The atmosphere backstage before a performance is electric. The musicians are usually both excited and a little nervous. The anticipation builds until you finally walk out to applause. You take a deep breath, make eye contact with the other performers and the music begins. The piano part floats beautifully by, and you can see in the score that your part is coming up. It’s finally time for your entrance – your time to shine – the piano player gives you a nod that says ‘You’ve got this, do it now!’ You focus on what you’re about to do, stifling the nerves jangling in the back of your mind and stand up to turn the page.
The page turner’s experience is often ignored, but it is probably one of the most stressful positions to be in on stage. They are the unsung heroes responsible for turning the page of the collaborative pianist – allowing them to play the accompaniment part without interruption. Unlike the musicians, the live performance may well be the first time the page turner has seen the score. While some page turners are pianists themselves, instrumentalists in the role are frequently not accustomed to reading more than one line of music. Following along can be difficult, and a mistake can throw off the pianist – to the detriment of the whole performance. Furthermore, not all pieces are as simple as turning pages from right to left. If a piece has a repeat in it, or worse – a da capo or dal segno – the page turner might be called upon to turn the pages backwards to a specific page earlier on in the piece.
Some pianists are more understanding than others. The good ones will give a very clear nod when they are ready for the next page. The bad ones roll their heads around wildly in some kind of neck-stretching ecstasy of expression, leaving the poor page turner to decipher between a gesture to turn and an emphatic motion to the music. It is usually the latter who get annoyed when a page turner jumps the gun or misses a turn. Like any performer, sometimes page turners have to contend with an ego as well. Certain pianists resent needing a page turner at all, viewing it as a sign of weakness, only to have one thrust on them by the soloist who is tired of hearing the left hand drop out for a few bars at every turn.
Page turning also has physical challenges. You sit on the side of the piano that is farthest away from the audience, but regardless of your position, reaching over to turn the page without getting in the pianists’ way requires flexibility and body contortions that would impress the Olympic Gymnastics team. Timing these contortions is also essential: if you stand up too early, you either need sit down again immediately (and look like a jack-in-the-box), or hold the position of bending over slightly and breathing down the pianist’s neck, a feat of strength few can achieve without breaking a sweat. Additionally, hands must be kept clammy at all times to have the traction to grip just the one single sheet of paper efficiently.
Furthermore, there is the contentious issue of if the page turner should bow. The current custom is that they do not. It is awkward, however, to stand out by the piano, attempting to be invisible, while the other musicians on stage bow. More importantly, the poor page turner, who has laboured over each and every page turn in that score under intense pressure and scrutiny, receives absolutely no recognition. Perhaps it is time to give these courageous individuals their due.
One trailblazer has already begun:
And of course: