I awoke this morning from a dream where I was running off stage in the middle of a performance. I wasn't fleeing a disastrous moment of playing, or a terrifying audience, but a nightmare about page-turning for a pianist. The huge pile of music for the concert had, in the way that things do in dreams, turned out to be printed on pieces of soft fabric, which was flopping all over the place and falling into the piano. Despite this obvious challenge, the pianist was angry at my inability to turn the pages properly, and I left in shame...
Possibly the weirdest thing about this dream, is that it happened the night after I had page-turned for a concert, rather than the night before, and said concert had gone perfectly well, with, strangely enough no paper that turned into unmanageable floppy stuff, and no anger or shame anywhere to be seen. Still, as I lay awake this morning, wondering what my brain was trying to tell me, I remembered that I'd long been meaning to write a blog post about page-turning.
The 'job' of being the person who turns pages for piano players is the subject of occasional online articles - the most recent that I've read debates whether page-turners are "a charming relic of an amateur age." Technological advances mean you can now have music on an iPad (or other tablet) and turn by means of a wirelessly-connected foot pedal. Adoption of these seems slow, however, so there is still, currently, room for those people who sit to the side of the piano.
I can't actually remember when I first turned pages. My first flute teacher was also a pianist and I think I did it for her when she was accompanying other students for concerts. As a teenager, I was part of a choir which had junior and senior sections, and I remember occasionally page-turning for the accompanist while the adult group were singing. The occasion which most sticks in my head is doing this in a church, when the accompanist was playing the organ - I was fascinated by the instrument, and the extra challenges - both to player, and for the page-turner in trying to keep out of the way! - that it presented. I did some page-turning at Uni, for odd other concerts and shows. And then I didn't, for quite a while.
So, fast-forward to a few years ago, when I was looking for some music-related voluntary work in Sheffield. The website of the wonderful Music in the Round popped up, and I filled in the form to register as a volunteer. I happily ticked the boxes to say I would do admin, ticket selling, help at concerts etc, but I hesitated over the 'page-turning' option. I had done it before, but did I want to do it again? I told myself that I could always say no if I was asked to do it, ticked the box and hurriedly sent the form off before I changed my mind.
It was a while before a request came through, and I was definitely nervous about agreeing that first time. I don't think I had any anxious dreams, but I did worry about being able to do a good job of it. It's a funny task - most people will describe it as 'quite a responsibility' or something along those lines. It's important, in a way, because you're helping things to run smoothly, but at the same time you're the least important person on that stage. You're part of a performance, but I always feel that my role to 'perform' is to be as invisible as possible. Despite enjoying performing in the traditional sense, I think I'm also pretty good at being unobtrusive (or "too quiet" as I was often told when I was younger). So, in 2014, Music in the Round got me 'back into' page-turning. I realised I was OK at it, I actually really enjoyed it (a friendly welcome from Ensemble 360's brilliant pianist Tim Horton hugely helped) and have lost count of how many times I've done it since.
It shares aspects with performing as a musician - a high level of concentration on a piece of music, precise physical movements and 'playing your part' at the right time - but at the same time is very different. You're not expressing yourself or communicating with the audience. You're not moving with the music, although the tempo does affect what you do - somehow it feels that a quiet and slow moment requires a different page-turning action to the middle of a 'presto' movement that needs the pages whipped over quickly. You need to be aware of the structure of the music, rather than the details, to know broadly what's coming next, and if there's any repeats - turning back pages instead of forward is always fun (by 'fun' I mean a bit of a challenge and slightly worrying, especially if you've got to grab a handful of pages to get back to the start of a long movement). Like playing music, the challenges are both mental (concentration) and physical (getting stupid pages to stay open when they want to flip back over, and you can't take the stupid book off the piano in the middle of the piece and bend the spine back), but they're embodied in a different way.
Almost every time I page-turn, people ask me questions about it. Do I get nervous? Yes, a little bit, because of the responsibility of not messing up something for someone else. It's similar to the feeling of being nervous when accompanying a flute student's exam - yes, I am, but the occasion is about them not me and I have a responsibility to support them (so, actually, both experiences are very useful about learning how to manage nerves, and, dare I say, ego?!).
Do I rehearse? I have been in rehearsals sometimes - there are page-turning 'conventions' but it's good to get to know how a particular pianist works. Do they indicate when they want you to turn? How close to the end of the page do they generally want it turned? (You get more of a sense of this the more you work with the same person too). But normally it's a quick look through the pieces beforehand to grasp what's going on and pick out any awkward bits. Did I enjoy the pieces? Yes, but not in the same way as you do as part of the audience. I enjoy being 'involved' in the process of the pieces coming to life, but I don't exactly 'hear' them - I'm listening to them, and I'm concentrating on following them on the score, so I'm far more aware of the overall structure than the details. I've been introduced to new pieces by page-turning for them (recent highlights being Ligeti's Musica Ricercata/ Six Bagatelles, and Volker David Kirchner's Lamento e Danza d’Orfeo for French horn and piano), and subsequently gone home and listened to them, and sometimes wanted to be cloned/ time-travel as I've enjoyed the page-turning but would also have liked to hear the live performance by those musicians.
Have I ever had any page-turning disasters? If you believe YouTube, there have been many of those around the world! Music flying off all over the place, page-turners falling off the stage. I've once or twice had a blip in following the music and missed a turn, which the pianist has then had to quickly do themselves (nobody's ever got angry like the one in my dream, though). I once wore a cardigan which fell at just the right angle to clatter its buttons on the piano every time I turned a page, and spent most of a concert holding on to it with my non-turning hand - I'm now quite careful about clothes, to avoid a repeat of that or anything flapping in the way of the pianist.
If you've never page-turned, it probably looks either incredibly easy or like some sort of mysterious magical art. It's neither really. It's a performance which is completely not-about-you, but about someone else's performance. It almost feels odd writing about it in this much detail, because it's so much about being in the background, drawing as little attention to yourself as possible (I decided not to add any pictures to this post - I don't think there are any of me page-turning, and that seems quite appropriate, given that sense of being almost invisible). There are few, if any, professional page-turners as such - they tend to be volunteers, students, or people who work at concert halls who are asked to do it as part of their job. But I think those of us who do it regularly probably do analyse it a bit (especially when we're frequently asked questions about it). Despite the strange considerations of appropriate cardigans and the frustrations of non-compliant sheet music, it's a curiously intense experience and a privilege to be in the midst of excellent musicians making music.
Keep in touch
I have an email newsletter where I share my latest blog posts, news from the flute and wider musical world, my current projects, and things I've found that I think are interesting and useful and would love to share with you. Expect lots about music and education, plus the occasional dip into research, language, freelance life, gardening and other nice things. Sign up below!
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!