The plight of the page turner

One of the most nerve-racking tasks in music? Rebecca Franks takes a look

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I’ve just watched a French psychological thriller called La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner). I won’t pretend that this is in any way a topical blog post: the film’s been around since 2006. You may even have seen it, so I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying the plot revolves around a budding young musician, Mélanie Prouvost, who harbours a grudge against an established concert pianist, Ariane Fouchécourt. After Ariane destroys, albeit inadvertently, Melanie’s dreams of a musical career, the young girl decides that revenge is a dish best served cold…

But this isn’t a film review. Rather, the film made me think about the particular psychological thrill experienced by the page turner. Or should that be psychological horror? Yes, horror.

But page turning's a simple task, isn't it? All you have to do is turn over the page in the right place. Think again. Turning pages is one of the most nerve-racking jobs on the concert stage. Just ask anyone who’s ever been perched on that chair next to the pianist, probably for a chamber work or contemporary piece – or, even more demandingly, had to turn pages and pull out stops for an organist.

Of course there’s a thrill to be had from being right in the middle of the music-making – the particular trust and intimacy between a pianist and their page turner is exploited in La tourneuse de pages – but the ringside seat is also the hot seat. You need to have concentration and steely nerves: how many bars ahead are they reading? Yes, it is that repeat that they’re doing, not that one. Why is the pianist glaring at me? Did I stop listening for a second… where are we?

And even if you have kept abreast of all the dots, we haven’t even touched on the problem of keeping out of the pianist’s way while actually turning the pages. That’s an art in itself. There are canny tricks to make sure pages don’t stick together (Susan Tomes’s page turner keeps a square of sponge handy), a whole language of meaningful nods of the head, even bodily contortions to keep out of the pianist’s sightlines. Not seen, and definitely not heard, runs the page-turner’s motto.

Given all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that page-turners often get roped in at the last minute, via a panicked phone call, email, Facebook post or Tweet and with the promise of cake and eternal gratitude. But that could all be set to change. With the advent of tablets like the iPad and digital sheet music, are the days of the page-turner’s panic numbered?

Back in 2003 Tasmin Little used a computerised version of the score to the fiendish Ligeti Violin Concerto, turning pages with her feet; James Rhodes recently gave his Chopin Prelude encore at the Cheltenham Festival from an iPad; while the new iPad app Tonara can ‘listen’ to your playing and turn the page at the appropriate point. But would you miss human sensitivity and judgement? Would hands-free page-turning technology be the musician's dream? Or would it just replace one set of problems with the possibility of the 'computer-says-no' horror? Let us know your thoughts…

 

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine 

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