Saturday, January 31, 2009

Instant Stage Fright

So, as promised, I went live last night with the Tablet PC as music reader. Here's my short summary: it was terrifying (but fine)! I can't quite explain why I got so nervous because I had things planned out pretty well, but I was actually shaking on stage for the first time in many years. It's not that I don't get ever nervous performing, but I've spent enough time at the piano to feel a basic security about being there and knowing what to expect.

And that's just the thing. I haven't used the pedal enough to "know" what's going to happen - or, more importantly, to "know" how to get myself out of a jam. Of course, I can blame myself for so impulsively deciding to try it out last night. I only had a chance for one run-through with the cellist ahead of time (our previous rehearsals had been of the paper variety) - then, just to up the ante, I decided post-rehearsal to switch from the double pedal (which provides an extra pedal for going back) to a single pedal I'd almost never practiced with. (I only own this pedal because I've been carrying around a store credit card for Daddy's Junky Music that I've never known what to do with until now.) The reasoning was as follows: if I accidentally double-clutched and went too far ahead, there's a button on the Tablet that I can just reach up and use to fix it - which isn't so different from reaching up to turn a paper page by hand. I was actually finding the larger double pedal to be confusing because my foot has not only to find it, but to be sure to hit the right part. With the single pedal, it's just easier to hit the bullseye.

And, in most instances, I did hit the bullseye. A couple of times, I hit the pedal (probably not quite correctly) but got no turn, so I had to hit it again. There was one panicked moment when I somehow thought I had gone too far - I'm honestly not sure what happened in retrospect, but I reached up with my left hand and found the right page quickly while my right hand noodled around, more or less in the correct key. Still, the most surprising thing about the whole experience was how edgy it made me - I wasn't concentrating well and played a couple of bizarrely wrong notes, mostly in very simple passages where I was obsessively peeking down at the floor to be sure the pedal hadn't flown off.

Honestly, as much as anything else, I think I just felt kind of self-conscious. I tried to be as low-profile as possible, carrying the single pedal onstage in my pocket and setting up discreetly while the cellist tuned. I don't think anyone in the Green Room even noticed. The tablet looks great on the music rack, and I carried it in with a black page on the screen, so it looked quite similar to a black music notebook. There is the little Airturn transmitter sticking out the top of the unit, though, and I later heard that several in the audience could see a reflection of the glowing music in the wall-sized glass window behind me. Anyway, whether or not people were noticing what I was doing, I had this weird sense of being noticed - I don't like to be noticed.

But, I'm glad I gave it a go and have the first performance behind me. I expect to become much more comfortable in the weeks ahead. In some ways, the trickiest thing is figuring out how to coordinate the new foot action. For example, I find it much easier to page-turn on the beat, and I'm still nervous about turning in the middle of busy passagework. Here's an example of one way that PDF Annotator helped me get around that. If you look at this page, you'll see that I pasted the top system from the next page to the bottom here so that I could turn on those nice empty measures. Eventually, I hope to be smooth enough with the turning that I won't feel the need to do this (or I could just trust my memory to get me through the notes and then turn), but this kind of thing works quite well and is very easy to do.

I'm hoping my first full-recital experience with the Airturn will be on Valentine's Day (sorry, Mr. K). I'm glad it won't be a Friday the 13th.

Friday, January 30, 2009

As the Page Turns...

Well, I've decided to go for it tonight. I originally said I'd wait a few weeks before trying out the wireless page-turning system, but then I realized I have a perfect opportunity this evening. It's a not too formal recital, and I'm only accompanying one piece: the Saint-Saens cello concerto. We're officially playing the first movement, but since that doesn't really end (it tapers off meekly into the second movement), we're doing one of these mashups where we make a couple of cuts into the final movement, ending with the "big finish" coda.

The stitched-together piece works well because it begs for the kind of cut-and-paste job that I can easily do in PDF Annotator - it also works well because I've played the music many times, so my fingers know my way around the notes well enough if I get distracted by the newness of the page-pedal, etc. (It's also good that I know this music because the free online scan that I found is really of low quality - but, as I mentioned last post, this really doesn't bother me much.) So, I spent more time than I should have this afternoon doing some virtual cutting and pasting so that all the page-turns are easily manageable.

One thing I'm coming to appreciate more and more is the value of annotating in color. I often find that the trick to fixing a passage I keep missing is just to write in a crucial fingering or two and maybe a reminder about some accidental. These really pop off the page in red! It's also useful in those places where the poorly scanned image makes some note important detail hard to read.

