Turning A Page? Better Consult A Professional

Democrats were eager to turn the page on the Bush years — like this convention attendee.

hide captionDemocrats were eager to turn the page on the Bush years — like this convention attendee, who read Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope in Denver.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Inauguration Day, Americans get a new president and an earful of that cliche about "turning a page in history."

With millions of people focused on this historic moment, let's remember that a page can be turned with grace and precision, or by a clumsy hand. So on this inaugural eve, it seems fitting to consult a professional — someone who literally turns pages for a living.

David Evan Thomas is a professional composer whose work has been performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, chamber groups and choruses. He's also a singer and a pianist. But he also turns pages for musicians, including such famed pianists as Peter Serkin and Leon Fleisher.

Page turners do their jobs best when you can't hear them at the concert, Thomas says.

"The page turner doesn't make a sound," Thomas said. "In many senses, he is not there. It's just a matter of doing the same thing over and over at just the right time."

It is a simple — and relentless — job. Page turners must read the music right along with the pianist, keep the beat and turn pages several measures before the music on the page runs out, and still remain invisible.

Recently, a pianist and a page turner did a demonstration at NPR's Studio 4A. The turner sat to the left of the pianist, and the music began. As they neared the end of the first page, the turner stood and leaned forward, and reached across with a left hand to the upper right-hand corner of the page, turning it without a sound.

Describing the rhythm of the work, Thomas says the concentration can be noisy.

"For the page turner, there's a crescendo of expectation as you get toward the end of a right-hand page," he said, "then a sort of climax as you turn the page. Then you sort of slump back for a few moments as you gather your thoughts and decide where you're going to turn the next page."

Thomas is paid $50 to $100 for each concert in St. Paul, Minn. And even though he is not making music himself, he prefers to call himself an accompanist.

Of course, no matter how careful the page turners' preparation, there's always the possibility of messing up. For instance, there's the fear of turning two pages at once.

"Pianists have told me they like to hear you press the pages," Thomas said, "because they know you have it. It gives them confidence."

And something else helps: licking your fingers.

Thomas' only near-disaster as a page turner came when cellist Yo-Yo Ma was playing a Cesar Franck sonata in St. Paul. Thomas was the page turner for Ma's accompanist, pianist Katherine Stott.

"As I turned the page, I found the book was not stapled and the pages started to cascade down the music rack toward the keyboard," Thomas said. "There was a gasp from the audience, which I could hear."

He leaned forward, smacked the falling pages against the piano and pushed them back up into place.

"It was like a heart attack," Thomas said. "Like a traffic accident where you experience a near miss!"

But he saved the day, and Stott just kept on playing.

The flip side of the story comes from pianist Lambert Orkis, principal keyboard with the National Symphony. Orkis says that during a performance, terrible things can happen.

"You can slip," he said. "A page turner can fall on you. I'm not kidding."

At a recital decades ago, Orkis accompanied a bassoonist and had a music student assigned to turn pages for him. In this case, the music wasn't in a book, but on a long sheet of paper that folded and unfolded like an accordion. As Orkis remembers, the young accompanist looked very nervous — sweating and a little shaky.

"And we're approaching a page turn, and I see she's not going to make it," Orkis said. "So I figure I'll just turn it myself. When she sees me doing this, she panics and rushes to turn it for me.

"She hits my hand, which deflects the page off the rack so this accordion-like affair is starting to unravel, and it falls onto the keyboard. We're still playing; fortunately the piano part isn't that difficult.

"But the page-turner tries to reel in the music, and now it falls off the keyboard onto the stage. And you can hear the audience start to twitter, and she tries to pull it some more — and now it falls off the stage and down into the audience part of the hall."

After that experience, Orkis says he pretty much gave up using page turners. Then again, he never worked with David Evan Thomas.

In this season of turning a new political leaf, it's worth considering the unsung heroes of the musical stage: the people who turn pages filled with black dots and lines so that the dots and dabs can become music to our ears.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.