The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Page-turners can make or break a concert | April 30, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger


Then some more beautiful music.


Then more beautiful music

And so on for 40 minutes or so.

There I was recently, listening to a wonderful piece of chamber music, a piano trio by Schubert, the energetic opening of which is performed here by Yehudi Meuhin at the 1964 Bath Festival in England.

But the music was interrupted by this sound of an annoying thwap, and another, and another.

It was by the very capable pianist who was turning her own pages.

Of course, I understand why someone might do that. I know one pianist in particular who is really fussy about turning pages and who does it. Get the wrong page-turner and you can get in serious trouble. It’s a special skills as you can read here:

String players and other instrumentalists turn their own pages all the time and usually seem to have the time to do so. And pianists do it when they are practicing.

But when you are a playing the piano in a performance, I’m not so sure that turning your own pages is a good idea, especially when you’re playing a fast movement (first movement, last movement, middle scherzo) and have to turn the page really fast – thereby creating a loud and distracting paper crinkle of the page.

Then too, the noise gets even louder when the page doesn’t turn fully and you lose your place as you slap the page back down again because it doesn’t stay flat.

Of course, maybe something happened in the concert in question. Maybe the page-turner didn’t show up, though the nearby University of Wisconsin School of Music should be full of capable student willing to turn pages.

“I wanted to offer to help,” said another sympathetic listener after the performance, when we were chatting.

I had had the same impulse.

But I figured, as he probably did, that she did what she wanted to do. And maybe neither of us would have been an improvement because we hadn’t rehearsed it with the pianist.

Anyway, I really urge piano players in chamber music performances to line up a capable page-turner. (Notice the one in the one the video above of a thoroughly professional piano trio.)

And I encourage the public to appreciate the good and bad that page-turners can make in a concert. They seem so secondary or tertiary — but they can be vital.

Take a look at this story:

Have you ever been distracted by a musician turning pages during a performance?

What do musicians say about the dilemma?

Do any page-turners have something to say?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I have turned pages for the Ojai Music festival for the last 15 years. I deal with scores that are so new they are not bound, extremely difficult to read contemporary scores, temperamental artists, and wind that will carry pages across the stage (we’re in an outdoor venue). The joy of working with the incredible talent that crosses our stage: Marino Formenti, Peter Serkin, Lisa Kaplan, Colin Fowler, Mitsuko Uchida, Jeannette Sorrell, Eric Huebner, Jeremy Denk; and having the best seat in the house more than compensates for the wear on my nerves. I love page turning!

    Comment by gaminwench — June 19, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

  2. […] A Page Turner’s Survival Guide The plight of the page turner The life of a professional page turner Turning a Page? Better consult a professional The stressy existence of a professional page turner Page-turners can make or break a concert […]

    Pingback by What’s in a page turn? | Another Year of Insanity — April 4, 2013 @ 12:59 am

  3. It IS such a great problem for all of us. I am a violin player, but I understand how much the pianists need a page-turner, sometimes you have a page-turner who is really lame, and it affects greatly the performance. According to the story above, one of the audiences wanted to help, but I find that nobody is ever helpful, everywhere I play nobody seems to want to help. When you ask a fellow musician, they also say No, even seem to be feeling a little disgraced. (one of the pianists actually said, “How can you ask me to do such thing like that?” .

    Though I do think it wouldn’t be so disgraceful only if we all drop the ego a bit, and help each other. Then we all be musicians as well as page turners, and from my own experience, musicians are the best page turners as they understand the music, probably know the piece already.)

    And yes, you could hire a student from college, but they are usually really horrible, boasting how young they are, and it is very stressful to those young musicians although they already left college, it does not mean that they are old. Sometimes it is so stressful I wanted to quit being a musician.

    It is just such a dilemma that can not be solved. On the whole, we are losing great performances, as well as great musicians.

    Comment by Dorothy — August 25, 2012 @ 9:04 am

  4. I’ve just come across your enjoyable post. You may like the title poem of my book “The Page-Turner’s Dilemma” and its accompanying cartoon by Jules ~ cartoonist. See for further info.

