As the Pages Turn

It’s easy. You just stand there, and when the time is right, you reach over, turn the page in the music book, and then stand for a while more, then repeat as needed until the song ends. No problems, right?

Sorry, had to catch my breath after laughing.

I was leaving the church two weeks ago late on a weekday afternoon when one of the older ladies, a retired first-grade teacher, stopped me. “What are you doing here? There is no religion class meeting today, no choir rehearsal . . ?”

“I was practicing with Mr. McConnell* for his recital. I’m turning pages.”

An arched eyebrow. “That is not too difficult.” With the implication that rehearsing such a thing was a little odd.

“I am also pulling stops and assisting with registration,” which was true, but mostly I turn pages.

Turning for the organ is not harder than turning for any other instrument, but it can be trickier if you do not read music. Fortunately, I can read organ scores (three lines, two hands, two feet, one mess). And after several years working with Mr. McConnell, I can almost read his mind. I can (finally!) read his handwriting, although he manages to surprise me every so often by cutting measures on the fly and expecting me to catch the jump and be ready to turn when he gets where he is going. I don’t always make it, thus getting the hiss of “turn!” Oops.

The “problem” with keyboard instruments is that they require two hands (and feet), meaning that on a fast or complicated piece, or one with lots of registration changes**, a third hand is needed to turn the page if the musician has not memorized the music. Organists tend not to memorize, at least not for every-day concerts. Thus the page turner. Our job is to be invisible. We wear black, stand very still (unless we have to move, as is the case if I need to pull stops or help with registration changes that are not on pistons, or pistons that the organist just can’t reach at that moment***), and turn the page so the flow of the music is never interrupted. You reach up, grasp the corner of the page, and turn it. Easy. (Watch for a minute and you’ll see the young man pulling stops for Richter.)

Easy unless . . . 1) your loose sleeve catches a stop knob and pulls it out, 2) your elbow bumps a stop knob and pushes it in, 3) you discover that your jacket is tighter than you thought and you have trouble reaching far enough to turn, 4) your cuff catches the music and pulls it, 5) the instrument is tall and you are short and have trouble turning the pages because 6) the organist has taped them together into a large accordion and the tape sticks and you get multiple pages that have to be spread across the width of the music rack, 7) the pages stick and you get a few too many, 8) the music falls off the music rack [wasn’t me that time], 9) you discover that you rehearsed turning from the right and he needs you on the left because of where the other instrumentalists are (or vice versa), 10) you accidentally turn the organ off [not me and Mr. McConnell and “Judy” still have not figured out how she managed to hit the power switch, which is tucked waaaay back below the stops. I need a flashlight and a map to find it when I’m looking for it.] Oh yeah, and 11), you start daydreaming, or get lost in the music, and get lost and don’t know where you are and the page has to have an end and there are repeated patterns and oh crap I think he’s one measure away and I’m supposed to turn on beat “two-and-uh” of the measure before and oh crumbs.

Nope, never happens and it won’t happen again next week either, promise.

*Names and details changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the author.

**Registration is the combination of stops to produce a certain sound, and the connection of multiple keyboards (if you look at the video, you’ll see notes on one keyboard moving when his hands are on a different keyboard. The keyboards are coupled, usually “Swell to Great” or “Solo to choir” or something like that.)

***Pistons are buttons, knobs, or levers that allow you to preset multiple stops in a registration, then quickly push the button/pull knob/switch and make major changes while playing. G-d help you if you accidentally reset someone else’s pistons without permission. No jury will convict an organist who strangles someone for clearing the registrations after he/she spent two hours getting everything set, then steps out to change into performance black and visit the washroom. [Wasn’t me that time, either.]