In the pocket of the music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 October 2021 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

The autumn season of Strictly Come Dancing is under way and this year the judges seem inclined to give us a bit more insight into what they are looking for. I have enjoyed learning more about posture, weight, inside edges, head position, arm extensions, ‘spotting’ ( a technique to stop yourself getting giddy when spinning), being aware of one’s partner even when they are not in one’s sightline, and so on.

I always enjoy it when judges speak about musicality because of the different ways they do it. Sometimes they say that one dancer ‘is musical’, while another ‘has musicality’. They talk about being ‘on the beat’ and dancing ‘to the beat’. They talk about staying with the beat and listening to the music.

On Saturday night, judge Shirley Ballas told one contestant that he was ‘in the pocket of the music’. This I particularly liked. In this image, it was obvious that the music must be the leader, while the dancer is effortlessly carried along.

When judges speaks of keeping to the beat or listening to the music, there’s just a suggestion (conveyed by that little word ‘to’) that the dancer and the music are separate things. It’s as if the dancer perceives the music as being something outside themselves, something they must attempt to glue themselves on to. As it happens, this year’s remaining dancers are all very musical, but in previous years we’ve often seen dancers reaching for the beat as though it were something distant.

Being ‘in the pocket of the music’ conveys the idea that dancer and music are combined. When it happens, this is easy to see. No longer does one feel that the dancer is striving to keep to the beat. Instead it feels as if the dancer is expressing the beat.  Subtle distinctions, but we know them when we see them.

Review of my piano book on David Barton Music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 October 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

Another nice review of The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces, this time on David Barton Music, the website of an educator and researcher.

He begins with a description of the book’s contents – and here’s how he sums up:

‘Tomes explores each selected piece in turn, placing it within a historical, cultural and musical context. Whilst reference is made to the musical components of each work, this isn’t an analytical volume. It’s an absorbing, and often surprising, read. It’s easy to lose yourself in Tomes’ compelling and personal writing. Perhaps one of the book’s greatest assets is that it is very much written from the hand of an experienced pianist. Tomes knows many, if not all of these works intimately.

‘Whilst its primary audience is pianists, musicians and those interested in the great repertoire of the piano, it should also be of great historical and wider cultural interest. This is a book about music, and indeed the piano itself, in context.

‘To complement the book, Susan Tomes has curated a Spotify playlist which you can access here.

‘I want to also make special mention of the beautiful cover design for the book which makes it both modern and eye-catching.’


The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces by Susan Tomes, is published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300253924, RRP £16.99.

Playing without effort

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 October 2021 under Musings  •  1 Comment

I’m playing through the whole volume of Mozart sonatas again. The other day I came to the B flat Sonata K333. This has difficult associations for me because I learned it for one of those endless exams one always seems to be taking in teenage years – I can’t now remember if it was for A-levels, a scholarship audition, a competition, a diploma exam or whatever.

Anyway, I always found it hard. At this period of his life, Mozart seemed to enjoy writing virtuosically for the piano and the fingering of certain passages in K333 is very tricky. I remember stumbling over them as a teenager, particularly under exam conditions. As with many passages one has learned to fear, it’s all too easy to tense up when you approach them in performance. I remember feeling so frustrated with myself.

But the other day, playing the sonata at home, I sailed through those passages with perfect ease even though I hadn’t looked at them for a while and had done no work on them.

Perhaps that was the key: there was no work. I wasn’t tense, I hadn’t wrestled with them beforehand, and no teacher was leaning forward to write ‘Practise!!’ on my sheet music. I was able to sidestep the feeling of effort, get into the flow, and just enjoy the shape and direction of the whole phrase, in which individual notes play a non-starring role.

It’s not exactly that my technique is better than it was when I was a teenager –  rather, I now understand better how not to get over-involved. I’m more able to sit back, glance at the fingering and trust my hands to find their way. And they do!

A friend of mine, given to sending me inspiring messages out of the blue, recently texted me, ‘We are so lucky to know the meaning of a long phrase.’ It’s true – seeing the long phrase can free us from over-focusing on a mass of detail.

