‘She taught me that every step has meaning’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 December 2020 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

The other day I was listening to a ballet dancer reminiscing on radio about the time when, as a girl, she took part in a ballet masterclass given by Dame Margot Fonteyn. Dame Margot, it seems, was more terrifying in person than the students had expected. ‘She hardly smiled at all during the class’. But clearly the experience left an impact: ‘She taught me that every step has meaning’, the dancer said reverently.

It struck me that the same idea permeated the performance masterclasses I took as a student. The idea that every note or phrase has meaning was inspiring. Music didn’t just sound lovely. It wasn’t just a relaxing chance for the audience to let its mind wander. It wasn’t just an opportunity for the performer to show off their dexterity. Music had the potential to be more than that: in performance, it could build something in front of you, leading from one note or phrase to the next with the irresistible logic and momentum of your favourite story or poem.

If you let your mind wander when playing, you might find that muscle memory would carry you through to the end, but your performance would be superficial – and strangely unsatisfying. If you paid attention, however, listening to every note and what it was trying to say, you would find ways of linking the phrases which passed beyond pleasant melody into the realm of making sense, to you and to your listeners too. This was hard to achieve, but wonderful when you managed it.

Today, we live in an atmosphere of instant-reaction, disposable culture. We’re all swept up in the latest sensation to explode on social media. Celebrity doesn’t need to be earned. Mega-selling pop groups are put together by marketing experts who select for looks, attitudes, back stories. Visual appeal can be more important than content. Skill is not enough – sometimes not even a minimum requirement.

However, if you are in it for the long haul, you need something that will make your work feel satisfying when you’re on your own, practising your instrument day after day, year after year. For me, a big part of that motivation is the feeling that there is a tale to be told by the music, an argument to be constructed, a journey to be depicted. Step by step, travelling towards meaning.

‘Zonal Attachment’ for Musicians

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 November 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

I was half-listening to the radio this morning when they were talking about fishing rights. The concept of ‘zonal attachment’ was being explained. I learned that this was a new and scientific way of approaching the issue of fishing rights. Fish move around; from year to year their favourite locations may change. Therefore, instead of assuming that fish are going to be where they have always been, it makes more sense to do annual surveys of where they actually are, and divide up access accordingly.

I started wondering if this concept could be useful in the music world. It often seems as if we go to play concerts in places where there used to be good audiences, taking no account of the fact that things may have changed. Conversely, we don’t go and play in places where it might be the perfect moment to visit because, for example, they’ve been undertaking a brilliant regional programme of music education.

I still remember with pain an occasion some years ago when I drove for several hours through driving rain to do a solo recital for a music society. The correspondence leading up to the concert had been entirely normal. I got there and did my on-stage rehearsal. Shortly before the concert, the organiser popped her head around the dressing-room door and said to me in a subdued tone, ‘I just wanted to say: don’t be surprised if we don’t get much of an audience tonight. Our membership has declined steeply in the past few years, I’m afraid.’

‘How many people do you expect we might get?’ I asked with sinking heart. ‘Maybe forty?’ she replied.

And so it was. There were around 40 people, spread out in ones and twos throughout the building as if they didn’t know one another (and this was long before the age of social distancing). Now, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy playing to them. But had a ‘zonal attachment’ survey indicated that there were few classical music-lovers swimming around in that area that year, I might have at least waited until I had several concerts around there, to make more sense of the journey.

Of course, if a zonal attachment survey showed that there were huge numbers of music-lovers all clustered in the same place, there would have to be some sort of quota system allocating musicians the right to play to them during the season. But that might work rather well. At least it would guarantee that all sorts of musicians would have their turn on the platform.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 November 2020 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

One positive aspect of this year’s lockdowns has been seeing more wildlife in the city’s green spaces. Earlier in the year, when there was very little traffic, animals seemed to pluck up courage to venture on to the quiet golf courses, parks and hillsides. We saw lots of deer, frogs, and horses who seemed keen to have a chat over the fence. Lots of unusual birds too – or perhaps I was just watching with more attention. Thrushes, whitethroats, stonechats, warblers of various kinds sang in the woods. Sanderlings, oystercatchers, cormorants fished off Portobello beach. Red kites and buzzards swooped above the Braid Hills.

My favourite discovery was that otters had come to live in one of the lochs [loch = lake] in Holyrood Park. Walking there one day, we saw a cameraman with a long lens trained on something distant, and asked him what he was watching for. ‘An otter!’ he replied. As far as I know, otters have not been seen in that loch before, or at least I had never heard of one. But suddenly there was an otter, turning circles calmly in the water, undisturbed by his fan club gathering on the bank. I thought otters were nocturnal and extremely shy, but this otter seemed not to know the rules.

We have seen him (see photo) a number of times now. He isn’t always there – on the one occasion we dragged a friend up there to see the otter, the loch was still and quiet (of course). But yesterday we saw two otters – a big one and a small one. Passing walkers alleged that there are three, though it would be an incredible stroke of luck to see them all at once. Two otters felt like a gift.

