The Virtual Musician: A Guide to Using Apps, Tablets and Technology for Performance and Teaching

August 13, 2018, 12:59 PM · Technology in the 21st century has opened all kinds of possibilities for classical musicians. Symphony music, solos, and new music from all over the globe can be bought or found for free on the Internet, and then downloaded in an instant. Stacks of music and books can be condensed into a single iPad that fits easily into a light backpack. Apps can teach students theory, rhythm and pitch.

But how do you get started? What kind of set-up do you need? Which are the best apps?

apps for musicians

This was the topic of a lecture called "The Virtual Violist: Using Technology to Enhance Technique" by violists Nancy Buck and Kimberly Hankins in June at the American Viola Society Festival at the Colburn School.

"Technology is going so fast and in so many ways, I'll admit, I can't keep up," Buck said (certainly echoing my own thoughts on the subject!).

Fortunately, Buck and Hankin had assembled all kinds of information to help us do just that, and here is a roundup of their findings and advice. (The names of the apps are all hyperlinked so you can click on them and learn more.)

Using a Tablet for Music

With so much music available online and digitally, it makes sense to have a system for accessing it, then being able to use it without having to print dozens of sheets of paper.

First, it is important to know about IMSLP -- the International Music Score Library Project, which has been a major source of free music downloading for classical musicians since it was started in 2006. It has hundreds of thousands of public domain music scores.

If you wish to store music from IMSLP, or music you have downloaded from elsewhere, you might consider using a tablet, such as an iPad. Buck offered a cautionary tale for those who are thinking about using a tablet for reading music: holding up her iPad mini next to Kim Hankin's visibly larger 12-inch iPad Pro, she admitted, "The minute that Kim got this -- jealousy!"

Kimberly Hankins and Nancy Buck
Violists Kimberly Hankins and Nancy Buck.

The lesson: get a tablet that is as big as a piece of paper. "Especially when you are performing, you need it to be as big as possible," Buck said.

Hankin said that she keeps the music that she is actively using in the iPad but stores the rest of her library in the Cloud. With Google drive, "You can store thousands of sheets of music online," Hanks said, and so you don't need to get as much memory in your iPad.

Something that may come up when using an iPad to read music is the issue of turning pages. Of course, you can always swipe the pad to turn the page, but it is quite helpful to have a mechanism for turning the pages. Here are some options:

Airturn has a number of options for pedals that will turn the page. They recommended the AirTurn DUO, describing it as silent but tactile. Another option is the PageFlip Firefly, which is bluetooth-enabled and also has lights in the pedals so that you can see them in dim light.

Apps for Storing and Playing Music

When storing and using music on your tablet, you'll need an app for that. Here is the one that Hankin described:

forScore ($9.99)

"This is the basic app for reading music on your iPad," Hankins said. One big worry that people have, when using music on a computer tablet, is having the ability to write things in the music. Good news! With this app, you can write on the music, using your finger or a stylus pen (they recommended just getting a cheap one, which will work as well or better than the Apple pencil), or you can type words into a text box. You can also add things like trills, rests, mordents, etc. by clicking on an assortment of signs along the left side of the page. The app has a built-in metronome, tuner and pitchpipe. You can easily add scores from Dropbox or Google Drive. "I can go back and forth between my cloud and my iPad.

You can "scan" music into it using a function called "darkroom," and then you can take the document and crop it, listen it, title it, save it, she said.

You can block off different sections of the music in different colors. "If you start with a clean PDF, you can make different versions for different teachers or master classes." That means can create different versions of a piece: a clean copy, a copy with one teacher's fingerings and bowings, a copy with another teacher's markings, etc. When all is said and done, you can share any given version as a PDF, or an annotated PDF, and of course you can print it out.

Evernote Scannable (free)

This is simply a good app for scanning music and other documents.

Apps for Learning Theory, Rhythms and Pitch

Time Guru Metronome ($1.99)

Here is a metronome with all the regular functions, plus "you can actually create really complex rhythms on here," Hankin said. Another feature: you can add randomly muted beats to help you develop your internal rhythm. This particular app does not have a tuner.

Henle Library (free)

Something to try, to get your urtext editions. The app itself is free, but you might have to make some "in-app purchases" for music. Also, they reported some issues printing things out on non-Apple devices.

Symphony Pro - Music Notation ($14.99)

This is a notation app, allowing you to hear what you write . It has as built-in piano and a built-in guitar.

"I found this much easier to use than Finale," Hankins said. You can export something that you have composed as an mp3, pdf or midi file. You can use instrument categories. You start from scratch when it comes to instrumentation, or they have templates for, say, a string quartet.

