Learning to play the spoons in lockdown

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 January 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

Last weekend, reading the Guardian Review, I was struck by a comment of Joe Moran’s about having learned to play the spoons in lockdown.

I was vaguely aware of spoons as musical instruments, but a bit of research put me in the picture: spoons have long been used to produce percussive rhythm in folk music – British, Irish, Canadian, American as well as Russian, Turkish and Greek. And it seems that ancient cultures – Roman, Egyptian – used spoons in various kinds of music-making.

The basic technique is to turn two spoons back to back and hold their handles in one hand, hitting the spoons against your knee so that their curved surfaces clack against one another. Then you hold your free hand a few inches above your knee and hit the spoons down against your knee, and up against the palm of your free hand. The effect is not unlike that of castanets in Spanish flamenco. From simple rhythms you can gradually build up to sophisticated effects, and some spoon players – like the Scotty brothers – have brought the skill to a high level of artistry.

Mastering the basic grip is the hardest part. There has to be a space between the backs of the spoons or they won’t ‘clack’, and the space has to remain consistent. If you relax your grip in the wrong way, the spoons splay apart and the sound is lost (as well as your temper). But with a bit of practice, you can soon be clicking and clacking delightful rhythms to your favourite songs.

In some traditions, spoons (perhaps wooden) are manufactured with the handles joined together so that the precise gap is controlled. But most players just use two ordinary metal spoons (they should be identical) from the kitchen drawer. It’s easy to find YouTube videos on how to learn the correct grip. I find it pleasing that anyone could join in with a folk music session with just a pair of spoons rather than an expensive instrument.

Here I am after the first day’s practice, demonstrating my new hobby to someone I couldn’t invite into the house because of Covid restrictions. Playing spoons on the porch made me feel like an authentic American folk musician.

Leaving the EU

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 January 2021 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

Now that Brexit has happened and the UK is out of the European Union, I have been reflecting on the fact that I have seen the whole arc of our membership of the EU from start to finish.

I was a student when we joined what was then the European Economic Community and later became the EU. It felt wonderful to be given the freedom to work, study and live in all those European countries. I remember stepping off the train at Gare du Nord in Paris and being amazed that I was being cheerily waved into France without having to queue up for a stamp in my passport.

From then on, travelling to the European continent, whether for work or pleasure, was a big part of my life. Sure, if we hadn’t been part of the EU I could still have gone there with extra bureaucratic effort and expense, but knowing that we were part of the EU gave me and my friends a larger sense of possibility and belonging. As most of the music we played had emanated from those European countries, the sense of belonging was important to us.

As of January 1, UK citizens have lost the right to live, work and study in 27 EU countries. We are out of the Erasmus programme, which has changed the lives of so many students I’ve worked with over the years. Some were British musicians going abroad to taste the air and enjoy the respect given to classical music in Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands. Some were travelling the other way, to sample the rich musical life of our prestigious UK music conservatoires. All of them seemed to love their sojourns in those other countries.

We’re told there are great opportunities for the UK now that it’s out of the EU. But I shall never be able to bring myself to believe that losing the right to work, study and live in any of 27 EU countries is anything other than a big step backwards, especially for young people.

New Year’s resolution

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 January 2021 under Musings  •  7 Comments

I was complaining to a fellow musician recently about how hard it is to make myself practise the piano every day, even though there are no concerts to prepare for.

Until the recent Tier 4 lockdowns, I had been hoping that concerts for live audiences could resume around Easter 2021, when most people should have been vaccinated. But the ‘new variant’ of the virus, plus the complexity of rolling out the vaccine, has blurred the focus on Easter as a return to normality. I was rather shocked when a couple of friends with insider knowledge of the NHS suggested I shouldn’t pin my hopes on those summer festivals happening in person. I confess I had, indeed, been pinning my hopes on that.

My musician friend said that, as there are no immediate prospects of live performance, we might as well approach our daily practice in a different way – not as the sprint towards a particular concert, but as an opportunity to re-engage with the learning process itself.

I suppose there was actually a long period in my life when I practised the piano every day without knowing when the next concert would be, or indeed whether there would ever be a concert at all. That period was my childhood, when little concert opportunities arose maybe once or twice a year. The scarcity of concerts didn’t deter me from practising – in fact I had hardly conceived of a time when practice would be directed at a particular performance. I was content just to learn more pieces and get better at playing the piano.

