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Jessica Duchen
Monday 5th April 2010
The Worst Job in Music?

There's one musical task that's even more nerve-wracking than playing the piano. Namely, turning the pages. Trouble is, everyone thinks it's easy until they try...

Blithe volunteers or conscripts ("Now, darling, you won't mind turning for our guest trio's pianist, will you? You'll have time to prepare the interval tea urn too") often don't know what they're letting themselves in for, and a pianist who's already jittery about the concert may turn several shades paler upon the arrival of a jolly-hockey-sticks who declares she's "never seen a page of music before, but of course that doesn't matter, does it...?"

Here are five DOs and five DON'Ts lest you should be unfortunate enough to find yourself facing what might just be the worst job in all music.

DO:

1. Check with the pianist in advance which repeats s/he is doing, if any, and exactly how they work.

2. Dog-ear the top right hand corner of each page for easy grabbing.

3. Make sure you've got something to sit on and can see the music clearly.

4. Remember that a lot of pianists read ahead so may need the page turned several bars before reaching its apparent end.

5. Agree with the pianist what signal s/he will give to alert you that it's time to turn.

DON'T

1. Wear anything intrusive: plunging necklines, dangly necklaces or ties, long floppy sleeves and bright colours are real no-nos and could distract in a variety of ways. (Of course some pianists might enjoy the plunging neckline, but that leads to a whole different set of problems.)

2. Obscure the music from the pianist's view with your arm while preparing to turn. 

3. Simply smile sweetly back when the pianist smiles sweetly at you. He's probably indicating that if you don't turn that page NOW, he will put you through the mincer.

4. Eat anything containing garlic before the concert.

5. Take a bow.

As an Easter treat, here's a little aid from Victor Borge. (And if you want another good laugh, see the French movie The Page Turner, which came out a few years ago. I went with a pianist friend and we were rolling in the aisles, though it isn't meant to be funny...)

 

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Mike Glendinning
April 28th, 2010
11:04 PM
Of course some page turners are their own worst enemy, for example the poor sop helping out Steven Osborne in Vingt Regards at the Wigmore Hall a couple of years ago, missing one of the repeats and having to be helped out by Steven himself, as if his hands didn't have enough to do at the time! Not that many in the audience noticed, though, but the glare given by the pianist to the page turner would be enough to force anybody into retirement :-) Equally amusing and at the same venue, is the "phantom" page turner, namely the draught created by the new(ish) air conditioning, which seems to eddy round the position of a quartet's first violin's music stand, causing the pages to turn by themselves. I've seen poor Corina Belcea caught out on a number of occasions, and needing to be helped out by a good prod from the bow of Laura Samuel on second violin! In that case, a heavily dog-eared corner does not help as it just acts to catch more of the draught and increase the likelihood of problems!

Guy Aron
April 21st, 2010
1:04 AM
I have only turned pages once, and found it quite nerve-racking. It was for the Mendelssohn D minor trio. Not knowing the piece at all well, I actually missed the first turn - quelle horreur! (The pianist did it for me.) I got them all after that. However, my right thigh muscles were killing me for days afterwards from hovering, page corner in hand, waiting for the pianist to nod.

Peter
April 11th, 2010
11:04 PM
Thanks for the excellent Victor Borge clip, which I'd not seen before. I do page-turning quite often and it's very satisfying when one has done it well and the pianist hardly noticed I was there (probably the best compliment I received). The scary moments included the Ligeti Etudes played from a small reproduction of his manuscript and anything by Sorabji... With ageing eyesight, one can add to that the difficulty of focusing on the music from a distance when wearing lenses, and the problem of inadequate lighting. My two worst experiences as the performer were someone who turned several bars too early in slow movements and left it too late in fast ones, and the guy who wore an unbuttoned jacket and covered up the keyboard every time he leaned across. It was well over ten minutes before the first movement ended and I could tell him to take it off! "The Page Turner" is certainly worth seeing, but perhaps not by the practitioner of that activity unless they have a particularly macabre character. By the way, do you know about the Poulenc cello sonata (I think), in which at one point the page-turner is instructed to move quickly and turn the page for the cellist?? I saw Mats Lidstrom and Bengt Forsberg playing it in the Wigmore, and exactly that happened. One more quick story: I was once recruited to turn pages for Ashkenazy, but rejected on the grounds of my gender - he insisted on having a woman, presumably so that he wouldn't look too small next to the page-turner!

Tay
April 6th, 2010
5:04 PM
"(Of course some pianists might enjoy the plunging neckline, but that leads to a whole different set of problems.)" It's only a problem if you're not trying to snag a pianist ;). That's good information, but a tad hard to make sure you have the right clothing if you're picked for the job at the last minute. It's kind of like being picked to play hostess at the last minute and realizing you're the only hostess in purple while everybody else is in black.

Peter Gross
April 5th, 2010
7:04 PM
wonderful - thanks for making me laugh! I remember turning pages in the St Matthew's passion, for one of the organists. Being in a stroppy phase I was wearing a bright red sweater, in an otherwise black and white church performance (why did no-one say anything?). Some piece came on in which my organist had nothing to play, I turned the page to his next piece. He sat enjoying the piece, and at the end turned the page again...crashed in with a horrendously wrong chord....

Fernando Castro
April 5th, 2010
5:04 PM
The Page Turner did seem a little odd to me. I can't imagine a pianist becoming that dependent on a page turner.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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