September 30, 2010

turn, turn, turn

tuesday night, we had our first studio artist recital of the season, for our mezzo, who is in her second year of the program. as usual, rob, our associate music director/pianist/resident fabulous person, asked me to turn pages for him. and by "asked" I mean he knows exactly how to use flattery to his advantage. I've been doing this task for him for several years now, so it's a given that I will, but nevertheless he really heaps on the praise. "I mean, who else could I possibly get?" he will say. "there is no one better."

insert eye roll.

page turning is a funny business. in one special way, it's just like being a music librarian: if you're very good at it, no one will notice you at all. it's also incredibly terrifying. I've met very few people who've ever turned pages who aren't petrified at the task, and I've only met one person who likes doing it. why is it so awful? observe:

1. you're likely sight-reading
1a. you're likely sight-reading very difficult music, and/or music whose vocal line is in another language
1b. on rare unlucky occasions these two things collide to produce something like mussorgsky. it's next to impossible to follow the piano part at sight and when you take a panicked look at the voice line you realize it's in cyrillic. then you speak in page-turner code: you look directly down at the piano player with a veiled but stricken look on your face. this look says "IF YOU DON'T NOD VIGOROUSLY AT THE PAGE TURN WE ARE BOTH GONERS."

2. you have to constantly get up and down and you hope that nobody notices you.
2b. you have to do this without touching the piano or getting in the way of the pianist.
2c. you have to time your getting-up so that you're not poised over the music for an excruciating length of time, hovering over the pianist for the next five minutes.

3. you have to turn the pages.
3a. just one page at a time (most of the time).
3b. at the right time.
3c. quietly.
3d. without the music then folding back to the previous page.

anatomy of a page turn
you glance at the tempo marking. hopefully it's in a language you read. and by that I mean hopefully it just says "allegro non troppo" or "lentement" and not something ridiculously long-winded and absurdly poetic. the french are terrible about this. the tempo marking is a sentence. by the time I've read the whole thing, I've probably missed the turn. and I speak french.

the pianist begins playing, and you corroborate what you thought the tempo would be with what it actually is. hopefully you have some semblance of an idea where the beat is. you don't always know. otherwise you wait for the singer, hope s/he comes in at the appropriate time, and figure it out from there. if that fails (or there's no voice on the first page) you stand up and prepare your turn and then just hope for a clear head nod.

important: you look to see if the music goes past one page. sometimes you don't even need to turn! those pages are great. but few and far between.

the moment arrives. if you're me, unless the music is very slow, you stand up a staff above the last staff of the page, so that you can make sure you get the music in your hand and have time to turn. this also reassures the pianist that you're ready, you know where you are in the music, and you are GONNA turn that page, damnit.

you turn the page. but wait! I have a little secret. rob taught it to me years ago, as the differentiating factor between passable page turners and truly great page turners. at the beginning of the last staff, you carefully fold over the top corner of the page you're about to turn, so that the pianist can peek ahead and remind himself what's there. I try to do this without casting a shadow on the music, which is hard.

now you turn the page. just one page. you sit down, hopefully with a modicum of grace. then you sit very, very still. you clasp your hands in your lap, both to keep yourself from fidgeting and also because you're terribly nervous and they're probably shaking. you continue to follow the music, and as you do you begin to wonder, is my head cocked at a funny angle? you're no longer convinced you understand the mechanisms of your body. do I usually sit like this? is my neck jutting out? is everyone looking at me and saying, why is her face turned unnaturally to the right like that? you have absolutely no idea what's right anymore.

you get up and turn another page. maybe this time you turn a little earlier than you think you should have and then once you've sat down, you quietly berate yourself for not getting it exactly right, although you're not actually sure it was too early, and after all rob probably has it all memorized anyway, even if he thinks he doesn't. and you have a terrible itch on your nose but you can't touch it until the end of the piece, or at least until the next turn.

god help you if you have to sneeze.


  1. god forbid the DS al fine. even reading this entry gave me the sweats. page turning is completely and utterly terrifying!

  2. i love this post! i love these kinds of looks into very specific worlds i will never ever know. also i never would have guessed that the issues you list in #1 above would be such a problem. i hate jobs like this that never stop being scary. i'm impressed.