Saturday, February 28, 2009

Piano Hero Trailer Enabled

I only just realized that I'd accidentally set the Piano Hero Trailer video as "private" and thus unviewable by pretty much everyone. It has now been let out of the garage and into the blogosphere, so take a look. There are some fumbled notes that drive me crazy every time I watch it, but I am proud of what happens at the end of the video.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Piano Hero Trailer

[UPDATE: Level Three video excerpt now posted.]

I'm not totally proud of my playing here, but we were basically sightreading from a very badly scanned score - at times the notes seemed to be less specific instructions than abstract suggestions about where to throw the fingers. It was exciting, if a bit less fluid than the previous week's Beethoven #1. It was also exciting when I somehow forgot to bring an oboe in just before the recap of the first movement - fortunately, Nathan did a great job of "treading water" while I regained consciousness and, although the return of the big tune wasn't quite arrived at via Mendelssohn's plan, it was a dramatic way to start a recap. I was just relieved that we were still going.

But, none of that is in the video above. The point of these little Piano Hero events is the thrill of the moment, and although I was surprised how much I enjoyed listening to the complete performance, I'd rather not have it preserved in the blogosphere.

You can read more about all this here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Piano Blogging and the Art of Impossibility

One of the fun things about this Piano Hero experiment has been remembering how satisfying musical performances can be even when they're not completely polished. I might (maybe) even make an argument (possibly) that the lack of polish can enhance a certain kind of enjoyment. For example, if our listeners know we're sightreading and playing on the edge, a noticeable clinker here or there can actually help heighten the tension in a way that makes the listening more exciting. Maybe. We actually had a rather minor complaint yesterday that we looked too at ease while we're playing. This particular listener wanted to see more visible stress - perhaps even hear some muttered curses.

Anyway, I've been reminded of my decision to start piano-blogging last Spring, the idea being that I'd just sit down and record without lots of practicing, editing, fussing, etc. I continue to wish more musicians did this kind of thing, because what better way is there to express one's feelings about a piece than to play it? I kind of stalled after working my way through a little "songs without singers" series, but I think it's time to let my fingers do the talking some more. And, as usual, I'm interested in playing music not originally intended for piano solo.

A continuing benefit of the Piano Hero experience is getting to hear familiar music in a new way. I loved reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, but what has stuck with me the most from that book are his discussions of musical imaging, the ways in which we can "hear" music without hearing it. That's a fascinating topic in its own right, what it means to think through a piece internally, but even more complex is the way in which internal musical imaging must play a role in what we actually hear. For example, internal musical imaging makes it possible to anticipate the return of a well-known tune or to recognize a tune in the first place. And, it makes it possible to hear the relatively neutral sound of a piano as a flute, oboe, string section...or, let's say, a solo violin.

I mentioned a few posts back that Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor is just about my favorite piece of music in the history of the world. I love the violin as a solo instrument, but it shouldn't surprise you to know that I'm also intrigued by the harpsichord versions of the violin concerti. Well, maybe not the harpsichord versions, but it's amazing how well the solo violin parts can work on the piano. I also mentioned that I hear the slow movement of this concerto as a sort of "Orpheus Taming the Furies" dialogue. True, the orchestra isn't as gruff as in the famous "Orpheus" movement of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, but there's a stubbornness in Bach's bass ritornello that the solo passages seem intent on melting. The final solo statement is a miracle of sweetness and simplicity, so perfect that there is no concluding ritornello. It's less a victory than it is a unification of opposing forces. Honestly, I can't really put into words what happens in this musical dialogue, so I figured I'd just play it.

There are many compromises at play here. First of all, all those long, suspended notes the violin sings can really only be imagined as sustaining that way in a piano version. Second of all, I didn't have an orchestra available when I slipped into the recital hall early this morning, so it's just a dialogue between my two hands, not a violin (or piano) vs. orchestra. I did my best to incorporate the orchestral violin parts, but I'm inconsistent about that. Third, I only had about 15 minutes, so I just sat and played, and when I had a couple of slips, I backtracked a little and then stitched things together later this afternoon. It's far from perfect. But, whatever. I really love the way it sounds this way, and in some respects the fragility of the piano sonority just adds to the impossibly beautiful writing. And I also like that this was just a quiet, pre-workday moment, alone at the piano, trying to tame a Steinway into doing something it could never really do. Here's to impossibilities.

(It's also now part of the MMmusic jukebox.)
Note that the keyboard version is a step lower than the violin version.

More reflections on Piano Hero: Level Two coming tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Two Years Down

Well, I'm exactly two years older than I was the day I started blogging. However, it's been a long day and I don't have time to breath life into the two posts I started over the weekend. So, in celebration of two years of musing, here are a few posts that I wish had gotten wider exposure from the last year. They're still there!

Tomorrow is Level 2 of Piano Hero. We'll be tackling Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, which has a lot of notes. (I might have to sneak in a little early morning practice.) I'll try to report back soon, but in the meantime, it was perhaps inevitable that I'd start a Piano Hero blog. Here it is. Happy MMmusing Day...well, what's left of it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Piano Hero: Level 1 Complete

First, a few milestones worth noting: This is my 300th post, I recently surpassed the 150,000 word mark, and I'll hit the 2-year mark next Tuesday. We're still stuck on 8 sonnets though...

