A big switch: using digital scores for performance

I’ve recently made the switch from paper to digital scores for playing for worship services and concerts. It’s not an overstatement to say that an iPad and ForScore software have transformed my life as a musician. 

I am grateful for the guidance of others who took this plunge before me. In this post I want to share about my experience in hopes that it will be helpful to others of you who may be considering this switch. Here are questions that I asked along the way, and that are now regularly asked of me.

Why?  The reason I considered switching in the first place was to make my luggage lighter. My current jobs involve much travel for events at different venues, and I was lugging a lot of paper music around.  And sticky notes!  More about that later.

What?  I use an iPad Pro tablet and ForScore software. The iPad Pro provided the largest screen size, best for my goal of displaying two pages side-by-side in landscape view to minimize page turns. ForScore was by far the most-recommended software from everyone I talked to. I also bought an Apple pencil (stylus) to make markings on music. This can be done with just a finger, but it’s easier with a stylus.

When? I began the switch when I had a bit of downtime between gigs so I could scan some scores and familiarize myself with the new technology. I then gradually began using digital scores for playing at church, bringing paper copies with me in case something went wrong.  It was months before I got up the nerve to use my tablet in a concert performance, but now I do that almost exclusively.

How do you get music? Sometimes I purchase digital music for download, but more often I scan paper copies to create PDF files using the iPad’s onboard camera and the Scan feature in ForScore. I still do own paper scores, first because of copyright; most of the music I play is not available for digital download, so I need to own originals. Secondly, any technological storage system will have a shorter lifespan than paper. And lastly, some organizations and venues where I play don’t allow tablets.

How do you organize your music?  I file my digital scores in Libraries in ForScore: one Library for hymns, one for anthems and solos, one for solo organ music, one for solo piano music, etc. This makes finding a particular score easier. Then I create a ForScore Playlist for each upcoming event. Here, I can put the music for that particular event in order, just as in the past I would organize paper scores on a music rack. After the event is over, I delete the Playlist, but the scores remain filed in their Libraries.  

How do you do page turns? First, in some cases I edit the scanned score (just as in the past I would cut-and-paste paper scores) to facilitate easier page turns. Once that’s done, there are many available options for accomplishing turns in performance, including foot pedal, mouth device, facial recognition, finger tap, an automatic timer, and even switches on instruments that can be connected via Bluetooth. I’ve tried them all except the latter because I don’t have an instrument with that capability. For me, tapping my finger on the screen works best. 

What are the benefits? 

  • Lighter luggage. I can carry hundreds of scores with me without needing an extra suitcase! 
  • I can write on a score in any way I’d like, in any color I’d like, in any pen shape I’d like. No need for sticky notes! 
  • When I want to remove those notes, I can just push a button and I’m back to a clean score. 
  • Or, I can store those notes hidden, and un-hide them when I need them again. 
  • Having a backlit screen is helpful for my aging eyesight in dimly-lit venues.
  • I no longer need to worry about pieces of paper being moved by a gust of wind or dropped from the music rack.

What are the drawbacks? 

  • No one has ever stolen a paper score from me, but the iPad might be a bigger temptation. I feel I must be more cautious when traveling. 
  • Risk of “operator error.”  I regularly make backups to “the cloud” so if I accidentally delete or damage a digital file on the iPad, I only need to find a wifi connection and re-download it. 
  • I must remember to pack my iPad’s power unit and cord, since with a dead battery I wouldn’t be able to see my scores. If the tablet failed altogether (that’s never happened to me), I could print paper scores from my cloud backup.
  • By purchasing technological tools, I’ve committed to the expense of hardware and software upgrades when necessary. 
  • I’ve caught myself tapping the edge of a paper score, expecting it to turn!

I hope this is helpful to you if you’re considering a similar leap. All best to you in all of your music-making!


PS:  After writing this article, I was performing on the road with my iPad at a new-to-me venue. Uncharacteristically, the iPad began behaving erratically, turning pages forward or back without my having tapped the screen, suddenly popping up unrequested menus, etc. I tried all sorts of troubleshooting efforts I found on online forums: restarting the iPad, reloading ForScore, turning facial recognition on and off, restoring ForScore’s default settings, resetting Apple pencil settings, etc.  Nothing worked.  

Then, I noticed that the organ music rack light felt hot, and wondered if the heat could be affecting the iPad. I turned off the music rack light, and thankfully, all was back to normal. I left the music rack light off for the performance (didn’t miss it at all with benefit of the iPad’s backlighting) and all was well.

Since then, I’ve read on online forums that performing in very sunny outdoor conditions can also cause erratic behavior, or cause an iPad to shut down completely to protect itself from overheating. 

Just passing along another learning I’ve gained along the way!

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