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A Night in the Shoes of a Page-turner

Transcript of a podcast from Piano Talks with Warren Lee by the same title



Imagine this. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a lazy Sunday. While searching for another recyclable excuse not to practice more for the day, you receive an unexpected call from your school kindly soliciting your help to turn pages at the marquee concert tonight for a colleague of your professor, a well-known and respected pianist, at the Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium no less. Being a freshman clarinetist still in awe of the glamour of the big league, you offer no hesitation in saying, “It would be my honour, sir. Yes, I’ll be there at the backstage by 7.45pm.” A legitimate excuse to put away the clarinet for the day, too.

You would have liked to ask what the programme is for the night, but held your tongue so that you don’t appear to be impolite or picky about the gig. You googled it but only found a vague description: “Programme to include works by Mozart, Brahms and more…”

Dressed in an all-black attire assuming that it is the de facto dress code for the page-turning profession, you promptly arrive at the venue ahead of time, only to be greeted by the stage team dressing exactly the same. You debated about styling your hair and putting on some light make-up for the occasion, but thought better of it. After all, patrons pay to see the artists, and hear the masterpieces by Mozart and Brahms. Surely, nobody would say, “Geez, the page-turner looks pale; I’m worried about the Brahms tonight.”

Right on the dot at 7.45pm, you knock on the door of the dressing room. You try hard to suppress your temptation to ask for an autograph, not to mention a selfie with Mr. Pianist. Instead, he dutifully passed you his scores, with their loose binding evident of the several decades of not-so-gentle flipping. Without any trace of nerves, Mr. Pianist gently reminds you that they will be taking all the repeats, except in the second halves of the first movements; and obviously, he said, the repeats in the Minuet after Da Capo in the 3rd movement of the Mozart will be omitted. There are also a couple of flip-outs in the last movements which you need to remember to flip out before the start of that movement, and remember not to stand and turn when we get there. Before you start visibly shaking because of the overload of information and the monumental task you have literally in your very hands, Mr. Pianist assuredly said, “Don’t worry, kid – I know this music inside out.”

With about 12 minutes before the concert, you try to go through the 80-minute long programme in your head, examining every page turn; and as a life-and-death matter, the goddam repeats. In the Mozart, there are six; some requiring to turn back a page or two. The biggest pain in the bottom is the Minuet-and-Trio, where there are two repeated sections in both Minuet and Trio, both requiring to turn a page back, only to be met by a Da Capo at the end of the Trio, which you have to turn back 3 pages to go back to the beginning of the Minuet. Remember that this time round, there will be no more repeats, but upon seeing that S-like symbol, called Del Segno, you need to skip forward 3 pages to go to the Coda. Oh, and there is an attacca into the final movement, so stay standing during that 12-bar coda and be ready to turn again. You can’t help but to wonder why publishers couldn’t simply print all the repeats out to spare pianists and page-turners the agony and stress. Surely, they sell paper for a profit, and it is in their best interest to print more pages and charge more!

The Brahms is comparatively a walk in the park; and has only a couple of straight-forward repeats. Having said that, the density of the black dots in the Presto movement catches your attention; and at the metronome marking of 168 to a beat, each bar flies by under 2 seconds!

The last piece of strategy you need to think over, is to determine which line of music to follow. With this being a trio and quartet concert, you have a choice of instruments, and different clefs to choose from. A clarinetist reads scores mostly in B-flat and sometimes in A, which means, when you play a C on the clarinet, the note that comes out – the sounding pitch – is a B-flat. This becomes a problem if you have developed a good relative pitch for your instrument, which inconveniently for this evening, you have. Everything on the score sounds different and “wrong” from the clarinet scale that you are acclimatized to! But you trust your instinct and decide to follow the piano line, despite it having by far the most number of notes per bar.

As the page-turner, you are the last to walk out, a good few steps behind the performers; and as they take their bows in front of the piano, you walk behind it with your head bowed down solemly, scores in hand, and off you go to your “office chair” placed to the left of the piano. As you look right towards the performers and to the score, you would wish that you have brought your Ray Ban sunglasses to shield you from the glare of the spotlights, and to partially block out the sighting of 3,000 pairs of eyes fixated on the stage, including those from New York Times. This has got to be the scariest voluntary job on the planet. The stake cannot be higher, at least for a musician. All you are praying for, is that you do not draw any attention to yourself; meaning, you do not make any mistake. A non-musician friend whom you confided in about this little pro bono adventure had said earlier in the day, “What could possibly go wrong? It’s just turning a page, isn’t it?”

