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Turning the Page on the Era of Sheet Music

0 Zachary Preucil

It was the finale of the Illinois Music Educators Association‘s 2007 All-District Orchestra concert. I, a naive seventeen-year-old at the time, had experienced the good fortune of being placed assistant principal, and was immensely enjoying the program, leading the section in selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” and Howard Hanson’s little-known “Merry Mount Suite.” Now, the pinnacle of the afternoon was upon us: Wagner’s overture to “Die Meistersinger.” Everything was going smoothly at first-the violins had even managed to nail that infamously difficult lick before the brass fanfare-and I was just thinking to myself how successful things had gone when it was suddenly time to turn the page, a duty that fell upon me as an inside player. I grasped the worn corner of the xerox copy and gave it my customary page-turning flick, but to my dismay it stubbornly turned right back over again. Somewhat anxious (and hoping the conductor hadn’t noticed), I made a second attempt, only to end up with the same result. It was about this time that I realized the cause of my troubles; the principal (whose music we were using) had practically glued the pages together with scotch tape, and with the part perched precariously atop our dangerously unsteady wire stand, turning pages had become a sisyphian task. Luckily, the principal (who, unlike myself, was rather amused at our predicament) knew the music by memory, but the fact remained that we were hopelessly stuck on page one when we should have been on page three. My heart sunk as I tried to remember the notes of the prominent cello melody. How could I ever salvage this situation, with my music, music stand, and dignity still in tact??


This memory came to mind last week when I learned of a fascinating development in the orchestra world: the Brussels Philharmonic’s decision to replace its musicians’ stands and parts with Samsung tablets. The tablets contain a special application called “neoscore” which allows for (much) easier and faster page turns, the ability for musicians to make markings with an electronic S-pen, and the possibility for a conductor’s markings to instantaneously appear in the parts of an entire section. Additionally, implementing the program is a huge money-saver for the orchestra, eliminating the costs of copying and taping (which, according to its management, amount to some 25,000 euros) and it’s foolproof for even the most technologically-challenged musician, disabling functions of the tablets that could unintentionally become a cause for distraction.


Personally, I’m quite excited to hear this news. Not only will the problem of stubborn pages be eradicated once and for all, but the usage of such technology has the potential to greatly enhance the music-making itself. Although one might not think that the innovation would cause a noticeable difference-after all, the actual notation remains the same in spite of its digital medium-the myriad possibilities of the technology quickly become apparent when one contemplates the various means through which it might be used in addition to purposes of convenience. During my undergraduate studies at the New England Conservatory, I had the opportunity to experience one such alternative usage on a first-hand basis. As a student of Borromeo String Quartet cellist Yeesun Kim, I was an avid fan of the ensemble from the beginning of my freshman year, and quickly became interested in their practice of reading music off of MacBooks during concerts instead of physical, paper parts. However, unlike the technology used by Brussels, the Borromeo do not simply read their individual parts on the computer; they have the entire score on the screen in front of them, turning its pages with the aid of a sleek, black foot pedal attached to the computer via a simple USB cord. This convenience of performing off of the score, impossible in the past, allows for them to literally see the “big picture” of a given piece, and ultimately enriches their perception and subsequent interpretation of the music at hand.


During the first couple of years I watched them perform this way, I sometimes wondered whether the score-reading really made a significant difference, but I soon realized the extraordinary benefits that the technology represented when I had Nicholas Kitchen, the BSQ’s exquisite first violinist, as a chamber music coach during my senior year. I vividly remember my first coaching with him; my piano trio had barely set up for a run-through of the Dvorak f minor trio when he asked us, “Have you downloaded it yet?” (Obviously, such was an idea that none of us had considered.) Although Nick was content with us playing off of real, paper parts, he was insistent that we have the next best thing by having a copy of the score on a separate stand between myself and the violinist (“that way, it’s right in front of you,” he explained), and later in the year, when we expressed interest in trying out the technology, he was obviously enthusiastic and made each of us our own foot pedal to connect to our computers, which we used extensively in our rehearsals of the Chausson g minor trio. The sight of a student chamber ensemble rehearsing with three glowing MacBooks was undoubtedly bizarre-I often wondered if passing students thought we were Facebook fanatics-but the experience of using the technology was truly incredible. It’s almost difficult to describe in words-I felt as though I had obtained an “aerial view” of the piece, clearly understanding how my part fit in with the others in real time. It was different from the typical experience of studying the score outside of the music; it was as if the score was a living, tangible entity that I had physically entered into. Finally, after years of curiosity, I understood why the Borromeo had so readily embraced the technology, and I of course continue to use it frequently in my studies today.


My personal anecdotes not withstanding, it’s clear that recognizing the potential of technology such as the type implemented by the Borromeo and Brussels is a must for any major performing ensemble. Not only does it represent the possibility to cut  costs and provide a welcome convenience for musicians and orchestras, but it has the potential to enhance performances and even become a useful tool for engaging audiences as well. What if the score of a piece were projected on a screen in back of musicians as they performed for the audience to follow along, or what if it could be accessed in real-time by audience members on their own tablets? Perhaps, armed with their own S-pens, they could notate places in the score that most appealed to them-a musical version of a the real-time polls that CNN took of undecided voters during the recent presidential debates. The possibilities are endless, and the implications great.


Most importantly, however, musicians of the future will be spared the dreadful fate that befell me in that high school gym back in 2007. By (what was supposed to be) page four of the Wagner, I knew that the time had come for drastic measures (no pun intended). Having brought along my own copy of the part as an extra (which was luckily NOT taped), I reached behind the principal’s part and, after some difficulty (and some quizzical glances from the first stand of violas), managed to successfully extract the right page, dropping it triumphantly onto our unsteady stand. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet; in two more lines, I had to turn over the page again for the concluding measures! My heart beat nervously as the time drew near, and I dropped out a full five measures early just to get a firm grasp on it, for I knew that a careless flip could send the whole works cascading catastrophically towards the conductor’s podium. Finally, the moment of truth arrived, and I carefully turned over the page. It stayed in place! What a relief! I pounded out the concluding triplets with confidence and accepted the thunderous applause that ensued upon the piece’s conclusion, although I was more than a little annoyed with the situation and the many comments I received afterwards regarding my “creative” page turn. Needless to say, I am looking forward to receiving my Samsung tablet.




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