Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Page Turn

If you've been reading this blog you know I sometimes write about some rather strange topics. Starting a series on what makes a good accompanist, I spent two entries on giving pitches to choirs (what's to know? you simply play the starting note for each part one part at a time and then they sing. Nothing to it. Well...)

Soon I'll get around to some of the most important issues for accompanists, the ones that happen while you are actually playing! First, however, another bit of minutiae--important minutiae though it is, involving the turning of pages.

Actually, I should mention this is a curiously popular topic around here. I have a humorous yet informative article over on on the art of the page turn for people who are not pianists, or who are helping other pianists, and it is one of the most popular pages on the site. It's recently been mentioned on and in the online version of the British newspaper The Guardian.

I have a policy of rehearsing as hard as I perform, and have for years been making a practice of trying to maximize the page turn whenever I have to do it myself while playing. The fact is, that much of the time, if not the vast majority of the time, accompanists wind up doing most of their own page turning. That is certainly going to be true during rehearsals. It is usually true during performances as well, and I like to be prepared for any emergency caused by anything like an unwarranted amount of zeal when turning the page to a gust of wind or a poor excuse for a music rack. I also try every way possible to not have to leave out notes during a page turn, particularly the important ones. All this keeps me continually on my toes during rehearsals.

Which might be the only reason I managed to get through what happened to me on Saturday. I don't know how it started, but the next thing I knew the music was tottering off the stand, and into the piano. Now, I have a patented method for turning a page wherein my right hand leaves the keyboard and suddenly shoots up to the page like a frog catching flies with its tongue and I whip the page to the left in one snapping motion-- just like most accompanists. I then zip back down to the keyboard in time to play the next chord with my right hand. Got that? The sequence is play--whoosh! (page turn)--back to the keyboard, play the chord. Then I shoot my hand back up to the music again, which has not been able to keep up with my sudden moves, and has taken the time while I was playing the next chord to saunter leisurely across to its resting place. Only if the music is new, as it often is, what has happened is that the music has ricocheted--softly, we hope--back, and is thinking about either flipping right back to where it was, or else inconveniently coming to rest at some funny angle so I can't read the music. In any case, the book just doesn't want to stay open. So a beat or two later my hand shoots back up to the music and I make whatever adjustment is necessary. Occasionally I have to do it a couple of times. This is all predicated on the fact that I can't spend two beats waiting around for the page I've set in motion to actually arrive where I've sent it. I have music to play. Therefore my patented two-step, or three or four step, ninja moves.

Some of these octavos are rather thick, and heavy, which might explain the music's behavior. It apparently developed some excess momentum and continued into the piano, still upright, and then, a moment later, slid down out of the piano to rest on my legs.

The reason I am having trouble recalling exactly what the music was busy doing in those moments is because I was using all of my available bandwidth at that point imagining various disaster scenarios and how to deal with them. Someone who witnessed the episode remarked how calm I appeared during the whole thing and I explained that I have learned that in such situations one has no time at all to panic; everything you have must be concentrated on how to fix the situation you are in.

Which is how, within a second of the music's falling off the piano, I had realized that up ahead in the music there was a place where the singers answered the piano motive and that all I was doing at that point was playing an octave D in the left hand for an entire four beat measure. If I could make it that far I would have my right hand free to grab the music and put it back up on the rack. In the meantime it was imperative that I not breathe too heavily or make any sudden moves. That music needed to stay where it was, balanced precariously on my legs.

At that point I needed to play the next 8 bars or so from memory. This is a situation in which you do not ask yourself whether you happen to have the music memorized; you simply do it. I had been rehearsing the music with the choir for several weeks and can report back reasonable success. I'm not sure whether I missed any notes during the whole incident!

After a great span of time had passed--probably upwards of 7 seconds--the coming of the great octave D arrived and I was able to put the music back up on the rack with my right hand, then to notice, annoyed, that it was on the wrong page, and then, somehow, to effect two page turns over the next three measures in order to get the music back to where it should have been in the first place.

For full effect I should probably mention that the conductor likes her tempi crispy and that the piano part was not especially easy, particularly at high speed. I should also confess that some of the notes in the section that followed were not technically approved by the composer's union because, determined to stay focused though I was, having had my accompanying life flash before me did nonetheless make it hard not to mentally stammer a little. I paraphrased a few things which would not have assaulted the ears of the populace, but were not necessarily what was written before me. Nevertheless, we finished the piece, I heaved a mental sigh, and we went on to a piece that was longer and harder, and I took extra care on the page turns.

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