What’s in a page turn?

Martin Kozlowski

Martin Kozlowski

I’ve been using two different editions to practice Bach’s Great Eighteen Chorales. Most of the pieces I learned years ago from the Widor-Schweitzer edition but for these last few months, I’ve practiced the music from the Bärenreiter score, which has the notes more spread out, resulting in a lot more page turns. But with my vision problems, I’m finding out that I really prefer the more spread-out Bärenreiter to the Widor-Schweitzer which has the notes more squished together.

In practicing BWV 664, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, I can say that I’ve pretty much licked this very challenging piece — except for the page turns which come at very awkward places. Of course, with both hands and feet going in all different directions all at once, there really isn’t any way I am going to be able to turn the pages myself, so I’ll have to ask one of my experienced (human) page turners to help me out.

Here's a picture of a Victorian music page turner. You place your sheets of music between the brass arms and press the button to turn the page.

Here’s a picture of a Victorian music page turner. You place your sheets of music between the brass arms and press the button to turn the page.

In case you don’t know, a page turner can make or break a performance! Unless you’ve absolutely memorized every note, turning the page too early or too late is a deal breaker and you’re toast. The question is, when exactly should the page be turned?

Not too long ago, I became aware of a fascinating Wikipedia article called Eye movement in music reading which examines the way in which musicians scan a musical score. I especially am intrigued with the phenomenon of “saccades” and “fixations“. According to the article, “Saccades are the rapid ‘flicks’ that move the eyes from location to location over a music score. Saccades are separated from each other by fixations, during which the eyes are relatively stationary on the page.”

Musicians who do a lot of sightreading (like me) read ahead — and rely on short-term musical memory to store and process the notes until they are played. In general, I therefore like to have the page turned at the first note of the last measure of the page — and that’s if someone else turns the page for me. When I’m learning a score, of course, I have to stop and turn the page myself, and don’t turn it until I’ve finished playing all the notes on that particular page.

Here are some interesting articles for you to read on page-turning:

A Page Turner’s Survival Guide
The plight of the page turner
The life of a professional page turner
Turning a Page? Better consult a professional
The stressy existence of a professional page turner
Page-turners can make or break a concert

Another antique page turner, this one made by The British and Colonial Industries Assn.

Another antique page turner, this one made by The British and Colonial Industries Assn.

P.S. There are mechanical devices for page turning, in addition to those made for the iPad, but I haven’t tried them.

I also have decided not to play this music from memory as that would increase my stress level greatly!

I don’t need any more stress in my life!

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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One Response to What’s in a page turn?

  1. Heidi Bender says:

    I turned pages once a couple of years ago for my teacher at a Christmas concert. I think I was much more nervous than he was. Page turning is harder than it looks! I have yet to master that skill of turning my own pages without pausing.

    Thanks for the links. I will check them out!

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