How I use the iPad Pro to teach

January 15, 2018

I bought my first tablet around two years ago, and since then, my studio has transformed for the better. I've raved about my digital library to virtually all my colleagues, some of whom have asked for my tips on getting started — while others have asked, "Why bother?" So, in today's post, I’ll be talking about these topics:


  • why I made the switch

  • what’s improved

  • where I find digital music


A disclaimer: I’m an Apple user, and ForScore, the music-reading app that I’ll be referring to, isn’t compatible with Android. I’ve heard good things about Samsung tablets, but I’m not knowledgeable about specific apps to use.


I spent about $1200 for the 9.7 inch iPad Pro, with additional storage and accessories, in 2016. It’s certainly not a cheap setup, but I’ve found that the cost has absolutely paid off, and here’s why.



The setup


First, mobility. I currently split my teaching time between two studios, but especially when I first started teaching, when I worked at multiple schools in multiple cities, having my library on hand was a major issue. This can be a problem for performers further along in their careers, as well: my college teacher once forgot to pack a manuscript he needed to bring to a residency, and asked me to break into his house so I could mail it to him!


As a student, I often had to wait a week for a teacher to give me a particular etude or exercise, but with the iPad, I can have a student read any exercise right there in the lesson. I’ve also sent students music from airports and hotels — and backed up my files to the cloud, ensuring that I’ll never be without the music I need.


Using the iPad reduces my physical load in other ways. For example, I’ve stopped using small plug-in and Bluetooth speakers; my home studio has an amplifier, and when I teach on the go, the sound quality of the iPad’s built-in speakers (which surpasses that of any laptop I’ve used) is more than sufficient. I’ve also stopped using Dr. Beat, the bulky metronome that used to be all the rage at quartet rehearsals — ForScore’s native metronome is loud enough. Many reference books aren't yet digitized, but to look up basic musical terms, I like the Wotton dictionary app. And, with several of my teenage students, I share our lesson notes digitally.


Another benefit is organization. All the teachers I know have established some kind of filing system, so they know where scores in their studio should be. Of course, those expectations don’t always correspond with reality. In the studios where I studied, there were always towering stacks of music that needed to be put away, and often, parts had been loaned out decades prior and never returned. It can be hard to locate music within large libraries, especially when single volumes contain pieces in different genres or with different instrumentations.


You can guess where this is going: ForScores makes it easy for me to find music in my library. Whenever I import a piece of music, I fill out the information fields that I find useful — such as composer, genre, and tags — so that later, when I'm trying to program or assign a work that fulfills a particular need, I can quickly come up with a list of options. (I do have some criticisms about ForScore's information fields, so I've had to hack their system for my needs, which I'll talk about in another post.) For example, through the genre category, I can easily look at all my student concertos side-by-side, all my trill exercises, all my easy string quartets in which a viola can be switched out for a third violin. When a student has a particular repertoire requirement, we can spontaneously read through several different works that might fit the bill — and I often rediscover my own library in the process.


Recently, I wanted to assign a student a multi-movement work with piano, but probably not a sonata, just yet. I looked at my pieces tagged sonatina, instead, and came across a Martinů work — something I'd downloaded for whatever reason, but didn't know and hadn't tried. I found it fun and imaginative. Additional "discoveries" like this one have led to increased diversity of programming in my studio, and in turn, more interesting recitals! 


I play piano accompaniments at lessons, so on a given teaching day, I might need up to a dozen parts within reach. Here, ForScore's setlist feature comes in. I've created a setlist for each teaching day; whenever I assign a work, I simply select it and add it to the folder (when the student has moved on, it's as easy to delete). This feature is especially convenient for recitals. Prior to going digital, I printed out all the piano parts, arranged and taped the page turns, and hole-punched them into a binder for the accompanist to use. With digital setlists, I can compile the same music in about a minute.





Using labels and setlists for organization

A final advantage is easy markup. ForScore and a stylus (I use the Apple Pencil, but of course, a non-branded stylus would work too) has aided my teaching of music theory at every level, simply because erasing is much easier digitally than it is on traditional paper. In that way, using ForScore is a little bit like writing on a whiteboard — but with the added benefit of being able to print your work, and no bad marker smell!


I started by scanning a piece of blank staff paper, which I’ve since duplicated many times for various purposes. For example, a 6 year-old used the page to draw her first notes ever (she loved using different colors), and a middle school student worked on combining duple and triplet rhythms. It's easy to work quickly — here's a video. 


Several of my young students like to compose their own songs, an activity that teaches them about note-reading, rhythms, and expressions more effectively than I ever anticipated. And I often give older students scores to mark as they’re listening to a piece or thinking about an idea. For example, I might play a page on the piano and ask them to mark where they think the cadences are. Or, they might listen back to a recording of themselves playing, and mark in the music where they felt they needed more dynamics, or where they missed a shift.


ForScore also makes it easy to maintain different versions of the same music. After I scan a piece, I’ll keep the clean copy, then duplicate the file twice: once for my own personal use, and once for the student, who will mark it up with individualized colors and reminders. I've found that maintaining clean parts facilitates quicker learning: when students aren't distracted by irrelevant markings made by other players, they can more easily identify the tasks at hand.


Here are a few ways that I load music to my digital library. I find the ForScore app pretty intuitive, and was able to start working just minutes after downloading. 



  • The Henle Library app. The selection is currently limited, but the company takes requests for new additions and the quality is, of course, fantastic. I especially like that the downloads come with markings that you can load — or not load — at your discretion. For example, the Beethoven sonatas come with the markings of Henryk Szeryng, Max Rostal, and Igor Ozim; the Ysaÿe sonatas come with the composer's markings. I hope that other publishers follow Henle's example.


Their app is well designed, but because I like to keep everything in the same place, I migrate my Henle downloads to ForScore. To do this, from the Henle app, go to Settings > Print. Use two fingers to swipe open the preview image; it will then display full-screen. From there, tap the export icon and scroll through the apps until you find ForScore. Tap it, and the Henle music will automatically open in ForScore. 


  • Scanning. There’s no getting away from the fact that scanning is a time-consuming task. However, it’s not as bad as it was: apps like TurboScan (available for both iOS and Android), which can detect borders and automatically adjust contrast for readability, are easier and faster to use than traditional scanners (the iPad is heavy, so I usually scan on my phone and use AirDrop to transfer the files to ForScore). I set out with several large stacks of music and tried to scan at least one volume a day; gradually, those piles shrunk and finally disappeared. It’s tedious work, but easy enough to do while listening to music or watching a show. If you have kids, this could be a good way for them to earn an allowance!


It's been a fruitful experience so far, and I'll be writing updates as I discover more about this technology. 

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