In other news, I feel pretty safe in saying that the debut of Piano Hero yesterday was a big success. We had a really nice turnout of lunchtime listeners,  especially given that publicity consisted of a couple of emails sent out the day before and a few flyers taped around the music building. What was especially gratifying is that we had quite a few listeners from outside the music department who stopped by. Most important is that I sensed people really had a good time. I know I did.

I referred to the recital as an "experimental performance concept" in the previous post, although a program consisting entirely of Beethoven's first symphony is hardly avant-garde. What was new for me was performing for a good-sized audience in the kind of informal atmosphere where a meticulously rehearsed result isn't expected. In fact, though we'd had two hastily arranged run-thrus of this 4-hand arrangement, there wasn't really any possibility that everything would go perfectly, and if I'd thought there was, the fact that we didn't strike the first chord together put an end to that. Nor did we strike the second chord quite together, but it was gratifying to realize it wasn't a big deal. (Granted, if the entire performance had followed that pattern, it would've been painful, but we did get our cues more organized after that. All in all, I think the playing went remarkably smoothly. Only a few lingering regrets...)

So, I guess my first point is that I really enjoyed just having fun and not worrying so much about every little detail. Mind you, part of the fun was the sense of daring, knowing that things could fall apart if we didn't keep our concentration up, making split-second decisions about whether or not to play certain notes, taking time with a phrase here and there as a spontaneous response to the music. The truth is, I can get pretty tired of meticulously rehearsed performances - I don't really like planning out all the rubatos and dynamics in advance, and, maybe more to the point, I don't like the sense of being held accountable for every little thing that happens. In that respect, this was about as enjoyable a performance experience as I can imagine. That's not to say there's not an immense sort of satisfaction that comes from preparing a fully memorized program for recital (which still always involves a bit of daring after all). Still, I can rarely remember having so much fun on stage. I feel like I may have found my most natural element. I would definitely sit and do this 40 hours a week if someone paid me.

And that's an interesting tension here. Obviously, part of the point of a meticulously rehearsed performance is to sacrifice one's own experience of immediacy and spontaneity (to some degree) for the benefit of an audience. Jeremy Denk wrote about that tension beautifully here. So, while I may be having a thrill ride sightreading on the edge, the question is whether the audience gets anything out of that. The truth is that the packaging of the experience makes a big difference here. I think that because our audience was prepped to think of us as two videogamers trying to beat the score (ha ha), at least some of that excitement transferred to them.

Just as important was the sense that we weren't taking things too seriously. It was just an open-door afternoon of musicmaking, not meant to be a final statement about Beethoven. Beethoven's notes and sounds are wonderful, but as I wrote back in my first-ever blog post, "our reaction to a given musical performance isn't just about the music; it's not just about the notes on the page and it's not just about the sounds that result." It's about a shared experience and an awareness of the human side of producing those sounds, and at its best, this kind of program can help an audience identify more closely with the challenges the performers are facing.

As for the fun part, Beethoven's 1st is one of the most consistently happy pieces I can think of. All the movements are in major keys, and even the 'slow' movement is light and skipping. In fact, to help set the tone and in lieu of a printed program, I just scrawled out the movements on a big, whiteboard with titles like: I - Slow Intro, then Fast & Happy; II - Light, Skipping, and Happy; III - Fast, Humorous, and Happy; IV - Slow Intro, then Fast & Happy. I'm not saying there's nothing profound or no moments of pathos, though they are certainly fleeting, but it's a piece that seems to be all about spontaneity and fun. So, I think the fact that we were having fun was an important part of the event's success.

As for the light-hearted "packaging" of the event, I feel very positive about that, partly because I got so much good feedback about the little e-vite and poster. It could be tempting to bewail the fact that Beethoven should ever need packaging, but there's a reason that all the named piano sonatas get extra airtime. In fact, Kenneth Woods had a great post recently about how Brahms made a bad P.R. move by not calling his two "serenades" symphonies - thus relegating them to a second-class status in the public's eye that means they are rarely heard. I don't think it even reflects that badly on people that they respond to this sort of packaging. Let's face it - we make sense of a very complicated world by organizing things into containers. So, if it helps to package an event in a way that reminds people Beethoven's music can be spontaneous, informal, and appealing as a sort of spectator sport in which the possibility of failure makes it all the more worth watching, then why not? [In other words, we're moving Beethoven from the "very serious and imposing" container to the "X-treme Sports gamer dude" container.] We definitely take music too seriously too often, and the world notices that.