I have always liked otters – doesn’t everyone? – but I’ve had a feeling of special kinship to them ever since I was a student, when some friends on a music course played a game of ‘Which animal would so-and-so be if they were an animal?’ When it was my turn to be transformed, someone proposed that I would be an otter, and everyone laughed and clapped. I didn’t dare ask for an explanation, but just decided to accept my otter-ish fate.

Edvard Grieg and Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 November 2020 under Daily Life, Musings  •  9 Comments

It’s been a turbulent week, and I have found some distraction in playing through a volume of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. I’ve always liked them, though I admit I knew only the more famous pieces, and only recently discovered that there are many more – all worth getting to know.

The first set, opus 12, contains a little piece called ‘Watchman’s Song’, over which Grieg noted that it was written after seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Over the middle section, Grieg wrote ‘Spirits of the Night’. Which would lead us to expect something atmospheric and scary – wouldn’t it?

Actually, the Watchman’s Song consists of two verses of a tranquil hymn in E major, separated by a short ‘intermezzo’ of gently rippling arpeggios and distant fanfares. ‘Spirits of the Night’ seems too bold a stage direction for a few bars arousing the merest hint of unease.

It’s quite amusing to wonder what would happen if you gave the ‘Watchman’s Song’ to someone who knew nothing of Macbeth and asked them to imagine what sort of play this represented…!

All of which raises some interesting questions. First of all, I suppose one would have to ask what sort of production Grieg had seen, and how it affected him. We know he saw the version of Macbeth devised by the German playwright Schiller. Surely this conveyed all the tragic and fateful qualities of the original. Yet the play, whose sinister atmosphere has provoked long-lasting superstitions in the theatre world, seems not to have ruffled Grieg’s feelings. So perhaps it was a terrible performance? It’s hard to imagine that one could see Macbeth and come out with nothing more than the desire to write a cheery little tune for the watchman. Or was Grieg was so terrified that the watchman was the only character he could bear to describe?

Anyway, what watchman? To my recollection, there isn’t a watchman in Macbeth, at least not named as such. There’s a porter, who diverts proceedings by telling the audience how he imagines being the doorman at the gate of hell. There’s a messenger who comes to Dunsinane to tell Macbeth that he thinks he saw ‘a moving grove’ coming towards the castle. Is one of these the watchman? Or did Schiller perhaps put one in? If so, why was he the character who stuck in Grieg’s mind? And what about the ‘spirits of the night’ – did they not inspire any terror?

It can’t be that Grieg lacked imagination, because many of his Lyric Pieces are beautiful little cameos conjuring up all sorts of delicate emotions. How intriguing it would have been to hear his take on the Witches, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, or the drunken Porter!

Grieg’s family emigrated to Norway from Scotland – the family surname originally having been spelled Greig, as is the custom in Scotland. Funnily enough, in 2010 the Scottish contemporary playwright David Greig wrote a play called Dunsinane –  a kind of sequel to Macbeth. So the play links Grieg and Greig – perhaps they have a connection?

Musicians fighting for their jobs in an age of recorded music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 October 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

At last there is more commentary about the challenges facing freelance artists. Yesterday there was a strongly-worded cry for help in The Observer from several leading musicians, warning that if the UK’s musicians are not supported, we could lose them for ever.

I have still seen no explanation of why self-employed people are being so poorly treated compared with employees. It seems morally indefensible.

As I pondered the article, it occurred to me that many people must read such things and think, ‘Well, does it really matter if lots of musicians turn their back on the profession? There’s so much recorded music in the archives already. We wouldn’t run out for years and years. And lots of it is free!’

There are dedicated concert-goers who would be devastated if live concerts dwindled away, but they must be a minority compared with those whose musical tastes are fed exclusively by recorded music on YouTube, Spotify and all the rest of it. For them, the prospect of fewer live concerts probably doesn’t cause them anxiety.

The era of recorded music is little more than a century old, but has affected our attitudes profoundly. If this pandemic had occurred in, say, the mid-19th century, people’s reactions to hearing that musicians were abandoning the profession would be entirely different. At that time, you could only hear music if you played it yourself, or if someone was playing it in your presence.

If some major crisis caused all the musicians in your town to give up their jobs, you might never again hear those symphonies, those string quartets, those lovely songs, those exciting concertos with orchestra, those Chopin piano pieces you can’t play yourself. There would be no music at your wedding, your birthday or your Christmas party. Unless you or your friends could provide it, music would disappear from your life.

Today, recorded music is with us all day long. It’s the soundtrack of our shopping trips, our visits to cafes, our waiting rooms, our TV programmes. I have friends who swear that nothing will ever take the place of a live concert in their lives, but I also know plenty of people who would shrug their shoulders at the prospect of fewer musicians, because subtracting live music from their lives wouldn’t change much about their  listening habits. They would just put on their headphones and press ‘play’.

It’s ironic that most concert halls are closed at the moment, because this would be the perfect time for people to go to concerts and discover the pleasure, interest and solace of being in the presence of music as it comes alive in the hands of skilled musicians, connecting us to other dimensions.