Paperback edition of ‘The Piano’ comes out today in the UK

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 October 2022 under Musings  •  1 Comment

The paperback version of my book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces comes out today in the UK. (It comes out in the US on November 29.)

One can’t take it for granted that a hardback non-fiction book will go into paperback, so I’m grateful to Yale University Press for this mark of confidence.

You’ll remember that the hardback edition has a lovely pink, blue and cream cover design referencing the layout of the piano keyboard. The paperback cover keeps the ‘keyboard’ motif, but goes for a smart, handsome new design with darker colours. The contents of the book are the same, but excerpts from reviews have been added to the opening pages.

I hope the paperback edition will bring the book to the attention of a new readership – and in time to consider it as a Christmas present for the piano-lovers in your life.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s view of the Scottish temperament

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 October 2022 under Books, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits, published in 1887. RLS, as he’s often referred to, is famous for Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and a few others, though in my local library the collected edition of his works runs to 25 volumes.

RLS grew up in Edinburgh, as I did. For the sake of his health he later travelled and lived overseas, but the experience of growing up in Scotland in the mid-19th century left a deep impact on him. In Memories and Portraits he writes about the Scottish temperament.

There’s a kind of lazy belief that Scots are reserved and taciturn compared with the English. Yet that’s not how RLS saw it. He thought the Scots – at all levels of society – were more willing to give of themselves in conversation. And actually that matches my own experience of living in both countries.

‘The first shock of English society is like a cold plunge’, he writes. ‘It is possible that the Scot comes looking for too much, and to be sure his first experiment will be in the wrong direction. Yet surely his complaint is grounded; surely the speech of Englishmen is too often lacking in generous ardour, the better part of the man too often withheld from the social commerce, and the contact of mind with mind evaded as with terror. [my italics]

‘A Scotch peasant will talk more liberally out of his own experience. He will not put you by with conversational counters and small jests; he will give you the best of himself, like one interested in life and man’s chief end. A Scotchman is vain, interested in himself and others, eager for sympathy, setting forth his thoughts and experience in the best light.

‘The ego of the Englishman is self-contained. He does not seek to proselytise. He takes no interest in Scotland or the Scotch, and, what is the unkindest cut of all, he does not care to justify his indifference. Give him the wages of going on and being an Englishman, that is all he asks; and in the meantime, while you continue to associate, he would rather not be reminded of your baser origin. … That you should continually try to establish human and serious relations, that you should actually feel an interest in John Bull, and desire and invite a return of interest from him, may argue something more awake and lively in your mind, but it still puts you in the attitude of a suitor and a poor relation.’

RLS was writing 135 years ago, but many of his remarks still ring true to a fellow Scot – to this one, anyway.

BBC Young Musician – tonight’s Final

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 October 2022 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

BBC Young Musician 2022 reaches its climax tonight when the winners of five categories – strings, wind, brass, percussion and piano – compete to be crowned ‘BBC Young Musician of the Year’. The competition is on BBC4 at 7pm.

I think if it were up to me, I’d stop at the point where I had five winners of different instrumental categories. I’d make sure they all had concerts, mentoring, whatever they felt they needed at that stage. Because there’s always something faintly absurd about trying to find ‘the best’ from such an array of talent. Best at what? Mastering the instrument, communicating with the audience, inventive programming? The most charismatic? The most touching?

It’s a bit like trying to adjudicate between five kinds of fruit: apple, blueberry, watermelon, banana, strawberry. Which is ‘best’? It depends on what you’re after – something with crunch and tang, something tiny and sweet, something filling, something refreshing? What seems best on one occasion may not be best on another.

I have been watching BBC Young Musician for years and, although occasionally there’s a shining star, I’ve often been left feeling that ‘the winner’ could just as well have been one of the others. Yes, so-and-so was brilliant, but what about the others, admirable in different ways, some of which happened to appeal more to me?