I'll report back tomorrow on how things went...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Voiceless Lecturing

In our last episode, we explored the idea of wireless page-turning. This morning, I got to explore a yet braver new world: voice-less lecturing. No, I don't mean that creepy University of Phoenix-style distance learning thing. I mean standing up in front of a group of students and teaching - without talking. Actually, the students would probably prefer that I'd done no talking because, during the passing moments when I managed to phonate, it wasn't pretty. As I wrote on Facebook earlier this morning, finding my voice was like trying to dial in some distant radio station. For a second it would be there, and then...nothing. The only reliable register was a Chipmunk-like falsetto. 

I knew the voice was in bad shape when I woke up this morning, but I didn't feel that awful otherwise (like I did a few days ago), and it's a real pain to miss a class that only meets twice a week. And, of course, I knew the students would be devastated to have class cancelled, especially since we were set to open with a quiz. Why, they'd already missed a full day of classes yesterday with a snow day. No, I had to find a way. So, I set sail for work, first putting the chords to the test at Dunkin Donuts. (We're going to ignore for now the fact that I recently said I'd given up my Dunkin addiction.) I smiled and tried to place my order. Nothing. Frighteningly, the woman knew me well enough to say, "Medium black coffee?" to which I silently assented, deciding it wasn't worth the trouble to figure out how to mime "decaf." Somehow, she intuited the rest of my order as well, but none of this bode well for a 100-minute class. As the old saying goes, it's easier to gesture for a bagel than it is to gesture about early Baroque style.

The quiz was a good way to get started, of course, since I didn't really have to say much. I seriously thought about just ending things right there, but I had a guest student coming in to sing some Monteverdi and Cavalli for us - at the end of class, naturally. I made a few feeble attempts to get something going lecture-wise, but I pretty quickly had to audible to an opera DVD. (Cool - I'd audibled because I was inaudible.) In retrospect, I just wish I'd spent a little more time planning for this. I was playing the DVD from my laptop, so I slowly improvised a system whereby I had Notepad open off to the side (with the video not in full-screen mode) and I started typing commentary as we went along. It was kind of like watching L'incoronazione di Poppea with the Mystery Science Theater guys - except not nearly as funny, and only marginally more educational.

I've always found it difficult to type in front of people, but I slowly got into a groove, even tossing off a cheap one-liner about how Ottone's countertenorism probably explained why Poppea had left him for Nerone, who in this video was being sung by a tenor. (As it happens, Nerone originally would have been sung by a castrato, but why let that get in the way of a bad joke?) It was actually kind of fun - in some ways better than me talking over the singing. Since I was using my Tablet PC, I also tried scribbling notes for the class, whiteboard style, but I quickly realized I type much faster (and MUCH more legibly) than I write. (At one point, I even tried writing whiteboard-style on the whiteboard, but that's so pre-millennial.)

Unfortunately, while it seemed kind of cool to type during the movie, it just felt stupid to "lecture" that way during the actual, you know, teaching part of the class. So, I stumbled back and forth between various registers, typed on Notepad, scribbled on the virtual whiteboard, and tried desperately to get the students to talk. This, actually, is turning out to be a fantastic class, but I think they were too traumatized by the whole experience to really get good discussion flowing, and I don't blame them. They were genuinely sympathetic and seemed sincerely to appreciate my pitiable efforts, but they also looked a little bit frightened, especially since the only truly dependable mode of communication I had was the Chipmunk. 

Well, it's a day I won't soon forget - and someday I'll even be able to talk about it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Wireless Page Turning Thing

I mentioned last post that I'm transitioning into the world of virtual sheet music. It's too soon to say whether this is a wise or insane decision - obviously, it could be both - but here's some basic background on what I'm trying to do.

There are two main reasons why I've started on this journey:
1) I'm very finicky about page-turns; even in a piece I know quite well, I find it can distract my performing mindset when I don't see what I want to see or, worse, when I'm preoccupied with concerns about when a page is going to be turned. Although I rarely blame the turner, I'm rarely completely comfortable depending on a turner. There is much that is mysterious to me about how my eyes turn bunches of dots and lines into notes for my fingers, but when the visual connection with the music gets lost, even for a second, I get distracted. Here's a good example. Let's say I'm playing a piece in D Major - say, a piece I know really well. Now, suppose I'm using another book to hold the pages open and the key signatures get covered up. I may be 100% certain that there are two sharps in play, but if I don't see them, it drives me crazy and I won't be able to concentrate until I can see those sharps. I suppose this means that my eyes are trained to constantly scan for that kind of information. I read music very fluently, but the drawback is that the absence of information sets off all sorts of mental alarms and this is not good for good music-making. I tend to want pages turned at a very precise moment that varies from page to page, so it never works to just say, "one measure early." This means I'm a nodder, which means I often expend too much energy trying to signal the turner at just the right time. In one memorable situation, while leading an opera scene from the piano, my nod intended for the turner ended up bringing a singer in early. I could go on and on about reason #1...

