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Breakthrough! Orchestra to play off digital music stands

The Brussels Philharmonic has become the world’s first orchestra to abandon paper scores and play from a digital screen.

The musicians have all been issued with a Samsung tablet that can hold up to 1,000 orchestral works.

I have heard talk of such things, but haven’t yet seen them. Can’t wait. The rehearsal advantages are enormous. A conductor can make a mark on his or her screen and it will appear automatically on every relevant desk. The future begins here.

Here’s a little more inf (in French).

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  1. Good luck writing in bowing marks, spectacles, wavy lines for when the conductor gets dramatic, etc!
    I’d be interested to know how they solve that problem – the article does say “La tablette permet également de personnaliser … les partitions” but presumably not with a pencil.

    Also it lists as one of the benefits the time saved from not having to do lots of photocopying – woops!

  2. Using digital screens is nothing new. I worked in a orchestra back in 2007 that used touchscreen technology (albeit simpler than today) to read the parts. The problem with it was you had to use a keyboard pedal to turn the page. Once to turn and double tap to go back. The damn things were too sensitive do you would run te risk of it turning two pages which is exactly what happened to me right before a clarinet solo. I think it causes more problems than it solves honestly.

    • Peter, I use touch screens since 1997. With a bit of practice it never fails. The orchestra with those devices which you played back in 2007 was Turan Alem S.O if you remember.

  3. When and where are they going to charge the batteries? At home presumably. How many mains sockets backstage?

    Oh dear. It’s an interesting idea, but I expect a rough ride over the first few months.

  4. Marat Bisengaliev’s orchestras in Kazakhstan and India have been using these stands for some years now.

    • Yes I can prove that with concerts in Europe, Japan and in London . The EMI Jenkins Requiem CD was recorded by West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005 using Samsung touch screens. Marat

  5. Hasn’t the Bamberg Symphony been doing this for some years? I know they tried it. Did they not follow it up?

  6. That’s not how the future begins. That’s how we retard.
    A conductor making a note and the musicians have it automatically?
    OK, but what about the effect on the musicians brain, when he writes it himself?
    Because then he memorizes it…
    There is no rehearsal advantage, not musically anyway.
    The advantage is economically. And even that remains to be seen.
    It’s funny to watch some people being afraid to look old. So they embrace anything new, even if it is just silly.

    And I love to look at the parts and scores in some major traditional orchestras. To see the markings from generations of musicians and conductors, to see and understand their musical thinking. All that will go down the drain with our new gadgets.
    We should never outsource our brains, as tempting as it sometimes feels… Yet here we are.

  7. The Borromeo Quartet uses computer scores. They see all the parts. Their pages turn with foot pedals. They see rather comfortable with the process.

  8. This is both extremely exciting and extremely sad.

  9. Certainly not the first, and not the last as well I am sure. The research we have done to create a digital alternative to paper for sheet music has shown that the current generation of tablets are not ideal for general orchestral use (screen is too small, hard to read in some conditions, battery life too short).

    Publishers and musicians are eagerly waiting a device that is purpose-built for the task that can out-perform paper. To create this device and to provide the content and software to transform this analogue world is in development though a project called RamReader (www, whcih is a joint venture of BTM Innovation (creator of and the University of Adelaide. We expect you will be hearing more about this in the coming months.

    • Peter,
      There are purpose built devices on the market. I have bought an excellent MusicPad touch screen made in San Francisco in 2003 and recently attended Shanghai World Expo where I saw the latest purpose built thin tablet with special double pedal. But Samsung Galaxy 10 in landscape position is more than enough for our needs and I’m planning to use them with my orchestra. Marat

      • Send a video to Slipped Disc, Marat. Show us how it works.

      • Galaxy 10 in landscape position? is that really large enough to be seen by the musicians?

        Going from two 9×13 inch pages to a single screen which measures only 10 inches (diagonally!) is quite a difference. Can bass players really see those notes, or is the idea that the screen enlarges the notes meaning you simply flip pages much more often?

