Paper trail

19th November 2022 | Musings | 7 comments

Last week a friend was showing me how she can call up musical scores on various electronic devices, linking the devices so that she can use whichever best suits her needs at the time. She even had the option of writing in fingerings and expression marks with an electronic pencil; any changes she made would immediately show up across all her devices.

She also showed me the compact Bluetooth pedal she uses at the piano to turn the pages of an electronic score. The pedal had two ‘buttons’, one to turn the page forward and the other to turn it back.

She was enthusiastic about these possibilities. ‘Honestly, I would never want to go back to paper copies’, she said.

Later that day I stood looking at the shelves of (paper) music scores I’ve collected over many years, dating right back to the first little albums I had as a beginner at the age of seven. To me, this library sums up all my different learning phases and performing experiences. Many of the scores contain my pencilled remarks put in during rehearsals. As the years went by, and I found myself playing with different chamber music partners, I occasionally put in little notes of who it was who wanted more time here, or an acceleration there. So the music has sentimental value as well. Tucked inside the pages I sometimes find old concert programmes and other souvenirs. Sometimes I find faxes I received when on tour. Remember faxes?

It’s true that I have spent a ridiculous amount of time lugging around heavy volumes of music (sometimes hardback). When flying somewhere for a concert, I always make sure to have all my music with me on the plane, not in my suitcase in the hold. At least if my luggage goes astray, I can still play the concert. Thus I have dragged a separate bag of music, sometimes weighing several kilos, all over the place with me. A laptop and a Bluetooth pedal would certainly be an elegant upgrade.

But even if I were technologically confident, could I imagine abandoning my books of music? I don’t think so. A laptop would be lighter, but I would probably just be swapping one set of anxieties with another.


  1. Mike

    While not a performer, I have lugged decades of collected piano scores as I’ve moved around the world. In recent decades I’ve scanned it all to PDFs and now keep it available in cloud storage like OneDrive and DropBox, plus backups elsewhere. Because those services now extract all the scanned text and index it automatically, I now find all the little pieces in collections that I may have overlooked. Like having my own little IMSLP, I can search for a composer or work and instantly have a listing of all the matches.

    The option that gives me is to summon up any of the scores on *any* device (including my large screen phone) – or on occasion when I get a middle-of-the-night call from a performing friend who has lost their score in travel, I can zap them a copy instantly.

    I do keep many of the paper scores that have sentimental value, but the rest can be left in compact storage.

    PS A copy of “The Piano” just arrived and I’m looking forward to digging into it!

    • Susan Tomes

      Mike, your example is admirable! (All the same, I blanched on reading the words, ‘over the decades I have scanned it all to PDFs’). Maybe I should keep your address on hand in case I need you to zap me some scores someday…

  2. Eric

    I can fully relate to the value of paper copies, having kept a fairly detailed diary since 1976 – essentially my adult life.
    A lockdown project was to trawl through them, logging salient items in a spreadsheet to provide a searchable ‘When did we …?”. Over 2000 entries.
    That process yielded some delightful outcomes, such as realising the ruby wedding of our best man was only a month or so away, which re-established in-person contact with them.
    If our house were to catch fire, I will grab the box of diaries!

  3. Mary Cohen

    I feel that there is room for paper copies and for digital ones in my life! They fulfil quite different functions. However efficient it is to have digital copies, it’s the all-important smell and feel of paper, the slight dusting of graphite on fingertip, and the recollections of fellow players, teachers, pupils, and friends that paper copies convey. My student scores bring people and settings to life. That’s priceless. But it is useful to be able to rush to the computer and print out yet another cello part for a lovely, keen pupil that will absolutely have lost his (again) since last week…

    • Susan Tomes

      Yes, Mary, you are another good example in being so comfortable with technology as well as a library of ‘oldfashioned’ paper scores.

  4. Jen

    I think there is probably a good reason for taking a blended approach to this. Page turning nightmares could be a thing of the past with digital, but now I work in healthcare where almost everything has gone digital it is extremely unfunny when the technology goes down. I have done three clinics in the last month when we had no access to clinical notes- and therefore no access to anything not even knowing who was booked into the surgery or when or for what let alone past medical history, medication or any other relevant information. Once upon a time we had paper notes as backup so at least you could check you had the right person.
    I have stacks of music I from both my own learning of various instruments, but also ten years of teaching that I probably won’t use again ( but still want to hang on to!). I am still grappling with awkward page turns as I accompany school choirs on the piano, but as a harpist already using my feet already quite a lot I’m not sure how easy a blue tooth pedal would be…..

  5. James

    I’ve recently moved house. It’s been a lot of fun organising my sheet music collection and I’ve been amazed at how many scores I can remember purchasing, and where (I wish I remembered the music so easily). Mozart’s variations – that was Madrid in 2014 on my way to the Prado Museum. Philip Keveren’s wonderful arrangements of Carpenters hits? That was on a particularly rainy and cold day in Exeter… and so on.
    I admire people who want to do everything digitally, but I will not be joining them.


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