Will I ever conduct from an iPad?

Well, no, because Apple pisses me off.*

So I guess the better question is, will I ever conduct from a tablet computer rather than paper?

It’s possible.  There are some conversations at ChoralNet about this topic, with folks weighing in on how they have scanned their 3000-score library into a single tablet and can use it and nothing else.  And apparently things like annotation software for pdf files are much better than they used to be.  One guy talked about sending digital files to his students and asking them to print them out, only to have them just bring their tablets and sing from those at rehearsal.

On the other hand, others mentioned challenges with the tablets that I think are very valid ones, and not easily dismissed:

  • the size. Especially when you get to the Big Works, the print will just be plain old too small. (Then again, I just sang Elijah with an octogenarian at the podium, conducting the whole damn thing from memory. Admittedly, you don’t get to be Helmut Rilling without a certain degree of career-long brilliance, but it still goes to show that by the time we’re in concert, or even by the time we’re in front of an ensemble, we shouldn’t be needing to Read Every Note On The Page, right?)
  • you can only see one page at once. This is not to be discounted–a score opens up and you can see twice as much music.
  • the ability to flip pages easily and randomly (like when you realize you’ve been conducting from memory for a few pages and want to flip forward to the B section). This one I’m not as sure about–I mean, yes, it would be a huge handicap for me and for all of us who are used to paper, but I suspect there’d be a way around it for those who started their careers on these devices.
  • cost. These aren’t cheap. (Someone crabbed on that discussion about the people crabbing about cost, effectively saying suck it up and pay for the product if you want it, but that argument reminds me of the eternal “we decided to sacrifice life’s extras and live on one salary so Mom could stay home with the kids” bullshit used to guilt working moms–some of us work because a single income would mean losing the house and living in a shelter. If the funds aren’t there to buy a tablet, they aren’t there. Sucking on anything won’t make the money magically appear.
  • scan resolution. People say that natively created PDFs work great on these devices, but scanned ones are at the mercy of your scan quality, and annotation ability drops dramatically for scans as well. (Something I discovered when I got a Kindle.)
  • Folder shoulder (for choristers, not conductors)–unless you’re doing something like the Verdi Wreck, a tablet will get pretty heavy pretty fast.

The big one for me, and it’s the one I honestly don’t see going way, is the danger of degradation of data. These devices are designed to become obsolete in a few years as the next model comes in, and we all know how not-long it takes for one form of data storage to become unreadable by the next generation or three of devices. And yet, at the CSO, you can go into the archives and see Margaret Hillis’s or Solti’s or who-ever’s actual marked scores for works, see what they did, see how they thought, see and learn from their process. Musicologists can look at the actual autograph scores of the great Masters, going back to the mind of the composer, hundreds of years back. Now? Is there any such thing as the “composer’s original score,” for those who write on Finale or distribute digitally? What will happen when these scores go out of circulation, or when the devices change too much? Will we utterly lose the idea of the “original” anything? Will we get so dependent on digital data that we risk losing whole bodies of work, decades of performance practice that just Isn’t There any more?

Here’s what I think: currently iPads are The Next Cool Thing. They and their offspring will almost certainly be very valuable tools for the future, and the idea of a college student purchasing one tablet and all necessary textbooks and musical scores just for that book alone is a very intriguing one, and I can absolutely see that happening.

In the meantime, we need to not be so swept away by the Digital Coolness that we neglect to notice the limitations–we need to use whatever medium works best, even if it’s the humble pencil and paper, the yellow dog-eared octavo, the giant Brahms score.  I like my paper scores, and I like my physical books. But I am ordering a tablet anyway…

Now, if they’d make a really big-ass tablet, or something 11×17 that can see two pages at once, I might go for that…I really think some combination of this new wave of “cloud computing” (where the device itself is essentially just an empty slate, and you access the web for everything you put on it) and portable memory, with the new screen technology we’re starting to see that combines back-lit screens with e-ink types of display, may really change our musical universe…but I won’t get rid of my hard copies anyhow.


*no, I’m serious, and I’m not alone–do a google search for “itunes sucks” and you’ll see what I mean.

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