Elizabeth Harcombe talks about the art of page turning


(c) Chamber Music Northwest

Elizabeth Harcombe grew up in Roseburg, Oregon where she began playing piano at the age of 5. She was the pianist at the church where her mother served as organist. Harcombe studied music at Biola University and later got a Master of Music Education degree with an emphasis in piano pedagogy from University of Oklahoma. Harcombe has served as the rehearsal pianist at the Oregon Bach Festival for Helmuth Rilling and for the Oregon Repertory Singers under Gil Seeley. She currently teaches piano at Lewis and Clark College and is the program and operations director at Chamber Music Northwest. She joined the staff at Chamber Music Northwest in 2006 and has been turning pages for visiting pianists ever since.

Do you like to turn pages?

Harcombe: Yes, I love to turn pages. I began “turning” while in Canada where I was studying piano but not allowed to work. I’m never nervous turning pages. Every musician I talk to is completely freaked out about turning pages, but for me, page turning is a natural thing because I’m a strong sight reader. You do a lot of sight reading as a page turner. I guess I could take the time to study the score, but it’s more fun to see it all go by on the stage.

You mean, you don’t attend the rehearsals?

Harcombe: No. I just show up a few minutes before going on stage and take a look at the score. Sometimes the pianist tells me of something that needs special attention like a repeat that goes back four pages. But every pianist has their own style about how they want a page to be turned. Some arrive and their scores are completely marked in the exact place where they want you to turn the page. One pianist uses a red pen with a line followed by an arrow. And that line is the exact place where I should turn the page. So there’s never a question. With other pianists it’s getting to know them and their styles. Anne Marie McDermott removes the music stand and places her score inside the piano. I sit on a stool and reach into the piano to turn. Fortunately, she folds the bottom corner of the score and inserts it in between the tuning pins so that it doesn’t fly around. Turning pages for her can be more of a challenge.

How many concerts do you turn pages for at Chamber Music Northwest?

Harcombe: We have 25 concerts in a season and I turn pages for close to 20 of them. My favorite comment is when audience members come up to me and say “You’re the page turner; you must read music.”


Is there a rule of thumb regarding how far you sit away from the piano and the pianists to turn pages?

Harcombe: My philosophy, in the job of the page turner, is to provide a sense of calm in what is typically a high-pressure situation. I don’t know how nervous our artists get, but I would gather that there are some nerves on stage. The last thing I need to do is heighten the nervous energy. I want to stay as calm as possible. I try to stay back as far as I can.

I really have to pay attention regarding what is coming up. Are there low bass notes coming up? I have to be careful if I reach over to turn a page when they are coming down the keyboard or we might have a collision. I have long arms, so that helps. So the fun comes in anticipating the turn. A slow movement or a fast movement will help you determine when you are going to stand. You don’t want to stand too early during an adagio passage and then have to hold that position. So I want to find the most appropriate time to stand, and I don’t want to draw attention to myself.

Anything ever catch you off-guard?

Harcombe: One time Anne Marie McDermott was preparing herself at the keyboard to play a piece with an ensemble, and under her breath said to me, “Nice pedicure.” That’s part of the fun of being on stage. You get to see and hear some things that the audience can’t.

Once I was turning pages for an older pianist at a recording session. He was at the age where, when he sat down, the muscles needed to sit didn’t work so well, and he would begin to sit and then just plop to the bench. Well, there was a certain part in the piece that this pianist was playing where he had to get up and reach into the piano and strum the strings a little bit. And he wore fairly large glasses. So, he stood up and strummed the strings, but on his way to sit back down his glasses got caught on the music stand. I knew that there was going to be a plop and that he might take down the music stand as well. So, I quickly shifted over and put my arms around his waist and held him there while he detached his glasses from the music stand. Then he sat back down. It was a funny moment, but it worked!

It must be interesting to watch how different pianists play really difficult passages.

Harcombe: I feel like every time I’m on stage, I’m getting a lesson: the different styles of playing, how pianists listen to ensembles and interact. I get to turn for pianists a lot, and often it’s for the same pianists over the years. So I get to see how they change. Shai Wosner seems to be showing more physical expression in his style of playing than in previous years. So, I’ve become a better pianist as a result of turning pages for Chamber Music Northwest.

So now when you go to a concert that has a page turner, do you pay attention to him or her?

Harcombe: Yes! I’m critiquing page turners all the time. I can’t help myself.

Are there any general guidelines for page turners?

Harcombe: You can’t rely on a pianist to cue you with a nod, because sometimes that is just an emotional gesture at a certain point in the music and not an indication of when to turn a page. I try to get into the music with them. Sometimes they will tell me beforehand that later is better. Don’t turn the page early, wait as long as possible. They might have the first few measures of the next page memorized.

Typically there’s something about page turning that I have a feel for; so I get it figured out right away. I somehow get in sync with the needs of the pianist.

There are some little things that you have to take into consideration, like the quality of the paper. I like to check the page numbers as I turn the pages to make sure that I’m turning only one at a time. The page numbers are easiest to check when they are printed at the top rather than at the bottom. But the cheapest editions sometimes have no page numbers at all. That can be a challenge.

How do you turn pages for a new music piece that may have no bar lines or usual ways to measure where you are?

Harcombe: With contemporary music, in my opinion, it’s all about watching the gesture. You don’t count. It’s looking at the score like a piece of art. You are watching shapes go by, rather than individual notes or measures.

This year at Chamber Music Northwest , you played a piece, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue for Piano, Four Hands” with pianist Anna Polonsky.

Harcombe: Yes, and I had my own page turner, Gregory Dubay! That was really great! I hadn’t had a page turner in a long time. The piano four hands score has the primo part on one side and the secondo on the other. So you are just reading one page at a time, which is kind of tricky, because the page turner can only read one page and he or she is standing all the time since the music flies by so quickly.

What are you doing after Chamber Music Northwest finishes up this summer?

Harcombe: I’m going to Music from Angel Fire in New Mexico, which is Ida Kavafian’s festival, and am turning pages there. Ida’s administrative assistant took a job as Daniel Barenboim’s assistant and so I will be filling her shoes as well as turning pages in the concerts.

Would you consider doing page turning full time?

Harcombe: Yes! That would be my dream job. But I’d probably have to move to New York City to make that happen.