When the live iPad lets you down in mid-concert

From our diarist Anthea Kreston:

I’ve been playing off my iPad Pro with Bluetooth foot pedal for just about two years now, and I love it. The inconveniences of sheet music – heavy to carry, bulky on stage (especially when it comes to those fast movements when 3 or 4 pages have to be out at once), noisy turns, turns so fast you barely make it, ugly folders – for me are easily outweighed by the convenience of the iPad, despite the very real (as the legends go) possibility of complete meltdown on stage. The dreaded blue screen, loss of battery, inability to load a score, endless variations of technical glitches. I am meticulous in my IPad preparation – from emergency external batteries to airplane mode, disengaging the ipencil before performance, double checking my foot pedal before each movement. So, when I started the Britten 2nd String Quartet two concerts ago, and the foot pedal was unresponsive to my check (despite the fact that is had been working just minutes before), I had the chance to quickly reconnect the Bluetooth onstage, and chalked it up to fluke.

That evening, after the concert, I replaced the batteries of the pedal, did a software update, and it behaved perfectly the next day during my couple of hours of personal practice and the quartet dress. The concert began with the Barber Adagio, from which I play off score, and as I began my one and only solo – a 30 second emotional bridge between the meandering cello solo and the apocalyptic first violin solo, pressing my pedal to turn the page (the turn is during a held 3 beat low e-flat on the g string, after which I slowly climb up the g string, rising in agonizingly slow intensity) – nothing happened. Not a flicker – I pressed quickly backwards, forwards, and knew I had to make my move. It was as if time stood still in those three beats, that low e flat. Quickly scanning to my left and right to see if anyone else was playing from a score, I saw that Vineta was using a score. Ok – I can always squish her over and read off of her part with her until I can find a moment to turn. Should I try to turn with my elbow while I am playing? But if my skin is too dry, it won’t work, and it will certainly compromise my sound. I couldn’t stop – this was a sustained moment with no relief. I just closed my eyes and played, believing that I had it memorized. I made it just fine, and was able to manually turn after I handed the solo to my colleague to the right. I could feel the concern from my peers, but I was confident, and I never let down my partners on stage – I pride myself in being reliable, and trustworthy.

Before the next piece, I was able to rework the connection, and did a full reboot and sync during the intermission. It’s probably just a faulty Bluetooth inside the pedal – I have a replacement now, and will travel with two pedals in the future.

But, that moment – the three beats on that low e flat – a million things went through my mind. I immediately flashed to a memory of a performance some 10 years ago – a student performance at a chamber music festival I ran for 15 years. It was in rural Wisconsin – in a town on a lazy lake, with one street that dead-ended into the bait and tackle shop – one bank, one general store, and a restaurant called “The Little Corporal” where you could nurse a terrible cup of coffee, served by career-waitresses in starched uniforms with their names stitched above the breast, for hours while perusing the Green Lake Reporter, with news ranging from local Rotary Club events to the Chili Cookoff and hunting tips (bow and arrow only for Deer).

These students came from all over, but a healthy number were Midwest born and raised. We had a great time together, worked hard, and played fantastic music. It was there, 10 years ago, that I met a young cellist, Frank (not his real name). Frank was a midwesterner, but hailed originally from one of those exotic locations on the other side of the planet which have been torn apart by wars for so long that the land is littered with unmarked landmines from any number of conflicts, buried by any number of nation-building powers or by civil unrest. It was one of these landmines which Frank accidentally activated as a very young child, setting of a string of events which resulted in him being adopted by a large midwestern family. They struggled together for years of surgeries as a result of his injuries, supporting his passions and interests, which were many, and varied. One of them was playing the cello, which required a creative path – Frank has 3 limbs, his left arm ending at the shoulder socket. His solution was to string the cello backwards, fingering with his right hand, and bowing with his left foot, with a modified cello bow.

Frank was a hilarious guy – very social, with a quick wit and a big smile. He was always the first to volunteer for anything – clearing a table, making copies for the orchestra. When heading to a farm to set up for a barn concert, he called out “load me on up!”, as he balanced 4 heavy black stands on his right shoulder, his cello and cello bag slung over the same shoulder as well. He explained to me while we walked up the hill that he was very close to getting his black belt in Karate. He was endlessly enthusiastic.

