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Charlotte musician’s career extended by iPad

By Leah Harrison
The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

You might think that an organist has all the pedals they can handle. But Steav Bates-Congdon, organist/choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fort Mill, S.C., uses a pedal to turn the pages of his music, all loaded onto his iPad.

Many tech-savvy musicians are turning to digital sheet music, finding a tablet a more organized and compact music folder. While Bates-Congdon loves gadgets, his foray into digitized music came from necessity; he was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s disease in 1997, a complication that would impair his motor skills and make it hard to turn pages of music.

With forScore, an iPad app that handles music, and AirTurn, a Bluetooth pedal mounted on the organ jam that turns the digital pages when it’s pressed, Bates-Congdon is not only spared fumbling with paper, he hardly has to move his hand from a playing position to turn the page.

Bates-Congdon has been privy to the development of digitized sheet music since before it was available to the consumer. In 2004, FreeHand Systems heard about his condition and enlisted him to test their MusicPad Pro, a large, clunky tablet the size of a family Bible that retailed for $1,600. The first time he used it in concert, a house fly landed on the screen and started flipping pages; he told them their screen’s sensitivity needed to be dialed back.

Apple’s iPad launched in January 2010, and three months later, a $5 app called forScore came out, capable of doing everything a MusicPad Pro had done, but better.

“With the Parkinson’s,” Bates-Congdon said, “this has made all the difference in the world.”

Not just for the director

Bates-Congdon’s enthusiasm for forScore has spread to his choir members and bell ringers, and he has been asked to speak to various musician groups about how digital sheet music works.

So what can it do? With forScore, Bates-Congdon scans the church service’s music into his iPad and places it in the order of worship. If there is a repeat or coda – something that would require a musician to turn back pages – he can link the repeat so the music appears on the screen when it’s time. He can annotate the score in any way, including erasing notes; he can crop the margins to make the music appear larger on the screen; he can turn on a visual metronome to find the right tempo without disturbing the service.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages is being able to send his score to his choir members. As a conductor, knowing that your musicians have the same things marked in their music as you do is a leap forward in quality production.

“Steav would modify pieces and then send them to you,” said Leigh Fresina, who worked with Bates-Congdon at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte. “He would have annotations indicating where to touch the music if you had to turn the pages backward. It was so much easier to add texture to the music when you weren’t worrying about the page turns. Those of us that used it pretty much determined we would never go back to paper music.”

New uses for the apps

Bates-Congdon worked at St. Gabriel Catholic Church for seven years, a position from which he was fired in 2012 when he married a man. While there, a parish member gave a grant for the handbell choir to purchase iPads. With gloves and an instrument in each hand, page turning is especially complicated for handbell players. Many of the iPad-using handbell musicians place the AirTurn pedal on the table in front of them and just tap it with the bell handle at the right time.

While Bates-Congdon has explored the app extensively, his choir members also find innovative uses for it. During choir practice, Bates-Congdon saw that two men who share an iPad had the earbuds plugged in, each person using one earbud. He asked them what they were doing, and they explained that they had pulled up the keyboard to get their pitch for an internal entrance. The director was thrilled.

The ways in which Bates-Condon and his choir members use forScore and AirTurn are mostly in line with what the creators had in mind, though they didn’t realize that their product would be so helpful to impaired users.

“Accessibility wasn’t at the forefront of our minds when we created forScore,” said Isaac Watson, half of the two-man team who created the app, “but we caught on very quickly to our customers who were using the iPad to overcome impairments. It’s a very important part of our company, and we’re actively looking at ways to enhance the accessibility of our app and our customers’ sheet music.”

Watson receives constant suggestions from users about ways to improve the app – functions to add, remove, speed up or slow down. Bates-Congdon gets monthly updates to the app with new features.

“If I was still working with paper,” Bates-Congdon said, “I probably would have hung it up after St. Gabe’s. Having a digitized system of managing music has lengthened my career a lot.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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