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Musical Mishaps Series. Today: Blame the Page Turner.

Musical Mishaps Series. Today: Blame the Page Turner. featured image

Without fail, something goes wrong during a live performance. Usually it’s something minor, like the musicians didn’t quite come in together, or a light is quietly buzzing that no one noticed at rehearsal. Other times, it’s quite urgent, as you’ll read below. I put out the call to my musician friends. When I first read the responses, at one point I was laughing so hard, I was crying and blowing my nose, and I had to step out for a short walk to regain my composure. I had such an overwhelming response that I had to group them into categories. I’ll feature them every week or so. Thanks to everyone who participated!

Today, it’s “Blame the Page Turner”. The worst feeling for any page turner is to cause a mishap, as you’re not even one of the players. My record is far from perfect: I’ve turned two pages at once, turned too late, or too early. Once I was faced with a jazz arrangement that was SO COMPLICATED (turn ahead here, but turn back there, but go to the second ending, which means turning really quickly again) that I actually told off the arranger for such a complicated method and told him it’s far, far, better to sacrifice the extra paper to ensure a smooth-running performance.

I left out names (to protect the super guilty – and no, nobody below was referring to me. I hope).

The FYI:
-Elliott Carter was a 20th century composer whose music is rather tricky to follow on paper especially if you’ve never heard it before.
-Manual change on a harpsichord – this involves pulling a stop or leaver that changes the dynamic of the instrument from loud to soft and vice versa. It sounds scary and complicated to pianists who don’t deal with such things.
-NPR is “National Public Radio” in the US.
-organ pedals are keyboards for the feet. They make loud noises.
-AirTurn pedal: exasperated pianists turn to this device, enabling them read their music on a tablet, and hit a pedal to shift the screen over. Electronic page turn.

From a clarinettist:
I once caught a pile of music which fell off my stand in mid fall after a page turn, caught it, put it back and continued after my rest without missing a note (smile emoji).

From a friend of a page-turner:
I had a friend who was turning pages for the organist at a vocal recital. He, and everyone else, were distracted by a low pitch drone that went on for what felt like an eternity, in the middle of a piece. It took at least a minute or more before he realized that his foot was not resting on the floor but on one of the pedals.

From a pianist who does not wish to engage in onstage banter:
I always deeply appreciate an excellent page turner but have given up and gone to the AirTurn pedal. This page turner would give commentary between movements in a stage whisper (“Excellent! Wonderful!”); then, while we’re playing during a lovely ethereal moment, asked me, “do you want me to turn at the end of the movement?”. I managed to hiss “No!” and keep playing. The same page turner stood so close to me during Jennifer Higdon’s Trio that I had to elbow her out of the way to play at the bottom of the piano.

From a composer in the audience:
Watched a concert where the pianist kept turning the pages… before the page turner (who kept missing the pianist’s cues). He finished playing the whole work without the page turner turning a single page.

From a harpist in the audience:
When I was in the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, the orchestra was performing Carmina Burana, (which has no harp part), in a church. I was sitting in the front row, where I was very close to the pianist. I noticed he had some bad page turns, so I leaned over and turned a page for him. That went fine. Then, the next time I tried, I managed to push the music right off the stand onto his hands. As he swore under his breath, I bent very low and retrieved the music, but managed to moon the audience. Those were the days of mini-skirts. I let him deal with his own page turns after that.