There's something else I really enjoy about this whole experiment - the spontaneity of the planning. Yesterday's event went together very quickly - it's an idea I'd been thinking about for a long time, but I didn't even schedule the hall until Monday after we'd had our first 30-minute read-thru. Looking ahead, it looks like we'll take a shot at Level 2 next Wednesday. Although the original idea had been to go straight to Beethoven 2, the fact that our orchestra is playing Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony next weekend makes that seem like the right choice, even if I'm not a huge fan of the piece. [In spite of the passionately compelling advocacy of Kenneth Woods and others, I still finding myself thinking the Octet, the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Violin Concerto are as perfect as perfect can be - but just about everything else Mendelssohn wrote leaves me not quite convinced. I'll be more than happy to be converted.] But anyway, I love the fact that our piano hero "concert season" didn't have to be set in stone months in advance. I understand why orchestras have to do that, but it's so nice to think we can just change on the fly. It's one of the beauties of musical life in a local setting, and I think the more localized our music-making becomes, the better for all.

A few more topics worth touching on. First of all, Beethoven symphonies sound really fantastic on the piano, in spite of the obvious limitations - this one particularly. The 4-hand repertoire is a strange world, but what's odd is that I've always been more attracted to 4-hand transcriptions of orchestral music than to original 4-hand works, with the notable exception of the Schubert Fantasy. I think it's that the piano functions wonderfully as a solo instrument, and the solo repertoire is so freakishly good that piano duets always strike me as superfluous. But, whereas 2-hand versions of orchestral rep tend to be either incredibly difficult or woefully inadequate, the 4-hand versions are quite playable and they have the great advantage that, assuming one knows the orchestral version, you get to imagine all these sonorities that aren't really happening. I'm not sure it's worth my time to learn the Liszt solo transcriptions, but the 4-hand Philharmonic model is a perfect balance of practicality and satisfacticality. (It's my 300th post - I can inventify words if I want to.) 

A non-music faculty colleague came up and asked me after yesterday's performances if the piano could really recreate, for example, the sound of a cello section playing that wonderful transitional idea in the first movement of Beethoven 1. As it happens, I first got to know this symphony as a cellist - it's the first symphony I ever played - so I know exactly what he means since the cello part means a great deal to me. The answer to his question becomes very complicated, because when we're playing I can't really say where the sounds we're making end and the sounds in my head begin. (One reason mistakes don't bother me - I've got a good little internal editor.) But that's true of all listening to some degree - and, really a subject too big for a post that has already gotten way too long. The bottom line is, there's a special thrill that comes from this half-real, half-imaginary metamorphosis into an orchestra.

[You know what, this is my 300th post, so I'm just going to keep on going, even if it's too long.]

Here's an interesting aesthetic question that arises from this experience, a question I think about a lot. How important are all those little details that professional musicians spend so much time obsessing about, and that students are taught to worry so much about? Details like playing articulations exactly as intended, voicing harmonies just so, playing dynamics just as written (or implied), etc. My point is not that we shouldn't care about such matters, but that spending so much time on them probably makes us care too much about them. I say this because, speaking as a well-trained musician and a seasoned listener, I found that the absence of a well-planned point-of-view on these matters was no obstacle at all to getting the spirit of the music. Nathan and I did not discuss much of anything in our rehearsals. We just sat down and played and stopped when we crashed. Yeah, there were pedaling issues that could have been more coordinated and balances that could have been more balanced. But, if I'm honest, I just didn't really care that much about them. I think we're both naturally good musicians, and I was happy to let the chips fall where they fell.

Lastly, and I regret burying this at the end of the post, an important aspect of the "packaging" was that we played from computer monitors. If you're interested in the tech side, basically I set up a normal 15-inch laptop in front of me and hooked up a 15-inch LCD monitor in "extended desktop" mode for Nathan to my left. We then had Acrobat Reader set in two-page mode, maximized, so that each page fell squarely on its own screen. Of course, I used the Airturn to turn pages for both of us (Nathan handling the damper pedal), and I had pre-edited the score (originally downloaded from here) in PDF Annotator, inserting repeats of pages so that we could take the repeats and yet always be turning forward.

I wanted to use the monitors partly just for the fun of it and to give the audience a unique videogaming visual (actually, the real dream is to project the score for them - give me time), but I think it also made for a more fluid performance. The turns are basically instantaneous, which is nice when you're turning for two, and it's so nice not to have to worry about turning back for repeats. You can view the marked-up score here. (Depending on the version of Acrobat Reader you have, you may need to insert a blank page at the beginning to get the right two pages to show at the same time.) It has some red marks to help navigate the repeats, although you won't find a single interpretive mark or fingering - Nathan didn't have a chance to mark up his part, so I've got my pride. I don't wanna seem like a wimp who's using secret codes to get by.

And that's Post #300.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Piano Hero

Below you'll find a write-up about an experimental performance concept I'm participating in tomorrow. I think the write-up pretty much tells the story, but I'll just add that the point here is to try to present a classical music event that makes it clear musicians actually have fun reading and learning music - even before the music is ready for prime time. I really like the idea of a recital that celebrates the joy of impromptu sightreading and not worrying about getting everything right. I also really do find significant similarities between sightreading and videogaming - it's basically all about split-second hand-eye coordination. It would be great to have gaming software that could score one's attempts at sightreading, but the music is its own reward. Hopefully.

This Wednesday, come see pianists Michael Monroe and Nathan Skinner take on Beethoven in a matchup of four hands against the great master’s first symphony.

