The range of topics at the EdBookFest

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 August 2019 under Books  •  Leave a comment

For the past couple of days I’ve been at the Edinburgh Book Festival  (one of the world’s major literary festivals) listening to other writers’ talks –  that is, when I could hear them over the noise of the thunder, lightning and rain battering on the canvas roof (in August).

Last night we were at a discussion about the future of humanitarianism. Experts from aid agencies were describing the stress of working under bombardment and in buildings with no electricity, when suddenly the lights went out in our tent. The panellists gamely continued in the dim glow of the emergency lighting. A moment later, there was a burst of noise outside – the fireworks which mark the end of the Tattoo at nearby Edinburgh Castle. The explosions of the fireworks in the sudden darkness made an evocative background for the tales.

I’ve been to talks about very big topics – racism, ecology; saving lives in war zones; the unfairness with which women have to contend. It’s easy to feel that one’s own topic, music, is small in comparison. How can I expect people to be interested in a talk about playing the piano when they could be learning about the plight of refugees or the threat to democracy?

Yet I know that music, and great art in general, plays an important role in helping people to make sense of their experiences. In a world boiling with challenges, most of us feel a need to create some space where we can digest and reflect upon our daily lives – and music can meet this need so wonderfully.

My talk at the BookFest is on Tuesday 13 August at 8.45pm.

NYO Dress Code – then and now

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 August 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

The marvellous National Youth Orchestra Prom concert with Nicola Benedetti last week has set me reminiscing about my time in the NYO (in the photo, I have long fair hair and am just to the left of the middle of the group, playing 2nd violin.)

Watching the NYO Prom on television, I realised that the dress code has relaxed. Today’s young women are clearly allowed to wear a variety of concert outfits – sleeveless, plunge necklines, and so on. But in my day, girls had to wear long-sleeved white ‘school blouses’, respectably buttoned, and dark skirts of a regulation length for concerts. The NYO had no truck with mini-skirts, then the height of fashion. If skirts were deemed by the ‘housemistresses’ to be too short, the hems were let down. I still remember the outrage of one glamorous mini-skirt owner (now an eminent professor) when she returned from a rehearsal to find one of her skirts lengthened.

Worst of all from my point of view was the rule on hair-washing. I was a teenager whose hair became greasy after just one day. At home, I washed it every day. Imagine my horror when the NYO  dictated that ‘you should wash your hair before coming to the course, because there will be no opportunity to wash it during the week.’

Disaster! I knew a week of greasy hair would ruin my life, so I became a guerrilla hair-washer, creeping out of the dorm after ‘lights out’ to wash my hair in the darkness of the communal washroom, then going to bed with wet hair to avoid making any noise. Occasionally a housemistress would find me and scold me, but usually by that time my hair was clean and I could face a telling-off.

Funnily enough, we accepted most of this as being just ‘how things were’. I absolutely loved being in the NYO. Apart from the memory of going to bed with wet hair, I have nothing but happy recollections of my time in the orchestra.

Edinburgh International Book Festival event

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 July 2019 under Books  •  5 Comments

As August approaches, Edinburgh is suddenly full of posters advertising the thousands of Festival and Fringe events about to be unleashed upon us. You can feel the city is about to overflow with visitors.

One of the most popular of the several festivals which co-exist in the city in August is the Book Festival which takes over Charlotte Square and a portion of George St with an array of pop-up venues and an intense programme of events more or less on the hour, every hour for two weeks.

This year both Bob and I have been invited to speak about our latest books. His talk is on orchestral music, and he’s preparing recorded examples to illustrate his points. Mine is largely about piano music and I’d like to be able to play some live examples.

Because of the practical difficulties and expense of putting an acoustic piano in a tent for an hour, I’m going to use a digital piano. With some reservation though – I don’t consider myself an expert on the digital piano, and I’m not sure it quite conveys the beauty of the 18th and 19th century music I want to play. But live music is better than no music, so I’ll do my best.

It may not be widely realised that the digital piano works in a different way from the acoustic one. On the digital piano, each note is the recording of an individual note. A chord of several notes is basically the simultaneous playing of several recordings of individual notes which know nothing of each other.

On the acoustic piano, where there are steel strings that resonate when the hammer strikes them, the strings vibrate in sympathy with one another, especially if the note being struck is closely related to them on the harmonic series. If you press down the sustaining (‘loud’) pedal, which lifts all the dampers, every string is free to resonate with any other. This produces sympathetic resonances which contribute to the complexity of piano sound, and can be used by the pianist to enhance its beauty. If you are used to that sound it is very disconcerting to play a piano which doesn’t offer it. The digital piano has many advantages, and is developing all the time, but currently it doesn’t match the classic sonority of the traditional grand.

Putting fuel in the tank

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 July 2019 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

After a recent concert a member of the audience was telling me how much she’d enjoyed it. ‘I always say it’s great to hear top professionals playing, because it’s only when people have really mastered the notes that they can think about how music communicates’, she said.

Actually, I feel sad when I hear people say things like this. To my way of thinking, too many people condemn themselves to spend too long practising ‘the notes’ routinely without realising that right from the beginning they can think about the music’s mood, character, and how it communicates.

Even when you begin to learn a piece, you can wonder what inspired the composer to put pen to paper, and how they hoped you might bring their music to life. Instead of putting your fingers down mechanically on the keys, you can touch the keys with the intention of creating a mood and a sound to go with it – dreamy, perhaps, or cheerful;  dance-like, songful or energetic. You can look ahead, get an idea of the whole piece and ask yourself what sort of shape it has.

On the simplest level, a lot of pieces have an A-B-A structure. An opening section is followed by a contrasting middle section, and then the first section returns. It’s very helpful to ask yourself: does the opening material feel different when it returns? If so, how can you play it so that the change of atmosphere comes across?

It’s a mistake to tell yourself that you can’t think about music until you’ve practised the notes a thousand times. Things will go more quickly if you let your imagination be involved from the very beginning. Otherwise, it’s like trying to drive a car with no fuel in the tank.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 July 2019 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Last week I had the opportunity to sit at the side of a church and watch the faces of the audience as they listened to a wonderful concert. It was interesting to observe the array of expressions, some clearly related to the music, others not. I saw people who were:

Transfixed, taken out of themselves

Mutinous, wishing not to have to be there

Eyes closed, smiling, grateful for this respite

Uncomfortable, glancing around for clues as to how to behave

Leaning forward, keenly observing the interchange between the players

Fidgety, not even trying to listen

Solemn, watchful

Awkward, slightly shamefaced, as if embarrassed by the beauty of music

Sunk in thought, using the music as soundtrack to some inner narrative

Faces upturned as if waiting for rain

When you’re one of the players, you often hope to produce a
certain effect on your listeners, but sometimes it’s good to be
reminded how little control you have over the audience’s reaction.