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Emily Grossman

Page Turn

November 13, 2005 at 11:04 AM

Did I mention I’m also a page turner? It’s a handy skill to possess. I chanced upon regular job offers here after our town’s recent page turning monarch gladly retired from her post and began enticing me with free concert tickets in return for my services. I’m a professional page turner; I am only paid in coffee punch cards, but to me, those are worth more than gold some days.

On the stage, page turning has its own set of stress and anxiety. It’s not as simple as you might think. Every time I take the stage along with the other musicians, I am fully aware of the fact that although I personally haven’t had to log a single minute of rehearsal, I have the power to completely botch the program despite all the hours of practicing and years of experience the others have invested. During the few minutes leading up to the event, I always wonder why I agreed to such a risky task.

My first job, a couple of years ago, was to turn pages for a German pianist playing a Beethoven trio. He showed me the marked pages of his sheet music beforehand and explained that the trio movement would have several repeats, some extending backward by more than one page, followed by a D.C. in which I would return to the beginning and follow through to the sign, then flip forward two pages to the coda, ignoring all second repeats. Got it. As I sat beside this great artist, listening to the measures fly by, I became filled with terror. I can’t see all the notes! My fingers are too dry to grip the corner! Am I sitting too close? Did he just shake his head at me? I can’t remember how to count, where are we? I can’t focus anymore! I envied the members of the trio, who all seemed to be so relaxed and natural on the stage, fully enjoying themselves. The trio movement was next. At the speed of light, the measures ticked away, much faster than I could mentally digest. I flipped. I flipped. I licked and flipped back two. Forward. Forward. Then back to the beginning. Suddenly, I heard an awkward silence. Was that a bright light, and am I dead and on my way to heaven now? At least I could relax then, if I was dead. No, the people in the audience were still there, patiently waiting for what would come next. Obviously, I must have done something wrong. Then the violinist chuckled. It was he, not I, who had forgotten to take the repeat! Each of them shook their heads and smiled, and I resumed breathing in relief. The audience, fully entertained, gave a happy murmur as the musicians rejoined back at the top to complete Beethoven’s trio.

Mistakes aren’t the end of the world, after all. As a page turner, the worst thing I’ve done so far provoked a pianist to whisper at me, following the first movement, “Please do not chew your gum.” I swallowed and wished to be as small as possible for the rest of the evening. Even so, the concert was a success and everyone went home pleased. At least, I’d like to imagine that no one was going to remember that concert as the “Annoying Gum-Smacking Page Turner” concert–no one but me and the whispering pianist.

Tonight, I wasn’t feeling up to snuff. I migrate toward antisocial moods sometimes, and not only am I inclined to stay home, but I also tend to view any audience as a formidable source of anxiety. I’m not sure where all the confidence goes some days. I did not want to face an audience today. Maria’s entrustment of her piano performance to my skills would be my only source of encouragement.

I sat, listening to the first piece performed by the woodwind quintet, a Renaissance-style suite by Milhaud. The Poulenc piano sextet was next. My sanity hung by a thread. How would I keep it together for 68 pages of yet-unheard Poulenc? I was up. Wearing solid black and slinking into the seat on the far left like a shadow, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Maria’s fingers hovered, poised over the keyboard. I licked my finger. We were off! They lapped up page number one in a heartbeat, since Maria’s music contained only two lines (the rest of the page otherwise occupied by the score). The music itself was appropriately terrifying–dissonant, busy, and anxious. I hushed the crazy thoughts in my mind by counting to four, to four, to five, and then four again. Turn. The entire first movement passed this way, in a blur.

If the first movement was appropriately anxious, the second proved itself to be even better suited to my mood. Catching me completely off guard, the melancholy introduction from the piano instantly squeezed at a thorn lodged somewhere in my heart and I felt an incredible surge of emotion. The beauty moved me, and I forgot for an instant that I was on a stage and had a job to execute. The music! So beautiful and perfect, it transported me into my personal attic of boxed up feelings and lay open a deep stash of tears. I felt it coming and gasped. Must focus! Two, three, four, turn page 38.

That’s the most difficult thing about being a page turner. I get swept away by the music. I feel excited, serious, frightful, enamored, tearful–everything that music is supposed to make you feel–right then when I’m supposed to be working. The musicians are interacting with the music, the audience is experiencing it, but I am to count and turn, and that’s all. No time for heartbreaks tonight.

Intermission followed Poulenc, and I spied Maria’s husband on the front row. I approached him. “So, was I less conspicuous this evening?” Shaking his head, he replied, “Emily, you are–never–inconspicuous.” He and others claim I’m the most entertaining one to watch on the stage. Seeing as how my chief goal is to be the opposite, I resent that. At the same time, I wonder what they all see up there. Yeah, I bet it’s entertaining.

From Maria Allison
Posted on November 13, 2005 at 4:12 PM
Dear Emily, great story. Page turning can make or break a performance, and you are the best. Thanks again. You are so stunning onstage, no one can ignore you. Sorry you were having a melancholy moment, that Poulenc speaks right to the heart. I appreciated your presence there very much. Love MLA
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on November 14, 2005 at 11:06 AM
I usually ignore everything except the page turner. I don't even hear the music. The right look is no jewlery, hair in a bun, or short and blunt cut. Get some black glasses at the drugstore. Break the glass out if you can't see. Rub some ashes on your face and hold it like you just ate a lemon. You need the right hunch in your posture. Then you can be the Heifetz of page turners.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 14, 2005 at 11:54 PM
Gee, I even skipped the red nail polish and pink tights. Not enough?
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 15, 2005 at 7:38 PM
Emily, your story reminds me of my brief, unsuucessful gig as a percussionist. I had injured my arm and couldn't play my violin, but I went to orchestra rehearsals anyway because I love them. Our sole percussionist snatched me up to play percussion with him. My specialty was triangle, which I struck artfully with a carefully chosen screwdriver. All I had to do was count for 50-100 measures, hit the triangle a few times, count again...etc. At the performance I was a complete disaster. I missed every cue. I was let go from my position as assistant percussionist and replaced by the percussionist's brother-in-law, who had never before played music. He was great. He even does fancy drum rolls now. You've just got to have the right person for the job.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 15, 2005 at 10:04 PM
Well, at least you know you picked the right instrument, and you're not missing your calling as a professional triangle player. I'm glad you got to try that out.

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