Restless audiences vs acoustic instruments

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 April 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

This morning I was making soup and listening to Stephen Jardine‘s phone-in programme on BBC Radio Scotland, as I often do on a Friday morning. They were discussing whether parents should restrain their children from behaving badly in public places such as cinemas, theatres and restaurants. People had strong views on both sides. Some said it’s important to get children used to going to cultural events; others said that it is not fair to let audience members’ enjoyment be ruined by selfish behaviour.

At one point they were discussing the disapproving responses that people get from other audience members. The presenter said something like, ‘It still gives me the chills to remember the looks we got at a concert when my wife’s phone went off in the middle of a Rachmaninov piano concerto.’

My heart sank on hearing this because classical music is so often used to exemplify ‘the uptight audience’. So I thought it was just worth mentioning the difference between acoustic instruments and the amplified instruments that have become ‘the norm’ for many music fans.

If you are playing an amplified instrument, and you want the music to be louder, you simply turn up the volume. You don’t have to play differently. When the volume is loud, it doesn’t matter too much if the audience is making noise of its own, because amplification can easily compete. Not so with acoustic instruments like violins, cellos, pianos, flutes, clarinets – or indeed the traditional Spanish guitar. If you want to make more sound, you have to use your muscles and your physical effort. If you want to play quietly, you have to control the instruments with fine movements.

Players of acoustic instruments spend years learning to master their range of sound. The nuances of  tone colour, from the most delicate whisper to the cry of pain, are the point of musical expression. In concert, musicians have to focus on making those nuances work. They really want audiences to notice all the gradations.

So if audience members are making a noise, eating, drinking, taking photos and obliterating the fine details of tone colour, it makes musicians feel that their work was pointless. Yes, of course we want people to come to concerts and feel comfortable, but we also want them to understand the nature of instruments played without amplification.

Embarking on Beethoven’s opus 111 Sonata

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 March 2017 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  3 Comments

It’s been on my mind recently that I never properly learned Beethoven’s final piano sonata. I’ve been performing and lecturing about the two penultimate sonatas, opus 109 and 110, but when someone asked if I’d like to do opus 111 as well, I had to admit that it isn’t in my concert repertoire.

Why not? Well, I went through a longish period when I felt uncomfortable with a certain side of Beethoven’s music: the gruff, brusque, defiant side. I didn’t really understand it and I tended to leave those pieces alone. The Beethoven I felt at home with was, for example, his Fourth Piano Concerto, which I’m practising for a concert in April (note to self: Eek! It’s April tomorrow.) But I realise it’s ridiculous not to play Beethoven’s last piano sonata, so from time to time I’ve been opening the volume at that sonata and looking at it out of the corner of my eye.

Last week, out of the blue, a friend in the US kindly sent me a DVD about the American pianist Seymour Bernstein. I learned that he had voluntarily given up a promising concert career in mid-life because of nerves and misgivings about the rightness of a solo concert career as a way of life. Since then, he has become a teacher/composer/educator with a high reputation for ‘holistic thinking’. He came to public attention when he made friends with the actor Ethan Hawke, who was inspired by a chance conversation they had about nerves and performing. Ethan Hawke made a lovely film about his mentor called ‘Seymour: an Introduction‘.

I watched the DVD last night. In it, Seymour Bernstein uses the opening of Beethoven’s final piano sonata to illustrate Beethoven at his most ‘macho’. He played the opening bars with a Beethovenesque growl. It was a strange coincidence that someone should send me a DVD with this scene in it at the very moment when I was wondering whether I had the energy to grapple with the piece myself. But in fact it’s prompted me to begin. And I look forward to learning the second and final movement, the wonderful 20-minute ‘Arietta’ with its variations.

Seeking a female word for ‘virtuoso’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 March 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

Yesterday we had a meeting of my piano club, a group of adult amateur pianists interested in developing their playing. The subject of ‘virtuosos’ and ‘virtuoso technique’ came up in relation to a piano piece with some fast, technically difficult ‘show-off’ passages. We wondered where the word ‘virtuoso’ comes from and what it really means?

A little research showed that ‘virtuoso’ comes from the Latin word ‘vir’ = a man, and from the word ‘virtuous’ in an old sense of ‘distinguished by manly qualities; full of manly strength.’ Some of us felt that the phrase ‘a female virtuoso’ is therefore unsatisfactory. It seems perverse to describe a woman as a ‘virtuoso’ once you know that the word signified manliness. But women pianists can be every bit as dazzling as men. Perhaps we need a new word to describe them?