Continual assessment

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 October 2021 under Concerts, Musings, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

A friend of mine has been musing on this question:

How many other professionals are subjected to continual public assessment the way musicians are?

For a long time, musicians have put up with being publicly reviewed because good reviews can bring them quickly to the attention of ‘movers and shakers’ around the world. At least, this used to be the case when classical music was in a healthier state and there were more concert series, clubs, festivals and radio programmes functioning as potential employers.

A successful concert, praised by a respected critic, could trigger an array of invitations to perform elsewhere. Freelance musicians relied on this mysterious but lively network. The effect has faded in recent years, as the strength of the classical music scene has weakened. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that a five-star review may now be a stand-alone event, not the start of a ripple effect.

When you think about it, there can’t be many professions where your work is described, assessed and judgement passed in the pages of national newspapers. Most people, once trained, can rely on going about their business in peace unless something goes drastically wrong. Actors have to put up with reviews as well, of course, but musicians are perhaps uniquely burdened by the existence of 100 years of recordings, mostly edited to within an inch of their lives to diguise, correct and eliminate flaws.

Now that recorded music is so easily accessible and everyone has their own playlists, a lot of repertoire has become fixed in people’s minds in famous interpretations. The standard of performance on record has become the marker that live musicians must match and try to surpass, even when tired or stressed. In the past, before recordings, audiences were much more open-minded about what pleased them.

In the music world, continual assessment goes on right through one’s career (though as my friend said, there’s no compensation in the form of high fees – not in the classical field anyway). There never seems to be a point where an individual musician can rest easy, rising above the chatter.  You’re only as good as your last performance; if an artist has an off-day, commentators – professional or otherwise – will point it out. How many other jobs are subjected to such scrutiny?

‘Gramophone’ review of my book

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 October 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

The October issue of the venerable Gramophone magazine has a review of my new book.
I reproduce some of it here as the magazine is behind a paywall.

The reviewer, Jeremy Nicholas, has quibbles about my choice of pieces, wondering why I included this and not that, but he goes on to say:

‘If one ignores the lopsided selection, what we have here is a genuinely inspiring and rewarding study. It is like reading a series of extremely informative, revealing and entertaining CD booklets. Tomes writes like a dream and with such elegance, her erudition worn so lightly and her ‘insider knowledge’ dispensed so generously, that even those with a minimal interest in the subject must want to share this journey with her.

‘Perhaps her most important gift is to make the reader stop reading and go and listen to (or physically play) the music she is writing about. Whether she is introducing someone to a work, reminding someone else of an old favourite or waxing lyrical about a particular moment or passage in a piece, Tomes’ glowing affection and profound appreciation of the music are never less than stimulating. Here she is on the opening of Brahms’s D minor Concerto, having set the work in the context of Brahms’s career: ‘The piece begins with a stormy and defiant orchestral episode, almost like the first scene of an opera. When the soloist enters, it is as thought a curtain has risen to reveal the main character sitting at a window, lost in thought.’ Spot on. I shall never be able to listen to that passage again without that image in my mind. And I wager you will now stop reading this review to go and play that particular section to see if you agree.

‘There is not a single chapter that does not engage the reader in this way (Tomes even managed to mitigate my lifelong disdain for the music of John Cage) though I was dismayed to learn that Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant is now viewed by some people as ‘insensitive’ (apparently, it’s a ‘parody of French colonialism’) and ‘makes uncomfortable reading’.

‘As an introduction for the newcomer wanting to get a satisfactory overview of the development of the piano’s repertoire, there is no other book that tackles the subject in quite the same way; the novice will come away none the wiser that the music selection is so subjective. Seasoned pianophiles will learn much and relish the little asides and anecdotes with which Tomes peppers her prose. Finally, I would urge readers to study the last chapter entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World – Where is Piano Music Heading?’ from which I learned much. It has, like much of the rest of the book, helped to open my ears.’

Gramophone, Oct 2021