03 November 2013

Page Turning Terror

It is often said that the most terrifying thing you can do in music is to turn pages for a performer on stage.  If you do it well, nobody notices, and if you make a mistake you can bring the whole performance down around your ears.  A single error from the page-turner can incur the unmitigated wrath and contempt of both performers and concert-goers.  Turning a page of music on stage requires about the same amount of physical effort as striking a match, and both, if misplaced, can have catastrophic results.

American Artist Keith Gantos has
celebrated the page-turner in this lovely picture
(taken from http://fineartamerica.com)
The dread of the touring pianist or organist is the unknown page-turner.  Will they turn up?  Where will they stand?  Will they have bad breath or, more particularly, body odour (after all when you turn pages for a pianist your crotch becomes uncomfortably close to the performer’s face while those who turn for organists usually present an armpit disturbingly close to the player’s nose)? What will they be wearing?  Will they be able to read music?  Often performers send a whole list of instructions ahead of them in the hope that concert promoters will more easily identify suitable candidates for page-turning duties, some will interview and audition the candidates, and many will insist on a short rehearsal.  There are performers, so badly scarred by bad page-turning experiences, that they go to incredible lengths to avoid the need.  While, of course, most pianists play from memory, few organists do using the added complications of registration changes, unusual stop choices and finger and foot directions as an excuse for needing the music in front of them, and I know of numerous organists who painstakingly photocopy their music on to miniature pages and then paste them all on one large sheet of hardboard, carrying on with them to the console something which looks very much like a carpenter’s patch.  It looks unsightly, plays havoc with your eyesight, but these are a small price to pay for the relief of not having a page-turner present.

I'm not sure where this weird picture came
from or what it's supposed to depict,
but I found it on a most entertaining piece
about page turners at

As a student I often was called upon to turn pages and, after the initial pride in being selected to turn pages for some of the great pianists and organists of my youth, I quickly learnt to dread the task.  If I knew the music and read it, I found myself turning the page where I found it convenient rather than where the performer did (I realise I tend to read quite a long way ahead of where others do), and if I did not know the music I became so absorbed with exploring new material that I forgot what I was supposed to do and famously once sat waiting for someone else to turn the page I myself should have been turning.  Faced with an eye-watering array of notes being played very fast , I have been tempted into the trap of following a pedal line or, in the case of chamber music, the pizzicato cello, only to realise too late that the organist is omitting the pedal line or the cellist has decided against pizzicato.  Add to that the blind panic which turns printed notes on a page into an incomprehensible blur, and the shaking, sweat soaked fingers which find it incapable of separating one page from another, and you do not need to be told that my presence as a page-turner was never beneficial to the performance. 
And I won’t even go into the realms of repeats, da capos and dal segnos which are put into printed music with the sole intention of catching out even the most wary page-turners.  In a straight fight between turning the pages for a Scherzo and Trio and attempting to separate a nursing crocodile from her young, I’d opt for the croc every time.

Luckily, for the past few decades, I have been in the position of appointing page-turners rather than serving as one, and throughout my happy 13 years at the console of the now-defunct Kuala Lumpur Klais, I was blessed to have a wonderful page-turner, Tan Eng Pin.  He very quickly got to know my needs and intentions, could cope with the frequent emergencies when I missed out great chunks of music by accident, and was sufficiently intimately acquainted with the Klais that he could even pull out the odd stop or two when I reached for one but missed the target.  He could even effect running repairs when a cypher threatened to disrupt proceedings.  He once confessed that he had a problem in his fingertips which meant they were permanently dry, but I happily forgave his tendency to lick his fingers before turning pages for the comfort of knowing that he was there and was usually doing a better job at turning pages than I was at reading them.  He even withstood my frequent muttered curses as a slightly delayed or premature page-turn gave me the excuse to blame him for a slip of the fingers which was, in truth, entirely my own fault.  Such page-turners are a rare and wonderful treasure.
However, a recent visit to a concert hall in St Andrews by a chamber trio found me once again in the limelight as page-turner.  Quadrupling up as concert organiser, stage-manager, front-of-house coordinator and lighting technician, it was reported to me a little before the concert that the appointed page-turner was ill.  A replacement was found, but when she learnt the concert was being broadcast by the BBC, she steadfastly refused and, with the artists about to go on stage, it was left to me to open the door, fade the lights, start the applause, and then hurry on to stage after them to sit by the pianist and turn her pages (unfortunately I also had to dash off stage before them in order to fade up the lights and open the doors).  Luckily I had lit the stage so that the page-turner was in the dark, but I could not help but think that my glowing red ears, luminous with embarrassment, shone through to the audience, and I know that my red face lit up the platform when, on a couple of occasions, the page turn went many bars too soon to the pianist’s obvious annoyance and audible intake of breath (which the BBC had to remove in a subsequent patching session – eliciting nasty looks from all concerned).

The Trio themselves were brilliant  and I felt privileged to be present amidst such superlative music-making, but behind the scenes they were about the most brittle bunch of musicians I have ever encountered.  It did not help that pianist and violinist were husband and wife.  Their continual bickering clearly disconcerted the cellist who spent most of his time indulging in curt, unhelpful comments and occasionally going into mega-sulks both on and off stage.  

Of course, it is this kind of highly-charged emotional involvement which makes for great performances, and certainly did so here, but it makes the life of the poor page-turner even more wretched; when three people spend their life directing rancour and venom at each other, the chance to direct it to a fourth must come as a welcome relief.

So next  time you see a shadowy figure emerge on stage in the wake of a pianist or organist, have pity.  That person will be, without a doubt, the most nervous, the most terrified and the most frightened person there.  No amount of experience or professional experience can dull the sheer panic of being a page-turner.


  1. There is a movie called 'The page turner'exploiting all these dynamics very successfully.

  2. Dr Marc

    It was very good to see your latest post, after more than a month’s silence.

    The fact that so many performers have page-turner stories, either as victim or perpetrator, indicates what a perilous occupation it is.

    For myself, a few years ago I was asked to page turn for one very talented young pianist in a chamber music concert. I diligently did my bit, following the score and turning at what I thought was just the right moment. Several pages into the work it dawned on me that the pianist had not yet glanced at the manuscript at all, and my efforts were therefore completely superfluous. But there was no option but to soldier on.

    And that reminds me of a prank played at a lunch-time recital when I was an undergrad. For once it was the page-turner who was the victim. The page-turner was (inevitably) a good looking, female, first year music student who took herself a little too seriously, but was the subject of quite some attention in the music faculty, and pianist was an accomplished alpha-male final-year student. After the page-turner had set up the manuscript, the pianist sat down and immediately started performing a totally different work. The page-turner was thrown into a complete panic, cast furtive glances all round in search of alternative scores, and was then further perplexed when the pianist indicated that he wanted the page turned. And so it continued, with intermittent nods to turn the page at improbable moments, and if I remember correctly, impatient gestures when she missed non-existent repeats. Presumably quite a few of the audience were in on the joke, for it went down very well with everyone except the page-turner.

    Dr Peter