Tales of an Orchestral Violinist – an imperceptible page turn | Article
It is generally accepted that violins, especially first violins, play the most notes of any orchestral instrument. This is not meant to denigrate the noble endeavors of the contrabassoon, piccolo, or triangle. We all have our essential role to play.
Nevertheless, it is true. Even a non-musician can attest to this simply by lifting the first violin part of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and then, say, the third trombone part, and feeling whichever is heavier. No competition. You guessed it: it’s the violin, and it will be the case 99 times out of 100. spans 20 or 30 pages, or even a 40-page juggernaut like Mahler’s Fifth.
Here is an easy division. 40 pages, 80 minutes. Ergo, 20 page turns, or one page turn on average every four minutes! And if we take away the twelve-minute Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, which is only two pages long, it’s almost a page that is turned every two minutes. But does even the most discerning viewer notice?
Well, to quote the captain of the Apron, ‘rarely’. It is a combined and concerted effort of the composer, the editor, the orchestra library and finally the page turner to make the page turn essentially invisible. Let’s take each of these contributors, one at a time.
Although in a Mahler symphony there are a large number of musicians on stage – his Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a thousand”, really pushes this limit – at any given time there are usually only a handful of musicians playing. It’s mostly for the occasional, resounding climaxes when Mahler lets everyone go wild simultaneously.
A secondary benefit resulting from composers’ selective use of instrumentation is to give each musician an occasional opportunity to rest, and although the composer’s aim may have been purely musical, it does provide a moment, although that usually brief, for the strings. players to relax mentally and physically.
Since reputable music publishers understand the needs of performers, whenever possible, they strategically format the music so that a rest is placed at the bottom of the right-hand page. This allows musicians, who presumably require both hands to play their instruments, to be able to turn the page without interrupting the music. Most of the time, from Bach to Bernstein, this setup works effectively.
There are times, however, when composers are not so cooperative; when, for example, the violin part involves endless passages of quavers or semiquavers that soar into the sunset. In cases like this, for example in some symphonies by Schubert or Bruckner, it is impossible to fit enough notes on a single page before arriving at the next rest. This is where having a crackerjack library staff is a blessing, as they can solve the dilemma of turning the page by photocopying part of the next page to the point where there is finally silence, and adding to the page that has all the quick stuff.
What happens, however, when there is no rest at all on the horizon? When you just have to keep playing non-stop for a page turn? This happens from time to time, and it is then that the physical and mental dexterity of the page-turner is put to the test.
There are no page-turning lessons at music conservatories, although after playing with countless office partners over the past 40 years, I’ve often wished there were. Because even when there is a silence at the bottom of the page, there is an art to know how to turn it.
Some page-turners, anxious to get back into the fray, turn prematurely, leaving their office partners bewildered ad lib the music everyone is confidently playing. Other page-turners, believing themselves to be good Samaritans by letting you savor the very last note, wait for the last split second to turn the page.
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But unless you’ve memorized the music at the top left of every page, it can be extremely stressful. I remember an office partner many years ago, an otherwise sensational violinist and excellent musician. For some reason, he gave the distinct impression that turning a page was either a leisure activity (when he was in a good mood) or a strain on his time (when he was in a bad mood). As we approached the bottom of the page, he looked curiously at the music, as if he had never seen the bottom of a page before, stretched a little, put his violin down, cast another casual glance at the music, consider the options, nonchalantly turn the page, make sure the music is centered on the desktop, and resume playing.
The key, of course, is knowing your office partner’s strengths. For example, I’m much better at “memorizing” the music at the bottom of the page while my office partner turns it over than at predicting what’s going to appear on the next one. So I’m happiest when the page is turned as soon as possible. Either way, though, a quick page turn is almost always a good idea.
When I’m the outside player on the desk (i.e. the non-page turner), my only role in all this sleight of hand is to make sure my violin is out of the way so to give my partner enough leeway (literally) to move on effectively. I have had office colleagues for whom I have turned pages who slapped the roll of their violins so close to the music – either because of poor eyesight or insecurity – only to reach under their violins and through the stand, grab the bottom right of the music in a split second, turn the page and restore my playing position without hitting their violins or interfering with their ability to see the music, I had to become a true contortionist.
I envy those triangle players so much.
An earlier version of this article was published in 2020 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with whose kind permission it appears here.
This article is published in addition to the report by Gerald Elias in the March 2021 issue of The Strad on some of the universal challenges faced by orchestral string players. To learn more about onstage seat changes, player hearing protection, and away play, click here to subscribe and log in. The month of March 2021 digital magazine and print edition are on sale now.