The perils of page-turning

The page-turner is vital to a good performance (if you're not memorizing the music)

The page-turner is vital to a good performance (if you’re not memorizing the music)

What could be more simple? Just turning the page from one to the next while someone else plays the music. Judging from the number of comments I received on my post about the Arvo Pärt piece I played last week for the University of Hawaii chorus concert, page-turning is not so simple and there is a split-second margin of error before you have either have a a turn of no consequence or some other page-turning debacle like turning two pages at once, or the music ends up on the floor. We’ve all had that happen to us!

There are even professional page-turners: Listen to NPR’s Susan Stamberg interview with David Evan Thomas here.

Peter Donohue, a professional page-turner, has written an extensive treatise on page-turning in which he says “many people have tales of page-turners’ mistakes. It is a very difficult job to do well. These mistakes can ruin a concert, and performances of chamber music, lieder recitals, and particularly of 20th Century and contemporary music, rely very heavily upon the efficiency of the turner. There have been several radio programs on BBC radio over the years about page-turning disasters, and they must make those who put themselves in the firing line cringe with embarrassment.”

According to Elizabeth Harcombe, who turns pages for at least twenty concerts a season for Chamber Arts Northwest, turning pages is truly an art form. She says a key to being a good page-turner is being a good sight-reader:

I’m never nervous turning pages. Every musician I talk to is completely freaked out about turning pages, but for me, page turning is a natural thing because I’m a strong sight reader. You do a lot of sight reading as a page turner. I guess I could take the time to study the score, but it’s more fun to see it all go by on the stage.

In an article called “Elizabeth Harcombe talks about the art of turning pages,” she recalls playing in a four-hand piano concert where she herself had to have a page-turner — she named Gregory Dubay as being a great page-turner! (Greg was formerly principal cello in the Honolulu Symphony and frequently played with the Bach Chamber Orchestra. We just visited him and his wife, Janet, in Portland last June.)

For a humorous but very informative article about the technique of page-turning, check out Michael Hammer’s blog post: “A Page-Turner’s Survival Guide.” He ends by saying: Page-turning is a high stress job and requires years of steady effort to master; it is good to start out as an apprentice and work your way up. If you are lucky, perhaps you will be acknowledged in the program, or even asked to do interviews on public radio.

In the meantime, you will get a nice seat for the concert.

Clint Laing, a former Honolulu chorister, wrote about his page-turning experience with John McCreary:  I will always remember my first (and not my last) gig turning pages for Da Greatess… at one point I started to turn but was 4 measures too soon! John reached up and grabbed my wrist with his right hand, held it and continued to play the rest of that page using just his left hand and feet, which did indeed blow me away. I never made that mistake again!

Well, to follow up on last week’s UH concert, suffice it to say that the poor page-turner who was assigned to me did not turn a single page of the music, (think deer in the headlights!) and I ended up turning my own pages — but as Peggy Johnson (an organist who formerly lived in Honolulu) wrote on my FaceBook page: There is not enough money in the world to get me to turn pages for an Arvo Pärt score ever! 

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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3 Responses to The perils of page-turning

  1. Bob Crocker says:

    Re: The perils of page-turning

    Though I am energetic and personally prefer to turn pages earlier than most, I have mostly been able to serve as a calm page turner when asked.

    The worst experience I ever had, however, still makes me blush with shame.

    I sang with the Columbia Glee Club from 1975-1978, and the chorus, at that time still TTBBB with some wonderful women tenors from Barnard across the street, frequently performed SATB music with women’s colleges. Gregg Smith was directing the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, which I had extensively rehearsed, already sung once in performance with him, and thought I knew pretty well. There were two pianists, who asked for a page turner AFTER the dress rehearsal. To my horror the score was not what I had been singing from, and worse, HAD NO CHORAL PARTS. I thought, “I read music, I play the piano — how hard could this be?,” not realizing the bewildering array of D. S., internal repeats (some observed in our performance and some not), codas, irregular length second endings followed by repeats to previous pages, and so on. These interesting structural anomalies no doubt reflect Brahms’ freshness of invention and were imaginative apotheoses of the simple waltzes he is said to have improvised in Leipzig houses of ill repute as a teenager, but to this seventeen-ear-old imperfectly trained musician, they were a source of escalating terror as I repeatedly turned too early, failed to turn to a previous page, or otherwise inadvertently sabotaged the crusty duet players. I was screwing up the performance on stage in full view of everyone, and was eventually instructed in a brusque, audible-in-the-back-row stage whisper to “Sit still, leave your hands in your lap, and let us do it.”

    The moral is, even page turners need one rehearsal.

  2. Dale Hall says:

    I accompany as pianist the choir at Pohai Nani. I turn my own pages, and although I have had a a couple of trainwrecks turning pages during choir rehearsal, I have not yet had any during the choir’s public performance.

    However, I will never forget accompanying Bax’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and having a page turner who turned over three pages instead of one in the middle of the first movement. It was touch and go while I clawed my way back to the correct page with my left hand while attempting to keep playing with the right..

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