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A Page-turner's survival guide
or how to make yourself an invaluable friend to every pianist on earth

I suggested in one of my previous articles that there ought to be a place page turners could go to complete their education; preferably at a music conservatory where their achievements could be best encouraged, closely monitored, the most opportunities for practice, etc., but since no one has taken me up on this yet I offer here a modest online tutorial for those thrown suddenly into the fray who would like to enhance their skills before the big night.

Some basics

It is never good to actually crash into the performer. Try to sit far enough away that, while you can see the music, you need not worry that a pianist's sudden rush up or down the keyboard will earn you a bruise that will hurt the next day. Official concert position is so that the right side of the performer is facing the audience. If the piano lid is open the sound will thus radiate in the direction of the patrons who have agreed, by their presence, to accept the consequences. This means that the page turner should be seated on the pianist's left so that he or she does not block the audience's view of their idol. But you never know. Things may function a bit differently for your setup. If the piano is facing the opposite direction you may have to sit to the pianist's right. It is generally a good idea not to sit between the pianist and the audience unless you are a really good page turner and you think that at least half the audience is there to see you.


If you want to be certain of your angle, ask the pianist to do a couple of windmills while seated on the piano bench. This will demonstrate the reach of their arms and assure you that you are seated in a way that they cannot possibly hit you. While seated, that is. When you are actually engaging in a page turn you will have to watch the situation more closely. It wouldn't be a sport if there wasn't any risk involved.



Actual page turning

If you are planning to make a life study of this valuable skill this can be saved for our next lesson. If you want to learn in a hurry, here is what to do:

Some time approximating 5 to 10 seconds before it will be necessary to turn the page, stand up. You should now be hovering a couple of feet from the pianist, a little above his head. Not your whole body, of course. If the piece is of moderate to fast speed, stand up when the pianist has reached the beginning of the last line. Look for a nod from the pianist to indicate when to turn the page. Most often, a pianist will want the page turned just as he reaches the last measure on the page, but this is a personal preference. You may wish to ask the pianist about this. The general rule of measurement applies if the pianist does not nod, being a little busy with other things, or has his own maverick way of doing things. I tend to look down for a second so I don't get dizzy when I see the page being turned. When I look up, I hope to see a new page, having grown tired of the last one. When you have turned the page, from the top of the page, being careful not to get your torso too close to the pianist, and when you are certain that you have only turned the desired number of pages (generally being one at a time), sit down, and politely wait your turn for the next time. Lather, rinse, repeat as often as necessary.

Figuring out where you are in the music if you can't read music

Now, this last description presuppose a few things. One is that you can read music. If you are able or nearly able to play what the pianist is playing you do not need my tutorial; you can inquire about becoming my teaching assistant. If you have absolutely no idea what the symbols on the page mean at all, don't panic. Here are some things you can do:

Follow the words.  If someone is singing words to the piece you are to play, then you can simply follow the text. I had a very good time one evening last year at a school concert listening to one young lady who had been commandeered to turn pages for me at the last minute busily counting the measures under her breath (fairly loudly), obviously rather concerned lest she miss the right moment to turn each page. Since it was a choral concert, I wanted to tell her just to read the words the choir was singing and not to worry herself about it, but the concert had already started and I had other things to do.

If the piece is not texted, or if the text disappears for a moment, you can do several things. One is to count measures, if you are reasonably musical and have some idea of the beat. It will give you, if you are accurate, some idea of where the pianist ought to be on the page so you have some idea of when to stand up. Standing up too soon will give the pianist the uncomfortable sensation of being at a lesson; standing up too late means you may miss your opportunity  altogether. Obviously this window varies with the speed of the piece. If you are able to key in to the tempo of the piece, you have the added benefit of communing with the spirit of the music. It is a good idea not to count out loud. Or to tap your feet. Or to look like you are enjoying the music too much. Unless the performers are not very good. Then a large part of their stock in trade may be looking like they love what they are doing so much that their audience will be too annoyed by their cheesy grins to take much offense at the noises they produce. In which case, you may join in.

Very often, a piece will be rather picturesque on the page. A florid passage will look that way. If the pianist runs up the piano, the notes will get higher on the page. Actually, it happens the other way around--first the notes tell the pianist what to do and then he does it.  What is important to spot are landmarks. If there is a sharp contrast between lots of thick, black notes joined together like foosball players, or clustered in a squadron, and then suddenly the page becomes peaceful, you will be able to identify that spot when you come to it and know where you are, which generally contributes highly to a page turner's peace of mind. Contrasts of loud and soft are also useful; you may wish to memorize these few marks:

ff-very loud

f- loud

mf- medium loud (which, in a strange twist, is actually less loud than just plain loud)

mp-medium soft (louder than just soft)


pp-very soft

There are extremes at both ends, made by adding more fs or ps to the porridge, and these are the most useful marks to notice anyway, especially when one extreme suddenly dissolves into another. If there is a mark like "subito pp" after some blustering around, that "suddenly very soft" will tell you exactly when you get there. Some other things to notice, if you have several instruments, are when one of them has begun to play again, or has just stopped playing; mark your spot there. You can see it when the notes start to appear on one of the other lines. All the ones that" have the same line running through them are occurring at the same time; that vertical line joins them all together.

