BBC Music: book review, July 2018

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 June 2018 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

My book ‘Speaking the Piano‘ was published last week, and by a happy coincidence on the same day it received a five-star review from Jessica Duchen in the July issue of BBC Music magazine. (see photo)

‘Susan Tomes’s insights as a performer and teacher are fully matched by her literary eloquence: at the piano or on the page, her style is marked by undemonstrative, perceptive and elegant turns of phrase, in every sense. Drawing on her long experience as performer, chamber musician, teacher and the convenor of a piano club for eager amateurs, she translates with crystalline clarity the elusive question of the multifarious interferences between pianists and the music they wish to express. Physical difficulties, for example: ‘We could all be wonderful musicians if it weren’t for the fact that we have to play instruments,’ as Tomes’s teacher György Sebök used to say. Her solutions are intriguing and inspiring…

…Though the book is chiefly geared to pianists, any music lover would find fascination and entertainment here: there are gems on every page.’

If you would like to read more about the background to this book, have a look at my post on the publisher’s blog, Proofed.

How would Robert Schumann design his own record cover?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 June 2018 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I have been practising a lot of Schumann’s music lately in preparation for various music festivals over the summer. It’s always a pleasure to play Schumann and when you play a lot of different compositions, you get really into his way of thinking.

His mindset feels unstable, or shall I say ‘stably unstable’. His moods vary unpredictably, and he sometimes seems to get trapped in repetitive patterns, but he also knows how to use them to creative effect. He’s sometimes confiding, sometimes distant. He wants to show that he’s in control, but then he’s suddenly happy to submit to extraneous thoughts of a fantastic kind. Occasionally his music seems to go on a bit too long, but somehow it’s endearing. You sense that he’s trying to work his way out of the ‘dark wood’ as Dante might describe it.

This week I have been reading about Kanye West’s new album, ‘Ye’. It’s been hard to avoid, actually, because the press is intensely interested in it. I haven’t heard the album myself, but was intrigued to see that across its cover image of grey-blue mountains, the artist has written: ‘I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome’.

It struck me that if Robert Schumann were with us today, and was asked to write a sentence across the cover of a record of his music, he might well feel like writing something like that.

The thought has started me fantasising about what modern-day publicity techniques, designs and slogans my favourite composers might have enjoyed using if they were making records today.

First glimpse of ‘Speaking the Piano’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 May 2018 under Books  •  Leave a comment

My new book ‘Speaking the Piano‘ is due out from Boydell Press in about three weeks’ time. It’s about my experiences of learning and teaching music. In essence it’s a love letter to the joys and benefits of learning an instrument to a high level.

Today I received my first pre-publication copy (see photo). It was an exciting moment, because although I’ve been involved at every stage of proofreading, corrections, indexing, jacket design and so on, the book has always remained in the realm of the possible until today, when I saw that it had turned into a real book, a pleasingly solid object.

It was a nice surprise too because I had only seen the jacket design on computer, which gave a slightly false idea of the colours. The actual colour was even nicer than I had anticipated, so I was very happy. Blue is my favourite colour, as I think I may have mentioned elsewhere.

BBC Young Musician and being comfortable with the cameras

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 May 2018 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

I was away at the time of BBC Young Musician but have been catching up with the final instalments. As usual, I was tremendously impressed with the standard of playing in every instrumental category. Really, did my colleagues and I play as well as that when we were their age? I doubt it.

Each time there’s a televised competition, I feel more and more aware of how comfortable today’s young musicians are with being on camera. It used to be an extraordinary thing, to appear on television, even to have one’s photograph taken for a newspaper. I still remember the huge excitement and sense of occasion that gripped the National Youth Orchestra (in which I played violin for a few years) when we were televised. We were on our best behaviour, hair washed and brushed, shoes polished, sitting straight-backed, membership badges shining. And how stiff and self-conscious we looked when the camera homed in on any one of us! We were not used to it. How could we be?

Now things are different. Today’s young musicians document their lives in photos and videos shared online. They have YouTube channels and Instagram accounts which they check constantly. From their photos to their CVs, their publicity is of professional quality, like pages from glossy magazines. Who knows if their playing lives up to the image or not? The image seems to be what they want the world to notice.

Looking comfortable on television is a good thing to be able to do. I’m not so sure about the increasing trend to act up for the cameras, to enlarge one’s facial expressions so that they translate easily to the big screen. It seems to me that there was quite a lot of that going on in BBC Young Musician, almost as though competitors practise facial expressions along with their arpeggios. Do they? I can hardly blame them when there is so much talk of the need for classical musicians to ‘show their personalities’.

Yet there must be a balance to be struck. If the parade of emotional expressions – the face screwed up with emotion, the half-profile turned to catch the light just so, the mouth puckered in sensual appreciation  – becomes the foreground, then the music becomes the soundtrack. And what on earth is the point of dedicating yourself to practising these complex pieces for months and months if in the end they are to be upstaged by one’s own televised facial expressions of sorrow and ecstasy?

The ‘heavenly length’ of Schubert’s late works

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 May 2018 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

This week I’m preparing for the last of my lecture-recital series in The Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh. On Saturday afternoon I’ll be speaking about – and performing – Schubert’s late A major piano sonata, one of the masterpieces of his last year.

These lecture-recitals have brought out a different sort of audience, perhaps one which has more in common with a book festival audience. They’re people who believe in the power of words. Naturally you can understand music deeply without needing words at all, but there seem to be plenty of people who find words helpful.

In his last years, Schubert wrote some of his greatest pieces, which are also his longest. Why was he so keen on writing long pieces, especially if he suspected that time was running out? In the last twelve months of his life he wrote the 9th Symphony (just under an hour to perform), the C major string quintet (55 minutes), the B flat piano trio (40 minutes), the E flat piano trio (50 minutes) the three last piano sonatas (about 40+ minutes each), the three-movement Fantasie for violin and piano, the F minor piano duo sonata, and the song cycle ‘Winterreise’. Schumann, who did a lot to bring Schubert’s late music to public attention, steered our reaction in the right direction by writing about its ‘heavenly length’. Not everyone agreed. In 1840s London the string players burst out laughing when they first rehearsed the finale of the Ninth Symphony with its many-times-repeated rhythmic patterns, but gradually everyone learned to love it.

Just to write down the notes of these works on manuscript is an enormous labour, and that’s to say nothing of the time involved in thinking them up first. If I were given the task of simply copying out all of these works with pen and ink in a single year I would protest at the unreasonable amount of work.  But in addition to composing those pieces and more, Schubert found time to meet with friends, attend musical evenings, correspond with publishers, go walking, read novels, and sit up late in cafes – despite the fact that his health was declining.

It doesn’t seem possible that he did all the things he did. Like Mozart, he appears to have had more than 24 hours in each day, or to have been able to bend time to his will – as indeed he does in his music.