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Taming the Sheet Music Tiger

A colleague of mine recently asked me how I managed to keep all of my music organized. We both play in several bands, do subbing work, and teach high student loads. In addition, I teach group classes and workshops.

I asked her what system she was currently using. She laughed and said each “project” had it’s own stack of music somewhere in her house. Sometimes they were in binders, sometimes they were lying on the bedroom floor. Her husband, a well respected drummer, has his teaching materials and drum magazines organized in a few Rubbermaid containers near his drum set.

I told her that most of my music had made it into binders, (and I spent hours organizing the music in those binders). Between binders, trade magazines, and books, my apartment had filled with nine bookshelves (to hold all that bulk) over the years. Plus there are two filing cabinets and various file boxes, both in my office and in my storage unit.  I also have a closet in my bedroom with boxes of papers I still have to sort from another music studio I once worked at.  There’s a shelf with binders of music from bands I had subbed with…just in case I got another phone call to fill in.  Problem is, each binder just sits on a shelf as they wait for the call, taking up space. Space I could use for…instruments. Hmmm. We’ve got a problem here.

So there are plenty of paper tigers in my home, and I had no good answer to offer my colleague.  Those paper tigers have been packed up with every move and brought to every new home, for fear of losing important documents.  My blog title refers to the popular book/audio book “Taming the Paper Tiger” by Barbara Hemphill.  I bought that book back in college to make my first serious attempt to tame the paper and sheet music mess.  Despite numerous file systems and various organizational systems involving binders, I still have not tamed that paper tiger.

Like many musicians, I’ve been using Musicnotes.com from time to time to find sheet music. I have always liked their “search-able database” approach to looking up sheet music. So fast and easy. Within seconds, I could find what I needed during a student’s lesson, and have it printed out.

Last year, I ripped all of my CDs to an external hard drive. It took about three months, working an hour or two every day.  Once the project was finished, I appreciated how quick and easy it became to find the song I needed.  I wanted that at easy file retrieval in my home with my sheet music collection. For free. Okay, I’ll settle for cheap.

I could scan all these documents, but my document scanner (like most home office scanners) does one sheet at a time. And I’m not an employee at a large corporation with access to a heavy duty bulk scanner. I also don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on a commercial scanner.

Before the holidays, all the online tech e-tailers were sending me adverts for their sales. Cool. I look these ads over as time permits, watching prices and planning my purchases (since I am a tech junkie). My sheet music quandary was still gnawing at me, when an ad came up for an HP Scanjet 8250.

It has a document feeder. Wow. It does 15 pages per minute. It has a duplexer (meaning it can scan both sides automatically). It does color. It will fit in my office. It is affordable. It is tax deductible. Hmmm…

The HP arrived last week, and I eagerly unpacked it. It set up quickly, perched on top of the now endangered bookshelf in my office. I am fortunate to have several computers in my office, and I assigned my laptop the job of being a full time archiving machine when it is not traveling around with me.  (This was just the configuration I chose, this scanner does not need a full time stand alone computer.)  I hooked the laptop up to the scanner via USB and installed the drivers. After a few test scans, I configured the scanner to convert all my documents to pdf format automatically…literally at the touch of a button.

The physical act of scanning is convenient. I place a stack of sheet music to be scanned on the floor next to my bookshelf each morning. (After all, there is no room for the stack on the bookshelf!) As I go about my day, I will throw one song in the document feeder at a time. I press a button and walk away. The scanner feeds the document and names them automatically in numerical fashion, allowing me to scan quickly. At the end of the day, I name all the documents and move them into the appropriate file folders. So just I throw some music in the document feeder before making breakfast, while cleaning, while reconciling lessons, before I get a shower, in between lessons…just whenever I think of it.  A two inch stack of documents is scanned in one day, just scanning whenever I found it convenient.

I have the option to scan the entire pile all at once. However, I am looking to make every song a distinct file, so I scan each piece of music individually. I am naming my sheet music files so that they can be searched by song title, instrument, or composer. So for example, I would use the title “Purple Haze – guitar – Jimi Hendrix.pdf” for the file of that song.

