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.

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