You may wish to simply follow the profile of the melody. Don't hum. If the pianist wants to hum, that's his business. Many of the good ones do. So do some of the worst members of the audience.


If you are really cagey, you can follow the pianist's gaze as he makes his journey across the page. If he is staring a little to his left, then he is still on that page; you don't need to panic just yet. If he is short enough you might be able to make out when he is at the top of the page. Despite their good looks, it is still advisable to look at the music and not at the pianists.


Matters of form and style

Some people would like to know why I've asked that they stand up every time they are ready to turn a page. If the page turns come in rapid succession, the page turner may feel like she is playing "my bonnie lies over the ocean" in front of an audience. But if you don't stand up, you are liable, unless you are very tall, not to be able to get your page to the other side without nearly whacking the pianist on the side of the head. You really need some height so you can turn the page from the top, anyway.

Let me explain what happens if you turn the page from the bottom. The pianist sometimes cannot play his notes because moving his hands to the required position means going through some of yours. This is why you should really, at all times, permit the pianist full range of motion, especially if you cannot read music well, and don't really know that he won't suddenly launch himself at the low end of the keyboard and catch you off-guard.

There is a well-known incident involving a pianist--I don't recall whom--who was giving a concert at Carnegie Hall. The page turner kept turning the pages from the bottom. After a while, the frustrated pianist said in a hoarse whisper, "from the top!" Whereupon, the indignant page turner stood up and flipped the entire score back to the beginning. This is, of course, an alternate meaning to the phrase, "from the top", but it is not usually a good idea to do this in mid-concert unless you are absolutely sure that you are starting over, as George Szell did once when the audience for a Cleveland Orchestra concert set a new world's record for coughs during the gossamer opening of the overture to Tristan and Isolde.*

I have, in my time, had to play passages in different octaves when I was prevented from reaching the right one by my page turner; I have turned back pages when two were turned by mistake, or none was turned at all; once, the page turner sat back down, unaware that he had turned to an empty leaf between pieces and I had to finish the piece from memory. I have also played through my page turner's suit jacket, when I could see the note I needed just before he blocked it. Pianists have ways of getting the music played in spite of the obstacles, much like a running back determined to score a touchdown even if he has to bounce off of the entire defensive line before he gets to the endzone.


Intermediate Page-Turning

Here are a few important exceptions to the normal flow of things.


Page turning rule #9

If you notice that right hand page has a double bar at the end that means the piece is over. There is no point in turning to the next page; the piece will end with the end of the page. When you see the double bar, you can let out a sigh of relief (preferably inaudible), for your job is temporarily over.

If the piece contains several movements (that is, separate pieces that together are part of a larger work), those double bars will still be in force. Not turning those pages gives the pianist himself a chance to turn the page to the next piece when he is good and ready; the atmosphere from the last piece has a chance to evaporate, and the pianist can control when he wants to break the spell with an extraneous motion. We pianists are a funny lot.

Important exception to rule 9: if the page contains said double bar, but it also has the word "attacca" nearby, turn the page as you would normally. "Attacca" means we are going to attack the next movement without pausing in between. The next sounds you hear will be a totally different piece, but there won't be any time to quietly digest the contents of the last one.

I'm going to insert a bit of page-turning arcana here; there is a mark known as V.S. or Volti Subito, which quite literally means "turn the page quickly". This almost never happens, and if you find the composer addressing you, the page turner, directly, you should consider it quite an honor. You should also be on your toes, because there is very important information on the next page that the pianist has to set his eyes on pronto. As I said, you'll most likely never see this mark, but if you do, you'll feel very proud of yourself for recognizing it.

Now if you notice that the pianist has a measure or two, or perhaps an entire line, where he is not playing anything, probably because some soprano has stolen the show; all the notes are for her, but not for our poor accompanist/hero, you should gracefully allow the pianist to turn the page himself. This courteous gesture allows the performers to assume control themselves over when they are ready to look at the next page; pianists do tend to have two perfectly good hands which, when they are not busy pounding little plastic levers, are just as good at turning pages as the rest of us.

