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...

1 comment:

Christie said...

"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."

OR, you could PRINT the pdf files and play from actual paper music. But that would be so 20th-century.