The author turning for pianist Jamie Parker of Gryphon Trio
There is no role more overlooked or misunderstood than that of the page-turner (the debate rages on if we’re called “page turners” or “flippists”). For those of you not familiar with the page turner, pianists use the music for chamber music, which features their own parts, plus the parts of the other players. Having all the parts in front of the pianist gives an overview of the work, and helps to keep things coordinated. This means way more pages are required for the pianist, who then needs way more page turning than the other players, who are reading only their own parts, which is one line of music, not two. Most pianists require a page turner for those moments when both hands are on the keys and there’s no break in the music to do one’s own turn. I’ve done a lot of these turning gigs, mainly for my brother Jamie’s ensemble, Gryphon Trio, and occasionally for my older bro, Jon Kimura Parker, who has regular chamber music gigs (I have yet to turn for him with his group, Montrose Trio). Many pianists read their music off a tablet, with a foot pedal to shift the music over to the next page. But many still use paper music, especially to make last-minute markings or because of a fear the tablet will crash or not be properly charged.
When I’ve turned for concertos, I’m always thrown off by hearing a whole orchestra right behind me. In a concerto, when the pianist performs with an orchestra, the work is usually memorized, but sometimes a page-turner is required for a double piano concerto, when the pianists need to track each other as well as the orchestra. Other times, the music is required in a couple of other situations. One example is if the work is contemporary, very complex and too tricky to memorize; the other is if the work is outside the confines of what the pianist usually performs.
An example of turning for a contemporary work would be the time I turned for Janina Fialkowska, who did the monstrously difficult Lutoslawski Piano Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. There is no discernable melody, and forget counting the beats. I was so freaked out when I listened to it at home, that I called Principal Librarian Gary Corrin and said, “dude, you gotta lend me the score. Please. This is desperate,” and he kindly allowed me to study the score provided I return it the next morning by 10:30 AM sharp. I studied that piece non-stop, and listened to it every time I stepped out, earbuds jammed into my ears. I am VERY proud of the fact that not only did I survive that work, I DID NOT MESS UP. Janina and conductor James Gaffigan owed me a curtain call, quite frankly.
The second example, turning for a concerto the pianist doesn’t usually play, is when I turned for a pianist out of his usual milieu. Jazz great Herbie Hancock used the music for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I was quite nervous, but fortunately, I’m very familiar with this work, and Mr. Hancock was super nice, and gave me gum. What threw me for a loop was, Mr. Hancock, being a supreme jazz pianist, threw in all kinds of improvised scales and blue notes where I’d never heard a classical pianist do them, and occasionally I wondered if he’d return to the page. (He always did.) I borrowed my brother Jamie’s score to have a look in advance, and luckily, Mr. Hancock’s score was the same edition, so every note was in the same place. Like a dutiful little sister, I had Mr. Hancock sign Jamie’s score.
Page-turners are often an afterthought; the number of times I’ve received a last-minute message pleading for my services with little notice. I have sprinted several city blocks to get to the concert on time, with no prep. I’ve seen page-turners clearly not dressed for the occasion. Don’t blame them; they likely stepped in with no warning, though some of the outfits I’ve seen are unacceptable anyway. I’ve seen page turners take a bow with the pianist (which we deserve, but is a major no-no), or scoot onstage after the pianist is seated, and scoot back off after the pianist has reached backstage. I go by the newly-hatched-chick method of imprinting: I follow the pianist around closely (which may seem weird but hey, I’ve gotten lost backstage).
As a turner, I show up before the pianist, ask if I may review their score, touch the paper to see if it’s slippery, ask about repeats (these are scary. This is where you have to turn the pages BACKWARDS for a section to be re-played. I call these “backflips”). I also have to see if there are any quiet moments where the pianist wants to turn his or her own page, so as not to distract from the moment. I scrutinize the program so I know when to walk off with the pianist (do I follow him or her off each time? Or just when it’s intermission?). This is important, because song cycles are the worst. I once turned for Julius Drake, playing for baritone Gerald Finley at Roy Thomson Hall. I didn’t check the program, and I didn’t know if they’d be walking off in between song groups, or walking off at the end of the first half, or what. I was very stressed during each song, thinking, “is THIS when I walk off??” Now, I also ask if they plan on doing an encore. If so, I make a point of walking off after the last work listed on the program, so the encore doesn’t seem forced.
It takes skill and finesse, people.
My advice for pianists? Be really nice to your turner. My other bro, Jon, always posts on Facebook a picture of himself with the page-turner de jour, to thank them. Mark your music CLEARLY for the turner, especially the repeats (Jamie uses super obvious markings in bright red). I appreciate directions such as “stand now” or “NO TURN” or “back three pages” or “UNFOLD THE BOTTOM FLAP SECTION NOW”. (When you’re onstage, that instruction makes sense.)
I continue to lobby CARAS to create a Juno Award for the best page-turner in a recording. Think how quiet we have to be. Note to composers: no plastic coiled manuscripts, please! They’re noisy. And print the page numbers on the OUTER upper corners! If your music doesn’t have a discernable melody, I actually look over the corner to see if I did, in fact, grab only one page. So if I’m holding page 3, I’m really hoping to see the page 5 on the next upper right corner. And portrait layout, please, not landscape! I don’t want to completely obscure the pianist’s view by leaning WAY across the instrument. I’m only 5’1”.
Liz Parker is a page turner based in Toronto. She has a wide array of black outfits for her highly-anticipated appearances. She does backflips on CLEARLY marked scores and will remember to take the score off the stand and hand it to the pianist post-performance.