Performing with Digital Sheet Music

MusicStand

Compared to vocalists and guitarists, I’m a latecomer to the use of digital sheet music when performing. But there’s a good reason. While vocalists read lyrics and guitarists view chord symbols, keyboardists require significantly higher resolution and screen space for sheet music. Viewing surfaces must also fit on the music stand of a piano, where cords and wires can be problematic. So, in a practical sense, is there a setup that a pianist can use?

To find out, I made the leap by using a digital setup during a cantata performance this month. The overall process involved digitizing sheet music, selecting a computer/display combination, trying out software, and evaluating foot pedals for page turning.

For sheet music scanning, the Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 was my choice. WithScanSnap its scanner-on-a-tower approach, it can handle anything from small hymnals to larger double page scores. It’s very fast, and can be triggered with a button on the pedestal while you turn pages. It also provides software for warping images and removing any finger tips used to hold the pages steady. Scanned images are output conveniently as .pdf files. I used Adobe Acrobat for removing extra pages, or combining pages from multiple scans.

Finding a practical computer/display combination has been difficult. I’ve been through a number of options, including separate PC and monitor (too much trouble to haul and set up) and all-in-one touch screen PC’s like the Lenovo IdeaCentre Flex 20 (too heavy and thick, short battery life, low resolution). SurfacePro4Large format (13″ or larger) E-ink readers show promise, such as the Sony and BOOX models, but a weak market makes them a risky investment. My best compromise at this point was the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, which has sufficient battery life for longer performances, and is thin and light enough to easily fit on a piano music stand. Note to manufacturers – the ideal system would be Surface-like with a 17″ x 11″ display (two full 8.5″ x 11″ pages). The active display area on a Surface Pro 4 is 6.6″ x 10″, so expect to squint at larger scanned formats.

Software has also been a challenge. PowerMusicSmallUntil recently I hadn’t found any app I was willing to spend money on. Happily, I discovered “Power Music” from Cambron Software (powermusicsoftware.com). It’s a solid app (I know, it’s still running on Windows – but that’s a different discussion), and is easy to navigate. A minor complication is that Cambron is a UK company, but the software can be purchased in the US via AirTurn, a supplier of foot pedals for page turning.

Power Music has a nice set of touchscreen features that make it easy to turn pages with a single touch or to jump to other pages. AirTurnDUOSmallBut I wanted to go fully digital and use a page turning pedal to avoid taking my hands off the keys. My first device was the AirTurn PED, which I promptly discovered was too sensitive – leading to unwanted page turns. AirTurn gladly let me exchange it for an AirTurn DUO. The DUO is more substantial, and requires enough of a “push” to avoid page turning mistakes. The DUO has a long battery life, pairs easily with \Surface Pro Bluetooth, and works out-of-the-box with Power Music.

Putting all of this together, the cantata performance went well, especially since the choir score was printed in a smaller page format that was ideal for the size of the Surface Pro.

Before you run off to do the same, though, be prepared for some training time to get the feel of page turning with a pedal.  In essence you need to learn the use of two more pedals in addition to the existing three – page-forward and page-back. I found the following approach works well for me: 1) at the beginning of the last staff on a page, remind yourself that a page turn is coming, 2) at the beginning of the next-to-last measure of the page, place your left foot on the page-forward pedal, 3) at the beginning of the final measure, take a mental snapshot of the measure, and 4) press the pedal to advance the page while playing the final measure. The next page should then be ready for you as you complete the final measure.

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