There used to be a word ‘virtuosa’, but the OED says it was a specialised word, ‘now rare’, referring to a learned religious woman. Although some modern dictionaries claim the word is available to signify ‘a female virtuoso’, it has never caught on in the world of music.

So if ‘vir’ is the Latin for ‘man’, how about using the Latin word for ‘woman’? It’s ‘mulier’ (today its descendant is found in the Spanish ‘mujer’, a woman). A female equivalent of ‘virtuoso’ might be something like ‘mulierosa’, ‘full of womanly strength’. I tried to imagine using it in a phrase like, ‘the mulierosa pianist Martha Argerich’. ‘Clara Schumann had a mulierous piano technique.’

Hmmm. But is ‘womanly strength’ the female equivalent of ‘manly strength’, or are women’s strengths different? In that case we still need a good word for ‘a woman musician with a dazzling technique’. The search continues.

Meeting up again with my first piano teacher

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 March 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Teaching  •  1 Comment

A lovely surprise awaited me when I played at the Brunton Theatre on Tuesday. Sitting in the front row was my first piano teacher, Gordon Lindsay (‘Mr Lindsay’, as I knew him). He taught me from when I began piano lessons at the age of seven until I was nine or ten. Since then, apart from glimpsing him in the audience a few years ago at a Queen’s Hall concert of mine, I don’t believe I had set eyes on him.

At the age of 91, Mr Lindsay still had the bright gaze that I remembered. It was he who taught me to read music. I still recall the excitement of learning what those black blobs meant, and how to count up the ‘lines and spaces’ of the stave. I remember we did the first exercise in the book, using just three notes: ‘This is up. This is down. This is up and down.’

On Tuesday I was giving a lecture-recital about Debussy’s ‘Images’. Whenever I talk to the audience, I always instinctively search for sympathetic-looking faces to address. It was easy to find that sympathetic face, because Mr Lindsay was following every word with alert interest, his blue eyes shining. What a pity we had lost touch for so long!

How important is it to perform from memory?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 March 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

I still have mixed feelings about playing from memory. I find that the memorising is the part of my concert preparation which takes the longest. Even after I’ve worked out exactly how I want to play something, there’s a long extra stage which is mostly concerned with memorisation. Memorising cannot be done quickly, or at least, if it’s done quickly it is not reliable. In a two-hour solo programme, ‘reliable’ is what you most definitely need to feel. For me, it requires the co-operation of several kinds of memory: aural, intellectual, photographic, muscle. Only when all these have been tested and found secure can I feel calm on stage.

Why do I play from memory? To be honest, I think it’s largely a matter of not being able to jettison the attitudes drummed into me when I was learning the piano as a child. Although I now see other perspectives, and realise that there are lots of varying attitudes out there, I still feel (rightly or wrongly) that playing from memory is something the audience expects.

I am not one of those who feel that performing from memory is ‘liberating’. Playing from memory, yes – but performing from memory is a different matter. As for ‘liberating’, I probably feel freer in chamber music, where I can have the music in front of me and glance at it if I feel like it. I usually know things more or less from memory anyway, whatever type of music it is, but if the printed score actually isn’t there, it feels different.

In the run-up to my recent Queen’s Hall solo recital, I performed the programme from memory to several different audiences in different cities. My memory was 99% secure every time, but on each occasion I had a terrifying moment or two of ‘blankness’ – and always in a different place! There was no knowing where it might happen. Once it was in Debussy. Once it was in Schubert, and once in Beethoven. The moments were tiny, but enough to make my heart skip a beat.

On the day before my Queen’s Hall recital, I played the whole programme through at home from memory. This time there were half a dozen moments where the dreaded ‘inner voice’ whispered to me, ‘You don’t know this!’ I was rattled. I had to give myself a stern talking-to.

In the event, all went well. The final concert was more secure than all the rest and I enjoyed it.

At drinks afterwards, I mentioned to someone how pleased I was that my memory had functioned securely. She did a ‘double-take’, looked surprised and then said, ‘Oh yes, you did play from memory, didn’t you? It’s only now you say it that I realise there wasn’t any music on the desk. Well, how amazing!’

Perhaps her response wasn’t typical. But amongst all the nice feedback, I don’t think anyone even mentioned the fact that I had played from memory. They took it for granted, I suppose. But it did make me wonder how important it is to do it.