There are numerous applications for this device. I’ve been backing up chart books for all the groups I am currently gigging with.  Now, if a book is stolen,  lost, or destroyed while out on a job, I can just print a new one. That alone is bringing great piece of mind. And that piece of mind comes using less space and is cheaper than making duplicates of all those binders.

I am also getting my sheet music library scanned in. I have many older sheets with historical significance, so I will save them and perhaps frame some of them. (Using the scanned copies will help preserve the originals.) But anything that is photocopied from a book, clipped from a magazine, or anything that has been organized into a binder is getting scanned.

The scanner has also been great for sending large magazine articles to students as I find them. I just put the article in the document feeder, press a button, and then a few minutes later I can mail the pdf file to whomever needs it. Less paper for me to hold all week until a student comes in for their lesson. Same for forgotten homework…put the homework in the document feeder, scan it and email it.

I can also store the articles and sheet music in a system that is logical and redundant. For example, I have folders like “Christmas Music”, “My Bands”, “Group Classes”, “Teaching Documents – Music Careers”, “Live Audio Workshop”, and “Sheet Music.” I might have an article on careers that I file under “Teaching Documents – Music Careers”. I might find that article useful for a particular group class I am teaching. Click on the file, select “Copy” and make another copy to place in the “Group Classes” folder. I no longer have to photocopy the article so I can “file” it in two different binders with two different copy masters.

I am scanning all of my group workshop materials into the scanner, and I will now use my laser jet printer to handle printing the packets for class. This is much cheaper than using Kinkos or my Lexmark inkjet copier. I also have the option of handling out the class content on a CD-R or emailing materials to the students.  Now, when a student loses their class materials, I can also replace their handouts quickly via email with no cost to me.

As a result of my experiences with the document scanner, I am researching using Music Reader again. I saw this technology at NAMM a few years ago, and I was intrigued by it.  The link below goes to a demo video:

Music Reader Video

When I saw some of the original music tablet PCs, you had to buy a software system and the tablet PC that it was installed on.   You also purchased a foot pedal to control the PC for live performance.  And then the PC had a unique music stand that the tablet mounted to.  With a stylus, you could write on the tablet to make notes and changes to your music.  And those changes would be saved.

The benefit is this system stores thousands of pages. The idea of having a MUCH lighter briefcase when I travel to other locations to teach and play was very appealing.  There would be far less weight and I could carry a huge supply of teaching, gigging, and practice material. However the price for an entire system and the software was a bit too high for me at that time.   So I left the NAMM show intrigued but empty handed, waiting to see if the price would drop.

Now the software is available for use on any laptop, tablet or desktop PC. Since the software can convert my pdf library into Music Reader format, I can turn any laptop into a digital music stand.  Any computer can be controlled with a foot pedal for turning pages during live performance, you just need a USB interface.   I can even buy a stylus pen and reader so I can convert any laptop to a touch screen style interface, if desired.  Even better…all of this technology has come down in price from that last NAMM show trip.  There’s more info at www.musicreader.net. (If you have experience with this system, your comments are welcome.)

Of course, my document scanning system hasn’t eliminated the need for redundancy.  But computer storage is currently very, very cheap, and a lot smaller than paper backups.  As such, I am adding several external drives to my home system. I am also looking at online/offsite storage, since these documents are very important to me. I am currently finding Network Solutions has the cheapest rates for such storage.  (Feel free to comment if anyone knows of any cheaper services.)  So in addition to having spare backups in my home, I will either store my files online, or store a spare external drive at someone else’s house for safekeeping.

Comments are welcome, and I’ll keep you posted on where this all goes.

About the Author

Brittany Frompovich
Brittany Frompovich is a well-respected bassist, vocalist, songwriter and music educator. She has performed regularly in the Mid-Atlantic region for 20 years. Brittany is actively exploring chord melody bass, developing original songs and arrangements of covers.

