Using a tablet for choral singing

I recently rejoined the Mornington Singers, a chamber choir based in Dublin that I sang with a few years ago. We perform 4-6 concerts a year, and use choral music scores to sing from. That normally means holding a black folder with a stack of paper inside.

However, I’ve decided to try something a bit different – combining two passions of mine – technology and music! I’m ditching the paper, and singing from a computer tablet.

I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. I’ve seen loads of other singers doing this already, but this is my first serious attempt at singing off a screen.

It helps that there’s an Android app that makes the whole thing easy, called MobileSheets (available as a free and and paid-for ‘Pro’ version). You can import music scores in PDF format, and then adjust them for display on the screen. I like the option to auto-crop the margins from the edge of the page, and the ability to apply a sepia-colour filter to help improve the page contrast.

I originally tried it out using an old Google Nexus 7 tablet, which as the name suggests has a 7 inch screen. It kind-of works, but the screen is a bit too small, and would not suit anyone with less than 20-20 eyesight. So a couple of weeks ago I upgraded to a reconditioned Amazon Fire 10 tablet that was on sale. It has a bigger 10 inch screen, which works a lot better with A4-sized music scores.

The Fire tablet itself is not stunning in terms of performance, but it does have a good quality screen. It’s locked in to the Amazon ecosystem, running an old version of Android that is tightly integrated with Amazon services. Thankfully there’s loads of online tutorials out there that explain how the Google Play Store (and other Google apps) can be loaded. And although the Fire tablet can feel quite sluggish when using some demanding apps, the MobileSheets Pro app works very well, and there’s no noticeable lag loading scores or turning pages.

MobileSheets app running on Amazon Fire 10 tablet

The positives

  • I have access to all my music in one place, and depending on the memory capacity of the tablet, I could store hundreds/thousands of music scores in one place.
  • I can define a “set list” in the app that shows scores in a defined order. This helps keep my music in order. 
  • I can define bookmarks within a score that enabled me to jump quickly between movements of a larger work. I’ve set some hot-spot areas of the screen to jump backwards and forwards between bookmarks.
  • Page turns are very quick, and also silent. Just tap on the right of the screen to go forward, and on the left to go back.  Moving back and forth between pages in a score during rehearsal seems to be easier on a tablet than with paper.
  • I don’t have any problem seeing the notes in a dark room, as my music is back-lit. At a recent concert the rest of the choir were using clip-on lights to illuminate their paper music, but I don’t have that worry. I’ll just have to make sure I turn down the brightness in really dark settings, so that the screen doesn’t illuminate me!

The negatives

  • The tablet is heavier and more awkward to hold than a piece of paper, which makes it less convenient in a rehearsal – although once we get to the concert it’ll be easier to manage than lots of different scores
  • Adding markings to the score is possible with the MobileSheets app, but it takes a bit longer (there are a few taps required) than using a pencil on paper
  • Audiences are not used to seeing performers singing off a tablet, so I’ll need to be discrete to avoid it being a distraction. I plan to mount the tablet somehow inside my normal music folder using velcro strips or similar.
  • I have to source my music in PDF format to load it onto the tablet. If that’s not readily available then I need to find the time to scan the paper score into a PDF document. The CamScanner app seem good at this.

Generally I feel that the positives outweigh the negatives so far. However I’ve only been using tablet for rehearsals and a couple of concerts so far.

I just have to make sure that my music is fully charged!

Learning Music

What’s your preferred method for learning new music? Or is your sight-reading so good that you don’t need to look at music ahead of a performance?

There must be many different ways for singers to learn music – either on your own, or in a group setting. Me, I always prefer to look at new pieces in a group rehearsal, because I can then hear how my line fits in context with the other voices. But rehearsal time in some choirs can often be tight, and there can also be an understandable reluctance from some directors to note-bash individual lines.

So unless you’re blessed with a wealth of rehearsal time (and a very patient choir trainer), it’s inevitable that you’re going to be required to learn some music on your own. And I’m guessing different people prefer different methods.

I will often listen to recordings of the piece and sing along to learn the notes. However, there are distinct disadvantages in doing this; namely that you might end up learning someone else’s interpretation of the piece; and also that you may subconsciously rely on the voices in the recording to help set your pitch and timing, and end up not being able to sing your line unaided later on.

Other people may prefer to play the music to themselves on the piano or another instrument – but that implies a degree of proficiency in instrumental playing that not all singer have. And so a few singers use one-to-one lessons with singing teachers to help learn their part – but again, this can be seen by some as a waste of the teacher’s time and experience, which would be much better employed polishing the finished performance, rather than teaching notes. And finally, some people have the ability to hear music inside of their head just by looking at the notes on the page, and as such, can learn music in silence.

As I’m sure all choir trainers will tell you, in an ideal world all member of the choir would turn up for rehearsals knowing the music, allowing them the time to check the ensemble, and add the final details to the performance. But we all know that the world isn’t perfect, and many singers (even – shock horror – some professional soloists) turn up to rehearsals having not learnt the music beforehand.

It is, of course, highly regrettable to turn up having not learnt your part properly – particularly if you end up being the weakest link in the choir. But I’m sure we’ve all done it at different times in our musical careers. I know I have. Lack of time (and sometimes a touch of laziness) has periodically stopped me turning up fully prepared. And sometimes when this happens, I’m lucky enough to blag my way through. And other times, I have been known to go wrong during a concert or service. But at least my lack of preparation has never caused a piece of music to collapse during the performance – something I’ve seen other singers do.

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