It’s often said that 4-hand piano arrangements of orchestral works were the record players (iPods, for the kids out there) of the nineteenth century, as this was the only practical way to hear such music in the home. Although some details might get lost in the translation from colorful orchestra to black-and-white keyboard, these stripped-down transcriptions provide an enlightening, entertaining, and economical way to hear the classics.

It’s also a lot of fun for the pianists, and in that spirit, Michael and Nathan are planning not to practice too much. It’s often said (by Michael, at least) that sightreading at the piano is kind of like playing a video game. The notes come flying at you and you do the best you can not to get blown up. So, this is intended less as a polished performance than as a diverting way to pass the noontime hour on Wednesday. The doors will be open, and all are invited to wander in for as much or as little as you’d like.

Although the performance will be old-school in the “nineteenth century record player” sense, it will have a twenty-first century feel as Michael and Nathan read the music from computer monitors and turn the pages with a magical wireless pedal. (Why? Because they can.) So, it might really look like they’re up there playing a piano version of Guitar Hero with an 88-key controller. Feel free to cheer or boo as so moved.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, the first of the legendary Nine, is a delightfully high-spirited work in four movements lasting about 25-30 minutes (depending on how many times our heroes crash and burn). If all goes well, Symphony No.2 might follow next Wednesday.

It all takes places this Wednesday (2/18) at noon in Gordon College's Phillips Recital Hall.

Admission is free, and you’ll get your money back if you don’t have a good time.

~ ~ ~

Michael Monroe is an Assistant Professor of Music at Gordon, where he teaches piano and music history and helps to turn unsuspecting undergrads into opera singers. He blogs regularly about music at

Nathan Skinner is a 2007 Gordon grad now working as a coach in the Music Department. He’s also the organist at First Congregational Church of Hamilton and is frequently featured as an organist at major Gordon events. He can play really loud.

Too close for comfort...

I was scanning YouTube this morning looking for good examples of historically informed and not-so-historically informed performances. I'd already been having a great time listening (off-tube) to Leonard Bernstein's classic Messiah recording (the overture is just overwhelming, in every way, and exactly twice as long as my Boston Baroque version), and I thought maybe I could find some good footage of baroque trumpets in action with "The Trumpet Shall Sound." (I had a memorable experience shifting uncomfortably in my seat listening to Boston Baroque's troubled trumpeter in a live performance many years ago.) I did not expect to encounter this, however.

I don't think that's historically informed camera work, since history informs us that people run screaming from rooms when they see a closeup that frightening. (Nice trumpet playing though...)

UPDATE: Seriously, what's up with this guy? He never blinks. Did they edit the blinks out? You can see here and here other soloists from the same performance. They're also featured in scary close-ups - but, they also seem to be human . . . because they blink. The guy featured above looks down at his music a lot as the aria gets going, so he doesn't have superhuman memory, but there's something odd going on. I especially like at the end of the recit when he sings, "In a moment; In the twinkling of an eye." Except his eyes don't twinkle. They are always on. Is this what it means for the dead to be raised incorruptible? I'm not sure I want that. I enjoy blinking.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Great Piano Puzzler

I mentioned this past summer that I'd just discovered the fantastic Piano Puzzler podcasts from American Public Radio's Performance Today, a program which isn't available in the Boston area. I realize there must be many fans of Bruce Adolphe's piano puzzles out there since the feature has been around for 6-7 years, but I haven't found them discussed much (or at all) in the 'ol blogosphere, which is too bad. Almost all of Adolphe's creations are nice jumping off points for discussions about composers' styles - and, more importantly, they're lots of fun. In fact, I've recently found that my nine-year-old daughter loves listening to them, even though she often knows neither the tune that's being hidden nor the compositional style in which it's hidden. (She did catch "Greensleeves" submerged in a fairly tricky context, which made me very proud.)

It's difficult to tell from the various online Piano Puzzler archives just how many of these miniatures Adolphe has written, but clearly there are many dozens at least, maybe more than a hundred, so it's not meant as any slight to him to say that some work better than others. They are almost always clever on some level, even if the results sometimes come out oddly, but every now and then one runs across something special. The podcast dated February 11 (it may be a rebroadcast; it's hard to tell) is my favorite to date. I figured out the composer almost right away (for reasons described after the jump), but I'll admit I wasn't able to ID the tune on the two run-throughs before it was revealed. It is exceptionally well-hidden.

I have other thoughts about the pairing, but perhaps you should listen first and see how you do. It's also available on iTunes, and probably elsewhere.

Read more (with spoilers)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

All's well that turns out well

I feel like I've reached the end of Stage 1 of the digital music reading process, having successfully negotiated a full recital last night. Actually, I got to sit out a set for voice/guitar, and to be honest, it wasn't a program with a lot of heavy lifting for me, which is one reason I chose it for my Airturning long-form debut. Still, I can happily say that not only did everything work beautifully, but I really felt completely at ease with the whole process. There's a wonderful simplicity to having a single page glowing there in front of you, with no concerns about page-turners, or pages that won't stay open. I guess what I'm saying is that it all felt right - simple, economical (well, not that kind of economical), even stylish. Most people who see my setup comment first on how small the music is, which is an understandable reaction, but I never found that to be a concern, although I'd like to blame all missed notes on something other than my fingers.

