Page Turning: Silent Chamber Music

Turning pages.

Something I’ve always enjoyed doing. A few months ago I turned pages for part of a recital, and an audience member asked how long I’d been turning pages. I’d never though about how long I’ve been doing before, and was a little surprised to note that I’ve been turning pages for over 10 years now. I started turning for the usual suspects – fellow students at summer programs, my piano teacher, etc. Then, when I was in high school I turned for the Music@Menlo festival for several summers running, before they began making their junior students do all the turning. Several concerts I turned for were formative musical experiences for me. One might go so far as to say I learned that I wanted to be a musician turning pages. My first experience with a great performance of chamber music was turning pages for Wu Han and the Emerson String Quartet playing Brahms‘ F Minor Piano Quintet. I remember walking into the room right as the dress rehearsal started, finding where we were on the score without prompt, turning without missing a page, and never getting a word out of the pianist. Then at the end of the rehearsal The entire group turned to me and was like „wow, where did you come from? You didn’t miss anything!“

Around that time I also got to turn for Gil Kalish two summers in a row. I will never forget how he made me feel like a person and musician as opposed to an extension of the piano, as some pianists did. He remembered that I played the piano and the violin and my repertoire from one summer tot he next. The first summer I’d been working on the repertoire including Mendelssohn Rondo Capriccoso and Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 14 No. 2. I also have fond memories of turning for the complete Bach sonatas for violin and cemablo with Kenneth Cooper and Ani Kavafian. I got to watch from less than 2 feet away as Cooper improvised to fill out the score, and in addition to turning pages forwards and back, I operated the lute stop a few times, and got to hear two well-respected musicians goof off all day.

I’ve seen my fair share of bad turners; from the woman turning for Jeremy Denk on the Mavericks festival this year who messed up TWICE in Foss‘ Echoi to your average non-musician who is doing it as a „favor“ for a friend. These few incidences are downed out by the overwhelming number of pageturners I’ve hardly even noticed. That’s a sign they were doing the job right. If I notice them, something’s wrong. Turning pages is like playing (let’s be honest: sightreading) background music at a party, or clearing tables, or working as a house cleaner. If they notice you, you’re doing it wrong.

Once you get used to the idea of being a part of the piano, it’s all good. you learn how to reach for the page without blocking the light, getting in the way of the bass keys (learned that the hard way, got punched in the stomach once), or blocking the pianist’s view of the music. You learn to read the pianist’s intentions: when they like the page turned, when to stand up to keep them from getting nervous, if they want you to carry the scores around for them or not. Page turning is also an exercise in concentration. You can’t lose track of where you are, you have to be with the pianist 100%, you have to follow every note, every tempo change, every dynamic. A good turned will adjust their technique to fit the mood of the passage the turn is in the middle of. In many ways, turning pages is the ultimate chamber music: you are both a part of the ensemble and a part of the piano that comes alive to turn the pages.

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