        In my studio I have a 24 inch monitor on top of the piano, this works great for composition and practicing piano, but it’s too large/clunky to haul into the concert hall. Now give all the musicians 24 inch tablets and you’re really onto something…

  10. I can’t help wondering whether the comments and notes a musician writes in can be seen in the conductor’s part! :) I can think of quite a few along the way, that were meant for my stand partner’s amusement, or various frustrations release, and definitely not for general viewing. ;)

    • Gibner Irmigstad says:

      How true! As a former orchestral librarian and player I’ve seen some doosies in my time – especially the cariacatures that some very talented musicians – brass players during those interminable rests? – have sketched. And some very creative critical comments on brand-new pieces. We used to pin these up on the noticeboard in the staff common room, but only if we knew the conductor wasn’t coming back for more.

  11. These screens are certainly not the first. As others have pointed out, Marat Bisengaliev and his orchestra(s) have been using similar devices for probably over a decade now.

    I would be rather surprised if a conductor could write a comment in and have it appear on the players’ parts. Within a section, yes – but other than that… it’s a tricky exercise, and requires the software to understand the conductor’s score relative to the layout of each and every instrumental part. I don’t believe anyone has got that far yet; nor is it likely that a commercial software house will (too small a potential market).

  12. I’m awfully curious, will this technology allow bass players to more easily make the standard title changes, e.g., turning “Scottish Fantasy” into “Scratching Frantically,” Leonore #3 into “Le Snore #3,” and “Orpheus in the Underworld” into “Orpheus in his Underwear”? Sadly, good taste requires that I leave out the best ones. Read my book. –jl

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      And this is how bassists turn pages when playing “Afternoon on the Farm”:

      • LOL I had never heard that one.

        But I think the potential for a screwed up page turn is part of the excitement of the concert, sort of like the potential for a crash at a NASCAR event.

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          Slava as a pianist once accompanied his wife Galina in a recital and requested a page turner for the rehearsal and the concert. The page turner was only available for the concert. So Slava, with his impish sense of humor, put a piece of music on the piano desk that was different from the opening work on the program. The page turner was baffled but Slava gave him a nod to turn every few minutes. The poor slob was sweating profusely because he couldn’t figure out what was going on. After the first work, as they walked off stage, Slava whispered to him: Maybe next time you’ll show up for the rehearsal.

          • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

            Not sure if that really happened but after a few glasses of wine I will start telling Slava stories that are actually true, LOL.

          • Well Robert you are cracking me up, I had never heard that one either. You should write a book too.

            A story for you:

  13. Håkan Molander says:

    The June Quintet is using ipads and airturn with forscore and it works perfect. To see it live we have a concert tonight is the english church i Gustavia, StBarth!

  14. bratschegirl says:

    I wonder how useful this will prove to be in orchestra string sections, where we are accustomed to sharing one part with a partner. At the distance of a shared music stand, and given the limitations of eyes that have passed the half-century mark, a 10-inch tablet has so little real estate compared to a standard sized orchestral part that one would have to go to the next screen at least 5 times as often as turning the page of a paper part, perhaps much more. My colleagues who are currently using such things are mostly brass players, who don’t share music and just don’t have that many notes to play (though I hasten to add that each one is highly significant and noticeable!). Those acres of steady scrubbing in the 2nd fiddle and viola parts of Beethoven symphonies, for example, might end up as 3 screens in a row looking exactly the same. How would one know that one had actually turned the page correctly? I’m picturing doing Philip Glass this way… oy…

  15. I think Id still plant a tree, than mine thru our earth for more battery components like copper and other minerals and precious material.. can replant those elements from a tablet battery inside a mine.

  16. Alastair McKean says:

    A complete score and parts to Beethoven’s fifth symphony in the Bärenreiter/Jonathan Del Mar edition costs roughly the same as a single I-Pad. A large orchestra would need around 75+ music stands (or I-Pads) to mount the largest works in the standard repertoire. The paper score and parts should be useable for about thirty years. The computer on which I’m typing this will last for about four years and then need to be replaced. And, like all computers, this one will decide from time to time to crash while I’m in the middle of typing a letter, whereas a printed part of Beethoven’s fifth symphony is not going to turn itself off in the middle of a performance. Given that the existing system – paper – works perfectly well, you would want to have good reasons to transfer to a different system. Bring me a tablet that will function flawlessly until 2042, and that can be repaired with Sellotape when it breaks down, and then we’ll have a chat about it.