It's true that I already have much more experience with this process than I did in my nerve-wracking debut, but perhaps what made the most difference was a fantastic little discovery that Hugh Sung posted about a couple of days ago. Hugh, of course, is the primary trailblazer I've been following in all of this, and one of the creators of the Airturn system. The Airturn is, in some ways, a very simple device (part of what makes it so appealing) that just enables a pedal to signal a "page down" or "page up" command wirelessly, but I've written about how an overly eager pedal jab can produce an unintended double turn. In retrospect, much of my pedaling anxiety had to do with that. Hugh's discovery is that Windows (Macs, too, apparently) has a little program called "Filter Keys" hidden away in Vista's "Ease of Access" control panel (known as "Accessibility" in XP). I simply set Filter Keys to ignore repeated key strokes less than 0.5 seconds apart, and that completely solved the problem. Very big news.

As mentioned, this wasn't a particularly difficult recital technically, but there were several pieces with turns that needed to happen in the middle of busy passagework - I still find myself looking down when I have the chance, but I'm realizing I don't really need to. My foot has pretty much figured out how to do a quick jab without distracting whatever else I'm doing.

Probably the biggest ongoing issue for me is to work through my "absent-minded professor" issues. For example, I was home on Friday and expected to do a good bit of practicing from the PC, but I'd left both my power cord and extra battery at school, something I realized only after pretty much draining the battery web-surfing. Friday, I was slated to play only one work in a class recital; I was chatting offstage with someone while waiting to go on when I realized I'd left the pedal upstairs in my office. I may need to get one of those armbands that quarterbacks wear with all the plays written on them. Mine would say things like: 1) bring pedal, 2) turn off sound, 3) turn on Filter Keys, etc. But, on the other hand, it's not like I never showed up backstage with the wrong music in hand. These issues go deeper than any technology can solve...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Adventures in Airturning

My big full recital debut with the Airturn is only one day away, but in the meantime, I thought this would be a good time to take stock of how the experiment is going. If you're just wandering in, basically I'm working towards using a Tablet PC as a music reader, thus replacing paper and page-turners. The key technologies are:
  1. The Tablet PC - although a laptop could be used as well, the tablet provides a lighter, more flexible and attractive option since its keyboard can be folded behind the screen to make what basically looks like a black binder. A regular laptop is awkward in portrait mode since the keyboard would be flipped out to the side - in landscape mode, a laptop wouldn't work on an upright piano. Also, Tablet PC technology makes it remarkably easy to mark up the scores with a virtual pen. (Here's what I'm driving.)

  2. PDF Annotator - software which reads PDF files and enables all kinds of general editing, re-paging, pasting, and, yes, annotating in a wide variety of colorful ways. There are, of course, other software options, including a newish program called Music Reader that isn't quite what I'm looking for right now.

  3. Airturn - a wireless transmitter, developed by the pioneering pianist Hugh Sung, which makes it easy to signal page turns by using a footswitch. I've settled on using a single footswitch that turns pages forwards, and am using buttons on the tablet to turn back if necessary. The availability of the Airturn is what finally got me off the bench and into the game. So far, it works just as advertised, with perhaps its best feature being that it involves no setup other than plugging one part into a USB port and connecting the other part to a pedal. I did make the mistake of just mindlessly going with the non-alkaline AA's that it shipped with when I was getting started. I had a couple of turns that didn't transmit in my first live performance - and discovered the next time I tried it that the batteries were shot, which means I'd probably been skating on very thin ice. I've now got two sets of rechargeables that I'll shuttle back and forth.

  4. and a wide variety of other online sources of music scores in PDF format. Possibly the best website in the history of the world.

  5. A Konica photocopier at work that makes it extremely easy to scan in just about anything and have it emailed directly to me as a PDF file - it's really fun to make photocopies and never worry about paper jams, bad toner, etc.
I've now used the system in three different informal recital formats for a total of six fairly brief performances. I've also been using it in rehearsal as much as possible. Discovering how easy it is to scan via the photocopier has really helped this process, since I'd spent my first week or so fiddling around with all sorts of scanners and photo-editing software in search of the perfect scan. The Konica does not deliver perfect scans, but you simply can't beat the speed, and the results are sufficiently readable without being so large in file size as to make for slow turns. So, I've been able to build a usable library fairly quickly.

Here are my observations so far on the basic advantages and disadvantages of this whole enterprise.


