‘Speaking the Piano’ – my new book, due out in June

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 January 2018 under Books, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

I have a new book, Speaking the Piano, due out in June from Boydell Press.

My previous four books are about performance. This new one is about my experiences of learning and teaching (though performance sneaks in too). The title was inspired by a remark of Artur Schnabel’s teacher, Leschetitzky, to the effect that he ‘must learn to speak the piano’.

‘Speaking the Piano’ is not a tutor book or a method, but I describe the approaches of some of the fascinating teachers I’ve studied with, and I also talk about some of my own experiences when teaching.

Why write such a book? The idea came to me when reading about the struggle of music educators to keep music on the national agenda. Many children now don’t have the opportunity to study music to any depth. Sometimes they have problems obtaining instruments, which can be expensive. In some areas, instrumental lessons are only available as a costly add-on. Music has been downgraded on the curriculum in many schools and as time goes by, the effects feed through. Friends who run choirs and orchestras at college level and above have described the increasing difficulty of recruiting young musicians with enough expertise and practice in sight-reading to be able to tackle great repertoire on little rehearsal. It often strikes me that the kind of music I love best can only be played if there are enough people with the instrumental skills required. What if the skills are allowed to fade away?

I started to think of the interesting lessons I’ve had, in different countries and across different genres from classical to jazz. Taken together they seem to point up the value of in-depth study. Certainly I would not have been able to develop high-level performing skill without access to those ingenious teachers with their insistence on the importance of music and their focus on what it means and how to communicate it. I decided to set down some of my recollections, of teaching and of being taught.

Winterplay, Queen’s Hall, 10-11 Feb

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 January 2018 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

Just a month now until Winterplay, my mini-festival of chamber music in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The weekend of six events is designed to bring in listeners of all ages. We start on the morning of 10 Feb with a children’s ‘music and movement’ workshop run by Dalcroze expert Monica Wilkinson, who will lead a group of seven- to ten-year-olds in musical games based on themes from Schubert’s Trout Quintet, which will be played in the final concert.

We have a young musicians’ showcase with music by Schumann and Saint-Saens performed by talented students from St Mary’s Music School. And on Saturday we have a pre-concert talk called ‘Unpicking the Classical’ by Robert Philip who will talk about some of the ways that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert created their wonderful effects.

We also have three concerts featuring two outstanding string players, Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth and Scottish cellist Philip Higham, playing with me in programmes of duo sonatas and piano trios including Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and Schubert’s B flat trio. For the final work we’ll be joined by violist Jessica Beeston and double bassist Nikita Naumov for Schubert’s Trout Quintet.

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reflecting on a remark made by a colleague who said that people think a career in music is all about music, whereas in fact most of your time is devoted to admin. (I looked the other day to see how many separate emails I had written on the subject of Winterplay – so far there are 586, with a month still to go. And before you ask, a mass mailing is counted as 1! ) It’s astounding how much there is to attend to behind the scenes. As a freelance musician I’ve always known this, but when you’re organising a festival you basically get up each day with a list of tasks and finish the day having crossed off lots of items but added even more as a result.

All of which means that, with luck, stepping out on stage with Erich and Philip for the first concert on 10 February will feel like a delightful liberation. Only music to think about!


Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 January 2018 under Daily Life  •  3 Comments

Yesterday a strange sight greeted us when we went for a Sunday morning walk on Portobello beach.

At first glance we thought the beach was covered in long drifts of pinkish seaweed, extending almost the whole length of the beach. As we got closer we realised with amazement that the pink drifts were composed of starfish – thousands of them. Their colour was fresh and they were intact, but motionless. They lay there as disturbing evidence of some secret mayhem in the sea. We gently tried to move one or two of them, but they didn’t respond in any way. I had heard of starfish washing up on the coast of the US, but never expected to see a similar thing on my local beach.

It made us all feel quite peculiar, to be honest. We had seen the odd starfish on the beach after storms, but had never imagined that there could be so many of them stranded like this. A single starfish can look exotic, but thousands of them looked simply uncanny. As a friend of mine wondered later, why only starfish? Even if there was an unusual Atlantic current sweeping sea creatures towards the shore, why should this event be so species-specific? There were no fish stranded on the beach.

I took a couple of photos of the starfish and tweeted them. Later in the day, BBC Scotland got in touch to ask if they could use my photos on their news website. Oddly enough, it appeared that no professional photographers had been to see the starfish, at least not by that time. So my photos wound up on the BBC news page for Edinburgh and Scotland last night, and here is the link in case you’re interested.

Shiny piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 December 2017 under Inspirations  •  2 Comments

My piano, which I’ve had for almost thirty years, has just come back from a six-month trip to be renovated by Steinway in London. Before you ask, I wasn’t without a piano for the whole of that time: they kindly lent me a very nice Steinway ‘B’ grand to tide me over.

The main reason for the renovation was technical – to upgrade and renew various things inside the piano, and to replace the ivories, which had become old and thin, and were constantly breaking and coming off the key surfaces. Sometimes they splintered as I was playing, launching little shards of ivory at me with alarming velocity.

As the piano would probably never be going to London again for this kind of renovation, it was suggested I could take the opportunity to have the casework restored while they were at it. The piano’s black wooden case had become quite damaged over the years – by sun bleaching the side of it, and by me foolishly keeping heavy pot plants on the lid without realising that moisture was seeping through to the wood. Truth be told, it had become the piano equivalent of a moth-eaten old teddy bear, loved by its owner but possibly not by anyone else. I decided to bite the bullet and have the casework restored using a high-tech process which coats the wood in multiple thin layers of black polyester.

When the piano came back after its makeover I hardly recognised it. It looks sensational (see photo). The case now has what the Great British BakeOff has taught us to call a ‘mirror glaze’, the look of perfectly tempered dark chocolate. This part of the renovation is purely cosmetic, of course, and makes no difference to the sound, but it is very effective. Everyone who’s seen it has been dazzled. And then they have turned to me and said, ‘No more pot plants on the lid!’

A piano in every Victorian home …

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 December 2017 under Books, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been reading ‘Tales and Travels of a School Inspector‘ by John Wilson, an account of travelling round the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Victorian era, in the years after the groundbreaking 1872 Education Act which gave every child between the ages of 5 and 10 the right to schooling. If the children concerned did not live near enough a school that one could reasonably require them to get there each day, then schooling had to come to them. Many little one- or two-room schools sprung up around Scotland, and inspectors were dispatched at intervals to check that education was being adequately delivered. To get to those schools the inspectors had to be resourceful, often travelling by cart, by boat, by horse, or wading through deep snow.  They often had to stay overnight in farmhouses and manses if there were no inns.

In the course of his work, John Wilson travelled to remote parts of Scotland including Orkney and Lewis. His recollections contain many startling vignettes of life in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th century.

For example, he writes of inspecting a tiny school ‘in an outlandish corner of a large island’ where the only schoolmistress was a young woman coping gallantly with an isolated geographical and social situation. After the inspector’s examination of her school pupils, ‘she invited me into her house, where she lived alone, for a cup of tea. This I was only too glad to accept… While I waited in the semi-furnished room, with not even the piano which one would have expected to find in such depressing circumstances, she busied herself in the kitchen, alternately whistling and singing.’

I was brought up short by the phrase, ‘with not even the piano which one would have expected to find in such depressing circumstances.‘ It seemed to suggest that a hundred years ago, even in the humble home of a rural schoolteacher, one would naturally have expected to see a piano. How times have changed!