Competitions and boringness

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 May 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

Letter from a reader who mentions that he rarely goes to concerts these days because many performers are there as a result of winning competitions, and he finds that competition winners are usually, like Monty Python’s celebrated accountant, ‘too boring to be of interest’. He asks whether I feel comfortable with being on the jury of competitions which produce such players.

This is a big question, to which the answer is a) yes and b) no. Most people would probably agree that because of marking schemes and jury politics, competitions tend to produce ‘safe’, uncontroversial winners, but anyone who’s been on a jury will know that jury members are desperate to identify interesting players, and to use their power to promote people ‘with something to say’. At least this is true of the juries I’ve been on. We are all familiar with the polished disengaged playing which does the rounds of the competition circuit, but we’re always hoping that the next person or group will step out and make us forget that we’re in an artificial competitive setting at all.

I suppose it is true that juries are often divided by such players. I was on a chamber music jury which fell out quite fiercely about a particular group.  Some of us felt they had a deep grasp of the music and a memorable artistic personality despite technical shortcomings. Other jury members felt that the technical shortcomings were a line that no amount of artistic vision could cross. The group didn’t win a prize, but as time went on I found they had stuck in my memory more than some of the polished performers did, and I’d now say they’re one of the few groups I’d make an effort to go and hear again in concert.

Sometimes, in celebrated cases, unsuccessful competitors actually make a career out of not having won a prize, especially if a famous musician makes a fuss on their behalf. But there’s no reliable strategy for making such a thing happen, and no guarantee that unusual playing will find champions on the jury. So the question remains: if you are not a ‘typical competition winner’ type, should you go in for competitions? This is where I feel torn. Perhaps it’s worth it just to put yourself in front of those listeners who love your style and will follow your progress, and sometimes you strike lucky with a jury who loves you too.

On the other hand, sensitive musicians can be crushed by the brutal process of a competition. What should they do? If they steer clear of competitions entirely, it may (and it probably will) take them much longer to come to the attention of the music-loving public. I tell them, ‘Just build up your own audience.’ But I know that they need to earn money while they slowly build up an audience, and I wonder if they’ll be able to hang on long enough to do so. If it wasn’t a contradiction in terms, I’d favour the idea of a competition for non-competitive players…

Gathering round a new score

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 May 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  9 Comments

I’ve been rehearsing Judith Weir’s ‘Airs from Another Planet’, a superb sextet for piano and wind instruments (in this case, the wind players of the chamber group Daniel’s Beard). It’s for the opening concert of the Cottier Chamber Project in Glasgow on 5 June.

Judith’s piece has the delightful (and typically witty) subtitle, ‘Traditional music from outer space’. We have had fun trying to determine which traditional music is the inspiration for her other-worldly deconstructions. What an imagination!

Someone asked me how long it had taken me to learn the piano part. I truthfully said it had taken many weeks. The piano part is rhythmically very intricate, and its complex flickering harmonies are unguessable. As soon as I started practising it, I realised it was going to take a long time. Even after a good session, the music would slip back the next day to a condition of unfamiliarity. My ear wouldn’t confirm whether or not I’d played exactly those chords before. Slowly I cemented my acquaintance with the score until it felt natural. Don’t get me wrong: I regard this as time well spent for such an intriguing piece.

Nevertheless I couldn’t help sighing wistfully when I heard Bob reminiscing about when Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’ became all the rage in London, after the film hit UK cinemas. Bob and his fellow students rushed out to buy the score. Night after night they gathered round a piano in their student residence, gleefully playing and singing the work over and over again for sheer pleasure. This was only possible, of course, because they could sight-read the score.

West Side Story is a ‘musical’, not an abstract classical piece, but it was also a new work by a serious composer. We couldn’t recall any occasion when our musician friends had rushed out to buy the score of a contemporary classical piece, let alone fought to be the one who got to play the piano at the next merry read-through.

This must be a lot to do with the fact that contemporary notation is often fiendishly complicated. As there is currently no musical ‘lingua franca’, it seems as if every  composer has his or her own language, which performers have to learn from scratch. Although the music may be striking from the outset, it’s not generally sight-readable; even when the language has been deciphered, it often takes ages to settle in the memory. Nobody minds putting in the work if the result is compelling, but it isn’t always.

So it’s hard to imagine a new work detonating joyfully on a bunch of musicians as ‘West Side Story’ did on Bob and his friends. And this must be at least partly because most contemporary works are not sight-readable. It’s a sad situation really. Why is the music of our own time so challenging, even for professional musicians?

