On the little-documented role of the page-turner

For fun, I decided to play a piano duet at home with my daughter. My wife was pressed into service turning pages, despite not knowing how to read music. During the performance, I discovered that she had no experience at all being a page turner, because she didn't pick up on the standard "piano nod" that signals that it's time to turn the page. Fortunately, I had my part mostly-memorized (and my daughter had completely memorized her part), so we managed to complete the exercise without incident.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the art of page-turning. I found A Page-turner's survival guide which sets the ground work for the mechanics of serving as a page-turner. Additional mechanics are spelled out here, including general guidelines like always following the performers on and off stage and not accepting applause unless invited by the performer.

During my undergraduate years, I occasionally served as a volunteer usher at the concert hall, and for one of the recitals, a fellow student was selected to turn pages for the solo pianist. I don't know if I could have handled the pressure.

While searching for information about page-turning, I discovered Pauline Oliveros's Trio for Flute, Piano, and Page Turner (1961), in which the page turner, in addition to serving the nominal role, also assists the pianist by silently holding down keys to raise the dampers (so that the strings can resonate when the pianist strikes harmonically-related notes), reaching into the cavity to effect other sound alterations, and even changing places with the pianist briefly.

I wonder how this affects standard page turner etiquette, such as the rule against accepting applause. Unfortunately, I cannot find any videos online.

Obligatory page turner hero story: Page Turner Rescues Sonata from Sudden Failure.

Bonus chatter: I attended a performance where the piano soloist used a tablet computer instead of sheet music. She turned her own pages by tapping the screen. (Related.) When I mentioned this, my nerd friends speculated how this could be improved through the application of even more technology: Maybe the performer wears a special ring that they can tap with their thumb to turn the page. Or the computer listens to the performance and turns the page automatically. But I told them they were all working way too hard. The tablet can simply be remote-controlled by an assistant offstage who is watching for the tell-tale head nod from the pianist.

Bonus bonus chatter: One of my friends from college is now an orchestra conductor. (Different college friend, not the page-turner friend.) He says that many musicians are converting to digital sheet music, but he sticks with paper. At least for him, paper is easier to read, especially when he has only a fraction of a second to glance at the score during a performance.

Bonus bonus bonus chatter: One of my relatives attended a concert where the soloist used digital sheet music. Unfortunately, something went wrong with the tablet and it wouldn't turn on. There was a bit of a delay while the performer went backstage and returned with… paper sheet music.

Comments (20)
  1. Dithermaster says:

    An automatic page turner app for iPad already exists, a friend of mine wrote it. It listens to you play and knows where you are at. Here it is in the App Store: “Autoflip – Sheet Music Viewer”

  2. cheong00 says:

    [At least for him, paper is easier to read, ]

    Maybe the next time you see him, you can observe whether his phone has matte screen (something Kindle uses), or just use old style phone. :P

  3. Harold H20 says:

    Re: Digital Sheet Music

    In 1981 I naively bought my first computer for the specific purpose of sitting it on top of my piano and displaying digital sheet music. Of course there were several problems. Digital sheet music didn’t exist, and my complete lack of computer expertise combined with the primitive state of technology at that time, made creating and displaying digital sheet music too difficult (for me).

    1. cheong00 says:

      I thought people around the time of Win3.1 will key the notes into MIDI editor, then play the MIDI file mute on a MIDI player that also display the scores automatically for this purpose.

      Since the topmost line of the screen is always the part currently playing, there’s no need to worry about paging at all. The pianist or player of other musical instruments and peek the next line conveniently if needed.

      1. @cheong00

        It’s all about pacing. If you end up going faster then the computer lags behind, if you play slower the computer races ahead.
        There may be sections where you feel a pause should be longer. You might make mistakes. A auto-roll will be oblivious to this. A human page turner would notice. And using pedals/switches would let the musician control the pages themselves.

  4. “But I told them they were all working way too hard. The tablet can simply be remote-controlled by an assistant offstage”
    Or you could just spend a few bucks to buy a USB pedal on ebay, they can be programmed to anything like for example “Pg Dn” or similar. They are optical “digital” switches and have memory so when programmed you can plug them into any computer.
    I got two pedals, mapped as “Ctrl” and “Shift” (works surprisingly well even in games like GTA 5 as well for Accelerate/Reverse).
    My point is, many forget that most people have two feet.

    1. Drak says:

      Might this not interfere with the ‘pedaling’ needed to play the piano properly?

      1. Richard says:

        Pianos have up to three pedals – Sustain (lifts all dampers), Quiet (shifts the hammers so they hit fewer strings) and “Sostenuto”, which is like Sustain but only holds up the dampers for the notes you play while pressing it.

        It would certainly be possible to add a fourth pedal for “Next Page”, as you currently almost never press two pedals at once.

        1. Ian says:

          Well, to be fair if you are using the soft pedal you’re probably going to want to use the sustain also. But most of the time your left foot is free to operate a page turner.

          Unless you are standing up that is – I’ve tried this and believe me, it quite impossible from a standing position to operate a page turner with your left foot while using the sustain pedal with your right foot.

          1. Alex Cohn says:

            The major advantage of software paging system is that you can allow for overlaps. Which means that if your foot is busy at the exact moment, you can tap the turner a bit earlier.

            Alas, you still cannot tap the turner a bit later, you need some level of futuretelling developed.

  5. Andrew H. says:

    There is in fact a purpose-made wireless foot-pedal device which exists expressly for the purpose of being a page turner for instrumentalists with their hands full. It’s more oriented towards non-piano players, since it requires one of your feet: http://www.pageflip.com/firefly.html

    I own one of these, but it’s because I was using it as an extra modifier key when I had broken my wrist and was trying to do one-handed “mirror QWERTY” typing.

  6. Ian says:

    I switched to an iPad for my band sheet music a while back, mainly for the organisational benefits – I don’t have to mess around before the gig finding all the right sheets and then spend 10 minutes at the end putting them all back in the pad in alphabetical order. A side benefit is that I can always see the screen clearly, even on a dark stage. The improved contrast over paper more or less makes up for the fact that the screen is somewhat smaller than A4. And of course I use a USB foot pedal to turn the pages.

    I’d like to use it at church too, but too many of the songs are printed with dots on the left hand page and words on the right hand page.

    1. GregM says:

      My daughter is in a high school PEP band (plays at football and basketball games). The school issues iPads to all students, so they use those for their music. They play music based on what happens in the game. This means that they don’t have a defined order for their music, and they sometimes only have a few seconds to pull up a song. This makes it a lot easier.

  7. Márton says:

    I saw a video where someone was using iPad for displaying the sheet music, and was tapping his iPhone with his foot in socks to turn the page.

  8. Leonardo Herrera says:

    Yuga Wang sometimes plays using an iPad.

    1. AK says:

      And Yuja Wang sometimes uses a page turner, with hilarious results: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJGMRExUCFM

  9. MV says:

    When I saw the headline about a “page-turner”, I thought it was going to be some deep insight into how windows optimizes paging. Hey, SQL Server has “torn page” detection, so it’s not that unreasonable!

    1. Ian Yates says:

      Yeah, I was thinking about something to do with the page file :)

  10. ErikF says:

    The repeat notations are probably the easiest to miss, and the easiest to mess up. I think that the designers of the music notation language learned some bad habits from APL. :-)

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