  1. I've been mentioning this just about every post, but Tablet PCs are really wonderful. I've found my tablet to be a really nice lecturing tool - not only can I use the pen to mark up PowerPoint slides as easily as if I'm writing on a whiteboard, but, better yet, I can display scores that I've scanned in and use the pen to mark them up as we discuss. I'm still learning how best to take advantage of all this, but it offers a lot of flexibility. I also have really enjoyed using the Tablet when teaching piano lessons - in fact, a couple of days ago I happened to have it with me while listening to a student performing a Schubert impromptu in recital. It may seem strange to say this, but it's much easier to write quickly, legibly, and quietly (the stylus just glides across the screen) this way, and all the markings show up easily because they're in color. And, of course, they can just as easily be removed.
  2. Colorful annotations. It's amazing how helpful it is to have various little reminders in red. They just jump off the page.
  3. The Airturn! It really does work just as advertised, although every now and then I end up turning two pages. Setting the keyboard delay rate to the slowest possible setting has helped, but not totally solved this - I still find that if I jab too quickly at the pedal, there's a chance the page will turn twice. [UPDATE: 2/14 Hugh posted a fix for this on his blog yesterday, and I can happily say that it completely solves the double turning problem. I'll write more about this later.] It's not a big deal to reach up and turn back, but I'm hoping to get more consistent with this. What's interesting is that the pages turn so quickly, I don't really even seen the double-turn taking place, so I only realize the mistake by recognizing that the wrong music is in front of me. I've actually thought about using colored markings in the upper corners that would alternate left and right so that I'd get a quick visual affirmation that only one page has turned. In fact, I think I'm gonna try that tomorrow...
  4. Not having to hold a book open. Today, during a vocal coaching, I had to switch from a virtual score to playing from a big, fat book that wouldn't stay open. It's so annoying to have to keep swatting at flopping pages.
  5. The coolness factor. Actually, this is a bit awkward since, as an accompanist by trade, one doesn't want to distract attention from the soloist. Still, it's fun to show off the technology.

  1. Cost, of course. In fact, I'm not even going to do the math here, but there's the PC, the rather expensive extra battery (I still need to invest in a backup power cord), the Airturn, the pedal, the batteries, the license for PDF Annotator, etc. (One reason I chose PDF Annotator, which is quite affordable, is that I already had a license for an earlier version that I'd been using as a lecture tool for years; the upgrade to the newer version wasn't that big a deal.)
  2. The hassle. I expect to get more used to all this, but there's a lot to think about, even in rehearsal settings, with getting the computer powered up, being sure it's charged, remembering to turn off the WiFi to save power, resetting the keyboard response rate, getting scores downloaded, scanned, opened. Obviously, a performance setting makes all of these considerations all the more important.
  3. Resolution. I chose a PC with a 12.1 inch screen, which is a good bit smaller than standard laptops. The advantage is that it's quite light, and I don't find reading from it to be a problem at all. In fact, because our recital hall generally has poor stage lighting, I'm thrilled to be playing from a self-illuminated score, but the bottom line is, I'm generally reading smaller notes that aren't as clear as they would be on paper. Yes, I know that Music Reader software enables viewing half-pages in roomy landscape mode, but see #4. Still, I really haven't found that the resolution thing bothers me - I certainly mind it less than playing in a poorly lit setting, and as mentioned above, the colored annotations jump off the page.
  4. The extra turns. Until a much larger screen size is practical, it just makes the most sense to view one page at a time in portrait mode, which means I'm having to turn much more often than in the standard two-page at a time mode. This is one reason why, for now, the half-page views in Music Reader don't appeal to me. That's just doubling the number of turns yet again. Hugh Sung is actively promoting this method now, but he's been pedal-turning for so long that it's probably less of a big deal to him than it is to me. (See #5.) Also, I just like seeing lots of music at a time, although that may be largely because it's just what I'm used to.
  5. Pedal fears. Finding the pedal at the right time is still not trivial for me, especially in performances. For now, I've just about stopped using the soft-pedal (which is a positive temporary development because I tend to use it way too much), and yet I still find myself distracted by my left foot. The truth is, I've already found I can almost always find the pedal in one quick motion, but that "almost" worries me.

Obviously, the most desirable improvement would be more screen real estate. Hugh Sung has recently been writing about his experiences with a PianoDisc piano that has a built-in widescreen monitor in the music rack. Now, I'm mystified by why anyone would want to experience something like this (especially the part at 0:40), but, yes, I would like to have a wide-screen monitor built into all of my pianos, please. (Actually, if you watch that video, I've got to admit that the little video pianos lessons look like a neat idea. And the Bugs Bunny clip at the end is cool.) In fact, I was sitting in my office yesterday, looking at the 19-inch LCD I bought for cheap on Black Friday and thinking, I could just prop that up on the piano right now. Unfortunately, it wouldn't work well as a music rack for the kind of old-fashioned paper scores my students tend to bring in.

However, I'm already plotting a performance with this monitor. In April, we'll be doing our annual opera scenes shows, which have me sitting and banging away for a couple of hours from scores that tend to have lots of page turns. I think it will be worth the trouble to drag the monitor over and give myself double-page views for these performances. Since I'll be off to the side of the stage, it shouldn't be too distracting for the audience, even with the necessary power cords. And, I'll be able to check email and sports scores while I play!

The larger point is that my current little Tablet PC is just a starting point. One reason I haven't committed to the Music Reader software is that puts all your files (PDFs or other) into its own proprietary format - for me, it's too early in the whole process to commit to something like that when PDF Annotator saves files in the pretty-much universal PDF format. If I'm on the road and my tablet is lost or crashes, I could still play my music (assuming it's saved somewhere else) from just about any computer I could get my hands on.