She graduated Cum Laude from Bloomsburg University in 1995 with a Bachelors degree in Music. She relocated to Virginia in 1997,... [Read more]

10 Comments

  1. Leah Coutts

    Wow, you’re not going to know yourself! Feeling organised is a great feeling! My only question is regarding copyright… in Australia, it is a copyright infringement to photocopy a piece for your own use even if you own the book… very weird, and I don’t understand why. Is it the same in the states? Also, if I order a book, and I’ve paid for it, it is still illegal for me to photocopy the music while I wait for mine to arrive. I personally don’t have any issues with photocopying for personal use, but thought I’d ask about the laws in the US?

  2. Ed Pearlman

    Your timing is great. I’ve been thinking for some time about a way to put lots of my sheet music on PDF. I do it now but it requires one sheet at a time and I don’t mind that when I need to crop and edit and add text, etc., but the fact is that I have many sheets and folders from past music groups and music camps and I’d love to have easier access to them. I’ll be looking into your suggestions, thanks!

  3. Ronnie Currey

    Great system. School Districts and large corporations do the same, and then shred the hard copies. I researched the HP Scanjet 8250 and the reviews were great. Amazon had used 8250’s for $65 in excellent condition. Thanks for the insight into “Clutter”!

  4. Brittany

    Hey gang, thanks for all the great feedback. I am glad that you are finding this info useful.

    Leah, this is the clearest description of United States copyright law and photocopying for classroom use that I could find. Hope this answers some of your questions:

    http://irt.austincc.edu/copyright/fairuse/photocopying.html

    Ronnie, I found my HP on eBay, and found a seller doing a “Buy It Now or Best Offer” deal. I offered him $50, and he accepted it. Geeks.com was the online retailer where I origianlly saw the HP, and they were selling them for $59.99 plus shipping. I wanted to buy on eBay because I received a $50 eBay gift certificate at Christmas.

    I had another comment in a separate email from a friend. He commented that he wouldn’t feel comfortable going on a gig with a PC. He would have to carry a paper backup in the car, so that defeated the whole purpose of doing this.

    I replied that I intended to use my laptop for teaching at first, and then migrate it slowly into gig use as I learned the system. For awhile I would stash my chart book in the car as a backup. I’m not worried about carrying backups while teaching because the studio where I work sells books, so I can go downstairs and borrow a copy if needed. My students should have their books anyway!

    Once I get comfortable teaching and gigging with the laptop, I will probably buy a tablet PC. Then I will bring the laptop along as my backup. This will allow me to go completely paperless.

    Sounds good in theory anyway…we will see what I find out in practical application.

    This first week, it has been great to carry my personal practice items to lessons without the bulk of 2 extra books and another binder. So to me, that’s already a success.

    Thanks!

  5. Michelle Payne

    Love this idea! I am going to have to try it. I have so much musicnotes.com sheets. It’s getting very messy in my office. About copyright, it is illegal except for educational use. But let me ask you this: have you ever actually heard of anyone enforcing this law? I didn’t think so.

  6. Cynthia Wunsch

    And now I remember why I deal only with classical music! For an extremely reasonable price, the whole repertoire comes already on CD in pdf format and includes permission to print as many copies as needed, without regard for copyright, since the works are in the public domain. So far I have access to over eight million pages of sheet music, more than I or my students will ever perform, and more becomes available every year. Even those rare works which I have jealously guarded through the decades are now available digitally.

    As far as laptops, special equipment, etc., that is not really necessary. With a little ingenuity, you can find perfectly suitable display devices for under $100, sometimes you can even get them used or remaindered for under $50.

  7. Tucson Bass Player

    Great work Brittany. You always bring something special to the table, or should I say stage. And it is your stage! Thanks

  8. Bracket

    Thank you Brittany. What a great article.

    I’ve found it interesting how computers seem to really be helping with the chart monster.

    I play the drums. For the longest time, I’ve just used sheets on a stand… but these days I’ve been experimenting with a laptop. I’ve found APARAE (www.aparae.com). It seems, at least for drummers, to do a good job of displaying a collection of charts that you can advance through as you play your gig.

  9. Brittany

    Hey Bracket. Thanks for sharing the link to APARAE. I definitely welcome input and links to additional resources.