Why go on having tuition when you’ve ‘finished training’?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 September 2018 under Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

I’ve been in London coaching young post-grad and professional chamber groups for ChamberStudio, a wonderful enterprise which provides mentorship and further training for instrumentalists who have ‘finished studying’ but still need or wish to have access to advice and tuition.

Why would people want to go on having coaching when they’ve got degrees, diplomas, prizes and professional engagements? Why make yourself vulnerable in that way?

This topic came up several times during the weekend.  One of the young musicians summed it up by saying that some of the most helpful concepts he had encountered – to do with musical interpretation – were concepts he didn’t even hear about until he had finished with formal training.

If these concepts were so important, why didn’t he encounter them until his late twenties? The answer is complicated and probably indicates how much of musical training is taken up with the sheer work of mastering an instrument to the level needed to play the great European repertoire. (It’s possible, of course, that all along the way, teachers were trying to introduce advanced concepts, which the student had no room in their head to take in at that stage.)

A very simple example would be the extent to which one’s musical awareness can be deepened by really listening to what others in the group are doing. It’s not just a matter of playing one’s own part beautifully, though of course that will contribute a great deal to the whole effect. But what we were working on was the ability to lift one’s head from one’s instrument – or from the printed part – and  notice, actually notice, take in, digest and react to what the others are doing.

Many groups play as if chamber music is just a matter of several parallel lines being played at the same time. As you look at each player in turn, you just know that their colleagues are shadowy figures in their consciousness. But if you can persuade them to become aware of one another, to allow themselves to be influenced by one another, to see themselves in relation to the whole, the music-making becomes alive.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in practice it often does. You have to be very comfortable with yourself and your instrument before you can truly let the other players into your mental space. Sometimes this doesn’t seem possible until a person has matured in other ways. But formal education (rightly or wrongly) is usually ‘finished’ by the time a person is in their early-to-mid- twenties. So it’s hardly surprising that there are new levels of discovery which still await.

A collection of photos on Guardian Witness

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 August 2018 under Daily Life, Travel  •  1 Comment

For over a year I’ve enjoyed contributing weather-related photos to the Guardian newspaper via their ‘Witness‘ site, which invited readers to send in images that captured the ‘feel’ of the month. Several times I’ve been lucky enough to have one of my photos chosen by the editor to be published in the print newspaper.

Whenever I was out for a walk it was fun, though perhaps not so much for those who were with me, to get out my phone and try to take a good photo when something interesting caught my eye. Occasionally one of my  companions would say, ‘Ah, now that is a Guardian-quality image!’

Alas, the Guardian is now closing its Witness site and moving to other ways of collecting news and images from its readers. As a result, the 78 photos on ‘my page’ on the Witness site will disappear on September 30. If anyone is interested in seeing them, you can view them here until the end of September.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s ‘Childhood Memories’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 August 2018 under Books, Musings  •  1 Comment

I’ve been reading the ‘Childhood Memories’ (published 1958) of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, the Sicilian aristocrat and author of ‘The Leopard‘, an award-winning Italian novel published posthumously and later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster.

Lampedusa’s memoirs concern life in his family’s Sicilian home – or homes – at the start of the 20th century. Not so long ago as the crow flies, perhaps, but some of his descriptions seem to belong to another age altogether. Was it really only last century?

Here are a few of the innumerable descriptions that struck me. The first is a recollection of 1900, when Lampedusa was three years old:

‘I remember how in the evening of that same day, at about 7.30, while I was in my grandparents’ dining room (I often sat with them when they dined, since it was earlier than my own mealtime)’ ….

The second concerns the dining room:

‘I’ve forgotten to describe the dining room at Santa Margherita, which was peculiar for many reasons, above all for the fact that there was one. I believe it’s very rare in any eighteenth-century house to find a room expressly designed for dining in: in that period meals were taken in any room, and the room where one dined changed all the time, as indeed is my habit today’.

He recalls a journey by train to one of the family’s country houses:

”At that time trains had no corridors, and therefore no toilets: when I was a very little boy, an ugly brown ceramic chamberpot, bought especially for the journey, would be brought along for me and thrown out of the window before the train reached its destination. The ticket collector did his rounds gripping on to the outside of the train: at a certain point his braided cap and black-gloved hand would suddenly appear in the window.’

Finally there’s a description of a picnic excursion to yet another of the family’s country homes:

‘Our cooks had set out from Santa Margherita at 7am and already had everything prepared. When the boy on lookout announced our approach, the dishes containing the memorable timbali di maccheroni alla Talleyrand would quickly go into the ovens so that when we arrived there was barely time for us to wash our hands before going out onto the terrace, where two tables had been laid for us. Under an unsweetened papery crust of puff pastry, the pasta in the timbales was glazed with the lightest of sauces and steeped in the flavours of ham and truffles cut into match-thin strips.’

It reminded me of Bob’s [Robert Philip’s] remark about his first experiences of listening to historical recordings – for example of Elgar conducting his own music. The orchestra’s sound and style were surprising, although only half a century had elapsed since the recordings were made. As Bob said: if the sound of only 50 years ago was unguessably different, how much more so must have been the sound of Bach’s era, or Mozart’s or Beethoven’s?

First customer review of my book on Amazon

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 August 2018 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

One never knows whether to fear or look forward to ‘customer reviews’ on Amazon. Ever since a couple of high-profile rows involving well-known authors hiding behind false names in order to rubbish their rivals’ work on Amazon, we’ve all been alerted to the possibility that customer reviews may not be what they seem. At the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, are those anticlimactic ‘reviews’ which simply report that the book arrived promptly and in good condition, or merely that it was ‘as expected’. Either way, an Amazon customer review is not always a moment of joy.

Except when it’s like this, of course: the first customer review of my book Speaking the Piano!

‘There are many books on various aspects of piano playing and a vast number on piano teaching but this book makes a unique contribution. The author’s vast experience as a performer at the highest level and as a teacher, including of adult amateur pianists as well as young professional players, is evident throughout. The writing is highly original and displays a degree of psychological insight that would be the envy of Freud. The author is known primarily as a classical pianist and especially as a chamber music player but the book reveals that she could perfectly well have had a career as a jazz pianist and her candid account of her experiences in that field is remarkable. In her discussions about the process of learning, it is very refreshing that the author does not focus on mere method but proposes an approach to music-making and personal development which is sensitive to the needs of the aspiring musician as a whole person. Stunningly good and highly recommended.’


Gramophone magazine review of Speaking the Piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 August 2018 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

A fine book from an underrated pianist

‘When my biography of Leopold Godowsky was first published some thirty years ago [writes Jeremy Nicholas in Gramophone magazine], I prefaced the narrative with a quote from Confucius: “I do not seek to be known. I seek to be worthy to be known”. It is a quote that Godowsky himself was fond of using. It is a quote that could well apply to Susan Tomes.

‘…Her tone of voice is inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial, gently provocative ….
Above all – and this is the great value of ‘Speaking the Piano’ – she dispenses insight and information with grace and clarity. Despite its title and inevitably favouring the piano, the precepts she articulates are equally applicable to all instrumentalists – and indeed musicians of every kind, professional and amateur.’

Gramophone magazine, September 2018