Sinfonia: Good or Bad?

Before you employ Sinfonia....


Having just completed another show as the Sinfonist, and having endured debates ad naseum about the utility of the Sinfonia (OrchExtra Powered by Sinfonia), I resolved to itemize my issues with the device. I think theater companies may expect certain advantages from using the device that are based on misconceptions which I will attempt to dispel here. I invite anyone thinking of employing the Sinfonia for their production to consider the following points before choosing to do so. Here are the myths and my rebuttals.

The Sinfonia is more reliable than a musician.

The Sinfonia does not replace musicians. The Sinfonia replaces instruments. It still requires a musician to operate. However, if the Sinfonia is covering more than one part, a missing or delayed Sinfonist will cause a larger gap in your lineup than a missing musician on another instrument. And a poorly played Sinfonia will degrade your sound more than a poorly played single instrument.

Most acoustic instruments do not accidentally start playing on their own. Trumpets rarely get stuck in the "on" position. Basoon's rarely need to be rebooted. An unstrung violin gets noticed and attended to well before downbeat. Manual instruments rarely accidentally play at full volume in the middle of silent dramatic theater moments. Sinfonia introduces all of these hazards.

Over all, the Sinfonia is an instrument, but just a far more complicated and finicky one. 

Sinfonia always plays in tune.

Yes this is true, but so does an electronic piano yet that doesn't mean notes coming from a piano always sound right.

A Sinfonia always plays the right notes.

A Sinfonia also always plays the wrong notes. It does whichever it was programmed to do and there are bugs. This is not surprising when you consider that show music typically has wrong notes written into the score. I'm not sure if an operator can fix incorrectly programmed notes without the help of RMS and a new download. I do know it is possible to programatically mute the wrong notes. In either case, this introduces substantially more labor and delay than an instrumentalist correcting sheet music with a pencil.

The bugs in programming reduce over time as RMS diligently corrects them.

Wrong notes played by musicians also reduce over time as diligent musicians correct them. But a musician playing a manual instrument does not need to call New York and have access to the internet before correcting the offending notes.

Ok, but the Sinfonia will play fewer wrong notes than a musician will.

Sort of true. But remember that a "right" note does not remain the right note for the entire show. A right note is only right for one brief instant in time. The operator still needs to control the machine to assure it plays every single right note at exactly the right time. But if the operator is off, there will be more wrong notes in the next few seconds than an instrumentalist is likely to miss in that entire show.

Furthermore, even if the Sinfonia plays every note perfectly, the best a Sinfonia can play is "fine". But it will never play beautifully. In contrast, as musicians perfect their performance, they continue further improving by enhancing their artistry in performance in a way that affects audiences emotionally. Not only will the Sinfonia not allow the operator to ever move into this level of performance, its integration in the orchestra will prevent the other musicians from doing so either since it can not adapt to the enrichment taking place dynamically in the orchestra no matter what the operator does. This does injustice to the other artists and their talents and labor and decreases their personal reward from the performance. Companies may end up having to pay musicians more to play with Sinfonia to offset their diminished artistic reward.

Anyone can play a Sinfonia. It does not require a highly trained musician.

Anyone can also play a drum, yet a conductor is usually wise in being more discriminating. In this respect, operating the Sinfonia is in my opinion most closely related to percussion where, sure, anyone might play the note, but only the few and the skilled can play it at precisely the right time.

The Sinfonia is intelligent so it should play better than dumb instruments.

Imagine playing a violin with two people. One person on the bow, the other on the finger thingy. Now you have an intelligent bow. Is that easier to play? The more an instrument tries to think for you, the more it becomes like a three legged race.

The Sinfonia is intelligent and lightens your workload. 

I sometimes felt like I was trying to hole punch paper using a machine gun. Was it easier? Easier to do? yes. Easier to do well? no. 

The Sinfonia saves money vs. paying multiple musicians.

It is my understanding (hearsay) that Sinfonia is being worked into annual contracts between music publishers and theater companies in a way that obscures how much the Sinfonia is actually costing the company.

The Sinfonia cost can quickly overtake hiring savings. This depends on many factors, of course, but it is not unreasonable to expect plenty of cases where hiring a complete orchestra would cost less than a Sinfonia rental.

Last minute economizing, trimming or augmenting of an orchestra is possible to suit economics. Sinfonia cost is fixed in advance.

I have little information on this subject because at my company, the music director was not invited into the decision to use Sinfonia.
 

The Sinfonia is a useful rehearsal tool

In my opinion, probably true, if you aren't still experimenting with frequent changes. You still have to mark changes on the sheet music as you would if you were a rehearsal pianist, but you also have to concentrate in order to program in your changes. This disrupts rehearsal flow as programming is entered, plus it takes additional time to play through to test that your reprogram works as intended. These several minute delays multiplied by the number of small changes that take place during a typical production accumulate into a significant reduction in rehearsal.

The Sinfonia whines less than musicians

Yes, but again, the Sinfonia doesn't replace the musician, it replaces the instrument. Trumpets and drums don't whine either. (Oboes, clarinets and violins... are another matter, but I digress.) A Sinfonia player can still whine. If you want witnesses, talk to my past conductors.

My remarks in context 

I strongly urge decision makers to question whether the Sinfonia is actually providing the benefits assumed given the penalties it imposes and to reconsider the comparative impact of redirecting that money to hiring more skilled traditional instrumentalists. Truly talented musicians are available at rates far less than their true worth. If you are not an instrumentalist and are making this decision, I suggest you write down all of the advantages you can think of in using Sinfonia, then translate them into a context your are more familiar with by reconsidering the same points under the following scenarios:

I am a gadget freak, and the Sinfonia is a cool machine. With my engineering and programming experience, I am not the least uncomfortable with computers. Dealing with their complexities in real time, that's another matter.

I imagine it does have its place, but I don't have a clear vision of where. In its current form in my experiences so far, I am persuaded that it causes many more problems in the end than it solves.

Either way, good luck!