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!