The thing was – and I want to say this correctly – of course there were obvious differences in his playing. Firstly – his tone was huge! He had great intonation. He understood form and function, as well as having an innate musical emotional knowledge. He had a big problem though. It was rhythm. It was kind of catastrophic. His problem had 3 parts. Mathematical, pulse, and the ability to play synced with others. It kind of made a mess of his groups, but he was so fun to be around, it didn’t end up really mattering that much.

The final student concert, in the historic opera house (kitty corner to the bait shop), was a memory that I believe is seared forever in the minds of the 200 people gathered together on that sweltering humid Saturday afternoon – sitting on those old squeaky red velvet chairs. Frank’s quartet was playing an Op. 18 Beethoven, and had been working hard for 3 weeks. As they sat down to play, I noticed a teeny hubbub right before they launched in. And launch they did. With gusto. The sounds coming from the quartet were both familiar and foreign – it became clear, quickly, that something was seriously amiss. One phrase would be wonderful, then things would careen off into a twisted rendition of reality. The faces of the non-Frank members of the quartet began to take on a frantic, fearful look, and Frank just beamed. I realized, all of a sudden, that he didn’t actually have his music. He was winging it. With enough Joie de vivre for all of us. And, once we all let go, it was a terrific ride. At the end, the rousing audience response, and the clearly still intact camaraderie of the quartet, left us all with a feeling of confused warmth.

I hugged the quartet as they came off stage, and Frank pumped his fist, saying “Nailed It!”. And, just in case we didn’t know by then, “I forgot my music and realized that I was just going to go for it!”. He went on to explain that he had been taking composition and improv lessons from a bass player this year, and was happy to have the chance to explore his new skill-set.

I guess, when I think back on that summer, I love what Frank was about. He was about a life filled with curiosity, optimism, a can-do attitude. He lifted all of those around him, and we all became better people for it. And, in the end, through the chaos of that concert, he never let his colleagues down.

It seemed to me that Frank had lived a life without instructions, without the music. There was structure around him, but he had spent his whole life navigating physical, emotional, and cultural landmines. He found his own particular rhythm to dance around and over these obstacles – he found his joy and desires despite, or perhaps because of, the inability to have a normal framework of life. Whereas the rest of us stare at our music, following the directions to life, Frank never had his music, he learned not to need it, through pain and separation and struggle. He found light, freedom and possibility in what was was missing. We are on this planet for only a short while, and of all of us, Frank knew this first-hand. I learned from him to try to live a life without music, not being afraid of the dark, but rather to delight in the shadows and surprises that havoc creates – to find the beauty in chaos.

 

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  • Yes, I suppose trouble like that can happen, due to a faulty pedal. Yes, always carry an extra one! Despite that, the iPad still beats the inconveniences of printed music: bad lighting, bad page turns, forgotten parts etc. Not to mention the ability I have now of playing from the score, which is unbeatable! Two and a half years of playing exclusively from my iPad (Forscore, Pageflip Firefly pedal) and, touch wood, have never had any problem!

    • Yes I totally agree – there have been a couple of pieces (Rihm and Schoenberg String Trios) that I couldn’t imagine doing without iPad, for the score. I also use the forescore and butterfly – that was the one that got funky on me. And now – the Henley app – that’s a great one – you can buy just your part for a piece, it’s great. My quartet is forever adjusting the light, and I never have to worry about that. Love it!!!

      • You are wasting your money and harming your performance. Learn how to turn pages, how to cut and paste and trim. An ipad is totally unnecessary and a complete intrusion on stage. Your excuses are inexcusable.

    • No excuse. Trouble will happen, it is inevitable. Meanwhile, you are disturbing the audience, and advertising Apple on stage.

    • And what about the one and only time it goes out on you in the middle of a concert? You then might feel differently. Stand lights have been around almost as long as the telephone (real telephones).

  • Great story! My heartbeat got faster as I read it. Phew! I’m not sure I truly trust technology enough to rely on it in this fashion! My mantra is, “technology’s only good when it works!”

  • Thank you for this beautiful and insightful story. The freedom to lead one’s life without instructions — whether it be traditions, cultural expectations, or in this particular case sheet music — can be a source of anxiety for many, as following the beaten path seems a much safer alternative — no matter how false such a sense of security may be. On more mundane matters — and at the risk of self-contradiction (!) — I’ve always been leery of replacing regular sheet music with digital media, as I believe glitches like this will happen time and time again. Yes, hard copy does have its disadvantages (i.e. page turns), but not being to get to the next page seems much more ominous to me — not to mention the charm inherent in turning pages during a performance. I’d be curious to know whether you prefer e-readers to books — some are still reluctant to do the switch, as there’s something about the physical book that seems to be missing from the e-reader.

