I lay before you a blessing and a curse: digital sheet music
Y wife and I attended a concert a little over a year ago where the entire chamber orchestra read their music from their iPads. At the page turns, they all had a little pedal that would advance the page – it intrigued me. Before that moment, my opinion had been that using tablets to read music would be too much of a hassle. A nice gimmick with some features, but not worth all the effort to replace my physical sheet music. Yet, the ease with which the musicians on stage used their digital music made me reconsider – what would that look like in the context of our parish church choir? Now, about a year later, the majority of our parish chant schola uses their phone or tablet with the app “Chant Tools” – which is a handy and flexible way of getting the chant music without either buying a physical book or of printing everything off. (Chant Tools is free and available on both Google Play and the App Store – you can even view it in a browser: click here)
I downloaded a few different programs to find the right fit for my own workflow (see the bottom of the article*), got a hold of a Bluetooth page turner and started testing it out. Rather than telling you to make the switch or not, I listing my own observations on what I’ve learned trying it out.
Turn off Notifications (and Sounds) (…and Vibration)
This one should be obvious but isn’t. We all hear and make announcements about silencing our phones…but still, we find some people forget to silence the notifications. Even on vibrate, you still know when something has come in. Then sit there pondering who could possibly have texted, or how your favorite team is doing…before you know it, you’re fully engaged with the phone. When using your phone or tablet as a sheet music device – turn off notifications. Airplane mode works most efficiently…unless you need the internet for your music (like the Chant Tools app). I use the DND (do not disturb) option for notifications – though I also have all notifications blocked normally (except for calls, texts and whether it will rain). The last thing you should check is the length of screen timeout. On most phones, it’s set for 30 seconds of idleness before turning the screen off – which is inconvenient if you’re always battling your phone or tablet’s tendency to shut off the screen. Remember: you want as few distractions as possible when reading from your music.
Get a Plain Protective Case
Not only does this help with breakage if you accidentally drop your device, but it also makes it less distracting. Some people like decking out their phone with rhinestones…probably not a good move for church choir. The same policies for binders should be in play here – dignified and neutral. (No one should really notice your shiny new tablet.) While you’re at it, dim your screen to a reasonable level: the sweet spot I’ve found is just one tick below “suggested” – not light enough to be seen from the congregation, light enough to read myself.
Practice page turns
I remember when my organ teacher first told me to practice my page turns. “Huh. That makes sense – why did no one ever tell me that?” Whether you use a page turning pedal or swipe the screen, practice it, so you know the speed and how it feels. This actually applies to both “analog” and digital music!
“A Charger, A Charger, My Kingdom for a Charger!”
Charge your battery. Period. Have a charging cable, always. You may even invest in an emergency portable battery. But, charge your battery…. and bring your cable, because you’ll still be caught with a dead battery.
Purchase Your Apps
This one is interesting: I have a pitch pipe app for when I (inevitably) lose my physical one. I did not purchase the app, so there were ads. At the offertory one Sunday, the app began playing a very loud video ad right when I was giving my choir their pitch. I first left a scathing review. (Well, technically, I first gave the choir their pitch from the organ.) Then I downloaded another app and paid for it to make the ads go away. Problem solved.
Take the time to get to know the features of the sheet music reader app
Most have a way of creating a “set list” to line up all the music, just like you would in a binder. Some even have a way of making snippets of larger files so that only a few pages are in your setlist. There’s also a “recital” setting, where errant pokes and swipes won’t alter settings. Bookmarks and short-cut buttons also help tremendously for repeats. Again, you would have to set this up before Mass starts.
Make Sure you Know Copyright Laws for a Digital Copy of your Music
If your work is downloaded public domain or the new “Creative Commons” license – you’re in the clear. However, you are allowed a digital copy under copyright law of a physical music only if you own it. So no, you technically can’t buy one copy of a work and then scan it in for the choir. If you have a question, check with whatever publisher your music is from. A lot of them now have “digital subscriptions” of their own. Remember, there are artists on the other side of those Octavos or printouts you use. It is a part of the virtue of justice to support them for their labors!
Get a good Scanning App*
There are several scanning apps that help with transferring documents to your computer, phone or tablet. It does need to have a “monochrome” or “black and white” feature. I use “CamScanner” for Android, but there are others.
Know your Parish, Know your Choir
This is an often-overlooked part of life: no matter how good an idea it sounds, checking in with those around you can be a mark of prudence and true charity. Don’t assume you can go ahead and buy the whole choir iPads. Having them may cause scandal or distraction, or it may just be the pastor’s preference to not use them.
Have Clear Guidelines for Technology Use
Otherwise, you might see some video games or Instagram during the homily. This is a clear case where technology ought to serve a practical purpose, not entertain. Also, be disciplined about only looking at the music for that liturgy. When there’s a massive library of music (IMSLP, CPDL, etc.) at your fingertips, it can be very tempting to wander around in search of some good music for later.
Get the Right Equipment*
You’re going to have to use some kind of tablet or phone (many find the phone screen too small). I personally use a 2-in-1 laptop with a touch screen, because a regular laptop isn’t going to pass muster in my experience. You really need something flat, not opened at an angle for putting on the music rack of the organ or holding in the hand. Personally, I would not go out of my way to purchase something just to have the digital sheet music capability, but since I already had a tablet, I went ahead and used it for this as well. Now that I am using it, I like not having to worry about pages (which can tear and age) – but I don’t like arriving at church with a dead battery. (Again, the battery issue!)
Digital music, while convenient and useful, I do not believe takes over having your plain old pages or books in hand. It will not be for everyone – and some will find it more cumbersome to switch. I ultimately find it less stressful and clean to have a tablet in my hand, with all the pages set up, and to just tap on the screen or step on the pedal to get to the next page. It is very similar to reading a book from a screen. Some people adjust very well to it, and love the convenience of it – others will still just want to have a physical book in their hand. I still read music from printed books and scores, but I do like having the majority of my choral and keyboard library at my fingertips. And while extremely convenient, there are still details you need to be aware of and plan for so as to be prepared when the time comes to make music for the Lord. Though, call me old-fashioned, there are still some days that I feel a bit overwhelmed by the back lit screen. I just have to take out my books and hold them in my hand.
Yet no matter how much work you put into it, there will always be struggles with new technology…
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
* Current Setup
As promised, here I what I currently use for my digital sheet music.
Tablet: Windows Surface Book 2 (13” version) – I recently upgraded from my Surface 3. I very much like using the Surface pen to add my own notes to the music – which I can view or not with the touch of a button.
App for Music: Mobile Sheets (I like that it acts better as touchscreen app)
Bluetooth Page Turner: Donner Wireless Page Turner Pedal (from Amazon)
Music Scanner: CamScanner – this one is good for scanning music into your phone so that you can transfer it to your tablet. (There’s a “subscription” that you really don’t need, but I did buy the Pro version.)