2) I'm a techy geek, and I like excuses to buy new toys.
Anyway, I wrote almost two years ago about my discovery that Hugh Sung, accompanist extraordinaire for the Curtis Institute, reads all his music from a PC - specifically, a tablet PC. There are others who do this as well, most notably Christopher O'Riley of the From the Top show, but Hugh has written at great length about his experiences, techniques, equipment, etc. Always it had seemed to me that the page-turning issue was the biggest obstacle - how to signal the page to turn without reaching up to the computer. Hugh has experimented with a lot of pedal options, but then he suddenly announced last month that he'd helped develop a new wireless pedaling system called the Airturn. As I wrote back in December, I could see that I was about to make the jump.

Now just to back up a second, there are some concerns I've always had. Chief among them is that, unless one has a laptop or tablet PC with a very large screen, one is probably going to be seeing only a page at a time - or, in a new kind of setup Hugh is advocating, just half a page at a time. This is obviously inferior to the old-fashioned book technology in which two pages are visible at a time. So, even if page-turns get easier with the pedal, they also become twice as frequent. I play a lot of vocal recitals, and it's not unusual to find 2-page songs which require no turning at all - now, a turn is required. In the not-too-distant future, I imagine that large, light screens will become more affordable and then my dream of always seeing two pages at once would be a reality. The great thing about that scenario is that pages could be set to slide over one at a time from right to left, so that turns could happen at any point once you get to the right page. This would introduce wonderful flexibility and mean you could always see far ahead in the music. (Here's some software that makes that kind of turning easy; I've used the trial version, although you've gotta be a little nervous about a product which proudly sports the blurb "You are very close to having a great product!" on its front page.)

But, back to the non-fantasy world of 2009 and my budget. I decided I wanted to try the light, low-profile Tablet PC option, so I scoured eBay and Craig's List and finally found an offer I couldn't refuse on a brand new Thinkpad tablet. It has a 12.1-inch screen - this is the size Hugh played on for years, but it's significantly smaller than the typical 14-15 inch screen of standard laptops. (By the way, my "backup" music reader for now is my laptop, which I would just fold out flat across the rack, with the keyboard sitting there looking stupid.) Fortunately, smallish notation doesn't really bother me. (Ironically, it drives me crazy if I literally can't see something because it's covered or the page has turned too late, but I don't mind so much if I can hardly see because the notes are so small. At least I know what I'm getting.) The truth is, once we get to a performance, I'm really only partially reading anyway.

[One funny note here: If you look at the first video tutorial on this page, you'll see Hugh playing (after the intro credits) the opening of the Fauré A Major Violin Sonata, but here's the thing: He never looks at the music. Of course, I'm sure he's played the piece dozens and dozens of times and, if he's anything like me, he's probably practiced that scary opening page hundreds of times. I seriously doubt I ever look up when I'm starting that sonata, but it's an amusing choice as an advert for a music reader!]

The other concerns about this brave new world are all pretty obvious. What if the battery (in the laptop or the pedals!) runs out? What if the computer crashes? What if the computer falls off the piano rack? What if I leave a pedal, or a power cord at home? What if I suddenly can't remember how to play the piano? Oh wait...that's just an everyday worry. Well, I'll let you know how it's going as we go along. For now, I've been scanning music in and I've done a couple of rehearsals with the Airturn. By the way, as for the scanning, the point is not to collect music illegally. I'm scanning in music that I already own, much as I used to photocopy scores to put them in easy-to-manage binders. Still working on the perfect scanning routine, but I'm getting there. I'm already loving the ease with which one can mark up scores in tablet mode.

One more thing about the Tablet PC. Not only is it the best sofa-sitting web surfer I've ever had (so light and keyboard-free), it turns out to be a very cool eBook reader. Last month I mentioned that I'd become an early adopter of the Sony Reader. I still have mixed feelings about that, partly because I bought the model that doesn't allow text searches or note-taking, but I can read all my eBook purchases in full-screen book mode on the tablet. Best of all, it's extremely easy to insert handwritten notes right into the text so, for example, I can now mark up my e-copy of The Rest is Noise for when I use it in a class again next fall. And all the notations can be accessed from a single list. The Tablet even recognizes my mysterious handwriting. I just wish the Sony software allowed for more varieties of fonts and screen appearances. As I've mentioned, I have no problem reading off computer screens, but there's something awfully harsh about the clunky black font on white look. It's almost as if they don't want you to know a tablet PC might be a better reader than the Reader.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

