Programme notes – help or hindrance?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 November 2019 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Yesterday I was at a concert where, just as I was thinking of reading the programme notes, the lights went down and I couldn’t read them. Some concert halls don’t put the lights down; others dim them slightly, and some put them down to ‘theatre levels’, just leaving enough light for people to find their way to the exits.

It made me think about all the effort that goes into writing programme notes which concert-goers cannot read during the concert because of low light levels. I speak as one who is married to a very good programme-note writer. Because I know how much work goes into the research and writing of programme notes, I always look to see to how they’re received at concerts. Sometimes my heart sinks when I see they’ve been printed in a font so small that audience members squint at them with an air of frustration before laying the programme booklet aside. Let’s face it, lots of us find it tricky to read in dim light.

I said something about this on Twitter and several people assured me that they read programme notes after the concert. Which is absolutely fine if the notes are mainly to do with background and context, but not much use if they aim to draw your attention to things to listen out for.

Others told me that we don’t need programme notes, that it is better to come to a performance with innocent ears and make whatever you make of it. Which is fine if you’re able to do that. But if I think of myself at, say, an exhibition of contemporary art, I often don’t know what to make of it (except to feel ‘I don’t understand this’). My uninformed reaction isn’t particularly satisfying, in fact. I welcome whatever light an expert can throw on things in the form of gallery notes.

A couple of people told me that digital programme notes, downloaded to your phone or whatever, are better (and ‘greener’) than printed programme notes. But as far as I can see, they don’t solve the problem. You still have to read them at the concert. If that means reading them on the lighted screen of your phone or iPad, you’re going to annoy everyone sitting near you.

Programme notes seem to fall into two main types. Some focus on background information about composers or anecdotes about performers and pieces. Others try to plot a course through the music, pointing out landmarks that will help listeners to follow its structure. There’s not much point in reading such notes on the train home, unless you have a wonderful memory for what you heard two hours earlier.

Perhaps the answer is for the performers to tell the audience something about the pieces they’re going to play. Then nobody need squint at the small print in the programme. But not all performers want to do this, or are good at it. And what would become of all those learned music historians and musicologists who have made an art out of describing music in words?

London Piano Festival pianists

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 October 2019 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

Phew! That was indeed a two-piano marathon at the London Piano Festival. Looking tired but happy after the three-hour concert last Saturday night in King’s Place are, from left to right, Christian Ihle Hadland, Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen (co-directors of the festival), Susan Tomes, Tim Horton.

Thanks to Viktor Erik Emmanuel for this photo, a nice souvenir of a lovely event and a rare chance to work and socialise with fellow pianists.

 

The male hand as default …?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 October 2019 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

At the Edinburgh Book Festival I went to hear Caroline Criado Perez talk about her book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men‘. The book has just won the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

The book’s mission is simple but profoundly thought-provoking: it aims to make us aware of how many things are designed with the male user as the default. The size of mobile phones; the height of seatbelts in cars; car crash dummies used in safety testing which are based on the height and weight of the average man; heart attack symptoms which may be missed in women because their heart attack symptoms are different from men’s; technology which doesn’t respond properly to the higher-pitched female voice; the design of toilets in public buildings; the placing of high shelves in supermarkets, or of high straps for passengers to hold onto on the subway …. the list is long. Once you’ve heard the author talking about this, you start to see examples everywhere.

So the other day I was learning some piano music, trying to follow the fingering devised by the editor. Some composers suggest their own fingering. Many don’t, and it’s customary for publishers to employ an editor (often a well-known pianist) to devise a fingering, which is printed in the published score and treated as gospel by generations of amateur pianists.

Once again I was thinking that the printed fingering didn’t really suit my small hand and that I’d need to find a different solution.

And suddenly it dawned on me: piano fingering is probably another example of Caroline Criado Perez’s theory. The ‘default’ composer is male; male editors have been the default, and the male hand is likely to have been the standard.

Now, I realise that there are men with small hands and women with large ones. Nevertheless it must be true that the average male hand is bigger and stronger than the average female’s, and has a wider stretch. I am sure editors do their best to find a fingering that works for ‘the average hand’, but I somehow doubt that many of them have taken the time to consult female pianists about how comfortable the fingerings are for them. Yes, I’m pretty sure that the male hand is the default.

Claude Debussy was right: ‘Cherchons nos doigtés!’ Let us find our own fingerings!

London Piano Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 September 2019 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’m preparing for my two appearances at the London Piano Festival in King’s Place on Saturday October 5.  At 2pm I have a solo lecture-recital on Schubert’s A major Sonata D959. At 7pm I’ll be joining the other festival pianists in a ‘two-piano marathon‘ concert.

Most people think of piano duets as two players sitting cosily side by side at a single keyboard. That’s the most popular form of piano duets. But there are also many splendid works for two pianos, known as ‘duos’ to distinguish them from duets. Duos are less often encountered because of the rarity of finding two equally good pianos in the same rehearsal room, or on the same platform.

When there are two grand pianos on stage, you have to decide whether to have them opposite and nestling into one another, top-to-tail (the most space-saving solution), or side by side, which not all concert platforms can accommodate. If the pianos are nose-to-tail, your fellow pianist is quite a long way away from you. You can see their head bobbing about, but you cannot see their hands. Co-ordination is tricky. There’s only so much you can deduce from the other person’s head movements.

You might think that playing piano duets or duos would be easy for pianists, but it isn’t. Each note on the piano has a definite moment when the key goes down and the hammer strikes the string. Two pianists therefore have to co-ordinate their ‘attack’ very precisely, or the chords will sound ragged. As one doesn’t come across piano duos very often, one doesn’t have much chance to practise the art of synchronizing with another pianist. I’m much more used to playing chamber music with string or wind players. And when I do play with other pianists, it tends to be four hands at one keyboard.

So I am looking forward to plunging into the world of piano duos with Charles Owen and with Tim Horton at the London Piano Festival on October 5.

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.