Adjusting the piano stool for a concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 June 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Adjusting the piano stool to the right height for a concert may seem the simplest thing. When I finish rehearsing in a concert hall, I always leave the piano stool adjusted to the right height. The more old-fashioned piano stools have wooden handles that are quite hard work to turn, and I don’t want to have that strain on my wrists immediately before I perform. The newer piano stools have a ‘release’ mechanism operated by a handle under the seat. You reach under the seat to move the handle and allow the seat to move up or down. For best results, you shouldn’t have your weight on the seat. It’s not easy to reach under the seat, take your weight off the seat and adjust the stool without looking clumsy, and you don’t want to start a concert like that.

If I know that a piano tuner is going to be on stage between rehearsal and concert, I always ask them to leave the stool as it is. They always say that they are mindful of doing so, because they know how sensitive pianists are about such things.

So the stool is left at the height which seemed perfect at 6pm. Lo and behold, when I come back on to the platform at 7.30pm, the stool suddenly seems too low. I end up having to adjust it in front of the audience.

Why does this happen? I’ve tried to think of explanations, such as that between rehearsal and concert I have changed my outfit. But in truth there can be no meaningful difference between the thickness of, say, jeans and the thickness of smart black trousers. Even the difference between the fabric of trousers and of a concert dress is minute.

The different must be psychological. When I come on stage to perform, I must be in a different frame of mind.  More sensitive, more picky, more neurotic? Secretly embarrassed and looking for something to fidget with? Trying to put off the moment when the performance begins? Feeling ‘small’? Is it to do with a subtle change of posture caused by performance adrenalin?

I suppose any of these may be possible, though actually, it doesn’t feel like that. It just feels as if the piano stool was fine at the rehearsal, but is too low at the concert.

Cerne Abbas Music Festival is over for another year

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 June 2017 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’ve just returned from the Gaudier Ensemble’s annual festival at Cerne Abbas in Dorset (photo: the last piece of the final concert – the Dvorak piano quintet with (L to R) Marieke Blankestejn, Ulrike Janssen, me, Iris Juda and Henrik Brendstrup).

One of the pleasures of the festival is seeing the same people year after year – not only my colleagues but also people in the village and members of the audience. Some audiences are shy about communicating their reactions to the musicians, but perhaps because many people come to all the concerts, and keep bumping into us in the street or in the village shop between performances, they gradually pluck up the courage to speak to us, and when they do they often say amazing things. I often feel that in this one week I have been able to store up enough appreciative comments to keep me going for a long while.

This was the first time we had all met together since our cellist Christoph Marks died unexpectedly at New Year. It felt very strange to be in the village without seeing him in his usual places. On the Saturday night, there was a concert in his memory. His old friend Iris Juda spoke movingly about him, and at the end of the programme, five of his friends played one of his favourite pieces, the Schubert string quintet.  Many of the audience spoke about Christoph, and it was clear what an impression he made on everyone over the years. There was a special atmosphere that night as everyone drank in Schubert’s extraordinary mixture of sadness and serenity.

Major-key music for sad lyrics

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 May 2017 under Daily Life, Musings  •  15 Comments

Last night I watched a very interesting episode of a BBC Arena series about ‘American Epic’ music, beginning with music from the Appalachian region, featuring the Carter Family from West Virginia who in the late 1920s brought the folk music of the remote hills to the nation’s attention.

The words of the songs were often sad or wistful, such as the Carter Family’s famous ‘Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow’, which tells of a grieving man abandoned by his lover on the eve of their wedding. Despite the lyrics, however, the music of the sad songs was always (or at least, in all the songs featured in the TV programme) in a major key and an upbeat tempo. I’ve noticed this with other kinds of American ‘country music’ and been puzzled by it. Perhaps I have been brought up in a different tradition, but if I were a songwriter I would find it unnatural to couch a sad song in a major key, unless I were aiming at some kind of ironical effect, such as you find in the songs of the Berlin Cabaret era.

Once or twice when listening to Italian opera or oratorio I have had a similar feeling of perplexity when listening to sad arias in robustly handled major keys.  Yet to those composers, and to their fans, there is clearly no ‘cognitive dissonance’. They don’t feel that the sad words are being trivialised by sunny harmonies.

