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The Virtual Violist: Using Technology to Enhance Technique

Posted by Kimberly Hankins on
The Virtual Violist: Using Technology to Enhance Technique

A few weeks ago I presented at the American Viola Society Festival, hosted by Colburn School, with Nancy Buck, Viola Professor at Arizona State University. The talk was centered around how technology can help us learn and perform music, and it was wonderful hearing everyone’s perspectives on using technology in the practice room. As many of you know, I began practicing and performing from an iPad instead of physical sheet music about six months ago. It was so liberating to not have to carry around a ton of music everywhere, and also be able to read string quartet music from the score with ease. I just wanted to take a few moments to share a brief overview of things I covered in this presentation, with the hopes that it may help or inspire you.


“Today’s musicians have a wealth of tools and products for use, with information immediately accessible by the tap of our fingers. The digital age is transforming the speed and manner in which we learn and process information. What is the latest in technology? Is there an app for that? This session will explore the ways to take advantage of available information, and how experimenting with the newest technologies stretches our capabilities beyond playing the instrument itself.” - Nancy Buck


I created a poll where musicians could share their own apps that they found helpful -

Most people use some kind of metronome/tuner app nowadays, as well as Spotify and YouTube. However, (based on the results of this poll + talking to other musicians) not many have explored apps for sheet music or notation. Perhaps another avenue of exploration would be using apps as a means to expand your own personal creativity -or improving your musical skills.

It is interesting to note that the generation of musicians in high school/undergrad today is much more dependent on technology than any previous generation. This makes sense, but when you think about it these people are much more visually-oriented as a result. I think it’s important to acknowledge this shift.


Apps I personally find useful:

For each of the following apps, I have included a short tutorial video that shows a few of the features. They are probably boring to watch, but I tried to include features that I covered in the presentation. Feel free to search on YouTube for other tutorial/review videos if you are interested.

All of these apps can be found for iPad. The reason I did this is because the iPad is the most user-friendly and reliable for the purpose of reading sheet music. There are several other options out there, but be wary of any device that uses a hard drive instead of solid state storage -you definitely don’t want a computer fan turning on in the middle of a performance. Also at the time I am writing this, I am not aware of another tablet that can be as large as 12.9” and also have the ability to rotate the image. Disclaimer: I am not an “apple person” by any means, but for musicians it is hard to deny the advantage apple products have over everything else on the market today.


Time Guru (~$2)

At first glance this may seem like every other metronome app, but what I love about this is the ability to randomly mute the beat. This is so helpful in practicing orchestra excerpts where you want to internalize the tempo. It’s also great because it has the most complex rhythm options I have seen in a metronome app, and with a wide range of sound options. You can also save each of your metronome settings as a preset so that you can come back to those settings later. I like the ability to name the preset the title of the piece or excerpt I’m working on, which makes it super easy.


ForScore (~$10)

This is a very common app for viewing and editing sheet music. I prefer this over other options, because of the sheer amount of things you can do and how easy it is to edit and organize your music digitally. There are multiple ways to upload sheet music, and in a pinch it is great to use the iPad camera with the ‘darkroom’ setting in the app. You can also export your edited sheet music as a PDF file to a cloud service (like Dropbox or Google Drive) and print without needing the Apple Air. 

I really like how you can create set lists of music, and then randomize them. I use that function a lot when practicing (see my blog post on practicing). Additionally you can review how much time you’ve spent on each piece by viewing the ‘dashboard.’ 

There is also a built in keyboard/metronome/tuner within the app which is super helpful. 


    Symphony Pro 5 (~$15)

    I love using this app as my primary way of notating music. It can be used with or without the Apple Pencil (I haven’t found much use for the Apple Pencil outside of this app), and is extremely user-friendly. It’s especially helpful for someone like me... who did their undergrad orchestration project the night before it was due on Finale, and still has nightmares about learning the keyboard shortcuts. I actually bought this app after researching Finale and Sibelius to try and find an affordable version that doesn’t expire after a year. For $15 and continuously updates for free, this was perfect.


    Politonus (~$2)

    This is an extremely basic ear training app, and I am sure there are many other ones available that work well. There are options for fixed or movable ‘do,’ and it’s nice to work on ear training skills away from the viola or on the go.


    Clapping Music (Free)

    This is a free game that came out a few years ago, and is based on Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music.’ I found myself getting addicted to this game, and also found myself thinking about rhythm in new and creative ways after trying this out. 


    There are quite a few apps out there that can train your brain to think more creatively. They are designed from a neuroscience perspective with the goal of improving brain function. These can be incorporated into a warmup before your practice time, or whenever is most helpful. Some examples are: Luminosity, Elevate, and Peak. I am not sure how effective these apps really are, but I think it’s interesting that there are game apps with the potential to improve the way you think.


      The downside of using this technology is that the basic iPad Pro 12.9” with 64GB storage retails at around $800. If you are a student or educator, you can check out the educational discounts. I like the 12.9” screen because it is similar to the size of a sheet of paper, however for your own needs you may not need something that large. I also use my iPad as a laptop with a Logitech keyboard attachment, and as a student this was really important for me. It is my hope that as technology advances and becomes more inexpensive, there will be even better options for musicians. 

      Personally, adapting to using a pedal for page turns was quite unnatural. I consider myself very coordinated, as I’m sure many string players do, but for some reason adding a foot tap was awkward. I am still working on pedal placement and making the page turns not so obvious. I discovered that printing out the music was more helpful for me in the end. I use the iPad to make colorful edits to my sheet music, and practice with the pedal. Then when I wish to perform it, it is simple to print and play from the physical music. This really removed my anxiety of charging the pedal enough / not being awkward with it, but I may change back to performing with the iPad once I am more comfortable. 

      All technology has a learning curve, but don’t ever let a learning curve deter you from trying new things. 


      Many thanks to Nancy Buck, who invited me to be a part of her presentation. I learned so much through this experience, and I am very grateful for having this opportunity. 

      Also if you have never been to an AVS Festival, it’s totally worth it. I have only been to this one, and the one before hosted at Oberlin, and both were incredibly motivational and inspiring for me. If you are a violist it’s a great way to network and learn about advancements in our field.

      ***Update:  Thank you to for the article!


      Let me know what you think! Are there any apps that you find helpful? Did you try out one of these apps, and was it helpful for you? What are some of the challenges you face when using technology? Questions? Thoughts? 


      *My statements have not been influenced by sponsorship of any kind

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      1 comment

      • CR Slack on

        I need a voice activated recording app for use in my studio. I want to record my practicing hands free. Any ideas?

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