Politonus ($2.99)

"If you want a game to play on your phone to get good at ear training," Politonus is what to get.

Steve Reich's Clapping Music

Here's a highly addictive game that will help students with rhythms and is also just really fun.

Harmony Cloud ($9.99)

This helps with chords and chord progressions.

When the question came up of how to help young students with music theory, a teacher in the class actually volunteered that she likes a site called MusicTheory.net, which supports two related apps:

Theory Lessons ($2.99)

This features 39 music theory lessons from musictheory.net.

Tenuto ($3.99)

Tenuto is a collection of 24 customizable exercises designed to enhance musicality, including recognizing chords on a keyboard and identifying intervals by ear. It also includes six musical calculators for accidentals, intervals, scales, chords, analysis symbols, and twelve-tone matrices.

What apps and devices are most helpful and practical to you, for performing, teaching or learning? Please share your thoughts in the comments sections. I hope you find this helpful!

* * *

Note: Hankins has described a number of these apps in more detail on her blog, click here to read more!

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Replies

August 13, 2018 at 07:15 PM · "When storing and using music on your tablet, you'll need an app for that." Perhaps a dumb question, but can't you just use the built-in PDF viewer that comes on any tablet? I understand that this would not allow conveniently annotating with symbols from music notation etc. But wouldn't it allow basic viewing and flipping pages?

August 13, 2018 at 07:55 PM · I don't know the answer to that, but perhaps someone else does? I do know that the apps allow you to do things such as write in the music, etc., which you would not be able to do with a simple reader.

August 13, 2018 at 08:30 PM · As far as playing from music goes I am with the paper crowd. I doubt anything on a tablet is nearly as efficient as good old paper and pencil (and eraser if needed). Also pages on sheet music tend to be larger than "a piece of paper" plus you look at two pages simultaneously on paper > less than half the page turns. And most tablets are smaller than letter size paper. Or otherwise prohibitively expensive. I do hope those styluses are a lot better than the ones on credit card terminals. My signature never looks remotely like my signature; with these tools I could hardly distinguish up and down bow symbols.

BTW Another free tool is Musescore (free download from musescore.org, availabe for Windows, Mac and linux). It is a notation package, easy to use and it gives good-looking results. Plus it comes with a great support community if you need any help with the finer points.

August 14, 2018 at 01:04 AM · GREAT article! Thank you for linking! : )

August 14, 2018 at 01:30 AM · The only disadvantage to using a standard PDF viewer is that you can't enter music symbols, unless you can find a PDF reader with edit features that allow you to draw symbols with your finger. Erasing marks should not be too hard to implement, and I think sheet music on electronic devices isn't necessarily inefficient. I do think that paper music is never going to go away, but music on digital devices is definitely an option worth considering.

August 14, 2018 at 02:21 AM · Regarding using an app specifically for storing sheet music, such as forScore, vs. a free PDF app: One of the features I like best about forScore, besides the musical symbol annotations that are possible as noted above, is the way it allows me to organize my music into setlists. I can have a given piece assigned to multiple setlists (in other words, one copy but accessible in multiple places). It is easy to download from imslp in forScore as well as from DropBox or other cloud storage for the situations where I have scanned my own PDFs. And also as noted in the article, it is easy to make multiple versions of a score to reflect cuts, annotations, etc. In fact, forScore is one of the very few paid apps that I've ever bought for my iPad and it was worth every penny. I have used forScore with an iPad (currently the large Pro) and the Apple Pencil and AirTurn pedals for several years now to organize my piano music for the violin studio I accompany. I ALWAYS have all the Suzuki pieces plus more at a moment's notice without lugging around all my books. I will admit that for recitals I do bring a paper backup but I've never had to use it. It's also AWESOME to be able to travel with just my iPad and have it handy if I come across an opportunity to play piano somewhere. Oddly enough, while I love the iPad/forScore for playing piano, I have not yet used it for my violin music. I'm not sure why, other than the fact that it tends to make the desk of my stand tip forward if I'm not careful. Probably because before the Apple Pencil marking on the iPad was cumbersome and I mark violin music much more than piano music. Perhaps this will be the year that I make the switch with my violin sheet music.

Regarding the Henle app: there is a very limited amount of free music you get with it, so most of what you load into it is in-app purchases--and you can't load music from other sources as far as I have ever found. The app is slowly improving (so now you can make "collections" somewhat like the setlists in forScore) but there is still no way to tag a piece as a favorite or with other tags that help you find something quickly. I haven't price-compared recently but am not convinced you save all that much money buying the electronic edition compared to the paper versions--except that you can buy just one or two pieces out of a larger collection, which saves some money if you are sure you will never want the whole collection.

