The demise of Page Turner

Paige Turner 02

Beth Allen turns the page for Wendy Harper, accompanying soprano Marina Poŝa at Lift Gallery

Technology’s great, except when it does you out of a job. My friend Spike trained in the 1960s as a hot metal typesetter, a printing technique dating from the late 1800s. This industry relic was replaced by phototypesetting, which produced columns of print ready to be ‘pasted up.’ This last bastion of the printing trade was made obsolete by digital newspaper publishing systems, the personal computer and desktop publishing software.

In the music world, the traditional role of page turner is threatened with obsolescence by the advent of clever new apps for Ipads and tablets, controlled with a foot pedal. You may have seen singers at gigs with an Ipad attached to their mike stand – foot pedal optional. This is the modern musician’s answer to the wind snatching your chord charts or lyric sheets from the music stand during the four bars between the end of the chorus and the next verse. The job of piano page-turner, however, is a little harder to render obsolete, because the pianist relies on a human being to know, by visual cues and musical knowledge, just when to turn the page.

Our photo today shows Beth Allen turning the page at a critical point in the aria La Maja y el Ruisenor (The Maiden and the Nightingale) by Granados for Wendy Harper, accompanying soprano Marina Poŝa at Lift Gallery.

This is old school and Beth, who is a good sport, puts up with her partner Kim’s jokes, introducing her as ‘Miss P. Turner!’

Just so you know, Page Turner is a Korean TV drama and there are at least two people who go by a similar moniker, one being Daniel Frank Kelley, aka Paige Turner or Showbiz Spitfire, an American drag queen, comedian and singer.

There’s more, but this is a family show, so I won’t be directing you elsewhere.

The classical music page turner does indeed have to read music, pay attention and not beat the pianist to the turn. Wikipedia describes the typical page-turner as ‘a friend or acquaintance of the pianist and preferably a pianist as well’. The job is a handy earner for music students; to wit, notes left on conservatorium noticeboards – “free-lance page-turner, available nights and weekends – attentive and reliable.”

Now there are Ipad apps which will turn the page for you, including Tonara for Ipad and Pageflip, an Ipad app which comes with a foot pedal. Ipads and tablets have become quite the thing among musicians and sound engineers. You may have been at a live gig and seen the sound guy wandering around the room, tablet in hand – that’s his mixing console.

My versatile musician friend Silas Palmer scored a gig last year accompanying octogenarian balladeer Kamahl on a tour of Queensland. They were using backing tracks, with Silas on whatever brand of grand piano was in residence at the various venues. I noticed he had a tablet on the music stand, where pianists normally put their scores.

“What’s with the tablet?” I asked after the show.

“Oh that’s just chord charts,” said Silas, “and the set list”.

But getting back to the human page turner, sitting patiently to the left of the pianist, watching and waiting for the moments (there could be dozens of turns, depending on the length of the piece), to show their skills. Some classical musicians scoff at the notion of using a tablet or Ipad, saying good page turners have a ‘job for life’.

Organist Michael Hammer, someone whose knowledge of page turning seems beyond reproach, has devoted an article (with photos) to the subject, leavened with a noteworthy sense of humour.

He advises page turners to ask the pianist to perform a “windmill’ with their arms so the turner can judge how far away to sit, given that some pianists can get a bit carried away. It is also important, he says, to watch the pianist to see where they are up to on the score.

“If he is short enough, you might be able to make out when he is at the top of the page. Despite their good looks, it is still advisable to look at the music and not at the pianist.” 

But on to more weighty matters

I came to this subject after pondering the business world’s most common response to declining revenues: making do with fewer people. Along the way, big business appropriated the words redundant (defined by as the state of being not or no longer needed or useful) and retrenchment (the act of retrenching; a cutting down or off, as by the reduction of expenses.) The meanings of these words are so closely entwined the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) considers them interchangeable. (Some, perhaps more sensitive, employers try to soften the blow by explaining that it’s the job, not the person that is ‘redundant’. However, given that ‘the sack’ is still the result, it is questionable whether this does actually make the ‘sackee’ feel less unwanted. (SWSLTHAS) (She who sometimes like to have a say.)

The hardest form of retrenchment is the list posted on the cafeteria wall of those whose jobs will go on (date). The softer form is what is known as ‘a round of redundancies’, typically offered to well-paid middle managers, those whom upper management may have identified as not delivering value for money. So they go home, do some sums on the back of an envelope, talk it over with their spouse and maybe go to work next day and say “Yes thanks, I’ll take the redundancy.”

Some big companies offer up to four weeks for every year of service, plus accrued holiday and long service leave entitlements. The trouble with waves of redundancies and retrenchments, they are often linked to companies doing it tough or going broke, usually at a time in the economic cycle when it is difficult to find another job, especially when your last position was made redundant. The word has some pejorative connotations that cannot be easily shrugged off.

According to the ABS, retrenchments peaked at 7.3% of employed persons in 1972, fell away to 4.1%-4.6% between 1986 and 1990, but rose again to 6.5% during the 1990s recession.

We can compare those historical figures (almost half of those retrenchments happened in the manufacturing sector, by the way), with the period 2000 to 2013, when the rate fell from 4.0% in 2000 to a low of 2.0% in 2008, before increasing sharply in 2010 to 3.1% and remaining at that level through 2012 and 2013. But it does depend where you live and work. The Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia had the highest retrenchment rates, harking back to February 2000 (6.0%, 5.4% and 5.1%).

The future for manual workers looks bleak. A study by real estate firm CBRE and capital management group Genesis forecasts that robots will make 50 occupations redundant by 2025.

And if you are training (or re-training after a redundancy), this Daily Mail report includes two handy lists: (i) which jobs are most likely to succumb (e.g. telemarketers, photographic process operators and tax preparers) and (ii) those occupations which may prove to be retrenchment-proof (e.g. chiropractors, orthodontists and supervisors of correctional officers).

Journalists did not make either list, which is surprising, given the recent flood/spate/outrage/raft of media redundancies. This scary story by Ross Miller in The Verge is cause to ponder the omission:


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