    Alastair McKean
    Orchestra Librarian
    Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

    • Alastair is right. And let’s wait some years and hear what the Brussels musicians will say. It’s way too early to call this the future.
      It’s also true that these screens are too small for those who share the same
      screen. Brave new world.

    • Thank you, exactly.
      And bring us a tablet that
      -has a resolution of at least 300 pixels per inch, like a paper based score.
      -that can be written on immediately at all times,
      -that has a matte surface to not reflect spot lights,
      -that I can see on what my colleagues 20 years ago were thinking about how articulation and bowing should be.
      -that can be setup without the need for electricity at each stand
      -that are as robust as a music stand

      This is what will happen. They will have to keep the Librarian (because someone needs to know how to handle scores) and hire an additional 3 IT guys to manage the tablets. And someone will write an Excel spreadsheet for a presentation to upper management, where they show how the cost of paper clips has gone down. And they will call it a big success and pat their shoulders how progressive they are.

    • Alistair is correct – in my view paper is still the best medium for orchestral parts, but that is only because there is no viable digital alternative. The prototype that is the core of the RamReader project is first and foremost designed to work as well as paper with no compromises on size or function. It will be light, readable in all conditions (inside or outside), robust, with a long battery life and even has a solution to the problem of device failure mid-concert. Imagine having the ability to archive and share complete programmes with all marks intact and to be able to have instantaneous access to a world of published music? That is our goal.

  17. Gibner Irmigstad says:

    I sympathise with those who have commented here, voicing concerns about technical and technological glitches, and whether those designing the soft- and hard-ware have thought things through from the practitioners’ points of view. But this is the way forward. Research has been going on in this area for at least the past two decades – that I know of – but most likely for much longer. There will be issues to be sorted out along the way, and the odd amusing concert when everything suddenly goes “fzzzzzzt” and the music grinds to a halt, but we’ll get there in the end. Having just flown halfway around the world in a glorified tin can I can’t believe we won’t get there one day. Also, I think Art will win out and find ways to insinuate itself into technological straightjackets, e.g. players remembering markings and engaging at the same level as they currently do with the notated music.

    • William Safford says:

      It could also be beneficial when facing certain technical glitches.

      I watched and listened this past summer as the Philadelphia Orchestra went “fzzzzzt” and the music ground to a halt, because of a power failure that knocked out all lighting in the auditorium. If the orchestra had been using digital music stands, and if they had built-in backup batteries, then the music could have continued even in the pitch black auditorium. (A lighted or glow-in-the-dark baton would have been helpful, of course.)

  18. anon string player says:

    I see from the comments above that people have mentioned the possibility of annotating the part with an e-pencil. The question is, is there an e-rubber? For a string player, being able to amend bowings during rehearsals is essential. Often, a bowing needs to be erased and replaced in a matter of seconds, if there are not many rests the conductor is not stopping frequently in the rehearsal. Another factor is that when you see the leader do a different bowing, it could be either because they are experimenting, or because they are changing the bowing, or even because they made a mistake. With a normal pencil, it is possible to lightly circle an uncertain bowing, with view to paying particularly close attention next time that passage is rehearsed, or to asking the leader. Does an e-pencil differentiate between a lighter and heavier touch? Is it reliable in transferring the marking onto a touchscreen? It is thin enough (or will an indication for a harmonic be mistaken for a staccato marking because they both look like a circular blob)?

    Another point is that is there space on a touchscreen to write in bars of music; I often find myself doing this if the page turns are horrible (and an electronic screen does not change the fact that you cannot see what is coming at the top of the next page until it has been turned; if there were a key change, a tempo change, or a subito ppp, it is probably a good idea to pencil this information at the end of the previous page). Once, I played in a piece that had a section with four rhythmically complicated solo parts over a simpler gli altri, the result being that there were page turns every 5-10 bars for a few pages. I dealt with this by hand-writing the gli altri part on a sheet of manuscript paper for the relevant section, inserting it into my part, and paper-clipping together the several pages I now did not need, in order to have a smooth page turn to the next section without having to turn several pages individually. The point is that, with paper parts, I can customise them to surmount issues arising from poor typesetting/layout. Is all this possible with e-parts, or are the players at the mercy of the publisher?

  19. well, this is a really interesting subject…

    There are so many things to consider using a tablet as paper-notation-replacement that it could fill a book.
    I think there is a strong potential in this revolutionary idea, but it will need a long time to develop a really useful new tool for the orchestra musicians. I can read here beside the positive points already many of those problems, and I believe and hope that there will be possible solutions to them.

