When Darren Lee, a returning veteran of the Toronto Summer Music Festival Community Academy Piano Master Class invited me to turn pages for him at his chamber music group’s rehearsal of the Schumann Piano Quintet, Opus 44, I was delighted. It gave me the chance to watch one of the great gems of chamber music come together.
But page turning is its own kind of performance, albeit a minor one. The task of the page-turner — to read the score and turn the page at the right time so the pianist can keep their hands on the keyboard — can be tricky.
If it’s an advanced or complicated piece, it should be practiced with the pianist to ensure that you’re synchronized. As there wouldn’t be a chance to do that, I settled for watching a variety of YouTube videos of the Quintet: one that shows the score as it is being played, one with Argerich at the keyboard, and one with Trifonov. Not that I watched the pianists. I had my eye on the page-turners. Their performances were not exactly highlighted in these videos, the camera often cut away just when the page was about to be turned, but there are some interesting shots, especially in the Trifonov video, of the page turner’s impassive gaze and guardian-like stance, as he watches the string players in order to track the melody line.
Darren had already warned me that in the first movement there was an awkward page turn at the end of the first exposition when the repeat would require rapidly turning several pages back to the beginning. This is an advanced maneuver for a page-turner, requiring timing, dexterity, grip accuracy, visual acuity and eye-tracking and even good balance. I thought of practicing by taking one of my scores and just turning five pages of music backwards several times, but what I really needed was to follow a copy of the score itself to train my eye to go to the right notes. Even if I was willing to lay out the $75 it cost, getting my hands on one quickly was not so simple.
Pianists often fold the upper corner of the righthand pages of their score so they can quickly grab it to turn it while playing, but as this wasn’t my score, I wasn’t sure I could do that, so I put shocking pink post-notes on the first page and the end of the exposition. There was another challenge. When I sat in the page-turner’s customary position to the side and slightly behind the bass end of the keyboard, I discovered that progressive lenses aren’t suited to looking at a score from that vantage point, I was too low and too far from the music desk to look through the proper strip of lens. Page-turners are usually students in music programs, so often don’t need glasses at all, let alone progressive lenses. It occurred to me as I stood back up to get a better view, that even for this relatively sedentary assignment, I was beyond my prime. Then I remembered that sitting is the new smoking anyway and realized that I was better off than the seated musicians.
As it turned out, the group did not play the repeat in the first movement during that rehearsal, for lack of time. But I wanted to master the maneuver before the next rehearsal, so I consulted piano pedagogue Lawrence Pitchko, who had performed the Quintet with members of the TSO. He put the score on the piano, handed me a pencil with a bright pink eraser on the end, and instructed me to point to where I was looking as we listened to the recording of that performance. At the same time, he pointed to where he was looking, which wasn’t always the same. I was tracking the piano line throughout, but whenever the piano part moved from melody to accompaniment, Pitchko moved his pointer to the line of whichever string instrument took over the melody. The piano score of a work of chamber music has the piano line in normal size notes, plus condensed lines of the other instruments above it, so in the case of the Quintet, there is a viola line, two violin lines and a cello line. The trick is to rapidly identify which instrument has taken over the melody and move your eyes to that line. Sitting with a pianist who not only played and loved the score, but also had positive memories of the performance and the rehearsals was vicariously gratifying. At the end of the live recording, when the applause erupted in the audience, I felt as if I deserved to take a bow.
Much as I enjoyed assisting Darren at his rehearsal, I was relieved that he asked someone registered in the program to turn pages for the performance in the Festival Finale. I’m still a rehearsal-level page-turner; with no aspirations for an on-stage career. I’m definitely keen to do more, because this is a great way to expand musical knowledge and build music reading skills. Being a “grey” music student means grabbing every opportunity to learn more about this massive field, without overdoing it to the point of exhaustion or injury. The only risk in page turning is the possibility of paper cuts. For my next gig, I’m investing in rubber finger guards.
Actually, page turning is a great example of the sort of activity senior music lovers should pursue. Throughout life, the only way to retain faculties and remain competent is to “use it or lose it”. Embracing this precept is all the more urgent for the current cohort of seniors who face such extended longevity. We have to bolster our mental and physical health by developing skills even as there is less to use, and more to lose. Going to concerts, attending music appreciation classes, listening to music is worthwhile, but actually learning musical skills is even better. We think of music education as something important for the developmental phase of youth, but let’s think about senior music education as a vital way of keeping functional and fulfilled.