Good wishes for Hogmanay

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 December 2021 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

At the end of December, I usually reflect on my favourite concerts of the year. This year however, as you will know all too well, we spent the entire year in a pandemic. Concert life is still badly impacted, and freelance musicians have been more impacted than most.

For me, the big event of the year was the publication of my book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces and the associated concert at Wigmore Hall in London on 23 July – a memorable evening.

Thanks to the team at Yale University Press, The Piano has been widely noticed. As well as getting great reviews, it ended the year as:

A ‘book of the year’ in The Spectator
A ‘book of the year’ in classical music in the Financial Times
A ‘book of the year’ in the Presto Music Awards
A ‘Scottish book of the year’ in non-fiction in The Scotsman
A ‘Notable Book of 2021’ as chosen by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago

I myself have done a lot of reading this year – more than ever before, probably. I know this because in my diary I always keep a note of what I’ve read. This year I seem to have read 52 books (and that’s not counting the reading I do for research purposes) – a reflection, alas, of how much time I have spent not going anywhere.

I have been struck by the high quality of most of the books I’ve read. Some of my favourites:

George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – how to read Russian short stories
Ann Patchett, The Dutch House – multi-generational saga, gripping like all Patchett’s novels
Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus – wow, can that man construct a sentence!
Andrew O’Hagan, Mayflies – growing up in Scotland and grasping life
Elena Ferrante trans. Ann Goldstein, The Lying Life of Adults – disturbing psychological acuity
William Dalrymple, The Anarchy – stunning history of the East India Company
Sandro Veronesi, trans. Elena Pala, The Hummingbird – intriguing, multi-faceted Italian novel
Elizabeth Strout, Oh, William! – Strout continues to be one of my idols
Gavin Francis, Intensive Care – absorbing pandemic diary of an Edinburgh doctor
Lea Ypi, Free – eye-opening account of growing up in Communist Albania
Meg Mason, Sorrow and Bliss – smart, funny, empathetic novel about relationship troubles

Here’s to writers – and to all my readers! I wish everyone a peaceful Hogmanay.

Presto Music Awards 2021

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 December 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

Today I learned that my book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces has been named as a Book of the Year 2021 in the Presto Music Awards.

I feel very fortunate that it has now been chosen as a Book of the Year in The Spectator, the Financial Times and the Presto Music Awards as well as being a ‘Notable book of 2021’ for the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago.

As our outer circumstances are rather fragile at the moment, and concert life is still severely affected by them, these little milestones mean even more than usual and I do value these ‘notes of appreciation’.

Financial Times ‘Books of 2021’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 November 2021 under Musings  •  1 Comment

The Financial Times has been publishing its ‘Books of 2021’, category by category across recent days, and now they have arrived at Classical Music.

I’m proud to see that my piano book is one of their Books of 2021.

This is the link, but unless you’re a subscriber it seems to lead only to a paywall.

Last weekend I reported that my book had been chosen as one of the Books of the Year in The Spectator, so I am feeling very fortunate. It’s good to ‘feel seen’, as they say these days, at the end of another long and lonely year during which live concerts have remained largely in pandemic-related hibernation.

The photo of a sunrise this week in my neighbourhood has a nice metaphorical flavour.

My piano book is in The Spectator’s ‘Books of the Year’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 November 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

An exhilarating moment in an otherwise quiet stretch of autumn:

Jenny Colgan has chosen my piano book as one of her Books of the Year in The Spectator (the print edition comes out on 13 November).

She calls it ‘one of the two most beautiful books I got my hands on this year.’

One can’t assume that writers have books on classical music on their piles of reading material, so this is a delightful surprise.

A ‘Strictly’ for pianists?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 November 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  3 Comments

I was discussing ‘Strictly’ with a friend who’s also a fan of the show. He asked me:

‘How do you think it would work if celebrities were partnered with professional pianists, to learn to play the piano in a few weeks and then perform, say, a piano concerto in front of a TV audience?’

I started to say that quite a few competitors on Strictly have had prior dance training, but equally it’s true that many of them stress the fact that they have never danced before, or at least not more than joining in with the dancing at a wedding reception or whatever.

Before I had formed an answer to the question about ‘Strictly’ for pianists, we had started laughing. It seemed obvious that such a format wouldn’t work, at least not if competitors were truly starting from scratch. Yes, perhaps they could learn some simple tunes and chords in a few weeks, but the idea of playing a piano piece as dazzling and intricate as the dance routines we see on Strictly …. ‘not gonna happen’.

Now I should stress that I have great admiration for the dancers on Strictly. I think the professionals do an extraordinary job of teaching the celebrities, who in turn achieve amazing things in a short time. Watching everyone’s progress week by week is a delightful experience – and this year’s bunch is already performing at a high level.

However, I can’t imagine that the format would work with piano-playing (or many other musical instruments). Dancing is an extension of what we do anyway, but playing the piano to a high level is not quite as ‘natural’. Of course, almost everyone is musical, so in that sense, playing a musical instrument is an extension of an innate quality.

However, an instrument is not part of your own body, no matter how much we musicians like to imagine that it is. A piano is a complicated mechanical device that takes effort to master, and (for classical repertoire at least) there’s also the matter of learning to read music. It takes special study and a long time to lay down neural pathways and train the fine muscles of the fingers to a level where you can control the piano and perform music designed to delight, impress and move an audience.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that so many people persevere with learning the piano. The first steps come easily, but to go beyond them takes patience and discipline. Luckily, by the time they get past the first steps, many people are hooked. The peaks of the piano repertoire hover before them like a gorgeous mountain range and they are drawn towards it, day by day, month by month, year by year.