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


Tackling Chopin’s F major Nocturne

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 August 2018 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  3 Comments

One of my summer projects has been to learn all the Chopin Nocturnes. Strangely enough I have never tackled them properly, and some of them, it turns out, I hardly knew even by ear. Getting to know them has given me tremendous respect for Chopin’s compositional skills as well as his genius for piano writing. Although there are so many many notes, he never seems to waste them.

Today I was studying the F major Nocturne, which I do know by ear but had never tried to learn. I got to know it as a child when the older boy who had his piano lesson before me was learning it. Every week I would go in for my lesson and listen while he received tuition on this Nocturne, which he was preparing for a competition.

I used to sit there, enjoying the music but wondering why he didn’t do this or that. For example, in the turbulent middle section in F minor the melodic theme transfers to the bass, with complicated oscillating sixths above it in the treble. Each week our teacher gently reminded him that the left-hand theme must be clearly audible above the seething sixths in the right hand, but to achieve this result was beyond the lad’s technical skill at that time. I used to listen and think, ‘Why does he not do it?’

Now, of course, decades later, I discover that it is very difficult to do! With the clatter going on in the treble, and the effort of grappling with those stormy sixths, it is hard to make the bass theme stand out so that the listener immediately notices it. I can so clearly remember feeling frustrated when my fellow student had difficulty with this passage. Now I have difficulty with it too, so I have sent my sympathies back in time.

Talking about memory on BBC Front Row

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 August 2018 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Last night I was on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, taking part in a discussion about playing from memory. Presenter Stig Abell spoke to me and Torun Saeter Stavseng, principal cellist of the Aurora Orchestra, who are about to perform Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony from memory at The Proms.

Listen to the Front Row interview on iPlayer here.

It’s unusual for an orchestra to perform from memory, though there are a few historical examples including the Meiningen Orchestra in Germany during Brahms’s lifetime. Even at the time, opinions varied about whether the experiment was worth making or not. On the plus side: once they have memorised the music, members of the orchestra can look around, notice more, even move around. They are not tethered to their music stands. They could arrange themselves in new ways, playing from amongst the audience, perhaps, or standing around the perimeter of the hall to provide ‘surround sound’.

On the minus side, the effort of playing from memory makes some people more tense than they would otherwise be. Instead of opening them up, it may make them more self-conscious. Perhaps it is easier if you’re in an orchestral section such as violins or cellos, with colleagues around you playing exactly the same musical part. You get swept along by the collective memory.

The Front Row interview began with an audio clip of the Aurora Orchestra playing from memory. Well, I’m a trained musician, but I wouldn’t have known if they were playing from memory or not. It made me realise that a live concert performance is about much more than just the sound. When you can see people playing from memory, it’s impressive – massively so in the case of a whole orchestra. But is the result also audible? That’s an interesting question. If I think about my favourite CDs, I’m pretty sure I would not be able to guess whether the artists were playing from memory or not when they made those wonderful recordings.

Torun Stavseng said that the Aurora Orchestra finds the memorising experiment profoundly worthwhile and I’m sure she’s right. Speaking for myself, although I do play recitals from memory, I probably feel most free when playing chamber music from the score. I always know the music very well, I can look around at the others, listen to them, glance at the music occasionally for comfort. And it’s surprising how often I see new things there when I do. Not new things, exactly: I perceive the written marks with extra attention.

Old friends at the Cerne Abbas Music Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 July 2018 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’m just back from a week at the Gaudier Ensemble’s annual Cerne Abbas Music Festival in Dorset – my 25th year at the festival, I think. Some of the core players have been doing it for 28 years! But there are always new players and guest players, and this year we had the fabulous wind players Juliette Bausor, principal flute of the LPO, and Andrea de Flammineis, principal bassoon of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

As the years go by, and the original members have fanned out across Europe, it gets harder and harder to put everyone on the same spot for a week of music-making. But people have developed a fondness for the village, the villagers, and the annual reunion with the other players, and they try hard to make it work.

It seems to me that many of the audience in Cerne Abbas have been faithfully coming to concerts for the whole lifespan of the festival.  Over the years I have met many of them, and I value their ability to refer back to concerts of the past and who played in them. To my great relief the comments these days often revolve around the fact that the group’s main players not only haven’t changed much, but are playing better than ever. To me this seems true as well. We know one another pretty well, at least from the playing point of view, which is a great help when rehearsal time is short. Everyone knows they can rely on one another, even – or perhaps especially – in performance conditions.

This year, rehearsal time was intense, because we played seven concerts over four days, not repeating a single item. We had to work very fast and economically. Keeping standards high can only be done if everyone is well prepared and has practised their part to concert standard, for there is no time to start from scratch. It’s as if everyone arrives with the juggling balls already in the air and immediately starts tossing the balls to one another. Each year it amazes me that such an amount of complex repertoire can be put together in such a short time, but of course it only works because the level of musicianship is so high.

Blackwell’s Bookshop

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 July 2018 under Books  •  Leave a comment

Here I am signing copies of my book Speaking the Piano this morning in Blackwell’s Edinburgh bookstore. Blackwell’s is my favourite bookshop in Edinburgh. I’m usually there as a customer browsing the latest novels, buying a greetings card or having a coffee, so it was a delightfully through-the-looking-glass kind of experience to be sitting in the art books section signing copies of my own book.

Blackwell’s has a bookstall at the Usher Hall and in the Queen’s Hall during the Edinburgh International Festival in August, and they plan to have copies of my book on display in both concert halls.

While I was signing, we had an interesting chat about signatures. Mine is simple and legible: I’m one of those pedantic types who can’t stand to think that people won’t be able to read what I’ve written. Even when it comes to signatures I’ve never felt motivated to develop the blithe sort of flourish one sees tennis stars executing on souvenir programmes and oversized tennis balls as they leave the court after Wimbledon matches.

But lots of people like an artistic signature. One of the staff showed me some CDs signed by performers whose signatures seemed divorced from their name and more resembled little works of abstract art. We looked at them this way and that. Were they meant to look like a musical stave, a harpsichord, a vortex? If I could bear to have an artistic signature, what would it be? A treble clef instead of an S, perhaps?