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?

London Piano Festival pianists

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 October 2019 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

Phew! That was indeed a two-piano marathon at the London Piano Festival. Looking tired but happy after the three-hour concert last Saturday night in King’s Place are, from left to right, Christian Ihle Hadland, Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen (co-directors of the festival), Susan Tomes, Tim Horton.

Thanks to Viktor Erik Emmanuel for this photo, a nice souvenir of a lovely event and a rare chance to work and socialise with fellow pianists.


The male hand as default …?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 October 2019 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

At the Edinburgh Book Festival I went to hear Caroline Criado Perez talk about her book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men‘. The book has just won the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

The book’s mission is simple but profoundly thought-provoking: it aims to make us aware of how many things are designed with the male user as the default. The size of mobile phones; the height of seatbelts in cars; car crash dummies used in safety testing which are based on the height and weight of the average man; heart attack symptoms which may be missed in women because their heart attack symptoms are different from men’s; technology which doesn’t respond properly to the higher-pitched female voice; the design of toilets in public buildings; the placing of high shelves in supermarkets, or of high straps for passengers to hold onto on the subway …. the list is long. Once you’ve heard the author talking about this, you start to see examples everywhere.

So the other day I was learning some piano music, trying to follow the fingering devised by the editor. Some composers suggest their own fingering. Many don’t, and it’s customary for publishers to employ an editor (often a well-known pianist) to devise a fingering, which is printed in the published score and treated as gospel by generations of amateur pianists.

Once again I was thinking that the printed fingering didn’t really suit my small hand and that I’d need to find a different solution.

And suddenly it dawned on me: piano fingering is probably another example of Caroline Criado Perez’s theory. The ‘default’ composer is male; male editors have been the default, and the male hand is likely to have been the standard.

Now, I realise that there are men with small hands and women with large ones. Nevertheless it must be true that the average male hand is bigger and stronger than the average female’s, and has a wider stretch. I am sure editors do their best to find a fingering that works for ‘the average hand’, but I somehow doubt that many of them have taken the time to consult female pianists about how comfortable the fingerings are for them. Yes, I’m pretty sure that the male hand is the default.

Claude Debussy was right: ‘Cherchons nos doigtés!’ Let us find our own fingerings!