As the digital revolution continues to shake up the creative arts, more and more musicians are turning the proverbial page by switching from printed scores to iPads and other electronic tablets for concerts and rehearsals.
A glimpse of this change was visible Oct. 1, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched CSO Sessions, its series of small-ensemble virtual concerts streamed via the ensemble’s new CSOtv video portal. CSO flute and piccolo Jennifer Gunn makes use of an iPad in the duos she performs as part of that concert, which marked the beginning of the orchestra’s modified 2020-21 season. Kenneth Olsen, assistant principal cello, also uses an iPad during the second installment, which will be available Oct. 8. Expect electronic tablets to be seen sporadically in later editions of the series. The high-resolution concert videos will be added to CSOtv through 2020.
For Gunn, the CSO Sessions concert marks her first-ever use of a tablet. She was motivated in part by her husband, a clarinetist who regularly uses an iPad, as well as a few fellow musicians who use them in non-orchestral concerts. “I was always pretty nervous about it,” she said. “But I felt I’ve got time to learn how to use it now, so I decided to give it a shot with the Villa-Lobos [Bachianas brasileiras No. 6].” She practiced for weeks on the iPad without a hitch. “Everything worked out,” she said.
Olsen bought his first iPad in September 2019. What finally persuaded him to give the tablet a try was his participation last year in a summer music festival. The cellist was the only person there using printed music, and he received good-natured ribbing for being out of step with technology. “So when I got back to Chicago, I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll make the jump and do it,’ ” Olsen said. “And I really, really like it.”
The iPad was introduced by Apple in April 2010, but it took several years for classical performers — primarily chamber musicians and recitalists — to begin using it for reading music. Eighth Blackbird, a Grammy Award-winning contemporary ensemble based in Chicago, has used iPads for about five years, and Matthew Duvall, one of the group’s two executive and artistic directors, has become a big enthusiast. “I’m a full convert,” Duvall said. “I think there are enormous advantages. And, no, Eighth Blackbird is not going to go back to paper. I cannot imagine that.”
The group shifts a great deal on stage during its performances, with the musicians sharing stands, and the iPad makes it easy to display multiple parts at once and format the music, sometimes on the fly, to fit diverse and constantly changing needs. In addition, the iPad eliminates the need to carry bulky sheet music on the road and removes the risk of leaving behind a composition and then having to have it shipped overnight for a performance. “In this case, you have everything with you all the time,” Duvall said.
Another advantage are page turns, which are done with a wireless foot pedal. That can be especially helpful in contemporary works, which can sometimes have complicated and unconventional notations and sometimes are not printed in such a user-friendly way as more established scores. “There’s no short page turn, where I’m making a ton of noise, frantically turning a page as fast as I can,” Olsen said.
Peter Conover, the CSO’s principal librarian, said in a 2015 interview for Sounds and Stories that the question of switching to an electronic tablet or some similar technology was a question of if, not when. But he didn’t expect to see that switch happening any time soon. He called paper a “very reliable medium,” and though it has its drawbacks, musicians have learned to overcome them through centuries of use.
In a recent interview, Conover stood by those opinions, pointing to the large cost and logistical challenges of a transformation from paper to digital. A bigger factor, though, he said, are the fears that he and other musicians share about the potential pitfalls of such technology. “It’s fine in rehearsal,” he said. “If the screen frizzes out, then you can stop and make it work. But if you are actually in front of an audience, and the screen goes blank, what would you do? With all the pressures of performing, you don’t need another level of concern.”
CSO cello Katinka Kleijn, who has used an iPad for her non-orchestral engagements, including regular performances of contemporary music, knows a few tech-savvy colleagues who won’t use digital scores for that reason. But she has never had a problem. “It has never malfunctioned, and I’m very used to it,” she said.
Kleijn concedes she has to remember to charge her iPad and foot pedal before each concert. In addition, she has to turn off Wi-Fi, so the tablet can’t initiate any updates or block the screen saver and make sure it can’t receive texts or phone calls — all elements that could potentially disrupt the iPad’s use during a concert. “There are definitely some newer skills that you need to acquire,” she said.
Duvall concedes that Eighth Blackbird has had a few minor issues with its iPads during concerts (usually due to user error), but any such glitches are far less of a problem than printed pages falling off a music stand or being forgotten entirely. If a tablet does break during a concert tour, the musicians simply grab one from their reserve stock and download all of their saved music from the cloud and just keep going.
If electronic tablets are not in the orchestra’s immediate future, the CSO has already taken at least a few preliminary steps in that direction. For the first time in the orchestra’s history, all music needed for CSO Sessions concerts is being made available to the orchestra members through emailed digital scans from Conover and his fellow librarians. (In the past, scans were available only on a limited basis to, for example, substitute musicians from out of town.) Of course, printed parts may be picked up any time in advance and are available onstage before the first rehearsal, usually on a Tuesday.
Though few if any major orchestras have turned to electronic tablets, as the technology continues to evolve and its appeal grows, look for more and more classical musicians to make the switch.