So, that's where things stand. I mention the drawbacks above not so much to say that this is a bad idea, but to concede that it's not just some magical new perfect world. Obviously, I feel the advantages already outweigh the disadvantages, and the technology will only get better.

Now, back to figuring out how best to set up two laptops for playing four-hand rep with one Airturn! I'm almost there...

P.S. Seriously, you should watch this Sync-a-Vision movie, and then consider the comedy potential when the PianoDisc piano is way out of tune. Imagine that guy singing Autumn Leaves with microtonal accompaniment. Now that I would watch. Also, imagine the possibilities of having the Sync-a-Vision. Practicing Hanon while watching TV! Creating interactive "piano hero" games that involve live piano performance with 3D graphics flying at you. In fact, this all needs its own post, but that will probably have to wait...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Adventures in Radio

I don't listen to music on the radio all that often, but yesterday as I was scanning the dial, I got pulled in twice, first by a transcription I really didn't like (but which intrigued me enough to listen to the end) and then by a transcription I loved (but didn't get to hear to its end). I'm generally a big fan of transcriptions, and not just of the kooky variety you see in the previous post. They so often provide a fresh perspective on the familiar.

So, what caught my ear first was the beginning of Saint-Saëns' pleasant, if not-so-interesting violin showpiece, Havanaise. I was trying to remember the title (Habanera? No. Pièce en forme de habanera? No, that's Ravel...Havanaise!) during the piano intro when I was surprised to hear a cellist swoop in with the solo rather than the expected fiddle. Within about two measures I was pretty sure it was a Yo-Yo Ma Production; he has a distinctive way of sliding around a little too purposively that seemed like a giveway, not to mention that the poor guy has clearly been bored with the standard cello rep for a long time. Somewhere I still have an old LP version of his take on some Paganini and Kreisler - really not good times.

And that's the thing. Although I studied the cello, married a cellist, and generally love the cello, I just don't think it works out very well in violin rep - maybe with the exception of the Franck sonata, but even that's still better on the violin. The violin simply sounds much more natural scampering around, especially up in the stratosphere. Some of Ma's takes on the Paganini caprices are really frightening sounding, and I say that with all due respect for his tremendous abilities. It's just not music that works on the cello, at least not once you've heard it on violin. And so it was with the Saint-Saens (who did manage to provide cellists with one of the more cellistically satisfying concerti) - the Havanaise should remain a violin piece, if it must be heard at all.

[I've just realized I've taken quite a few little shots at Ma on this blog, which is unfortunate because I really admire him, yet I find him to be a rather tragicomic figure: so good at being a great cellist, but clearly restless, wanting to reach out and be something more. Even the over-the-top manner in which he performs standard rep suggests he can't just be happy playing the cello well - he seems too intent on making us believe how great the music is, even though his playing does that quite well. Generally speaking, I simply haven't been able to get interested in any of his well meaning projects. The "Inspired by Bach" videos seem too contrived. Some of his jazz experiments are just odd-sounding, as I mentioned here. And, of course, he annoyed me no end by participating in Prairie Home Companion's Hymn to Obama. I know this all sounds petty coming from someone who hasn't achieved a fraction as much. Maybe I should just be grateful that my skills as a pianist are finite enough that I'll never be bored with the music on my shelf.]

But getting back to yesterday's radio, I was grateful I stayed with WGBH because next came a scintillating rendition of Beethoven's overture to The Creature of Prometheus in a performance by pianist Cyprien Katsaris. I actually only heard the first part before I had to park and walk to my office. At first I wasn't too disappointed that it had already ended by the time I got the radio back on because I'd already resolved to download it as soon as possible. Sadly, it's not available for download or for purchase except as a cruelly priced ($68.10) used CD. But, trust me, it was pure entertainment. [UPDATE: You can hear it - and much more - here. Thanks, Tulsa Gentleman.]

Anyway, I continue to believe the piano-as-orchestra genre is wildly underrated, and am in the midst of planning some informal noontime performances of the Beethoven symphonies in 4-hand arrangements. There's just something exhilarating about the over-the-topness of that sound. So, if you're keeping score, this pianist/cellist is a big fan of symphonic sounds on the piano, but not such a big fan of violin virtuosity via the cello.

My other recent adventure in radio
came Saturday morning on the drive to my daughter's orchestra rehearsal. I always try to be a good soldier (in what army, I'm not sure) and listen to WCRB's Kid's Classical Hour that airs at that time; it's generally painful on a variety of levels, but Daughter of MMmusing always likes hearing stories, and more than not (when Keith Lockhart isn't breaking out some bold classical word of the day like tempo) they just play one of those Classical Kids stories about wide-eyed youngsters developing spontaneous relationships with the great composers.

