Issue 1: iPads and Apps Make Page Turning a Breeze for Musicians

By Dana Wen

At the start of a recent concert in Seattle, pianist Christopher O’Riley strode onto stage with an unusual accessory tucked under his arm. Rather than the typical book of sheet music, O’Riley carried an Apple iPad, which he handily placed on the music rack. A pair of electronic pedals on the floor interfaced wirelessly with a musical score app on the iPad, enabling O’Riley to electronically flip through the music during his performance.

This high-tech page turning setup is gaining popularity among musicians around the world. iPads and other tablet devices are becoming frequent concert hall companions for classical musicians, eliminating the need for paper scores and human page turners. The trend is even beginning to take hold among the ranks of high-profile performers. In 2012, the Washington Post brought attention to page turning technology with a profile of pianist Sam Haywood, who regularly tours and collaborates with violinist Joshua Bell.

For many classical musicians, page turns are an inevitable inconvenience. Flipping between pages in a concert setting can be tricky, distracting, or downright disastrous. In the classical piano world, it’s standard practice to hire a page turner for a concert. In an orchestral setting, stand partners allocate page turning duties — one musician stops to flip the page while the other keeps playing. Sticky pages, books that don’t lie flat, and dense chamber music or orchestral scores are just a few of the potential hazards.

In recent years, a host of digital music readers have appeared on the market, providing an alternative to troublesome paper scores. The growing popularity of tablet devices has made music-reading software more accessible and efficient. With their portable form factors and intuitive touchscreen interfaces, tablets are the ideal device for digital scores. In recent years, many software companies have jumped on the digital score bandwagon, developing apps that make it easy to read and annotate musical scores on a tablet device.

Currently, the market is flooded with digital score apps for tablet devices. forScore and DeepDish GigBook are two of the most popular music reader apps. Ideal for both practice and performance, these iPad apps enable musicians to import and annotate PDF copies of sheet music, preserving personal markings and notes. Users can also create and share set lists and performance instructions.

Though these apps eliminate the issues caused by fumbling with unwieldy paper scores, they don’t solve all the problems associated with page turns. Tablet users still need a hand free to tap or swipe the screen to flip the next “page” of music in their digital score. This can be a difficult task for many classical pianists and chamber musicians, who often have dozens of page turns over the course of a performance.

AirTurn AT-104

Enter the electronic foot pedal. The AirTurn and PageFlip Cicada pedals interface with tablets through a wireless Bluetooth connection, eliminating the need for cumbersome USB cables. Both devices feature a simple interface that’s dominated by two foot pedals — one for flipping forward in the score, and the other for flipping back. The AirTurn and Cicada pedals are approximately the same size and share a similar set of features. Small differences in interface, price, and power source make selecting between the two devices a matter of personal preference.

Pianists Adam Neiman and Ariella Mak-Neiman frequently practice and perform with iPads and page turning pedals. The husband-and-wife duo are devotees of the forScore iPad app, which they use with the AirTurn pedal. “I only use it for chamber music, but Adam uses it for everything,” says Ariella. “However you choose to use it, it is imperative to practice with it exactly the way you will be using it in performance.” She cites transitions between movements and repeat sections in the score as particularly tricky spots that require prior preparation.

"" Apps like Tonara and Autoflip "follow along” in the score while a musician is playing, automatically turning pages at the right moment.

Ariella acknowledges that the high-tech setup can be difficult to master for some. “Depending on your level of coordination, it can take an hour or a few weeks to assimilate,” she says. Ariella advises budding users of forScore and other digital score apps to spend time learning the idiosyncrasies of the software. For example, long chamber works may need to be broken up into separate files for each movement to avoid delays in loading and potential crashes. There’s also the readability factor. For musicians used to reading paper scores, adjusting to the backlit screen of a tablet can be a headache, a dream come true, or somewhere in between. “I find it tiring on the eyes to read from a backlit score, but Adam actually finds it easier on his eyes,” Ariella notes. “It’s a matter of personal preference.”

Though the learning curve may be steep, the payoff is high. According to Ariella, as long as the AirTurn pedals are aligned properly, the device integrates seamlessly into performance, even in passages that require extensive use of the piano pedals. Though their iPads and AirTurn pedals now play a regular role in their lives as performers, Ariella and Adam recognize that not everyone is accustomed to seeing such technology in the concert hall. “It’s so much more subtle than a book and page-turner, but audiences — especially older demographics — get really curious and distracted,” says Ariella. “During audience Q&A sessions, I sometimes find myself answering more questions about my device than about my performance.”

The future of the page turn looks bright. As emerging technologies like tablets and pedals gain popularity among performing musicians, the next generation of software and devices is arriving on the market. Apps like Tonara and Autoflip “follow along” in the score while a musician is playing, automatically turning pages at the right moment. In academia, scholars are researching algorithms and building systems to track a musician’s location in the score during performance and assess when a page turn is necessary. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, cumbersome paper scores and distracting manual page turns will be problems of the past, enabling performers to focus on what they do best: making music.

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