The adrenaline-filled evening zoomed by so quickly that you are certain that it beats any aerobic exercises you had done in the past year. And the first words out of your mouth when you re-unite with Mr. Pianist backstage is: “I’m so sorry I turned late in the Mozart…”, referring to the incident where Mr. Pianist had to turn for himself at the last second as you sat like a rock in your chair still looking at the 2nd line of that page. His desperate self-turning sounded violent, a sure sforzando that was not intended by Mozart. You were only thankful that the loose pages didn’t fly off the stand, to be honest.

You were sorry also for standing up, and getting ready to turn when there is no more pages to be turned at the end of the Brahms. You could only hope that the audience saw it as an early standing ovation for the performers! But how on earth could you explain your hand on the score away?

You were equally embarrassed by the “encounter”, where your ill-positioned body, in the act of turning a page, made contact with the left-hand of Mr. Pianist as he maneuvered a difficult left-hand passage down in the lower register, causing him to miss a few notes. Your heart skipped a beat when you recalled reading on the programme that this concert was indeed recorded for a delay broadcast on the radio. Thankfully, not on TV.

All in all, not the best of days, nor a disastrous one in the office, as you still got your selfie with the pianist post-mortem – I mean, post-concert – and even garnered several hundreds likes on IG within hours to show for your effort.

That, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the life of a page-turner. A thankless, and most nerve-racking job – one which, if you do perfectly, you don’t get noticed; one which if you make a mistake, the world knows about it. It’s not unlike being a linesman in the Wimbledon final where your margin of error is measured in millimeters. You make a close call of a ball going out wide, only to be challenged by the Roger Federers of the world. In slow motion, the hawk-eye replay shows that the ball had in fact clipped the line by one-tenth of a millimeter; hence, your call was overturned. “You made a mistake, dude.” The “oohs and aahs” inside the stadium is not nearly as cruel as what the cameraman likes to do in moments like this: zoom in on the nameless linesman, in hope of getting a reaction, or perhaps a confession for the entertainment of the millions of viewers around the globe. If there were ever live TV coverage of classical music concerts, I wonder if the cameraman would do the same to capture a page-turning misjudgment.

At least in tennis, there is the comfort of having a hawk-eye to make things right. On the stage, a lapse of concentration by the page-turner could throw an otherwise flawless performance to a regrettable one. And there’ll be no second chance, for either the page-turner or the performers.

Over the course of my career on stage, I have always paid great attention to the selection of my page turners as if my life depends on it, because it does on stage. Most of the time, I rely on my talented students, and I do not spread the page-turning duties around, but tend to stick to a trusted few. Every pianist has a routine of when he or she wants a page turned – a little early, or a little late, or at the signal of a nod. For me, nodding is usually not an option because my head has a difficult time staying still throughout the performance.

But when I perform on the road, I can only rely on a last-minute briefing before the concert, a well-marked score with colour-coded stickers, post-its and what not, and ride on my luck. In addition to the non-imaginary blunders aforementioned in my imaginary tale, here are a few more I encountered in real life.

In a two-piano performance where I performed with my sister, we were each assigned a page-turner by the organizer. And for the occasion, they dressed rather like identical twins, and I had a hard time telling them apart. Prior to walking out on stage, we gave them our respective scores, with our respective markings on our respective parts in the otherwise identical scores. We bowed, took our seats, composed ourselves and off we went. By around the 4th bar, I noticed that something was amiss. The music looked familiar, but the markings weren’t. Either the page-turners have swapped our scores or we have swapped the page-turners! Even though we managed to get through the movement without much harm or playing one another’s parts, we had to politely whisper to our page-turning assistants and kindly asked them to take a short 9-feet “walk of shame” behind the pianos to make a needed trade for us.

Another page-turner of mine from some years ago was a natural worrier. He worried that pages would get stuck together, and while I appreciate him getting up way ahead of time to get the next page ready, I was not so sure about his tactic of licking and wetting of his fingers before every page turn as if he’s counting stacks of cash in the old, pre Covid-19 days. I didn’t actually notice that until an audience member told me about it after the fact. The video recording of the concert testified to the “accusation”, but I couldn’t help but to be amused, as I sanitized my score.

