Parting With The Paper – Using Sheet Music Apps

The iPad is a tremendous tool for the performing musician, especially those who rely on paper music in one form or another. I’ve talked about the hassles of paper music before, but how exactly does one use an iPad to make that better?


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First and foremost, a good sheet music app is required, and while we’d love to see you using NextPage, all sheet music apps generally work the same way.  Here’s the basic outline of what you’d need to do to use an iPad instead of paper:

Loading the Music

Most sheet music apps work with PDF files. These days it’s possible to buy music in PDF format, but for most of us with existing paper music collections, it’s simply not practical to hope to find PDF versions. The answer? Scanning. Printers that include scanning capabilities have become quite affordable and are available for PC or Mac. The software that comes with the printer/scanner can usually create PDF files in just a few easy steps. It is very important that the scanning software be able to combine multiple scanned pages into a single file (it is usually a checkbox or option that you have to select in the software).  It’s worth getting a machine that has a document feeder so that you can scan a whole song in just one operation.

So, you will be scanning your paper in to PDFs, and then loading those files into the iPad. How you do that depends on the app you’re using. NextPage allows you to load PDFs using iTune sync, Dropbox, or email. Dropbox is by far the easiest and most effective way to manage your PDF files, and perhaps the subject for another post.

When you first start scanning and loading music, it will seem like you’re always doing it, and you might be tempted to think it’s too much trouble. The point will come however, when you finish loading the music you use most often, and the amount of scanning you do will seem to suddenly and drastically decrease. Happily, you will probably soon find that your time investment was well worth it.

Organizing the Music

Every sheet music app provides ways to organize your music, and most use the concepts of a song list or library, and set lists. Some even allow you to enter extra information like composer, genre, key, etc. After you’ve loaded music into NextPage, for example, you tap the ‘Songs’ button to see your list of PDF files. Then as you tap on individual song titles, they are added to a set list and presented to you in order as you play. You can create as many set lists as you like, name them however you’d like, and load them as required. You can also rearrange the song order or remove songs from a set list whenever necessary.

Some apps also allow you to change the page order within a song to make performance easier. Say for example, you’d like to avoid turning back three pages to handle a repeat sign or D.S. al segno. Using tools like the Page Arranger in NextPage, you can duplicate the three pages and arrange them in such a way that all you have to do is keep paging forward.  No more missed turn backs!  Or perhaps there are certain pages in a song that your conductor or director has decided to skip. You can remove those from the page order completely and eliminate page turns!

Turning Pages

Here is where the magic really happens. To move from one page to the next, you have a couple of ways that you can mix and match depending on the situation and the instrument you play. You can:

  • Tap the left or right side of the screen
  • Swipe left or right
  • Use wireless foot pedals and turn the pages hands-free
Multiple-page jumps are also possible. Using page links in NextPage, you can define a small rectangle on the screen that when you tap inside of it, you will be taken directly, and instantly to any other page in the score.  No more missed codas!

Marking the Music

Obviously pens, pencils, and highlighters aren’t going to work well on your iPad.  Virtually all sheet music apps provide a set of tools that let you draw freehand on the music, highlight it, and make text annotations. Some, like NextPage, even provide a symbol pallet that let you add the most common musical symbols without having to draw them.

Preparing for the New Playing Experience

There will be an adjustment period that will vary depending on how you’re used to doing things. Because page turns are now virtually instant, your eyes and brain will have to adjust. Think about what happens during a manual turn. Your arm moves up to grab the page, then it moves in front of your eyes momentarily blocking your vision, the new page becomes visible, and finally your eyes have to move either left or right depending on the turn direction.  It all happens in a second or two, but now that second or two is gone, and you brain and eyes have to react faster. Your eyes will also have to adjust because even though they are now moving less, they have to pick up the new page image of a size that is probably smaller than the original paper you’re accustomed to.  On the other hand, dark rooms are no longer a problem! With an iPad no ambient light is even required.

Practice, of course, is key to perfecting your new page turning technique. Even more so if you decide to use wireless foot pedals, since you must train yourself to tap the pedals at the right time. If you’re a pianist or keyboard player, your right foot is already occupied, so training your left foot becomes the challenge (but well worth it!)

No Turning Back

This all sounds like a lot of work, and maybe even like more hassle than the paper, but once you’ve invested the time and made all of the adjustments, there simply is no turning back. You will be amazed at how much better you can focus on playing once the paper is out of your thoughts. You will also be amazed at how much time you begin to save because your music is always with you – no more pulling, filing, and searching for your music. And no more fighting with 3-ring binders that seem to always explode on impact when you drop them on the floor.

Sheet music apps like NextPage were created to help you perform better. Give it a try. You will be delighted!

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