“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Tablet Computers as Sheet Music Replacements?

With every passing year, the number of students in my studio that want to read at least some of their music from laptop and particularly tablet computers increases. At first they did this only for the warm-up and scale study materials that I provide for them, but as the amount and quality of free online materials (such as from IMSLP) has increased and as more publishers have begun to offer digital licenses to sheet music as a lower cost alternative to paper, more and more students are reading from their tablets for materials beyond the warmup. This practice has thus far not been without problems in students’ lessons.

The Great River Trombone Quartet (John Mueller, Joseph Frye, Micah Everett, Ed Morse) performing in November 2014. Just one "non-Luddite" among us....

The Great River Trombone Quartet (John Mueller, Joseph Frye, Micah Everett, Ed Morse) performing in November 2014. Just one “non-Luddite” among us….

Before I proceed further I should note that I am not opposed to the development of this new technology, and in fact I believe the almost total replacement of paper sheet music with digital files read from tablets to be inevitable. Microsoft’s new StaffPad application using its Surface Pro 4 tablet and Surface Pen recently made the rounds of social media demonstrating new capabilities for music notation software which frankly look incredible. One of the members of my own trombone quartet has even been experimenting with the use of an iPad for music reading with some success. While these advances are great, I have thus far avoided moving to a tablet computer for music reading and have actively discouraged students from reading solely from their tablets. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. Marking music is difficult or impossible without specialized applications, and these aren’t yet standardized.

When a student comes into his lesson reading an excerpt or other piece from a tablet computer, he always—ALWAYS—reads from a file that has not been marked by the student. Instead of marking missed key signatures, accidentals, fingerings, or other errors which are easily prevented by a simple handwritten notation in the part, the student simply hopes that he will remember the error and not make the mistake the next time. The predictable result is unnecessary errors during the lesson. While there are software programs which enable the marking of digital sheet music, there is not yet an industry standard in this area, which makes me reticent to suggest or adopt a program for this purpose. As music-on-tablet technology improves, this objection will go away.

  1. Successful use of a tablet for music performance requires adequate power and a good internet connection.

This objection is a bit of a stretch, but these are real concerns that need to be addressed. Many tablet computers are power-hungry devices, and my experience with technology has been that it will fail at the most inopportune moments. In addition to the possible lack of access to an outlet for charging, batteries do degrade over time and sometimes fail. Furthermore, access to large sheet music libraries requires internet access to reach digital files stored in the cloud, as few tablets have sufficient memory to store hundreds or thousands of such files locally. One would hate to be in a situation where wi-fi was needed for a performance and not available.

Can these issues be planned for and worked around? Of course, but they are there, and demand that the musician bring paper copies of the needed works for each performance, if only as a backup. Maybe I am a Luddite after all, but my paper copies never run out of battery.

  1. Who is going to digitize all of my music for me?
Seriously, most of these file cabinets are completely filled with sheet music. Who is going to scan it all?!?

Seriously, most of these file cabinets are completely filled with sheet music. Who is going to scan it all?!?

My first two objections can be overcome easily enough, if not in the present than certainly in the immediate future. The last is more of a challenge for anyone who, like me, owns a large library of paper sheet music. Who is going to digitize all of it? This would be the work of many tens of hours standing over a scanner, a process which is both tedious and prone to error. While I have been slowly scanning pieces as I use them, I am far—VERY far—from completing the process. Perhaps a tenth of my library has been digitized at this point. There will be no largescale switch to digital sheet music on my part until I can get these paper parts into digital format. Too bad I don’t have a graduate assistant….

My thoughts today are undeveloped, a little selfish, and probably sound a bit reactionary. Again, I am sure that at some point in the not-too-distant future reading sheet music from tablet computers will be the usual practice. Nevertheless, until some standardization in the software applications used for this purpose occurs—particularly for marking parts for musical enhancements and avoiding errors—I remain unconvinced that the time has arrived. When such industry standard applications emerge I will be more willing to overcome my other two objections and join the “Sheet Music on iPad Revolution.”

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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