Page-turners make me nervous. I’m referring not to a suspenseful book that keeps me reading well into the night, but to the person who sits next to the pianist and turns the pages of sheet music.
The popular songs of yesteryear—the genre I play in senior facilities—usually run 3-6 pages long. I often photocopy my music and spread the sheets across the piano. That way I don’t have to turn any pages. Classical piano pieces are typically printed as big, bound volumes. For those, a third hand is needed. Enter the page-turner.
I once heard someone describe a page-turner as “a butler for a pianist.” Like butlers, turners should remain as invisible as possible, calling no attention to themselves, yet be right there, ready to serve, whenever needed.
Here’s how it works: A page-turner sits to the left of the pianist, on a chair set a little farther back than the bench. At just the right moment, the turner stands up, reaches across the top of the sheet music, and grabs the upper right-hand page by its outside corner, careful to avoid blocking the pianist’s view, and turns the page—quickly, smoothly, quietly. Sometimes the corner of the page is bent to form a little handle for the turner to grab. In preparation, some turners discreetly lick their finger to gain traction.
What are the qualifications required of a page-turner? At a minimum, to be able to read music. For the classical concerts I attend at my local university, it’s usually a music student doing the turning.
A good turner has to be skilled at interpreting the pianist’s signals. Most pianists nod slightly when ready for the turn, so a successful page-turner must recognize the difference between a “Now I’m ready for you to turn the page” nod, and a head movement a musician might naturally make when playing.
So why do page-turners make me nervous? Because so many bad things can happen. Page-turners can knock the sheet music off the piano, turn too many pages at once, turn too early or too late—or not at all.
I once saw a turner invade the pianist’s personal space by brushing up against his arm each time she carried out her duties. Then she hovered with her hand on the side of the piano before taking her seat and awaiting the next page turn.
Sometimes air conditioning blows pages around, or a turner must battle a score that won’t stay open on the piano.
These days, tech-savvy pianists can load their sheet music onto an iPad and control their own page turns with a foot-pedal device like AirTurn or PageFlip. Even then, problems can occur. I read of one case where a pianist’s calendar popped up on his iPad during a performance, obstructing his view of the digital page.
I will leave you with comedian Victor Borge. I saw him perform in Canberra, Australia, in 1981, and thought I was going to die laughing. Literally. I couldn’t breathe. Here he is with his son, Ron, in a bit that was included in the live performance I attended. See what happens when an unqualified page-turner takes the stage.
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.