Having experience of being on juries, I have some insight into why competitions persevere with the ‘winner takes all’ formula. I can recall several occasions in international competitions where the organiser began by imploring the jury to come up with A Winner. There had been a spate of competitions which reached the end with the dreaded result ‘First Prize not awarded’. The jury didn’t feel that anyone had met the international standards they were looking for. So they withheld the first prize.

But organisers also have their sponsors to think about. Sponsors hate it when a first prize is not awarded. In fact, they may threaten to withdraw their money if there isn’t a winner. Sponsors want to be associated with success. They don’t want to feel they’re wasting money on a competition which ‘falls short of international standards’. So the organisers begged us: whatever the standard that particular year, could we please simply award the first prize to whoever got the highest marks? Obviously this raises lots of questions, to which there are no perfect answers.

At the Wigtown Book Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 October 2022 under Books, Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  5 Comments

On Saturday, I appeared at the Wigtown Book Festival in Dumfries and Galloway in the west of Scotland (see photo of me being interviewed by Stuart Kelly).

Wigtown is Scotland’s ‘national book town’, boasting an astonishing number of bookshops for a small town which is difficult to get to. Yet as several people pointed out, transport links to that part of the country were actually better in Victorian times. That’s one reason why ‘the Glasgow boys’ used to come down in the 1880s to paint in the lovely Galloway light, because the area was easy to reach on the train from Glasgow.

On my first day in Wigtown I popped into a cafe. A man at the next table recognised me and came over to tell me that he had read all my books. All my books! I’m not sure that such a thing has ever happened to me before, not outside a small circle of friends. Yes, it was a book festival, but it still seemed amazing.

Not only had this nice man read all my books, but he also remembered coming to a concert of mine about 20 years ago. I had played a Schubert piano sonata, and introduced it beforehand.

In my introduction, I had explained (he said) that after telling them a bit about the piece, I was going to go offstage for a few moments before returning to play the sonata. I said it could be stressful to speak to the audience and then immediately sit down and play. Something weird happens in your brain when you have to turn from public speaking to playing music without a moment to collect your thoughts while nobody is looking at you. You can feel quite jangled.

Evidently I had added, ‘Imagine an actor who’s about to play the role of Hamlet. He steps forward to tell the audience a bit about the play before it begins. He would naturally then go offstage and ‘get into character’ before re-appearing as Hamlet. It would be jarring for everyone if he finished his introduction and then strolled onto the stage set without a break in which we could forget that he was an actor and get ready to believe in him as Hamlet. In a similar way, I need a quiet moment to become the performer’.

Rather a good thing to say, actually, I felt on hearing it relayed back to me after an interval of many years. Yet I had only a faint recollection of saying it, while someone in the audience could recall it in detail. Memory is so complicated!


A reunion dinner and some old neighbours

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 September 2022 under Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

In our student days, those of us studying music (and in fact anyone who wanted to continue their piano studies) were allowed to hire upright pianos and put them in our rooms. Not infrequently there were two or more people on the staircase with pianos in their rooms – I remember one year when I and another pianist had ground floor rooms across the corridor from one another. My piano-playing neighbour was actually studying philosophy, but he was a very good pianist who practised more than I did.

On our staircase there were four other rooms. Not only did the other residents never complain about the piano-playing, but they used to say that they enjoyed hearing this or that.

I had forgotten about all that until last week’s dinner when a couple of people spoke to me and recalled that they used to like coming back from lectures or the lab and hearing me playing Debussy or Ravel, my big favourites at the time. One person even said that when certain pieces pop up on the radio these days, they bring back happy memories of sitting with a book on the grass outside my window, piano music weaving in and out of his thoughts.

Wow, I was lucky with my neighbours! I didn’t realise it at the time. Of course, we were all students together. Mutual tolerance was the order of the day.

The topic of ‘neighbour nuisance’ is a lively one these days – lots of people have told me, in comments on my blog, how annoying they find it if someone practises the piano nearby. So for a long time I have been mindful of the need to keep piano practice to certain hours, and to warn my neighbours of any upcoming events which might be more than usually noisy.

But at the dinner last week, I was transported back to that blessed time when my fellow students enjoyed the sound of my piano practice.