Teaching Daisy to use a catflap

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 April 2015 under Daily Life  •  2 Comments

DSC02407Lots of people have asked for news of our rescue cat Daisy (surely her adventures can’t be more interesting than my ruminations on phrasing and pedalling?).

Daisy’s getting on beautifully, but can’t understand how to use the cat flap which would let her out into the garden. Although she’s four years old, she seems not to have encountered a cat flap before. She uses it as a little window, by which she sits looking out at the garden. We’ve tried a thousand times to push the flap open while she’s watching, to show her how it works. We’ve even tried picking her up and pushing her head against the flap, but she just struggles to be let free. When we hold the flap open for her, she steps daintily through, but then sits on the other side waiting for us to hold it open so she can come back. Even when it’s cold and wet outside, she still sits in the rain awaiting assistance.

We had the idea of taping the flap permanently open, even though the wind blew in and made the house cold. Daisy seemed pleased to be able to pop in and out (as the vet said later, ‘So she’s trained you to make life easy for her’).

But then we came home one night to a disturbing sight. The stairs were covered in clumps of cat fur. In the living-room we found books, magazines and DVDs scattered on the floor. For a ghastly moment we thought there had been a burglary. But then we noticed more cat fur, and cat poo on the floor. Searching further, we found cat poo on the landing and in the bedroom. Eventually we found Daisy cowering under the bed. She came out and moved hesitantly towards the scene of the crime, but declined to say what had happened, or to name her assailant. Certainly it looked as if there had been quite a fight, though as far as I could tell, all the cat fur was Daisy’s.

We couldn’t bear the thought of this happening again, so we taped the cat flap shut and agreed we’d order one of these super-duper cat flaps which respond to the microchip of a particular pet. But of course all this is academic unless Daisy can actually learn how to use a cat flap!

Chamber Music America magazine

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 April 2015 under Books  •  Leave a comment

The new issue of Chamber Music America magazine has as its endpiece an abridged version of one of the chapters of my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’. It’s the chapter called ‘The Iceberg’, in which I contrast the huge amount of time most musicians spend practising and playing for no listeners with the relatively small amount of time they actually spend in front of an audience. Obviously all musicians know this situation intimately, but I’ve found that even regular concert-goers and music-lovers are often surprised when their attention is drawn to all the playing which ‘wastes its sweetness on the desert air’.

In the magazine, the excerpt is called ‘Playing for Nobody’. Editor Ellen Goldensohn, who recently read my book, was struck by the thought of all that unheard playing, so she chose an excerpt from ‘The Iceberg’ as the final word in the Spring 2015 magazine.

The magazine is available here as a digital edition; you can read the endpiece on page 80. It continues on page 79 (no, I haven’t got that the wrong way round!)

The Highland Lady’s memories of practising

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 April 2015 under Books, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I wrote a while ago about the memoirs of Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, ‘the Highland Lady’, whose memoirs of life in Scotland in the early 19th century were so popular. Now I’m reading her later volume of memoirs, written when she was married and helping to run an estate in Ireland.

In her Scottish memoirs, she recalls with horror the days when she and her sister had to get up in the icy dark of Highland winters and practise the piano and harp before dawn without even a candle to help them see. I was very struck by this passage and couldn’t imagine why their parents, sensible and kind in other ways, would make them do this.

In her later memoirs Elizabeth harks back resentfully to those mornings. In the freezing January of 1841 she writes, ‘Never felt any cold like it since the days of our Highland winters when we girls occupied the barrack room in the roof of the Doune [their Scottish home] without a fire, without warm water, when we groped for our clothes a little after six o’clock, washed in ice and descended to the comforts of Cramer’s exercises on the pianoforte, or worse, Bochsa’s on the harp till daylight allowed of using our eyes; really children were cruelly used in those days, and for what purpose. Could we do any good with numb fingers, starving with cold and cross with actual suffering. Should we not have been better in our warm beds.

‘Mary and I are wiser with our children. We never wish them to get up till they can see to dress, and we have a warm room and good fire for them to go to afterwards and they never touch the pianoforte till they have had their breakfast, and as I at least wish for no professors in my family, Janey has never yet any day practised  an hour.’

‘Tiger mother’ indeed, but in the opposite sense of the one we now read about. This tiger mother’s experience of a harsh practising regime made her determined to protect her children from the same fate!