Ryan Gosling’s piano playing skills

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 January 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  Leave a comment

I haven’t yet seen the movie ‘LaLa Land’ (it doesn’t open in the UK until tomorrow). But I enjoyed hearing BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ item this morning on how Ryan Gosling, who plays a struggling jazz musician in the film, learned to play the piano for it. He does all the piano playing in the film, and you only need to google ‘Ryan Gosling piano playing’ to see how adorable everyone finds it.

The woman who taught him described how they worked together two hours a day, five days a week (I think) over a period of months. She admitted that he had largely been spared the drudgery of scales and arpeggios. I was intrigued that learning to read music was not mentioned. According to his teacher he is ‘a musical guy’ and was able to make excellent progress being taught by ear, or so I seemed to gather.

In the BBC studio, another piano teacher swiftly showed one of the presenters how to play one of the stirring themes from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (familiar to many from the film ‘Billy Elliott’). He pointed out that there were just two simple hand positions required, and much of the theme could be played within one hand position. She grasped the principle straight away, and obviously being musical herself, was able to copy the teacher beautifully.

‘Perhaps that is how all piano teaching should be’, I mused. How many people have told me over the years that they gave up because they hated the daily drudgery of scales and arpeggios!

But there’s a reason why piano technique has to be acquired slowly and securely, and why aspiring classical pianists need to learn to read music – it’s because of the repertoire. Piano music is some of the most glorious music we have, but much of it is very complex. Only an exceptionally gifted person could hope to learn it by ear. Moreover, nobody without a very solid technique could hope to play the best of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert.  In other words there’s a relationship between the length of time taken to master a) notation and b) the instrument, and the richness of the music that slowly moves within your grasp.

Jazz is a different matter because there is a long tradition of learning to play by ear, and most jazz is improvised. There are great jazz pianists with techniques equal to anything in any genre. But with a simple technique you can still join in and play something. Nobody has prescribed what notes you must play. It’s very different to classical music.

After listening to the Today programme, I enjoyed a brief vision of teaching my students entirely by ear. But just a moment’s consideration showed me that such a method wouldn’t, alas, enable them to tackle the great piano pieces they long to play.

Christoph Marks, principal cello of the Gaudier Ensemble

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 January 2017 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  4 Comments

Sad news on New Year’s Day. The very fine German cellist Christoph Marks has died unexpectedly of heart failure. Christoph (on the right of the photo) was the principal cello of the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hannover, but we in Britain knew him best as principal cello of the Gaudier Ensemble with whom he played for 28 years. He plays on all the group’s highly-praised recordings on the Hyperion label including the Schubert Octet, a wonderful disc of Strauss Dances, and our CD of Mozart piano concertos. For many years Christoph was also a faithful participant in the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall.

The Gaudier Ensemble has an annual festival in the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas. A couple of years after the festival began, I joined in as the pianist, and so I played with Christoph for almost 25 years. It was always heartwarming to see the mutual love affair between Christoph and this picturesque old English village. He found his yearly trip to the Dorset countryside a delightful foil to his life in Germany, and our audiences treasured him. I used to enjoy the sight of him walking down Abbey Street in his stately way, being welcomed back by residents who hadn’t seen him since the previous year. Christoph was tall, slim and handsome with a big smile and a naturally bald head. In every way, he shone under the platform lights. It was a measure of his affection for Cerne that he chose to celebrate his 50th birthday by putting on a concert of solo Bach cello suites in the village church, raising money for charity. He stayed with the same lovely people every summer for 27 years, becoming ‘part of the family’ as they fondly said.

In any chamber group, the members find themselves playing particular ‘roles’. Christoph was our diplomat. He always spoke sincerely and considerately in rehearsal. Whenever there was anything tricky to be discussed, we used to push him forward as the spokesman because we knew he would stay calm and phrase things tactfully (indeed, beautifully: his command of English was as elegant as everything else about him). His long experience of orchestral life in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and in the NDR Orchestra had trained him in the art of defusing tension with finesse. He, conversely, savoured our ‘English’ way of doing things, divertingly different from what he was used to. He found our working methods fast and slightly chaotic but also fruitful. He was very proud of the standard of playing in the Gaudier’s concerts and recordings.

Christoph was very popular, both inside the group and with its fans. Over the years, he had become a sort of figurehead of the ensemble. He will be greatly missed.

