Harry Connick Jr. is a versatile guy: crooner, composer, big-band leader, piano player, actor, comedian. And an inventor, as well.
Mr. Connick, who has been described by one critic as a new and improved version of Sinatra, recently received United States patent 6,348,648 for a "system and method for coordinating music display among players in an orchestra."
"It basically eliminates old-fashioned sheet music," Mr. Connick said in a phone interview 10 days ago, before leaving for Salt Lake City, where he performed "Over the Rainbow" during the closing ceremonies of the Olympics.
His patented idea came to him one day several years ago when his big band was playing outdoors and the sheet music was blowing around. Why not, he thought, have all 16 band members read their music off computer screens instead?
So before he started a long tour in 1999, Mr. Connick bought enough blue and white G3 Power Macs, each with a rotatable screen, that everyone from his trombonists to his drummer could read from electronic sheet music.
For technical advice, he turned to his neighbor David Pogue, who is a former Broadway conductor and a computer guru to the stars, whose clients have included Stephen Sondheim and Mia Farrow. (Mr. Pogue, who also writes the State of the Art column for the weekly Circuits section of this newspaper, has no commercial ties to Mr. Connick's invention.)
"A lot of the guys I knew from my pit work on Broadway said that it would never work," Mr. Pogue recalled. "They said the computer would crash or the screen wouldn't refresh itself in time for a professional situation."
In fact, Mr. Pogue said, the technology had progressed far enough that the electronic page could be turned faster and more reliably than a paper page.
At first, Mr. Pogue said, the members of Mr. Connick's band were skeptical. "They circled it and sniffed it the first day," he said. "But by the time they opened the tour they were really into it."
Mr. Connick started the digital-score tour in a relatively low-stakes locale Ames, Iowa so that any kinks could be worked out beyond publicity's glare.
Unlike most other pop musicians, Mr. Connick does his own musical arrangements right on his Macintosh computer, using Finale software from Coda Music Technology, a division of Net4Music. His system allows him to make changes to a given arrangement, knock out eight bars here, add eight bars there and have them entered automatically into his musicians' copies of the music.
"Oh man, it's made my life easier," Mr. Connick said. "Before, I would write out a song by hand and give it to a couple of guys in the band who are copyists and they would figure out the instrumental sections. It could take days. Now I can write a new score in the morning and everyone has it on his computer screen in the afternoon. Imagine if a Duke Ellington or a Stravinsky had had a system like that."
The system has had some unforeseen benefits, as well. In studio recordings, for example, it's no longer necessary to digitally remove the page-turning rustling in the background. Moreover, musicians can insert page breaks wherever they want.
And doing away with sheet music also means doing away with music lights for the musicians. So when the lights dim and Mr. Connick begins to sing, Mr. Pogue said, all the audience sees of the other musicians is "this super-cool bluish glow on their faces from the computer screens."
Mr. Connick's patent covers more territory than electronic sheet music. He hopes that eventually the computers will have their own operating system and feature a touch screen that allows a composer to write music as he would on paper. But he makes it clear that he is a concept man.
"I can do stuff like put RAM in a computer, but I'm not a programmer," he said. "You start talking about the technology involved in making it, and I'm going to be completely lost. I don't have any interest in actually building it. I just want someone to send me one in the mail when it's done."
In fact, Mr. Connick approached Apple Computer about helping him develop the system.
"I love their products and I thought for sure they would go for it," he said. "They put up a lot of 'Think Different' posters and I sure think different. But they weren't interested."
On the day his patent was issued, Mr. Connick said, his wife, Jill Goodacre, a former Victoria's Secret model, asked him if he was proud of himself.
"I said not really," Mr. Connick recalled. "It's not like I invented Velcro or anything."