...and we're back

Now that's what I call a hiatus! As of yesterday, it's been four weeks since my last post. I'd intended to take a few weeks off, partly for travel reasons and also simply to take a break, but getting started back is always the hardest part, so I've kept putting it off. Ironically, one thing that's held me back is the feeling that I needed to restart with some fantastically engaging post, but it now occurs to me that I've been gone so long, there might not be much of an audience left to enjoy a fantastic post; so my only goal here is to get things going again. If this ends up being a mediocre, self-obsessed blog entry about blogging, so be it. I do feel good that The Violin has remained at the top of the blog; this little gem of a film has now been viewed more than 100 times. I don't know how many people have actually made it through all 20-something minutes, but hopefully it's won a few new fans.

We've been back in school for more than a week, but I'm still transitioning myself back into "thoughtful academic" mode. The day after my most recent post, we set off on a fairly lengthy road trip to Georgia and back - three children in a van for many days. I learned that it's possible to have three separate audio streams going on at once and not go crazy. For example, there was a moment when my daughters were watching "High School Musical" in the back seat, my toddler son was watching Caillou in the seat behind us, and we were listening to Anonymous 4 in the front seat. Although I could hear all three sources (especially since Caillou's DVD player was right on the other side of my headrest), it was amazing to realize how well the brain can filter out what's not wanted. Well, most of the time - that Caillou can be pretty whiny. Still, I can happily say I wouldn't recognize anything from "High School Musical," and even happier to add that my nine-year old ended up not being that enamored of it. (I'd bought it as a road treat for a girl who was devastated at having to leave her flock of Southern cousins behind.) The world of portable DVD players has certainly made this kind of travel more bearable.

Upon our return to Massachusetts, I went into one of my entirely predictable too-much-time-on-my-hands buying sprees. Yes, I had just gotten some wonderful Christmas presents (including my beloved new Keurig single-cup coffee brewer, which has, so far at least, broken my daily Dunkin Donuts habit), but nothing rouses my need to buy like not being busy. (It's a good thing I have a job to keep me busy or I'd be broke.) Most alarming of all was the discovery of a certain Craig's List. Well, I had known of it, but now I really know way too much. First, because we've been doing some major house reorganizing, I suddenly found myself carting a new-to-us loveseat down three frightful flights of South Boston stairs, the last flight being a steep set of outdoor steps which hadn't been de-iced from one of our many, many winter storms.

Even more exciting, a few days later, I found myself at Cambridge's famous Toscanini's handing over an envelope full of cash in exchange for a brand new Tablet PC. Yes, I've finally taken the plunge into Hugh Sung's crazy world of hands-free page-turning. Although Hugh is now advocating a method of playing from a more traditional laptop, I really like the idea of a light, portable, tablet approach, so I took a chance on that probably risky Craig's List deal (figuring that the Toscanini locale was good musical omen), and then ordered Hugh's Airturn wireless pedal system. The pedal system works great and is remarkably simple to use. Of course, I completely whiffed on my first two turns in my very first rehearsal experience with the Airturn, but I quickly got the hang of it. (One problem I face is that I have a bit of a soft-pedal addiction that means my left foot likes to hang out there; thus, shifting over to the page-turning pedal is a little more complicated. Honestly, I'm hoping this helps me detox a bit from my over-reliance on the soft pedal.)

I did find it ironic that, just a couple of days after I got started, Hugh posted a series of nightmare scenarios for the digital page turner, but I'm enough of a worrier that I'd already anticipated most of his cautionary tales. I've already invested in a back-up battery, and am working out other back-up strategies before I even think about hitting the live stage this way. I'll probably spend at least a few weeks getting used to the whole process in rehearsals. I'm also still working out the best strategies for scanning music into the computer. I've already got tons of downloaded PDFs in my collection (mostly from the unbelievably wonderful, but that's just a small start.

However it all works out, I have to say that I love my Tablet PC. I'm really surprised this technology hasn't taken off more. Lecturing from this machine is a dream; I can mark up projected scores so easily that I've now begun scanning in all the selections from our music history anthology. I'm still regretting a missed chance from last weekend. I went to a recording session for a chorus I accompany - since they were recording all a cappella rep, I was just there to listen and help guide the session, so I hadn't bothered to scan in the music. However, I realized halfway through that if I'd taken the time to scan the music in, I could've done color-coded markups of each take directly onto the scores. That would have been sooo cool - infinitely better than my improvised shorthand system of page numbers, measure numbers, etc. that even I couldn't decipher.

Anyway, there's much more to say about all this, but my daughter's morning orchestra rehearsal is ending now, and so must this post. Good to be back. I promise my next post will be less than four weeks away!