Our new cat

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 March 2015 under Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

DSC02401We have a new cat, Daisy, adopted from a cat rescue shelter. After a wobbly start, she’s settling down beautifully. Daisy is a very quiet cat who seems not to find it necessary to say anything. One of her few utterances was a moment after her arrival when she shot out of her cat box, leapt onto the fridge, gave a pitiful squeak as if to say, ‘Farewell!’ and plunged recklessly into the darkness behind. Leaning awkwardly over the fridge we could see her little eyes glowing in the dark for several hours before she summoned up the courage to come out. Luckily, things improved quickly from then on.

I was nervous when I first had to practise the piano in her presence. Surely the sound of a Steinway grand could be overwhelming for a small animal? But apart from looking up at me with big eyes, she didn’t seem to find Beethoven disturbing. She went and sat on the windowsill, looking out of the window. In subsequent practice sessions she sat peacefully near me while I played Mozart, Ravel, Brahms and Schubert.

A few days later I raised the stakes with a contemporary piece. It’s jagged and dissonant, though not loud (or no louder than Beethoven or Brahms). This time Daisy was less impressed. She conveyed to me that she would like to leave the room. As I went to open the door for her she looked up and said, ‘Mew!’, again with a hint of ‘Farewell!’

Maybe it was sheer coincidence. Perhaps she was suddenly hungry, or felt like snoozing in a quieter place. Who knows? At any rate, since Daisy is a new experimental subject, I was intrigued. I shall monitor her views as my repertoire changes.

American Library Association magazine review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 March 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

My new book has had its first ‘review’ in the States. ‘Choice’, the professional magazine of the American Library Association, has recommended it for students, professionals, and general readers. This is a big step forward because ‘Choice’ is an important influence on what US librarians order for their libraries.

‘An award-winning professional pianist and chamber musician, Tomes has loved “sleeping in temples,” i.e., connecting with bigger musical forces than herself, her entire life. In this volume, she thoughtfully reflects on the development of her skills and the processes of becoming an artist and passing her skills on to the next generation. Each chapter is an essay on a topic or concept that she has mulled for a long time. Some are ideas that she has treated in previous publications—which include Beyond the Notes (CH, Dec’04, 42-2132)—but that she now views slightly differently.

‘She addresses the perennial concerns performers face—the physical aspects of performance, playing from memory, the effect music has on listeners, technology, interpretation, and a host of other subjects—showing considerable thought and in-depth thinking. She is an analytical writer who is completely absorbed in her field and takes great pleasure in her playing and thinking about that playing. She has put in print many of the important thoughts that are in the forefront of a performer’s mind and in doing so has left a legacy for the next generation to read and explore.’

CHOICE, a publication of the American Library Association, March 2015

Marking Criteria

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 March 2015 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

The Joseph Haydn Competition in Vienna came to an end on Wednesday with a prizewinners’ concert and presentation of prizes by the sponsors and jury. Afterwards, there was a reception hosted by the university. Immediately I was approached by someone with a role in scientific research and evaluation. He wanted to know whether, before the competition began, we the jury had agreed on a list of the exact criteria we were looking for, and the marks to be given for each.

When I said we hadn’t, his face fell. ‘You hadn’t?!’ he exclaimed. Then I tried to explain that the jury was indeed looking for a whole range of things, from technical mastery through stylistic understanding to persuasive artistry, but that these things cannot be allocated points in isolation from one another. I’m sure we’d all been involved in attempts to impose ‘scientific’ marking systems, but the most important elements of artistic impact remain stubbornly outside ‘measurement’. How can you give exact points for the amount that something moves you or illuminates something new? Many musicians are afraid of the currently fashionable trend for ‘measuring’ everything, because this leads to a situation in which only those things which can be measured will be included in the criteria.

My companion sighed and said that every musician, actor and artist with whom he had ever discussed the matter had said the same thing. It was frustrating, he said, for those trying to create scientific methods of evaluation that could be used across the university, and between universities. I can see this, of course, but I can’t see any way around it except not having competitions or exams in the arts at all. But that would have all kinds of other effects on artists’ possibilities, and many of them would struggle to come to public notice. Most would be reluctant to swap subjective assessment for a scientific system which prioritises the demonstrably ‘perfect’, because we all know how inadequate that would be.

I once took part in a training day for a system of music exams which, instead of asking the examiner for a single mark out of 25 for each piece of music, required the examiner to break down that mark into, say, 5 marks for technical skill, 5 for historical awareness, 5 for structural understanding of the music, 5 for artistic imagination, and 5 for performance and communication skills. It was a total nightmare. In attempting to comply with the marking scheme, we quickly discovered that these things shade into one another, and sometimes cancel one another out. It seemed that the old system, of coming up with an ‘unscientific’ but intuitive mark of, say, 20 out of 25 was probably as meaningful.

‘You’re going to tell me that it’s not quantity, but quality that matters, aren’t you?’ said my companion. ‘Yes.’ ‘But please tell me, how is quality defined?’ ‘I don’t know how to define it, but you know it when you hear it’, I said. ‘You know it when you hear it’, he echoed – ‘yes, every musician I’ve asked has told me that!’

Gramophone magazine review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 February 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

The March issue of Gramophone Magazine carries a review of my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’. As the review is not available online except to subscribers, here’s an excerpt:

” ‘Out of Silence’ [my previous book] was written in diary form. ‘Sleeping in Temples’ is a series of extended and unconnected essays on all manner of things musical but written with the same clarity, honesty and questioning spirit. And, like ‘Out of Silence’, there were several passages that had me metaphorically punching the air.

…Though it is to those with an interest in classical music whom her book will chiefly appeal, paradoxically it seeks to demystify and illuminate the subject for the average Jo.

…Stimulating, insightful, full of ideas and passing anecdotes as she reflects, often wryly, on events drawn from her long career, Tomes brings to the page the same care, fastidious attention to detail and immaculate phrasing that she brings to her keyboard playing.”

Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone, March 2015


The character of each audience

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 February 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  4 Comments

After writing about my preparations for Monday’s concert at Wigmore Hall with Erich Höbarth, I’m delighted to report that we had a wonderful time. In fact, it was one of my most favourite concerts of recent years. Erich was tremendous, and I felt that I was ‘in the zone’, always easier to feel if you know you’ve done enough work beforehand, and aren’t having to pay much attention at the level of individual notes. The Wigmore audience was in great form, and the quality of their listening was a joy.

Afterwards, backstage in the Green Room, I said something about the character of that night’s audience, and someone asked me how it can be that an audience can have ‘a character’, when each audience is a collection of individuals who don’t know each other and have had no chance to develop any kind of strategy in relation to their behaviour as an audience. I agree it’s mysterious. Yet any performer will tell you that audiences differ, and that you can sense the character of any particular audience from early in the concert.

On Monday night, I had to open the concert with the very quiet and wistful piano melody which begins Schubert’s A minor Sonatina. It’s delicately written, and a tricky opening, easy to ‘throw away’ at the start of a big programme when people are still restless. Yet as I played it I felt the audience draw together with some kind of shared yet spontaneous concentration. The quietness deepened, if I could put it like that, and became a collective thing. That is inspiring for a performer to witness, because it makes you feel that if the audience is listening like this, then it’s worth trying for the finest, subtlest effects, and sometimes new things occur to you on stage just because of the way that people are listening.