Christmas Oratorio

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 December 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Last night I went with friends to a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Originally the six cantatas which comprise the ‘Christmas Oratorio’ were designed to be performed one at a time, in one or other of the two Leipzig churches with which Bach was associated, on the major feast days of the Christmas season (in Bach’s time: 25, 26, 27 December; 1, 2 and 6 of January). Each feast day would have brought half an hour of music taking listeners through the Biblical story of Christmas and the devotional thoughts that it inspires.

Alas, I have never had the chance to hear the six cantatas spread out across the festive season and performed in context. Today the Christmas Oratorio is more often done as a ‘secular’ concert performance. Last night all six of the cantatas were performed in a concert lasting three hours. Even for a ‘professional listener’ like me, it is frankly a challenge to concentrate for that length of time, especially when sitting on hard wooden pews on a winter’s evening. In retrospect I found that most of my favourite music had occurred in the first cantata, though perhaps that simply reflected my diminishing levels of energy.

At the interval there was some discussion about the wisdom of performing all six cantatas in a ‘block’. We all agreed it would be preferable to hear them singly, on different days over Christmas and New Year, but we also agreed that in today’s speeded-up world there is very little chance of getting an audience to turn up six times, and even less of getting the performers to gather up on six different occasions. To gather and rehearse the expert solo singers, chorus, orchestra with unusual instruments (‘natural’ trumpets, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia etc) is a huge undertaking. Logistically and economically one can see why it makes sense to use this grand assembly on a single evening. It is, of course, always wonderful to hear Bach’s incredible musical tapestries performed ‘live’ and to witness his endless spirit of invention, so we were glad to have the chance.

I’m sure that many people in the audience were, like me, still thinking about the dreadful attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin the day before. Our screens were full of the images and there were news updates on people’s phones during the evening. I could see people looking at them. It was the strangest feeling to superimpose those images on the lovely concert scene before us and to ponder sadly on the changes that have come about since Bach wrote his joyful music for the Christmas season of 1734.

Books of the Year in today’s Herald

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 November 2016 under Books, Musings  •  1 Comment

img_20161126_151756846Today the Herald has an arts supplement with Books of the Year 2016 chosen by various guest selectors. Broadcaster Sheena McDonald has chosen my book ‘Sleeping in Temples‘ as one of her books of the year:

‘What makes a successful concert pianist? The internationally-acclaimed performer Susan Tomes explains using language as felicitously as she does the keyboard in ‘Sleeping in Temples’ (Boydell Press, £19.99), a page-turner and a joy of a book.’

A good Christmas present for a music-lover in your life, perhaps…

American violinist Ida Levin

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 November 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

img_20161120_103705853_hdrIt is very sad news that the American violinist Ida Levin has lost her battle with leukaemia.

Ida was devoted to the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. I met her there when she came to study with Sandor Vegh. He immediately liked her and her playing. She in turn instinctively understood his middle-European conviction about the importance of music, particularly chamber music, and she championed his beliefs when she was back home in America.

Through the following years I played with Ida in various different groups during the autumn chamber music seminars. She remained faithful to Prussia Cove even when she was very busy with her career in the US. For a while, we thought we might ‘make a go’ of a wonderful trio we had with the cellist Christoph Richter (see 1995 photo of us at Prussia Cove – Ida is on the right) but practicalities intervened: Ida lived in Los Angeles, Christoph at that time in Germany, and I was in London.  The trio faded away, but I enjoyed playing with Ida in those years when we could both manage to get to Cornwall in September. I played with her in a quintet on her last visit to Prussia Cove a couple of years ago. On the day of our concert, she said she felt rough and wondered if she was coming down with ‘a terrible Prussia Cove cold’. It turned out to be something worse.

I was always struck, as everyone must have been, by Ida’s tremendous energy, determination and drive. She was a woman of strong opinions backed up by formidable amounts of research into whatever it was that interested her, from vegetarian diet to politics to which airline one should trust. She was funny, feisty and had great charisma. Her character was perfectly expressed in her playing: strong, warm, intelligent and well-informed. As time went on, she became a terrific mentor to many young musicians, for whom she went the extra mile in a selfless way. When she became ill we all realised that she had great personal courage as well.  It is a tribute to her personality that she inspired a ‘support group’ of half a dozen friends who went to extraordinary lengths to look after her and keep her company during various phases of her treatment. She will be greatly missed.