How some brave orchestras are using technology to their advantage

by | 10:34 am

Every year the gap between classical orchestras and technology seems to be getting smaller and smaller. While technology may not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about classical music and orchestras, many ideas and initiatives have in fact already been created to try to narrow down the gap between the two worlds. While there are still those who have concerns and are resisting the change, some of the initiatives are even coming from the orchestras themselves. Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, an approximately 800-member group based in New York, says orchestras are trying to appeal to a new generation’s changing expectations of the concert experience.

“It’s about enhancing the visual experience of listening to a symphony orchestra,” he says. “It’s also about making the experience more intimate and creating a more visible contact between the performer and the audience, which is something younger audiences really seem to value.”With that in mind, let’s have a look at some examples, to see what has already been tried and tested, and to see what is possible in general to do with technology. This way we may begin to better understand how technology and orchestras truly can support each other.

The Google Glass Project

Cynthia Johnston Turner, Professor of Conducting and Director of Bands/Wind Ensembles, was one of the first to test Google Glass and experimented with displaying sheet music on the technology as well as displaying the conductor’s view for the audience to see.

Cynthia: Our main Google Glass projects consisted of a score reader, photographing and live streaming concerts, and building a metronome app. After two years, Google Glass was killed off for consumer use, and we found the device realistically too underpowered for our projects.

Together with her project partner Tyler Erlich, a conductor and computer scientist, they did however experience some success while testing the project with Google.

Tyler: So, how well does it work? Truthfully, quite well. After getting used to looking through or away from Glass, I’m always successful in having the pages advance when they should. Occasionally a “phantom blink” happens, and the page advances before it should. A quick tap brings it back in place.  

The wonders of apps, virtual reality and social media

A rising trend that we have seen in the last couple of years is more and more orchestras using apps as well as virtual reality and social media to attract new audiences.  Among those is The Philadelphia Orchestra, who made an app that lets the audience follow along with program notes, such as translations of vocal parts, in real time from their handheld devices.  Also, the Sacramento Philharmonic are engaging their audience by offering specially designated sections where concert-goers are encouraged to interact on Twitter with a concert official as they give running commentary during select live performances. The Boston orchestra is offering iPads as part of a wider effort to capture the next generation of concert-goers, and to bring them to their under-attended Friday concerts. Of course all of these efforts to appeal to new audiences does not come without opposition from symphony traditionalists.

“There’s been resistance all along to screens in concert halls” says Rosen, of the League of American Orchestras.

But as more and more projects like these begin to see the light of day, slowly but surely it will become the norm.  Jeremy Rothman, vice president for artistic planning at the Philadelphia Orchestra, says once concert-goers and musicians saw the app technology in action, resistance started to fade. The app, he says, has helped some patrons become more informed and therefore more engaged in the performance, while the app’s design – grayscale text on a black background – minimizes the impact on others.

“No one is more concerned about preserving the live concert experience as we are,” Rothman said. “This is absolutely at the core of what we do. So we asked a lot of the really hard questions up front and are continuing to listen to feedback now that we’ve put it in people’s hands.”

Conclusion

It seems that iPads, apps and other technology, whether in the experimental phase or already commercially released are quickly becoming part of classical performances.  So where do you stand? Are you going to join the revolution like Cynthia, Tyler and the rest of the orchestras leading this movement, or will you be watching from afar?
If you or your orchestra feel inspired to move forward and to try an app that can drastically change the way you perform, then right now Newzik is offering a 1 week FREE trial to professional orchestras who are interested in learning more about all the benefits of going digital and to prepare for the replacement of paper scores through our service.

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