In some of Mozart’s arias, or in Schubert’s and Schumann’s Lieder, there is a very poignant use of sad words set to major-key harmonies, but these effects tend to be transient and all the more powerful because of the way they emerge from minor-key settings, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds for a moment.

But ‘Bury me beneath the weeping willow‘ sung at a jolly trot? It’s a puzzle to me.

An afternoon of piano duets

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 May 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

Bob and I went to a big book sale today and came home with lots of ‘four hand’ duets to be played by two people sitting at one piano. We spent a chunk of the afternoon going through volumes of Dvorak Slavonic Dances, Brahms Hungarian Dances, and eventually a mad set of duets by Erik Satie whose deadpan instructions made us laugh. Who else would write instructions like ‘Better’, ‘From the corner’, ‘With the same colour’, ‘Smile’, ‘Slow down, I beg you’, ‘Do not speak’, ‘Lightly but strongly’, or ‘Very’?

As Lewis Carroll might say, ‘He only does it to annoy/Because he knows it teases’.

As we played our duets, people passed by in the street. Most were listening to music on their phones. Some of them turned their heads and looked at us curiously but without enthusiasm (I think Satie’s style has affected mine). We became aware of how much like a 19th century illustration we must look.

Piano duets were hugely popular at the time Dvorak wrote his Slavonic Dances (originally for piano duet). In fact, the publication of the Slavonic Dances made his name and changed his fortune virtually overnight because so many people bought the sheet music. Before recording technology was invented, when music-lovers had to wait until an orchestra came to their city in order to hear the latest symphonies, such works were often arranged for piano duet and published in large quantities for the domestic market. Many people probably never heard those pieces performed in any other way. Composers also wrote original music for piano duet and some of these works are highlights of piano repertoire: Mozart’s Duo Sonatas, the Schubert F minor Fantasie, Bizet’s ‘Jeux d’Enfants’, Fauré’s ‘Dolly Suite’ or Debussy’s ‘Petite Suite’.

I’ve played piano duets with lots of different people, amateurs as well as professional pianists. It’s always  intriguing how difficult it is to play with some people, yet how easy with others. There is no obvious link with how good a pianist someone is. One of my best-ever piano duet partners is a Parisian lawyer who plays for fun and has a sense of timing similar to mine. On the other hand I have sometimes played duets with eminent pianists whose keyboard style was at odds with mine, making it very difficult for us to put down chords at the same instant.

One of my favourite duet experiences was when I sat down to play some four-hand piano music with the South African pianist Lamar Crowson at Prussia Cove. We played for a while and it sped along with remarkable ease. He turned to me and said, ‘You’re a Gemini, right?’ And so I am.

EU music students still waiting for clarity on Brexit

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 May 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  Leave a comment

In the course of my teaching and coaching activities I meet lots of young musicians who have come from other European countries to study in the UK. Britain’s excellent music colleges and universities are extremely popular with Europeans, who often fund their studies through schemes like Erasmus. It’s worth remembering that ‘Erasmus’ in this context means ‘European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of European Students’.

‘Mobility of European students’: a great idea from which British students may soon be excluded.

While they are here, many European music students form support networks, chamber groups, and links to UK orchestras, not to mention personal relationships. As a result they often decide to stay and make London the base for their career. They enjoy its ‘melting-pot’ atmosphere and the stimulus of being amongst other high-powered international musicians.

They were shocked by the result of the EU Referendum, in which they were not allowed to vote. Ever since last June they have been waiting for clarity on their situation. Will they be able to complete their studies? Will their funding be withdrawn? If they are planning to stay on in the UK for postgraduate study, will that still be possible? If they go home to visit their families, will they need visas to come back again? If they stay here for the long term, will they need to apply for touring visas every time they leave the country to play a concert elsewhere? Will they even be allowed to stay here in the long term? Nine months have gone by without these questions being answered, and they understand that they are bargaining chips.

Already some of my young friends have decided to return home for good this summer. They say it is too nerve-racking to wait here in a state of such uncertainty, and their families are anxious. Just last week a young Spanish musician told me sadly that she would not have chosen the UK for her studies had she known that Britain would be outside the EU by the time she finished. These young European musicians are some of my most talented students. I feel ashamed and wish I could reassure them, but I can’t.