When you notice that there is a universal rest (pause); that nobody is making any musically required sound, and that the page turn, should one occur, would be the only thing audible in the concert hall, try to place it on one side of the rest or the other to preserve the atmosphere. If you have not been over that section with your pianist beforehand, I recommend doing it just before the rest. Sometimes I will instruct my page turner to wait until after, confidant that I have the next few bars memorized.


Turning a page backwards

There are cases where it will be necessary to turn back to a previous page, or perhaps to intentionally skip a few. When you see a repeat sign it is generally too late to know just how much music your pianist is going to have to repeat, so you will want to watch carefully when you see one of the following signs:

your standard "repeat" signs come in pairs.
                   The idea is that you have to repeat everything in between these two signs! 

  Note: if you can absolutely prove that you did not see one of these     anywhere previous to seeing one of these , then you are to go back to the beginning of the music. "Sonatas" generally do just that with the first several pages of their opening movement.

These are signs you will definitely want to remember for later, for, perhaps several pages down the road, you will need to go back to that precise spot in the music. If you want to pass your exam so you can enter the advanced class, be aware that the test most certainly includes at least one of these. If you are not in the mood for such a workout, you'll certainly want to avoid pieces with the word "Sonata" in them. These always have at least one very prominent repeat in them, unless the pianist has decided to ignore it. If the pianist has not told you in advance whether he is going to take the repeat you may wish to panic when the moment arrives; be prepared to turn the page in either direction, or both at once.

You can immediately establish yourself as an expert page-turner when turning pages for a piece called "Sonata" by asking the pianist if he plans to repeat the first movement exposition. Also, if one of the movements is labeled "Scherzo" you will probably have to return to the beginning of the movement when you get to the end (D.C. means go back to the beginning) unless the publishers have written it out for you. (D.S. is that other kind of nasty sign that means go back to the sign we discussed earlier () and proceed from there.)

Some other things you will need to know to pass the advanced class: many choral publishers like to put repeat signs only a measure or two after the page turn which means you will have to turn the page forward and then, before you have had time to blink once, turn back to that doggoned inverted repeat sign. But if you want to get into the advanced class you'll have to sign up for it. Here is our last handout, a handy guide to all the signs that make page-turning life interesting. It is always good to scan the music for these in advance since all of our most aerobic turning will be done in response to these; some page-turning divas like to clog their routines with these kinds of things just to show off and hog stage time. If you get a chance, ask your pianist about the "road map" for each piece in advance, or if she is "taking the repeats". If you never get a chance to do this in real life you can still sound like a dandy at cocktail parties by dropping these phrases once in a while.


Really Nasty Signs (in order of nastiness)

D.C. al fine  --  Go back to the beginning of the movement; the pianist will now play the music a second time until he is either too worn out to continue, or he sees the Italian instruction for "finish"--the word "fine", which is pronounced fee-nay,

D.S.  al fine  -- This one is a bit harder. It requires you to look for a little symbol that could pass for the coat-of-arms of an ancient clan of warriors, namely--

if you are on the lookout for this sign at all times, you'll spot it on the first pass. Several pages later you will need to know where this sign is. In addition to knowing what page to flip back too, you should remember its location on that page, in case the pianist is looking lost and you need to direct her to that location. You will instantly become recognized internationally by the guild of page-turning cognoscenti.

    The pianist will now continue playing from the point of this sign until the conclusion of the piece, "fine".


and of course, the triple-axle of the page-turning world:

D.S. al coda    This works the same way as the sign noted above, only, now instead of merely continuing on from the point of the sign until we've reached the end, there will now be an additional   coda sign, which means we will now skip all of the music in front of us and proceed directly to the coda, which is the part that the pianist didn't get to play earlier because we were too busy skipping back to the sign.

the page turner's "triple Salchow" is a small variation on this, called the D. C. al coda. I trust you can figure out how this works. It will be on the test.


(By the way, if your services are required for the accompanist of a singer doing something from an opera, there may well be some places in the music where the performers have chosen, for reasons of their own, to cut whole sections out of the music. This is generally marked with an elegant pencil slash through the score. Try to find the next similar-looking slash as best you can.)

to sum up: D. C. and D. S. mean to go back; D.C. means back to the beginning of the movement, D.S. to a particular spot marked with a sign. (D.C. literally means da capo, or "from the head", where D.S. or dal segno, means "from the sign") A coda sign means to skip ahead to another spot marked with an identical sign bearing the word "coda", which, incidentally, means "tail" as in "tail end", although some composers can go on for quite some time once they've reached it.


Speaking of which, we have reached the coda of this little article, so I'll leave you with one nice thought.

Page-turning is a high stress job and requires years of steady effort to master; it is good to start out as an apprentice and work your way up. If you are lucky, perhaps you will be acknowledged in the program, or even asked to do interviews on public radio.

In the meantime, you will get a nice seat for the concert.



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