    • David – I tried e-readers for books, but I went back to the old fashioned books – I love to turn over pages, make lots of notes. Even though it is completely impractical because I normally bring 3 books on tour, and only have a backpack (no checked luggage for me). Illogical, I suppose.

      • I’m a writer and the biggest part of my production is still printed on paper – and especially with the factual books which often “live” through their pictures even I wouldn’t want them on the e-reader.
        However I’m nevertheless an avid user of e-readers (I’ve got even two – a Kindle and a tolino) and I’m so glad about these things! My hubby is a singer and travels a lot and we often stay for months in a foreign city. In former times this meant that we carried tons of books (and sheet music) and I can’t remember a big tour without us paying for overweight luggage or sending parts of our stuff as cargo.
        With the e-readers it’s mostly just two or three books in our luggage (mostly reference works for my work). It’s really becoming so much lighter and we nevertheless can have our favourite books (which are at home in printed form, too because using an e-reader doesn’t mean you throw away all your beloved books).
        Besides I enjoy the e-reader in daily life. I was the one who was always having a rather big and heavy handbag because I hardly left the house without a book). Nowadays I’ve got an e-reader with me. If I have to wait at a doctor or because hubby’s still rattling on I read and I can even choice between something serious, something funny or learning something.

    • One problem with electronic books is that the electronic light is on when you read (that is how they work). If, like me, you read in bed before going to sleep then the light will stop you getting sleepy (too much “blue light” apparently). Reading from paper is also better for your eyesight.

  • I bought an iPad Air 4 years ago and have now scrapped it because it slowed down after every operating system update (which were urgently recommended for security reasons) until it became unusable around IOS 11.x.

    This appears to be is the full planned obsolescence intent of the Apple corporation, and is also well known for iphones, in order to force consumers to buy new expensive hardware. I now have an Android tablet at half the price and will never buy an Apple product again.

    Apple in any case is primarily an offshore bank with a rapidly diminishing sideline in consumer electronics.

  • Many musicians @ LC’s CMS are using iPads. Whole quartets – the Dover among them – also. I’ve yet to see a glitch here. Recently, I heard/saw a private performance of Op. 132 with the Emerson. Their violist used the iPad.

  • Hahaha! It serves you right. Told you so. There is NO EXCUSE for using ipads on stage. Convenience. Screw that. Life is inconvenient. Music is inconvenient. Have some integrity, or get off stage.

    • In German we say “Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude” (schadenfreude is the purest joy), but I always thought it rather petty and in the special case: Tolerance isn’t your strongest virtue, is it?

    • Hi Luigi –
      I appreciate your passion! Preparing and dealing with all kinds of music is a challenge. I remember several times with outdoor playing, and problems with clipping music to stands (having to drop out to secure pages), and pages flying away. Also, bad lighting can cause mistakes in performance, something that is never an issue with an iPad. I have a particularly funny memory of watching a concert where the violist has taped his music all in a line, folding it for page turns. When he turned a fast one, the whole piece came down like an accordion and the rest of the group continued without him while he gathered his goes. Then in the next movement it happened again. I had to once laminate my entire Beethoven Triple for a huge outdoor festival, because they were expecting wind. I had to actually have a volunteer page turner on stage with me (as did the cellist and pianist). It was very awkward. And how many times have we seen a performer in trouble, and a kind audience member gets up and holds or picks up there music. I have done this several times, to much delight of the audience and performer. Recently, a member of my group forgot their music, and couldn’t get anyone to get the music from their apartment in time, scan, email and print it for the concert. In particularly difficult works, it is important for me to read off a score so I can help people in trouble. Much easier on an iPad, instead of a huge mine store pasted together board. I always have all of my music, and can also easily download and print for other in emergencies such as this. I have more than 300 works on my iPad. So – there are advantages and disadvantages to both. But I am sticking with my iPad. Don’t knock it until you try it!

      • I’m late to the party on this thread. And isn’t this story really about Frank, with the iPad as a lead in?

        That said, I also now play off an iPad. It’s especially great for solo music (I’m a guitarist) for which it’s especially hard to disguise page turns.

