By Nicholas Phillips
In the last decade, the world has certainly changed for musicians. With the arrival of the Apple iPad and other tablets, apps for reading PDFs of sheet music, and Bluetooth pedals that permit hands-free page turning, pianists no longer have to carry around heavy stacks of music books, or overstuffed binders full of photocopied music they’re preparing for a myriad of collaborative recitals. They don’t have to beg and cajole other pianists to turn pages for them—which no one likes to do anyway—then worry that, at any critical moment, human error will derail a performance with a page turned too late or too early.
Of course, the traditional approaches still work, and will continue to work for those who are more comfortable with them. But I write this review from the firsthand experience of a classical pianist who, since 2012, has been performing using a combination of iPad apps and Bluetooth pedals in solo, concerto, and chamber music settings. I highly recommend it. Are we transferring anxiety about human error to fears of technology that doesn’t function properly? To a degree, yes. But I believe that the future is bright and less anxious. For this article, I reviewed five models of Bluetooth page-turning devices from three different companies. All were tested while paired with my iPad Pro (iOS 13.3.1) using the app forScore (see sidebar, “Tips for Successful Use”).
The iRig BlueTurn ($69.99) is the least expensive model tested. It’s lightweight, with a small footprint, and its design—a small, rectangular box with two buttons on top—is simple and functional. The buttons have large Up and Down arrows, and are backlit with a bright blue light. The Bluetooth pairing is quick and easy, and the device is powered by two AAA batteries (included). The BlueTurn works well, and its buttons are fairly easy to find with the foot without having to look down. However, the buttons were the tallest of any of the models tested, and that extra bit is noticeable when lifting one’s foot up and over from its resting position near the una corda pedal when seated at an acoustic piano. Also, the floor grip on the BlueTurn’s underside is not great for smooth surfaces—it slid around easily. The best use for this pedal, in my opinion, is for a keyboardist in a band, playing in a dark club while standing, and thus able to find and press the buttons from a higher position.
I tested two pedals by PageFlip: the Firefly ($109.95) and Butterfly ($89.95). The two models are very similar in design, each with a thick, tall back portion housing all buttons and two AA batteries (not included), this fanning forward to two pedals that slope down toward the floor. The Firefly has several features the Butterfly lacks: five programmable pedal modes, auxiliary outlets for additional pedals, pedal backlighting, and a USB port and cable (included) for wired power, to save on battery life. The only feature I believe would be useful is the backlighting, which provides a small, unobtrusive, horizontal line of light at the bottom of the pedal, and can be turned off if desired. Apart from this, I assume that most pianists will want and need only the basic previous-/next-page functions. The additional programmable features, most of which relate to hands-free use with other programs (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.), are obviously for a different consumer niche, and in my opinion aren’t worth the modest extra cost for pianists. I should note that the left (previous-page) pedal of my Firefly review sample did not work in any of the settings I tried. I expect that this will work on other units—had this been a purchase, I’d have definitely requested a warranty replacement. (Experience dictates that one does occasionally need the previous-page function.)
For my money, the Butterfly is the better choice. Its pedals are a bit wider than the Firefly’s because no space needs to be sacrificed at the top of the assembly for the programmable buttons, so my foot had more room to maneuver. Also, while both models are claimed to be silent in operation, I heard a faint click each time I released the Firefly’s left pedal—the Butterfly made no noise at all. The one drawback for me is the reliance on AA batteries during a performance, but this is a pedal I would definitely use.
AirTurn makes a wide variety of Bluetooth products for musicians, but the two models most suited to a performing pianist’s needs are the PEDPro ($79.00) and the DUO 200 ($99.00). Both offer a rechargeable battery (via the included USB cable) that provides 150 hours of use per charge, and a charging status light. Two functions that are more user-friendly than on older AirTurn models are the power button, and a toggle that lets the user easily access the keyboard of a paired tablet—something technically possible before, but neither easy nor intuitive to do.
I desperately wanted to like the AirTurn PEDPro. Of all the models I reviewed, its sleek design is the most visually attractive: small, thin, and lightweight, with raised zones on each pedal that engage the switch mechanism. Unfortunately, the pedals’ responsiveness was poor—I could feel the raised zones, but wasn’t able to sense the switch process to know if or when it had triggered a page turn. The only way I could get pages to turn was by literally leaving my foot on the pedal and pressing down hard in just the right spot—and even then, it didn’t always work, even after I’d tried many combinations of footwear and flooring. In the end, I can’t recommend this model to performing pianists who need a pedal they can rely on without worry.
However, I highly recommend the AirTurn DUO 200. I appreciate that its pedals are flat and parallel to the ground (as opposed to the PageFlip’s tapered pedals)—my foot can more easily and consistently find and activate it. As well, of all the models reviewed, the response time of the DUO 200’s pedals was the fastest and most natural, and it proved best at staying in one place on the floor. The middle part can be detached and used as a handheld device for presentations, etc.—a nice feature. I wish that the blinking blue light were not on the top of the assembly, or could be turned off, as I found it distracting. Were I to use this pedal in recital, I’d likely cover that light with a small piece of black electrical tape. Overall, however, I found the AirTurn DUO 200 very well made, reliable, and user-friendly.
Tips for Successful Use
If you’re considering making the switch to a Bluetooth pedal and tablet, here are a few tips for success:
I highly recommend using the forScore app. You can organize your music with Setlists, easily search by title or composer, and import PDFs directly into the app. I always use the Crop tool to get rid of the white border around each page, which makes the music even easier to read. If a page is slightly askew, you can rotate it left or right—when you use this feature, a grid appears to help you center the page. Marking up scores can be done with your finger, but greater clarity is achieved with the use of an Apple Pencil. There’s even a metronome with audible and/or visible beats.
There are three options in forScore for turning pages: Curl whips the music up from the bottom right, as one would do if physically turning, but the first measures of the next page are the last to be revealed, making continuity of reading more difficult. Slide advances the next page as if sliding it over from the right, which works well enough. By far the fastest, and my preferred choice, is Stack—the current page disappears rapidly, instantly and cleanly revealing the next.
For a piece with repeats, forScore makes rearranging the pages incredibly easy: Just copy the repeated pages, then arrange all pages in sequence—repeats and all. Then you need use only the next-page pedal, which, anyway, is closer to your foot.
If you separate your iPad and pedal, the pedal eventually goes to sleep. So keep them close to each other before your performance, and before launching into your first notes, always do a quick check with your foot to ensure that everything’s working properly.
Lastly, for recitals, set your iPad’s auto-lock feature to Never, and turn off WiFi (and cellular data, if your tablet has it) to avoid distracting notifications—or an incredibly awkward incoming FaceTime call!
Described by the New York Times as a “talented and entrepreneurial pianist” and an “able and persuasive advocate” of new music, Nicholas Phillips is an active recording artist and champion of living composers. He holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance from the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music, and currently is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. Phillips is a Yamaha Artist, and can be reached through his website, www.nicholasphillips.net.