A fine insult learned from a piper

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 January 2020 under Books, Inspirations, Teaching  •  Leave a comment

I have been reading an enthralling book, ‘A Hundred Years in the Highlands‘, written in 1921 by Osgood Mackenzie. He was the founder and owner of the famous gardens at Inverewe.

Osgood Mackenzie was an elderly man when he wrote the book and could recall childhood incidents from the 1850s, as well as many tales he was told about Highland life in the generations before.

One of the chapters is about Scottish pipers, meaning players of the bagpipe. These days, many visitors to Scotland associate bagpipes with tourist music, if I could put it like that. But in the old days, pipers were very important members of a Highland laird’s (lord’s) household. Their repertoire was an ancient heritage of tunes upon which they improvised to commemorate all kinds of occasions. They led troops into battle, and played to mark births, weddings and deaths. Senior pipers were so highly-regarded that sometimes the laird would go travelling with just his piper as his companion.

Osgood Mackenzie tells a delightful tale of an 18th century bagpiper, Ian Dall, who studied piping with the great Macrimmon of Skye.  Ian Dall and another student were taking it in turns to play a certain tune in front of their teacher, but Ian Dall was much the better.

Macrimmon asked the other lad why he was not playing as well as Ian Dall. The lad replied, ‘By St Mary, I would do so if my fingers had not been after the skate!’

This was an allusion to his fingers being sticky from eating the fish which Macrimmon had given his students for dinner (evidently they ate with their fingers).

Osgood Mackenzie goes on: ‘And this has become a proverbial taunt which northern pipers to this day hurl at their inferior brethren from the south.’

I think I shall enrol this phrase in my teaching vocabulary. ‘For goodness’ sake – are your fingers after the skate??’

Bits of information needed to track down classical music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 January 2020 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

At a new year party I had an interesting chat with a young man who  likes music and likes to listen to it at university along with his friends. He himself likes classical music among other kinds. Many of his friends are not familiar with the world of classical music, but are open-minded and willing to include it in their playlists if they hear something they like.

He made an thought-provoking point about the amount of information you need to find a piece of classical music on, say, Spotify (or other digital music services). The example he gave was the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, which he’d been listening to. Some of his friends had liked its slow movement, and wanted to add it to their playlists.

But in order to do that, they had to possess several bits of information:

1. Tchaikovsky (composer) 2. Violin Concerto 3. In D major  4. opus 35.  5. Second movement  6. Artist (eg David Oistrakh).

My young friend commented: ‘In pop music, it’s all about the artist. You start with them and it’s easy to find their songs. Even if they’re  performing a work by someone else, it’s still categorised under their name. In fact, the original composer is often left off the identifying information.

‘In classical music, it’s the other way round. It’s all about the work. You can’t track it down by starting with the artist – unless the artist happens to have recorded the piece you’re looking for. If they haven’t, you’re stuck – or at least it’s more difficult to find it.

‘Even if you find the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, there might be a bunch of recordings by violinists you’ve never heard of. How are you to know which one is good? I’m not saying it’s impossible – I’m just saying it puts extra barriers in the way. It makes it hard for people to give it a go.’

It’s true, isn’t it, that in classical music it has been all about the work. And the works have complicated titles. I find myself thinking about this.

Thoughts at the end of the year

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 December 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

I haven’t written much on my blog recently, for two reasons:

1. My website was hacked (aargh), and I have been struggling to deal with the technical issues that resulted.

2. I have been working on a new book. More of that in the new year!

As we come to the end of the year, there’s a lot for classical musicians to reflect on. Not all of it makes for cheerful reflection. For example, my favourite newspaper’s round-up of ’50 amazing musicians to look out for in 2020′ didn’t contain a single classical musician. (Note: this is not because there are no amazing classical musicians.) And the constant drip-drip of reports from various countries about classical music writers and critics having been ‘let go’ from papers and magazines.

However, looking on the bright side, I realise that live music (of all kinds, not just classical) has probably never been so important to me. It seems so precious against a background of more and more music being delivered electronically.

I never cease to be fascinated by that moment where live music begins, and something beautiful is created in real time in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. Flamenco artists speak of ‘duende’, the mystical power of the performer to draw in the audience, the power that is derived from the music. This can be observed in other art forms as well, and I feel I’ve encountered it in several different contexts this year.

I appreciate it the more, probably, because I know what goes into the making of a performance. But I always enjoy seeing how live music offers people a glimpse of another dimension. It lifts them away from their everyday worries, plugs them into a different kind of energy.

So here’s to live music – the power it has, the pleasure it brings. And thank you to all the live musicians who have created something special this year. We need you!

More on hand sizes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 November 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

A little while ago I wrote about my sudden insight that most printed fingering in the scores of piano pieces was probably devised by men, and for male pianists.

Yesterday I had some follow-up to that from a doctor who had done some further reading about male and female hand sizes.

He showed me the results of an Australian study which was looking into the potential for keyboards with narrower keys. It noted that the width of the keys on the piano keyboard had expanded along with piano repertoire in the 19th century, and that the larger stretch did not suit everyone. Their study of male and female hand sizes concluded that the average female hand-span (measuring with the hand fully stretched out) is a whole inch shorter than the average male’s. Many male pianists find it easy to stretch a tenth (an octave plus two more notes, eg C-E), but hardly any women do.

The study had then attempted to correlate hand size with ‘level of acclaim’. (At this point I admit I looked sceptical.) They had surveyed nearly 500 pianists, categorising them as having International acclaim, National acclaim, or ‘regional/amateur’ status.

The results showed that there were no internationally acclaimed women with average-sized female hands. In the ‘International’ group, there were only two women and they both had large hands – large for a woman, that is, and in one case even larger than the average man’s.

‘Please don’t tell me it’s that simple’, I begged.

Now, there are lots of things one could ask about how ‘level of acclaim’ is measured. Many factors play into ‘acclaim’, not only pianistic. We might agree, however, that today it is more likely that an international career is based on ‘showcase’ repertoire, principally from the Romantic era or the 20th century: piano concertos and virtuoso pieces by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Bartok.

These are works which require a large stretch – not exactly the same as a large hand, but a whole lot easier to achieve if you do have a large hand. And therefore more likely to be achievable by male pianists.

There have been one or two male pianists with small hands (eg Josef Hoffmann) who had smaller keyboards (ie with narrower keys) specially manufactured for themselves to play, but naturally this was rare, and meant that the small piano had to be transported about with the pianist, at prohibitively expensive cost.

There are women pianists who have carved out a niche with repertoire which does not routinely require either a large stretch or a large hand. Such repertoire tends to be from before 1850, and it is probably no coincidence that many renowned female pianists are particularly loved for their interpretations of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert.

Which is not to say that there are no male pianists who are loved for their playing of those composers, but you see my point.

Naturally it makes one wonder what could have been achieved if pianos were available in lots of sizes like violins and cellos are. As pianos are large, heavy and difficult to move, it makes sense that they are a standard size. But reading this survey, one cannot help reflecting on the far-reaching consequences for female pianists of this one-size piano.

Programme notes – help or hindrance?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 November 2019 under Concerts, Musings  •  10 Comments

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?