Feeling the tempo before you begin

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 September 2019 under Inspirations, Teaching  •  1 Comment

I did a piano workshop recently at which a number of different people played. One of our topics was tempo. How do you decide at what speeed to play something, especially if the composer gives no indication? Even written instructions such as Andante or Adagio are largely evocative, leaving plenty of room for debate.

The simplest way to look at it, I think, is that tempo is indissolubly linked to character. If you first try to understand the character and mood of the piece, the tempo will often present itself to you as an obvious ingredient of the whole. This is a better way than that old chestnut of a method, identifying the most difficult bars in the piece and basing your tempo on the speed at which it’s possible to play those.

When watching those different pianists, I noticed that it was sometimes very difficult to guess what tempo a person was about to adopt, because they sat completely still until the moment they began to play.

With other pianists, their musical intention was evident before they had played a note. One could see a sort of preparatory wave travel up through their body as they mentally set in motion the tempo they wanted. Their arms and hands became subtly animated, as though they were conducting some inner music. Seeing this ‘wave’ helped to prepare the listeners as well, and when the pianist began to play, the tempo felt organic. Even if they had chosen a tempo which was not the one I myself would have taken, I found it was easy to be sympathetic to their choice, because I had seen them calling it into being.

Sitting at a window, doing nothing

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 August 2019 under Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

I’ve been on holiday in Italy and can feel that it has done me good. What can be more cheering than to start each day by opening the shutters to find a golden haze lying over the landscape (again), the hills receding in layers of paler and paler blue?

It was very hot. Amazing how difficult it is, if you live in a cool climate, to remember how it feels to be in a hot one. I had planned to do all sorts of enterprising walks, from hilltop village to hilltop village across the fields. But the heat drove away all thoughts of such exertion. How could I have thought it would be fun to walk for several hours in such temperatures?

Instead, I sat at a window in the hottest part of the day and looked out at the hills. It was quiet, except for the crickets making their leathery music. Everything seemed to be going slowly, including me. I was doing nothing, just gazing at the view, letting thoughts arise and depart. Yet afterwards, when it was cool enough to venture out, I felt better for having indulged in this period of stillness.

It’s not something I do very often at home, but perhaps I should.

The range of topics at the EdBookFest

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 August 2019 under Books  •  Leave a comment

For the past couple of days I’ve been at the Edinburgh Book Festival  (one of the world’s major literary festivals) listening to other writers’ talks –  that is, when I could hear them over the noise of the thunder, lightning and rain battering on the canvas roof (in August).

Last night we were at a discussion about the future of humanitarianism. Experts from aid agencies were describing the stress of working under bombardment and in buildings with no electricity, when suddenly the lights went out in our tent. The panellists gamely continued in the dim glow of the emergency lighting. A moment later, there was a burst of noise outside – the fireworks which mark the end of the Tattoo at nearby Edinburgh Castle. The explosions of the fireworks in the sudden darkness made an evocative background for the tales.

I’ve been to talks about very big topics – racism, ecology; saving lives in war zones; the unfairness with which women have to contend. It’s easy to feel that one’s own topic, music, is small in comparison. How can I expect people to be interested in a talk about playing the piano when they could be learning about the plight of refugees or the threat to democracy?

Yet I know that music, and great art in general, plays an important role in helping people to make sense of their experiences. In a world boiling with challenges, most of us feel a need to create some space where we can digest and reflect upon our daily lives – and music can meet this need so wonderfully.

My talk at the BookFest is on Tuesday 13 August at 8.45pm.

NYO Dress Code – then and now

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 August 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

The marvellous National Youth Orchestra Prom concert with Nicola Benedetti last week has set me reminiscing about my time in the NYO (in the photo, I have long fair hair and am just to the left of the middle of the group, playing 2nd violin.)

Watching the NYO Prom on television, I realised that the dress code has relaxed. Today’s young women are clearly allowed to wear a variety of concert outfits – sleeveless, plunge necklines, and so on. But in my day, girls had to wear long-sleeved white ‘school blouses’, respectably buttoned, and dark skirts of a regulation length for concerts. The NYO had no truck with mini-skirts, then the height of fashion. If skirts were deemed by the ‘housemistresses’ to be too short, the hems were let down. I still remember the outrage of one glamorous mini-skirt owner (now an eminent professor) when she returned from a rehearsal to find one of her skirts lengthened.

Worst of all from my point of view was the rule on hair-washing. I was a teenager whose hair became greasy after just one day. At home, I washed it every day. Imagine my horror when the NYO  dictated that ‘you should wash your hair before coming to the course, because there will be no opportunity to wash it during the week.’

Disaster! I knew a week of greasy hair would ruin my life, so I became a guerrilla hair-washer, creeping out of the dorm after ‘lights out’ to wash my hair in the darkness of the communal washroom, then going to bed with wet hair to avoid making any noise. Occasionally a housemistress would find me and scold me, but usually by that time my hair was clean and I could face a telling-off.

Funnily enough, we accepted most of this as being just ‘how things were’. I absolutely loved being in the NYO. Apart from the memory of going to bed with wet hair, I have nothing but happy recollections of my time in the orchestra.

Edinburgh International Book Festival event

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 July 2019 under Books  •  5 Comments

As August approaches, Edinburgh is suddenly full of posters advertising the thousands of Festival and Fringe events about to be unleashed upon us. You can feel the city is about to overflow with visitors.

One of the most popular of the several festivals which co-exist in the city in August is the Book Festival which takes over Charlotte Square and a portion of George St with an array of pop-up venues and an intense programme of events more or less on the hour, every hour for two weeks.

This year both Bob and I have been invited to speak about our latest books. His talk is on orchestral music, and he’s preparing recorded examples to illustrate his points. Mine is largely about piano music and I’d like to be able to play some live examples.

Because of the practical difficulties and expense of putting an acoustic piano in a tent for an hour, I’m going to use a digital piano. With some reservation though – I don’t consider myself an expert on the digital piano, and I’m not sure it quite conveys the beauty of the 18th and 19th century music I want to play. But live music is better than no music, so I’ll do my best.

It may not be widely realised that the digital piano works in a different way from the acoustic one. On the digital piano, each note is the recording of an individual note. A chord of several notes is basically the simultaneous playing of several recordings of individual notes which know nothing of each other.

On the acoustic piano, where there are steel strings that resonate when the hammer strikes them, the strings vibrate in sympathy with one another, especially if the note being struck is closely related to them on the harmonic series. If you press down the sustaining (‘loud’) pedal, which lifts all the dampers, every string is free to resonate with any other. This produces sympathetic resonances which contribute to the complexity of piano sound, and can be used by the pianist to enhance its beauty. If you are used to that sound it is very disconcerting to play a piano which doesn’t offer it. The digital piano has many advantages, and is developing all the time, but currently it doesn’t match the classic sonority of the traditional grand.