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Page Turners:A necessary evil or unsung heroes of chamber music?

The piano is a prominent instrument in the genre of chamber music, either as a collaborative instrument accompanying a soloist or as a member of an ensemble. A page turner is normally required to assist the pianist to ensure continuity for the pianist who almost never has a hand free to turn a page.

A good page turner is unobtrusive and almost invisible, enhancing the performance unbeknownst to the audience. An inept page turner can ruin a performance. I have been reading "Helmut Deutsch, Memoirs of an Accompanist" in which he devotes an entire chapter to bad page turners. As an internationally famous vocal coach and accompanist, he has experienced it all: jangly bracelets, droopy sleeves obscuring the music, turning the page with the wrong hand, turning at the wrong time or not at all, knocking over the music, and on and on. Nothing much about good page turners, but what is there to say? A page turner is only noticed when they are a bad page turner.

I have been a page turner and there is a whole other side to that position. First off, no one wants to be a page turner; there is an enormous amount of pressure and stress because you don't want to be the one who ruins a great performance. Secondly, the pay is lousy, if you get paid at all. However, I have discovered that there are professional page turners who demand huge fees for their work. Masochists.

My page turning career began many years ago when I was a student of Andrew Markow. At that time he had a piano trio, Trio da Capo with violinist Terry Holowach and cellist Ed Hayes, both from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. They performed a couple of times a year and every concert was recorded for broadcast on CBC radio, back when that was a thing. I attended rehearsals, learned the etiquette and technique and it was a great learning experience.

After several successful concerts, I got farmed out to the Les Amis series at the Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto. It was a series of three violin and piano concerts and I even got paid a whopping $20 for each which almost covered my gas and parking.

Upon my arrival for the first concert, I was escorted to my very own dressing room. It was a huge room lined with mirrors surrounded by big light bulbs. I only had to hang up my coat. Eventually a knock came to the door - the pianist wanted to see me. I was escorted to his dressing room which was equipped with a piano and no mirrors with light bulbs. The pianist greeted me dressed in tuxedo shirt, cummerbund, and boxer shorts. English was not his first language and French is not mine, but he went through the music with me showing me which repeats they would be taking and other details. At the top of one page he wrote in large letters, "tourne Claire". It took me a while to figure out that Claire was the violinist and I had to turn for her as well. So, during the very fast first movement of Prokofiev's Violin Sonata, I had to run across the stage, duck under the furiously bowing arm of the violinist, turn the page and gallop back to the piano and try to figure out where the pianist was in the score. Afterwards, several audience members complimented me on my choreography.

The second concert was a Canadian husband and wife, the husband being the violinist. After the first piece, we were backstage and he asked me to go out on stage and pick up his music and stand since he was doing the next number unaccompanied. Immediately the stage manager said, "She can't do that. She's not a union member". Turns out there were no union members working since it was a classical music concert. Major impasse. Much arguing ensued between stage manager and violinist. Finally a compromise was reached. As a page turner, I was to go out to the stage and turn every page of the music until it was closed and return it backstage. The violinist would look after his own stand. I went on stage and apparently no one told the lighting person that it was just the page turner picking up the music. Stage lights came on. Audience began clapping. I picked up the music, made an elaborate bow and retreated back stage.

I don't remember much about the third concert except that afterwards the pianist thanked me and said it was so nice to have a page turner who could read music. I had no words. I'm sure he had some bad page turner stories.

Perhaps the reason there are so many bad page turner stories and experiences is because musical concert organizers often forget about the need for a page turner until the very last minute and recruit anyone that says they will do it. Having the page turner attend a recital could prevent many accidents and disasters from happening. The ability to read music at an advanced level should be a prerequisite as well. With modern electronics, the page turner might eventually cease to exist. Music can now be digitally downloaded onto an iPad and the pages turned by the performer with the use of a foot pedal. But until the electronic version of a page turner becomes more widespread, there is always the human version.

My mother once said to me, "25 years of piano lessons and now you're a page turner???"

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