Getting up early for a flower

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 June 2009 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

the rose I got up to see

the rose I got up to see

When I was a student, I had a friend whose mother was a keen gardener. She was a pianist too, so I felt she was a kindred spirit. In the holidays I sometimes went to stay with the family for a few days.

One day my friend said to me, ‘You know, my mother actually got up early today because she had a feeling that a certain flower was going to open this morning in the garden. She said she didn’t want to miss it. Can you believe that?’ We thought it was incredibly sweet, but also incomprehensible. How could anyone actually think that flowers were important enough to get up early for? Clearly the only things that were important were: who was in love with whom, who got what in their exam results, and how we were going get through the summer on a very limited budget. Getting out of bed for a flower was not part of our world-view.

Yet recently I have found myself going out early into the garden on several occasions to see if a particular flower has opened, and to photograph it if it has. I seem to have turned into that kind of person. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis!

Writing in the recession

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 June 2009 under Books, Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

The Author, the newsletter of the Society of Authors, has just dropped on to the doormat. It’s full of doom and gloom about the effects of the recession on writers, particularly freelance writers. Fewer reviews are being commissioned by newspapers. Rates of pay have been cut. Editors are looking to produce the material they need with ‘in-house’ staff writers so that they don’t have to spend any additional money on freelance contributions. Freelancers are treated rudely and insensitively. Publishers are turning down any book which doesn’t look certain to make money. The ‘succès d’estime’ is now a luxury they can only afford when times are good. One of the newsletter writers commented sadly that if you know any young people considering a literary career, this might be the time to dissuade them.

I’ve experienced all the problems they listed, and all in the past half year. It was almost a relief to hear that it wasn’t just me. But what to do? Setting up one’s own website feels like a constructive step. At least you can publish what you want without waiting months for someone to say yes. It’s fun and satisfying to have your own channel of communication. But publishing your thoughts on your own website can never be an alternative source of income – at least not until someone works out a way of making money from online self-publishing, and that day is clearly a way off.

Pill-popping for cats

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 June 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

water tastes better from the tap

water tastes better from the tap

Our cat is having treatment, and needs a pill every day or two. She’s always hated us giving her pills, so we usually ask the vet to do it. But now that pill-giving has become so frequent, we have to do it ourselves – preferably without chasing the cat round the house and wrestling her into submission. As the vet said, this isn’t good for anyone’s blood pressure.

He suggested tucking the pill into the cat’s favourite food. So we ground the pill and mixed it into her chicken with jelly, but she seemed to smell it, and left that portion untouched. Then we tried to conceal the pill inside something irresistible. We hid one inside a tiny lump of Cheddar cheese, on which the cat is quite keen. This worked for a little while, but then she got bored and wouldn’t eat Cheddar any more. One inspired day we tried Wensleydale with cranberries. Success! Our cat loved cheese with fruit. So we fed her fruity cheese until she discovered how to eat carefully around the pill, spitting it delicately into her bowl.

Next we tried wrapping the pill in thinly-sliced meats. The cat could take or leave (mostly leave) ham and salami, but she adored Spanish chorizo. That worked fine until chorizo became yesterday’s craze. When we went on holiday, our neighbours took over and reported that they’d had great success with pills enrobed in scraps of smoked salmon. However, we don’t often have smoked salmon in the house, so we reverted to Wensleydale, only to find that the cat had lost her taste for cranberries.

A bit of trial and error established that she had upgraded to white Stilton with apricots. But eventually that preference faded too. Then a friend suggested grinding up the pill with Marmite and butter, and letting the cat lick the gruesome paste off the back of a spoon, which she did with glee. But now in the hot weather she seems to find it disgusting. Where next in the journey round our store cupboard?

Eye of the Beholder

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 June 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio, Musings  •  2 Comments

the grass is always greener ...

the grass is always greener ...

It’s now a week since the Florestan Festival ended, and lots of people have been kind enough to write and say what they thought of it. One thing is very interesting: there’s enormous variety in what people enjoyed best. Some relished the things which were new for them, others treasured the old. Some liked things involving guest artists, others not. There was great dissent about the Beethoven Symphony which we performed in the version for piano trio (and about which I wrote beforehand in the Guardian); some loved the trio version, others thought it was pointless. A wide range of individual pieces were singled out as ‘the highlight’ of the festival. It all confirms that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I first really took this on board during the semester I spent with my group Domus at the Banff Centre in Canada. This wonderful inter-arts institution in the Rocky Mountains was the first place we encountered which employed a roster of visiting artists. Every week, different people would appear to give masterclasses. You could ask to have a lesson from a visiting pianist, string player or wind player, but also from a playwright or a painter or a potter – or from a fellow student.

We were playing well and feeling secure about our group, so we sought as many opinions as possible. And they all said different things. This may not seem surprising to the casual reader, but most young musicians have studied for a long time with a single teacher whose opinion comes to seem like the only legitimate one. It therefore came as a refreshing blast to hear that different things were important to different people. I don’t mean to imply that the views of a single teacher are of limited value; goodness knows it’s the focus and persistence of individual teachers which pulls most players through their adolescence and enables them to become accomplished performers. I just mean that when your playing is advanced enough, and you are open-minded, it can be wonderfully liberating to realise that there are facets of your approach which will inevitably appeal to someone.

Listening to Art Tatum

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 June 2009 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings  •  1 Comment

Bob has been writing about Art Tatum, the great American jazz pianist of the 1930s and 40s. Bob managed to find some transcriptions of Tatum’s piano solos in the library, and has been listening to Tatum’s recordings of those very pieces, comparing the recording with the transcription. I listened too because I’ve long been a fan of Tatum’s.

Tatum was blind, or virtually blind. One might think that this made it harder to play the piano fast and accurately. Yet his piano technique is defined by something very rare: a sense of absolute security in the way he moves about the keys. I’ve often wondered whether his sureness of touch was because of, and not despite, his blindness. Most pianists occasionally stumble over notes, and it may be because their faculty of sight is mis-applied for a split second. They forget to look at the keys and miss a jump, or they look in the wrong direction at a moment when they’re used to locating a particular note by sight before they play it. They know where notes are partly by sight and partly by ear. When they take their eyes off the keys, one of these steering devices is lost, leaving them momentarily rudderless.

Art Tatum, on the other hand, couldn’t use sight to find his way about the keyboard. He seemed to possess an exact and detailed internal map of the piano’s geography. Everyone who saw him play said that he moved very little, keeping his body still and just moving his hands about the keyboard, so fast that even high-flying pianists were bemused. His fast runs are still dazzling to listen to, and not just because we know they were improvised; it’s because of the mesmerising assurance of his touch. When you hear Tatum play, you get the feeling that he doesn’t have to calculate or measure where the notes are; he just knows. His technique is fundamentally different to that of most sighted pianists.

An interesting comparison can be made with the 20-year-old blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii who has just won joint first prize in the Van Cliburn piano competition. At the piano, he too has a rare security which is stunning to watch.