There were also page-turners who got so mesmerized and carried away by the power of music and the spur of the moment that they started humming and tapping along; some even began conducting. On the other end of the spectrum, some yawned and checked their watches. If you do not have the luxury of having a trusted list of page-turners to call from, you are in for a wild ride.

Some point to the use of technology to solve this humanity crisis for pianists, but reading the score off an iPad using a Bluetooth-enabled pedal to turn pages is easier said than done from a physical coordination standpoint (I tried and failed miserably), not to mention the hundreds of other Bluetooth-enabled smartphones in the room posing an interference risk. Plus, you would be turning at every page instead of every other page, hence increasing the risk and disruption to the flow. Don’t even think about the turning back and forward of pages in that Mozart Minuet and Trio. You need to call for an organist to perform this level of trickery.

But don’t get me wrong here. I did not create a podcast to ridicule page-turners. Quite the contrary, it is a loving tribute to them. I’d like you all to know how utterly important their art is, and how underappreciated if not also underpaid they are. It is in fact an understatement itself to say that they are underpaid – because more often than not, they are simply unpaid, except in some European countries where it is a paid profession. Without page-turners, pianists will have to leave out notes in Mozart’s and Brahms’ music to free one hand to turn for themselves. The audience would be cheated of those notes. I handpick my page-turners whenever I can for the simple reason that having a reliable one gives you, more than anything, that peace of mind. If you work with a page-turner for the first time and god forbids, he or she makes a mistake early on in a concert, all you would think about and remember from that concert was the doubts and trust issues you had mentally, at every single page turn of that evening.

In celebrating the marriage of crafts between pianists and page-turners, I have come up with a list of Ten Commandments for Page-turners with the objective of advancing the profession of page-turning, and for it to flourish into the future. Hopefully, these commandments allow pianists and page-turners to live happily ever after. Here they are:

10) Be prepared. Ask for the repertoire and the editions used ahead of time, and study the score and listen to recordings where possible.

9) Attire. Ask for the dress code, or at least know what the performers will be wearing so that your choice of wardrobe is somewhat colour-coordinated, culturally appropriate (yes, this means level of skin revelation) and most importantly, proportionate to your role.

8) Nothing Dangling. Avoid wearing anything that dangles, that succumbs to gravity, that might touch the pianist’s left-hand or the keys as you lean over to turn a page. If the occasion calls for a jacket, use your RH wisely to keep it tight to your body.

7) No Watch Policy. Do not wear a wrist watch or any jewelry items, at least on your left hand, which should be your turning hand. Far too often, my reflex system would immediately notice the watch and read the time, effectively snapping me out of my concentration. And by extension of this commandment, also do not bring your smartphone out on to the stage even if it is on silent mode in your pant pocket, because it isn’t silent when it vibrates! (I have also seen light blinking through the pant pocket once in the middle of Beethoven!)

6) Practice Makes Perfect. Try to make it to the dress rehearsal. It makes a world of difference! And for pianists, do practice the two bars before and after each page turn especially in tricky passages. Those are the notes we usually skip over when we turn for ourselves in rehearsals. Tend to these often-neglected notes.

5) BYOP. Bring your own pencil to the rehearsal, and ask for the pianist’s permission to write page-turning notes on the score, particularly in places where there are turning back or skipping of pages.

4) TFPT. Turn from the top of the page, but never from the lower corner; you’d be blocking the last line of music entirely otherwise.

3) Up Early in Slo’ Mo. Get up and slowly get hold of the top corner of the page, generally before the last line; in quicker movements, you’d need to get up even sooner. Your standing up at the right time gives the pianist the ease of mind and the needed assurance that you have not fallen asleep or gone day-dreaming. But don’t put your fingers on the page until the last line, or else, the pianist would start worrying that you would turn too early!

2) Physical Distancing & 20/20. Make sure you have the vision of a pilot, even if it is assisted by your trusted reading glasses or prescription lenses, as you would need to read the score from a good distance away from the keyboard against glaring lights. I’d personally like at least a distance of a foot between my page-turner and the edge of the piano.

1) Trust. Walk on stage with the knowledge that you are loved, treasured and most importantly trusted by the pianist with whom you walk on stage with. You are as much a part of the performance as any under the same spotlights.

And with these, I am hereby steadfastly advocating for a National Day for Page-turners and call on my colleagues to do the same. Kudos to all page-turners, Amen.

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