        My one failure, in New York last year, was when I was a page into a piece and I discovered that my Bluetooth pedal had unpaired. For the rest of the set I had to reach forward to tap the screen for each turn. Bah!

        It would be reassuring to have the pedal wired into the iPad instead of relying on that invisible connection. I’m inclined to order a PageFlip Firefly, which allows for either Bluetooth or a direct USB cable connection. The thing also has little LEDs at the pedal tips.

        Of course, if Luigi were in the audience, I’d leave those LEDs switched off. No reason to work him all into a tizzy just to show off my 21st century technology.

  • Using ipads on stage is an intrusion by Apple, by technology, where it does not belong. The art of classical music is inherently organic, human, analog, non-digital. It is comparable to the great annoyance of piano manufacturers sticking their brand on the side of the piano so the audience has to see it through the entire performance. Imagine wearing designer clothes with the brand names all over them on stage. And technology inevitably fails. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will. Ipads are a waste of money. There are so many ways to trim pages for turning, and you can also employ a professional page turner. God forbid you should spend money on people instead of computers!

    • I certainly don’t think so. I can’t play anymore myself (rheuma and morbus dupuytren), but if I could I’d use a pad as my son (a bassoonist too) does – and no, he doesn’t do advertising for Apple. He uses an android which is in a neutral cover, so no one sees the brand name (besides I can’t imagine people using their opera glasses for looking at the bassoonist’s note stand).
      You know music is developing too and if it fails to do so and being part of our time it won’t be heard anymore. It’s people like my son (almost 18, studying music) and his friends which are the future of our craft. They belong to a generation who grew up with smart phones and computers, they’re used on this technique. If memory doesn’t fail me the both teachers with which junior started a few years ago – one for bassoon, one for the organ – were using pads. And he got his first one as he was 13 from his dad who’s a singer and started to use a notebook for learning around 20 years ago! By now we’re travelling with notebooks, pads, smart phones and e-readers – and our luggage is still easier to carry as in times when we had books and sheet music to take with us. I remember the times when we traveled and he rehearsed one opera, learned the next and prepared for a recital in the same time. And I think of a journey three years before when I was writing a book for which I needed a lot of literature. Although I’d spend two days in scanning old books I had to take some with me – and that made for 18 pounds of weight. When I now think of all the sheet music he’d have needed without having his stuff on the notebook and pad – I think we would have needed half a container!
      I’ll ask junior to read your comment,but I’m already sure he’ll shake his head and say: “Why shouldn’t I use the conveniences our time offers me?” It makes it possible to concentrate more an the music – and isn’t that what finally counts?

      PS: In the pit or on stage in the orchestra you can hardly hire a page turner. 😉

  • Here’s another option: Memorize the score. Yeah, easy for me to say. But check out YouTube videos by the Vision Qt. playing Bartok 3 and Chiara with the Bartok 2 and 5. I can’t imagine the preparation that went into being able to play that intense, complex music from memory — but they did it.

    • Marc – the Vision are our students (Master Students) in Berlin at the Universität der Künste, where I am a Professor. Really nice guys. And impressive with their memorization. I agree!!

    • Most professional musicians could probably play from memory if they had too (although it would limit to number of pieces in their repertoire). Having the score is mainly an insurance mechanism, which helps them play with much more confidence, without having to worry about mistakes.

  • USB pedal, despite the inconvenience of wire, and carrying two pedals at all times, is what I would advocate. Bluetooth carries risk of interference… Also, a solid laptop might prove to be more reliable for the screen… The ability to play from the score of all the chamber music pieces I perform is worth the cost of learning to troubleshoot technology. After all we all learned to troubleshoot playing from paper too—over many years…

  • I’ve been playing from my laptop full-time since 2012. I’ve really never had any problems worth speaking of… after the first 6 month or so…

  • Thanks for a great story about Frank and with such an inspiring message. It is a challenge to live fully and know that you are likely to screw up here and there but that you can take others with you if your attitude is right. Given Frank’s disabilities and his early life, he sounds like an amazing person who isn’t going to miss a minute of what life he has given to him to live. Brava!!

  • Of course it’s possible to use IPads in concert. Musicians then create a new burden upon themselves, where there weren’t any to begin with.

    It is preferable to have the audience concentrate and listen to your performance, rather than distracting them with an improbable unfortunate incident.

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