablet

The newer Wacom Bamboo Tablets feature both pen and touch control, turning the unit into a ginormous track pad capable of gesture recognition.

For turning pages while reading my digital sheet music, I use a wireless page turning pedal called an AirTurn.  Since my right foot controls the damper pedal, the one that lets the strings ring and sustain their sound after the piano key hammer hits them, I use my left foot to control the AirTurn pedal.  This allows me to keep my hands on the piano at all times.  No need to interrupt my playing with a finger to tap a button on my computer or swipe the screen on my iPad to turn the page (Sweet Freedom!) The AirTurn BT-105 Bluetooth pedal will work with any tablet or computer that can connect to a Bluetooth keyboard.  The AirTurn AT-104 is a wireless USB version that works with any Windows computer that can use a USB keyboard.  For both models, one pedal turns pages forwards and the other pedal turns pages backwards, easy-peasy. We’ll talk more about page turning pedals in a future post.

The AirTurn BT-105 Bluetooth page turning pedal

AirTurn AT-104 wireless USB page turning pedal

A note to my contributing colleagues: you don’t have to be as wordy as me!! Simple answers to the following questions would be great:

1. What do you do as a musician?

2. Why did you switch from paper to digital sheet music?

3. What are your “4-C’s”?

a. Computer (for reading music)?

b. Content (what kind of music do you read and where do you get it from)?

c. Container (do you use any special holders for your computer)?

d. Controller(s) (do you use any special controllers for reading or working with your digital sheet music)?