From a composer who was minding his own business:
Oh wow. When I was in Aspen, I got asked to turn pages for a concert. Didn’t think we needed rehearsal. They didn’t tell me it was a Elliot Carter piece for harpsichord and other instruments, and I needed to help do a manual change (which I had never done before), and I was reading off a score, which meant there was like two bars per system on a two system page, which basically meant it was stand-sit-stand-sit-stand-sit. (*Editors note: there were so many instrument parts on each page, it meant there was little space to print the actual music as it flows on the page, left to right.) And corners weren’t folded, making them harder to grab. It was all going well, until pages got stuck and I couldn’t turn the pages in time. The harpsichordist, in frustration, then turns the page but ends up turning like two or three of them. I’m watching in horror as he’s then flipping through back madly with his right hand while trying to play some semblance of the piece in his left. I finally get back on track, but there were two identical systems (full lines of music) so I turned the page early, on the first system instead of the second. He mutters under his breath “oh no, you don’t”, does the mad pawing of the page and ends up turning seven or eight pages, and he’s frantically trying to find his place and I’m just watching in horror. And there was the manual change where, not knowing how hard I had to pull, the harpsichord slid a bit on stage. Did I mention this was being broadcast live on NPR?

From a pianist who is extremely “type A” about things:
1) I was playing a recital with Lynn Harrell in a large venue in Florida, and the presenter had not been aware that I would require a page turner. We discovered this misunderstanding at about 7:50pm. The most qualified person in the building turned out to be an assistant box office manager whose credentials, I discovered to my horror, were that he had been 3rd trumpet in his high school band. I resigned myself to nodding at every page turn. But the real problem was his spectacular lack of personal hygiene, the effect of which were unsuccessfully cloaked in an equally spectacularly strong cologne.

Of all pieces, the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata was on the program, so of course not once did he have any idea where I was in the piece. This necessitated him standing very early for each page turn, at which point I was engulfed in a cloud of indescribable odour. Amidst this distraction and the endless array of 16th notes, I would nod, he would turn, and after a few moments the cloud would dissipate. Then he would see my eyes move to the top of the right page, and he would stand and it started all over again…

2) In defense of page turners’ collective sanity, I don’t believe they should be required to turn pages for any movement of a chamber work that is a Scherzo/trio or Minuet/trio combination. Publishers have no sympathy for the poor turners, and often arrange the music graphically in such a way that a single page needs to be turned forward and back two or even three times. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??? I’ve gotten confused in those when I’m turning myself! My debut performance of the Trout Quintet at Ravinia with the Cleveland Quartet was completely sabotaged by the page turner at this moment, but I could hardly blame him. From that moment on I’ve photocopied that movement in miniature, I lay out the multiple pages in front of me, and I counsel the turner to take a nap.

By the way, I only know of one other person who fastidiously marks every turn, highlights every repeat, creases pages so they won’t stick, and in general does every possible thing to make life easier for the turner: my brother. Maybe it’s genetic.

From the brother (who also does not wish to engage in onstage banter):
One December we’re touring in the Maritimes – having a great time catching up with some friends and audiences, and then we get to Yarmouth. This night’s page turner starts things off a bit shakily by going on about how she’s a huge fan of Frank Mills – “he’s just the greatest pianist EVER”. I can’t be polite enough to agree with that, so I offer, “He’s probably a terrific performer.” We’ve seen his name at a bunch of the venues we’ve been playing at, and I can’t help but think, “the guy’s a multimillionaire and hasn’t figured out how to play the black keys yet.”

We’re playing the concert and I can tell her reflexes are a little slow, with lots of almost missed turns. In the middle of some Schubert piece she just panics and stands up to grab the next page. I know she’s confused because, well, I’m still on the LEFT page. So now I have to play like Lt. Commander Data – no extraneous head movements – nothing that could be legally construed as a “nod”. But, she figures that she better let me know, so for the first time in my career, a page turner breaks the vocal barrier, and turns to me and announces, “I’M LOST SO I’M GOING TO WAIT FOR YOU TO NOD, OKAY?” All I can think is,’”you’re not allowed to talk to me. Security!” I spent the rest of the concert trying not to laugh.

Are you a musician that endured a crazy onstage mishap? Audience member who witnessed one? Write me at [email protected] #musicalmishaps

Previous page-turning post:

Previous Musical Mishaps:
“We Should Have Had a Full Tech Rehearsal:
“Asleep at the Switch”:

Next week: “Beware of Flying Objects”.

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