So this week we got Tchaikovsky Discovers America. Honestly, it wasn't so bad; there was a cute scene where various snippets from The Nutcracker are inspired by dessert talk (it really connected ideas with music), and there was a moment when an excerpt from The 1812 Overture was playing and I was reminded that, yes, even in that unfairly maligned bit of auditory cheesecake, there are melodies more beautiful than Haydn or Verdi ever imagined. But my favorite moment happened early on as the children usher Mr. T past some "truly American music." You can listen here since, fortuitously, this is one of the audio samples on iTunes. Aside from the painfully earnest dialogue, in which these imaginary 19th-century children of privilege are revealed to be wise beyond their years, we hear Swing Low, Sweet Chariot sung in the kind of polished, pristinely arranged tight harmonies that I'm sure one heard from railway men on every corner in ol' NYC.

Well, I think my snarky work is done here for the day.

Man, this would've been fun to do...

You know, I don't post enough links here, so let's fix that with the following amazingly fantastic video of what really was going on during the Inauguration bow-synching:

There's so much to enjoy, but I think what really makes it work is how the music goes silent when the video cuts to crowd scenes, a very effective structural device - which means that whoever was directing for NBC that day should get some credit for this composition. Of course, what really makes it work are Yo-Yo Ma's hyperexpressive facial expressions, the intensity of which really didn't make much sense with the John Williams piece we were all hearing - but now that we know what was actually going on, it all makes sense. [Tip to Kyle Gann.]

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The dog that ate my homework

Wow, I've been a bad blogger of late. Primary causes:

1) the purchase of the new Tablet PC has thrown me into a flurry of geeky projects as I juggle the various computers I own. I've never taken the initiative to sell old computers (we have quite a collection!), but I spend way too much time trying to devise new uses for them. For example, the new Tablet (my mobile/lecturing device of choice now) means I can use my school-issue laptop, in docked mode, as my primary desktop PC at work, which means the old Dell desktop I'd been keeping there came home with me. Well, I couldn't just let it sit in the basement, especially since it has a video capture card installed and we just started subscribing to cable TV (which, believe it or not, has not been a major reason for slow blogging). Sure, we could go out and get TIVO, now that our TV actually receives enough viewing options to make that desirable, but it's much more fun to turn the old Dell into a really bad, fourth-rate version of TIVO. So, I spent way too much time this weekend trying to get everything configured, with the added intent that this old computer would now be viewable on our bedroom TV. Imagine, waking up and turning on the TV to read this blog! The funny thing is that the old ATI video capture card and its included software have never worked quite right. I've tried getting something useful out of it several different times over the years and something always goes wrong. I've downloaded all the newest drivers and versions of software, etc, but it's still a computer trying to be two things (TIVO and a TV channel) it's really not designed to be. I could go on and on about all of this, but it would only get more boring and mystifying. Let's just say it's absorbed some of my free time.*

2) a recent Facebook binge. I wrote about Facebook back in October, but my usage has waned considerably since then, as I suppose it will again soon. But, for whatever reason, I've been on the 'book a lot lately. Still can't decide what I think, but I've passed the 100 friends barrier!

Anyway, to continue in the spirit of listing things (and, no, I will not be joining in that kooky Faceboook "25 Random Things About Me" meme that's mutating around) here are some fairly random things I've thought recently:

1) Tablet PCs are really, really cool. I can't believe they haven't caught on - I'm just waiting now for the inevitable Mac that uses tablet technology, not because I'd buy one, but because that's probably the moment when the technology will become cool.

2) I'm quite surprised by this, but I really like Windows Vista!

3) I did much better in my second live experience with the Airturn page-turning pedal. No jitters, no problems getting the turns to turn. I'm liking the whole experience more and more.

4) I will now list the pieces of music that I like better than Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor.

That's it! This is significant because I just realized I somehow failed to include it on my list of "Favorite Musical Works" from a couple of years back. Bad job by me. I've long said to anyone who asked that the Bach Double Violin Concerto is my favorite-ever piece of music, and I think it still is, but if it's #1, then The Bach A Minor is #1a. The current great joy in my life is that Daughter of MMmusing was recently assigned the latter. Last week, there was a night when I came home from school having vowed not to talk at all, since my ongoing laryngitis was getting to be ridiculous (two weeks or so of never knowing for sure if words would come out). DoMM was practicing the Bach and, after miming gestures of greeting to my wife and the other two children, I slipped onto the piano bench just as DoMM got to the first "solo" section of the concerto and proceeded to play through the whole first movement with her. It wasn't perfect from either of us, of course, but what a great way to greet someone you love.

Anyway, I need to write much more about this music. I used to think the slow movement was too ponderous in the orchestra part, but I've come to see it as a sort of "Orpheus taming the furies" moment, in the same way the slow movement of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto is associated with fury-taming. Let's save that for another day...

*P.S. A great example of how stupidly annoying this project has been. I finally get the computer's virtual TV to work right, more or less (except that you have to reset the soundcard every time it starts up if you want sound with your images). It can now pause live TV, record to hard disk, etc. So then, this morning I decided to program it to record something coming on later, and the scheduling routine crashes the program. That's right, it can receive a TV signal, record it to hard disk, let you pause and then restart while it continues recording in the background, but it can't accept simple date-and-time instructions for recording. I've now got a new virtual VCR - and I can't program it. (Ironically, I've never had any trouble programming VCR's - of course, the inability of most people to program a VCR is what made TIVO so attractive in the first place.)