    Comment by Heather Wastie — October 25, 2010 @ 9:25 am

    • Hi Heather,
      Thank you for reading and replying with your kind words.
      I will check out the site and get back to you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 25, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  5. I find page turning an absolutely thrilling and engaging “job”. You think no one notices you, but I get stopped randomly by concert-goers and asked “are you the page turner for . . . ?” Very fun. It’s also great being on first name basis with Leon Fleisher, Valentina Lisitsa and Jeffery Sykes … at least for the nights they’re in town. It can also be stressful. I’m usually sightreading (with a few preliminary looks at the music and warnings about any repeats being taken) at the concert, and I’m lucky if I recognize the piece. That’s the main reason page-turning goes awry. We’re living with the music in the moment.

    Comment by Kristine — June 29, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    • Hi Kristine,
      Thank you for reading and commenting — and for turning pages.
      I have seen you at work, and you do it very well. I believe we exchanged words recently at the a Dancing and Dynamite Society concert at Taliesin.
      I think you have also written the best brief description of page-turning I have ever read, offering a clear portrayal of both the rewards and challenges.
      Many thanks and continued good work to you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 29, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  6. I think phing lee is right, I mean, if the piece is fast/virtuostic/page-turning-speed: fast, then it’ll be wiser to use your memory (which with hard work will give you enough space for your own interpretation). And well, maybe you won’t Thwap! all the concert xD


    Comment by Nic — May 7, 2010 @ 8:08 am

  7. I’ve performed the “Faschingsswank aus Wien” (Carnival Jest from Vienna) by Schumann and the fast pages needed turning during practice. Uncertainty arises what might happen in a concert, so I memorised the whole piece and performed all by heart! No hassle with pages!

    Comment by phing lee — May 2, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

    • Dear Phing Lee,
      Thanks for reading and then writing.
      Your solution is ideal — in your circumstances. But it would be difficult to do the same in chamber music, don’t you think? And that was the circumstance I originally wrote about — although it also applies to solo music, where memorizing is indeed an option.
      Keep playing, memorizing and performing. I love the “Faschingsswank.”
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 2, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

  8. Page turning is an art in itself. Generally I prefer that a pianist use a turner but I admire pianists who can turn for themself. My favorite turner is snake-like in his dexterity — never failing to make a crisp clean turn. His greatest achievement was undoing his turner’s mistake and never missing a beat.

    Victor Borge has an hilarious sketch about differences he had with his turner.

    Thanks for the link – a great story.

    Comment by Drew Fondrk — April 30, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    • Hi Drew,
      You’re welcome.
      Thanks for reading and commenting,
      I like your attitude and share it. The case in question is where going solo went wrong.
      “Snake-like” is the right and colorful description of an excellent, stealthy page-turner who blends in and strikes quickly and efficiently.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 30, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

  9. Try turning the pages for Widor’s Toccata from the 5th Symphony when your eyes are blinded by tears.

    Years ago as a choir member and organ student at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, Maine, I offered to turn pages for our organist’s closing piece. It came at the end of the last service he directed prior to moving away. The whole choir was teary-eyed and it had been a struggle to get through the singing. If I remember correctly, I only read the very top notes of all those incredibly fast and virtuostic (is that a word? It should be!) passages.

    What the Toccata sounds like:

    Comment by Nan Morrissette — April 30, 2010 @ 6:14 am

    • Hi Nan,
      Thank you for reading and then commenting.
      That’s a wonderful story you tell.
      I too love the Widor piece, and it does move fast with a lot of notes because it is a toccata– designed to show off the players’ skill.
      But it is also a piece that moves emotionally as well as physically.
      I often cry when I hear it played solo, but I cried a lot when I heard it with a boychoir descant composed, I think, by Sir David Willcocks at the opening of the Overture Center here in Madison. I can’t imagine turning pages during that.
      Thanks too for the link. It’s a piece a lot of people should know. Many probably are familiar with the music, but don;t know the name. It is used a lot as a precessional, especially at Easter.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 30, 2010 @ 8:13 am

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