    I would point out two already mentioned subjects that in mine opinion are maybe mostly important: the one is simple, the size of the tablet. It is tiny if we compare to many music we have on our stands. There are (inclusive myself) many of us who aren’t very young any more with less than optimal eyesight, for us reading a small Tablet is very tiring. And the other thing is, the many compositions that orchestras have to rent the music for, every time they have on their program (for a nice fee). How would that work?? Not mentioned that all orchestras have a huge library of music, with all the markings from different conductors, concertmasters etc.

    The idea is great but there is a very long way to go yet…

  20. Ya know, while we’re at it, maybe we can replace all those beaten up old wooden violins with ipads too. And a team at MIT has developed a machine called a conduct-o-matic. WIll be a big money saver :-)

    • Also we should get rid of the expensive ancient concert halls and play in industrial halls with hologram projections of actual beautiful halls. Another big money saver.
      Audience could even vote which hall image they get for the evening.
      Also for the conduct-o-magic the audience could get buttons on their seats for “faster” and “slower”, so they could influence the speed of the conduct-o-magic. Finally democracy in the concert hall!
      And the viola section of course is replaced by a synthesizer. Always in tune. That’s more of an obvious choice.
      Now that’s innovation. Bring on the ideas.

  21. Just a footnote on the history of orchestras playing from a digital screen – if memory serves, a conductorless orchestra played from computer monitors in Cage’s Europeras I & II at the Summerfare festival in Purchase, New York in 1988. A computerized I Ching generated the score at random. I wonder if this was some kind of digital first?

  22. What a disappointing waste of money. At a time like this, it’s just stupid. There is absolutely no need, it’s just a show.

  23. definitely not the first ensemble to use iPads or tablets. Decibel in Perth have been at this for years

  24. There is a wonderful potential in this kind of technology – particularly for new works where reorchestrations, transpositions (or even rewrites) are contemplated during rehearsals. Whilst not encouraged in ‘serious’ circles it can still arise – particularly in context such as Musical Theatre and Film Scoring. Imagine working with live Sibelius or Finale files networked together! It is not the way that orchestral musicians expect to work, but think of the possibilities for the composer.

    However, I want to say two things:
    If playing off a ten inch screen is laughable for string players especially double bassists, then;

    (1) think how far from the music a percussionist often has to be….and

    (2) what on earth does the conductor use?

    I struggle to get full scores for anything more than a sinfonietta displaying legibly on a 24 inch monitor. Do they make tablets that large?… or does the conductor need a full size PC with a giant screen. Like most conductors past 40, I would now struggle with working from an Eulenburg miniature score (even though I could do it at 25) A tablet display is hardly going to hack it unless the orchestra only employs conductors of the Dudamel generation!

  25. Nancy Schultz says:

    There was an interesting article about this on NPR. I’m not a professional musician but I’ve enjoyed reading these posts and hearing opinions.

    You can read further about this here:

  26. Craig Kowald says:

    I once read the 3d horn part of the 1812 Overture from a standard size smart phone. The digital stand is the future. A footswitch to advance the pages would be cool, but then again, maybe a smart system that follows the music and gives cues to the brass after hundreds of measures of rest would also be interesting.

  27. David Thorp says:

    Hopefully the the screen will be equipped with a desk (just in case).

  28. TFT/LCD displays like the Brussel Samsung are outdated technology for paper replacement, this is not working as a high quality replacement of paper.
    What actually will work is the E-Ink display.

    Someone build an E-Ink display in
    A3 or B2 format,
    600 dpi,
    wireless (for networking and remote control),
    footswitch for page turns,
    annotations pen style, pressure sensitive (thin line with little pressure, thick line with more pressure, like a real pencil),
    low energy profile, power for days, not only hours.

    and we would have something serious to consider, not this toys they are using in Brussels, which are a waste of time, nerves and resources.

  29. Saul Davis says:

    Harpist’s feet are already busy with pedals and we constantly have to mark and erase markings on our parts. I’m sure no one thought of that. And what if someone hacks the music displays, or there is a power failure or software glitch, which is inevitable? Don’f fix what isn’t broken.

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