August 14, 2018 at 12:31 PM · For those who prefer music on paper you can print from your tablet device to a wifi printer if necessary.

I use a black and white laser printer. This keeps the cost per copy way down. I can print something like 1500 copies on one inexpensive cartridge.I don't need color so that doesn't matter. Why would someone do that when they have a tablet device? In some instances a tablet device can be cumbersome and it's just easier to print it, especially if there is a chance a tablet can be damaged or stolen.

Another advantage- You can store 1000's of pieces of music on the device and only print the ones you will need. If I were going to an important play date I would have both just in case. You never know when your tech will let you down.

My costs are so low to print that in the group I lead we seldom file because when we get to the location and don't have a half hour to pull music. We often play the same thing in several keys. Just takes a lot of time. It only takes me maybe 5 minutes to run off copies. A time saver.

I am not comfortable with the smaller form factor devices. The only thing I would even consider as a replacement to sheet music on occasion is the sheet sized tablets. Don't forget you'll probably want the blue tooth page turner too since it isn't always workable to swipe between pages.

For those more into folk music there's a site www.thesession.org that allows access to thousands of pages of online music for free.

August 14, 2018 at 03:19 PM · I suggest you check out Music Wrench for IOs it's in my opinion a great tool to sharpen your intonation skills.

August 14, 2018 at 07:37 PM · I use forscore. I was initially worried about page turns. You can set it up to turn "1/2 pages". You just touch the screen when you are at least 1/2 way through a page of music - what that does is puts the TOP HALF OF THE NEXT PAGE of music on the top 1/2 of your current page. You are still playing that first page, but when you reach the end of that page, you just look at the top of the page to see the next page. At a convenient time, touch the screen and it fills in the bottom half of that 2nd page. And so on. It's really pretty awesome.

I tried a foot pedal for turning pages, but I prefer just touching the page. There's always a time to quickly touch the screen at some point and it's usually during a more convenient time than waiting to turn a paper page.

My biggest issue was finding a secure stand for my ipad pro. I eventually found one, but I can't remember where I got it (somewhere online, I had to buy 3 separate things). Also, glare was something I had to overcome. Easily fixed with an anti-glare screen protector. Always have paper music as a back up.

August 14, 2018 at 11:06 PM · Hi Laurie

This is a great article, thank you!

I'd like to add another way technology has helped my playing.

I amplify my viola and use a loop pedal (RC-300) in performance and sometimes teaching. This has opened up a world of crossover playing techniques and experimentation, and my students and myself just love it. I was inspired by musicians such as Andrew Bird and Zoe Keating.

I think there is huge potential for upcoming students to experiment this way in addition to their classical studies, and the success of Youtube/Instagram musicians is now being seen as a viable career path.

Regards

Amy Stevens (Amy Viola)

August 15, 2018 at 07:17 PM · Thanks for writing this blog post! Some of my favorite apps for practicing and teaching that help us perform better are: ReadRhythm, hudl technique, video delay apps, and my favorite go to tuning/metronome/recording app called tunable. Playlists for youtube tutorials are another option for expanding learning in the practice room.

Regards Susanna Klein

Practice Blitz Youtube Channel

August 16, 2018 at 08:53 AM · I've been using PDFs on an Android tablet with a Folk Music String Quartet and have found it great for both rehearsals and performance. The advantages for rehearsals are:- 1 you have all your music available, 2 your music stays where it is (how many times has your music fallen off the stand?) 3 you can still read your music in poor lighting conditions, 4 you can sort your music numerically or in alphabetical order 5 I have a tablet holder (from a large German online retailer) with an adjustable clamp which clamps onto a music stand pole, 6 you can even use the tablet as a music stand if someone gives you a paper copy! 7 You can listen to the music if you have it in Musescore format.

Thanks for your interesting and informative articles.

Robin Garside

August 16, 2018 at 01:22 PM · We need a hands free recording and playback app for use in the studio, does anyone have any ideas?

August 17, 2018 at 01:20 PM · The best thing I'm aware of presently for hands free is the bluetooth foot pedal technology.

I'm not sure how a violinist playing highly technical works could turn the pages and play at the same time. Piano/violin performances require a page turner, so I think this is a very important point

.

There is an app called OnSong that imports music and has programmable foot pedal ability. It does much more than that.

@Amy Viola- Glad you are making use of the RC-300. I have this exact same thing but haven't used it in this way yet.This gives me the idea to try it.

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