Saturday 26 December 2020

Tablets for Singers

Changes to the way in which so many aspects of the world works recently means that, since September, I have had to use a tablet to replace sheet music when singing. Having done some research and tried a couple of options, I have now assembled what I believe is the most suitable equipment for me. There may be alternatives to aspects of the set up, but - obviously - I have not tried them all, so this is simply my personal experience.

The bulk of the expense of the set up is the tablet itself. The important thing for me was the size of the screen, which means that the selection was limited to the 12.9" screen of the Apple iPad Pro. My usual approach of buying a well-speced piece of technology means that I opted for the current fourth generation model, and I chose the 128Gb model as lots of scanned copies of music can start eating into storage.

Beyond the practicality of this application, the iPad Pro is a beautiful piece of technology which is a pleasure to own!

When singing, I like to be able to mark my copies, both to remind me in performance of the conductor's instructions and to help me next time the music comes round. With the iPad, there was no question but to add the Apple Pencil. I bought the second generation pencil, as it is designed to work with the fourth generation iPads. The pencil is pressure sensitive and, coupled with its ability to switch between pencil and eraser by a double-tap on the 'barrel' of the pencil and the iPad's palm detection, means that it is the closest I have ever coming to writing on paper when using a stylus on tablet. The responsiveness and accuracy of the tablet itself makes a big difference to the usability, and Apple's handwriting recognition feature works impressively well (although this is not relevant for rehearsal marks).

Initially, I was using Adobe's free Acrobat viewer to display my music PDFs, which worked functionally. However, my attention was drawn to forScore which is an Apple-only app written specifically for displaying music. The software itself is straightforward to use and contains a wealth of features which would clearly be useful in a variety of musical contexts, even if I don't have the need for them. The biggest selling point to me was the fact it was designed to work with the Apple Pencil for annotations and so there is no need to select an edit mode to make changes, and the experience becomes even more like writing on paper. forScore is also designed to work with Apple's AirPods, and while this is not something I have tested, the integration of the pencil suggests that it would offer helpful features to other musicians (the idea of being able to nod to turn pages thanks to their internal gyroscope is something which I would like to see in action!).

Realising it would be useful to protect the iPad, I purchased a procase slim cover based on the reviews of many of the cases and the fact it appeared to be relatively light-weight. The case itself is sturdy and the iPad feels secure in it. I have also found it useful that, as the cover folds to allow the tablet to be stood on a desk, the folded section acts as a more comfortable means of holding the tablet when singing.

The case comes with a screen protector too. While I've not installed this, it's probably one of the jobs I will get around to, although I do worry slightly that it will affect the efficacy of the pencil; if I do install it, I will update the post.

In terms of holding the iPad, even though its weight does not make it impossible to hold by hand, I have found it much easier to have a sturdy music stand to hold the tablet as it is much more comfortable and helps my posture.

I bought the final piece of the setup - an Air Turn DIGIT III Bluetooth Remote Control - when I was using the tablet as an auto-cue for a school assembly I had to video record and I needed some way to turn the pages of the text at a distance. (I had a large print copy of the text I was reading on the iPad on a stand just underneath the camera so I was able to talk to the camera.) The remote, like the pencil, is integrated within forScore, so it just works. With the tablet on a music stand, using the remote to turn the pages means that there is no need to reach up slightly awkwardly high (because of the useful height of the music stand for reading) and it is easier to maintain a good posture.

My setup has evolved to this stage over the past four months, but having been using it in this form for the past fortnight, I believe this is a really good arrangement for singers, but which would also offer a great range of flexibility to all sorts of musicians, for whom the only tweak might necessarily be the remote control for page turning, whether this is done via AirPods or a foot pedal.

The two drawbacks are ensuring that the iPad and remote are charged (the pencil charges automatically when magnetically affixed to the iPad), and the cost. The charging comes down to being organised (and/or buying a power bank), and the bulk of the cost is made up of the iPad; however, for the screen size (which I have found to be necessary) I fear this is unavoidable. Overall, I am pleased to have been able to invest in the technology to move my sheet music into the mid-pandemic twenty-first century world.