Later, when I had turned professional, the need to be in good form with a particular programme on a certain date became the driving force of my practising. There’s always an element of learning, of course, but the imminence of a concert was the paramount driver. But this cannot be the main reason to practice at the moment.  My diary is currently empty, or at any rate consists of nothing more than light pencillings decorated with question marks.

In the quiet months to come it would be good to re-engage with the spirit of learning as I used to when I was a child – travelling hopefully, rather than experiencing my musical life as a series of arrivals. This at any rate is my new year’s resolution.

Wishing everyone a good start to the New Year – surely there is light at the end of the tunnel.

‘She taught me that every step has meaning’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 December 2020 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

The other day I was listening to a ballet dancer reminiscing on radio about the time when, as a girl, she took part in a ballet masterclass given by Dame Margot Fonteyn. Dame Margot, it seems, was more terrifying in person than the students had expected. ‘She hardly smiled at all during the class’. But clearly the experience left an impact: ‘She taught me that every step has meaning’, the dancer said reverently.

It struck me that the same idea permeated the performance masterclasses I took as a student. The idea that every note or phrase has meaning was inspiring. Music didn’t just sound lovely. It wasn’t just a relaxing chance for the audience to let its mind wander. It wasn’t just an opportunity for the performer to show off their dexterity. Music had the potential to be more than that: in performance, it could build something in front of you, leading from one note or phrase to the next with the irresistible logic and momentum of your favourite story or poem.

If you let your mind wander when playing, you might find that muscle memory would carry you through to the end, but your performance would be superficial – and strangely unsatisfying. If you paid attention, however, listening to every note and what it was trying to say, you would find ways of linking the phrases which passed beyond pleasant melody into the realm of making sense, to you and to your listeners too. This was hard to achieve, but wonderful when you managed it.

Today, we live in an atmosphere of instant-reaction, disposable culture. We’re all swept up in the latest sensation to explode on social media. Celebrity doesn’t need to be earned. Mega-selling pop groups are put together by marketing experts who select for looks, attitudes, back stories. Visual appeal can be more important than content. Skill is not enough – sometimes not even a minimum requirement.

However, if you are in it for the long haul, you need something that will make your work feel satisfying when you’re on your own, practising your instrument day after day, year after year. For me, a big part of that motivation is the feeling that there is a tale to be told by the music, an argument to be constructed, a journey to be depicted. Step by step, travelling towards meaning.

‘Zonal Attachment’ for Musicians

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 November 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

I was half-listening to the radio this morning when they were talking about fishing rights. The concept of ‘zonal attachment’ was being explained. I learned that this was a new and scientific way of approaching the issue of fishing rights. Fish move around; from year to year their favourite locations may change. Therefore, instead of assuming that fish are going to be where they have always been, it makes more sense to do annual surveys of where they actually are, and divide up access accordingly.

I started wondering if this concept could be useful in the music world. It often seems as if we go to play concerts in places where there used to be good audiences, taking no account of the fact that things may have changed. Conversely, we don’t go and play in places where it might be the perfect moment to visit because, for example, they’ve been undertaking a brilliant regional programme of music education.

I still remember with pain an occasion some years ago when I drove for several hours through driving rain to do a solo recital for a music society. The correspondence leading up to the concert had been entirely normal. I got there and did my on-stage rehearsal. Shortly before the concert, the organiser popped her head around the dressing-room door and said to me in a subdued tone, ‘I just wanted to say: don’t be surprised if we don’t get much of an audience tonight. Our membership has declined steeply in the past few years, I’m afraid.’

‘How many people do you expect we might get?’ I asked with sinking heart. ‘Maybe forty?’ she replied.

And so it was. There were around 40 people, spread out in ones and twos throughout the building as if they didn’t know one another (and this was long before the age of social distancing). Now, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy playing to them. But had a ‘zonal attachment’ survey indicated that there were few classical music-lovers swimming around in that area that year, I might have at least waited until I had several concerts around there, to make more sense of the journey.

Of course, if a zonal attachment survey showed that there were huge numbers of music-lovers all clustered in the same place, there would have to be some sort of quota system allocating musicians the right to play to them during the season. But that might work rather well. At least it would guarantee that all sorts of musicians would have their turn on the platform.