The Highland Lady’s memories of practising

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 April 2015 under Books, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I wrote a while ago about the memoirs of Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, ‘the Highland Lady’, whose memoirs of life in Scotland in the early 19th century were so popular. Now I’m reading her later volume of memoirs, written when she was married and helping to run an estate in Ireland.

In her Scottish memoirs, she recalls with horror the days when she and her sister had to get up in the icy dark of Highland winters and practise the piano and harp before dawn without even a candle to help them see. I was very struck by this passage and couldn’t imagine why their parents, sensible and kind in other ways, would make them do this.

In her later memoirs Elizabeth harks back resentfully to those mornings. In the freezing January of 1841 she writes, ‘Never felt any cold like it since the days of our Highland winters when we girls occupied the barrack room in the roof of the Doune [their Scottish home] without a fire, without warm water, when we groped for our clothes a little after six o’clock, washed in ice and descended to the comforts of Cramer’s exercises on the pianoforte, or worse, Bochsa’s on the harp till daylight allowed of using our eyes; really children were cruelly used in those days, and for what purpose. Could we do any good with numb fingers, starving with cold and cross with actual suffering. Should we not have been better in our warm beds.

‘Mary and I are wiser with our children. We never wish them to get up till they can see to dress, and we have a warm room and good fire for them to go to afterwards and they never touch the pianoforte till they have had their breakfast, and as I at least wish for no professors in my family, Janey has never yet any day practised  an hour.’

‘Tiger mother’ indeed, but in the opposite sense of the one we now read about. This tiger mother’s experience of a harsh practising regime made her determined to protect her children from the same fate!

Our new cat

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 March 2015 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

DSC02401We have a new cat, Daisy, adopted from a cat rescue shelter. After a wobbly start, she’s settling down beautifully. Daisy is a very quiet cat who seems not to find it necessary to say anything. One of her few utterances was a moment after her arrival when she shot out of her cat box, leapt onto the fridge, gave a pitiful squeak as if to say, ‘Farewell!’ and plunged recklessly into the darkness behind. Leaning awkwardly over the fridge we could see her little eyes glowing in the dark for several hours before she summoned up the courage to come out. Luckily, things improved quickly from then on.

I was nervous when I first had to practise the piano in her presence. Surely the sound of a Steinway grand could be overwhelming for a small animal? But apart from looking up at me with big eyes, she didn’t seem to find Beethoven disturbing. She went and sat on the windowsill, looking out of the window. In subsequent practice sessions she sat peacefully near me while I played Mozart, Ravel, Brahms and Schubert.

A few days later I raised the stakes with a contemporary piece. It’s jagged and dissonant, though not loud (or no louder than Beethoven or Brahms). This time Daisy was less impressed. She conveyed to me that she would like to leave the room. As I went to open the door for her she looked up and said, ‘Mew!’, again with a hint of ‘Farewell!’

Maybe it was sheer coincidence. Perhaps she was suddenly hungry, or felt like snoozing in a quieter place. Who knows? At any rate, since Daisy is a new experimental subject, I was intrigued. I shall monitor her views as my repertoire changes.

American Library Association magazine review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 March 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

My new book has had its first ‘review’ in the States. ‘Choice’, the professional magazine of the American Library Association, has recommended it for students, professionals, and general readers. This is a big step forward because ‘Choice’ is an important influence on what US librarians order for their libraries.

‘An award-winning professional pianist and chamber musician, Tomes has loved “sleeping in temples,” i.e., connecting with bigger musical forces than herself, her entire life. In this volume, she thoughtfully reflects on the development of her skills and the processes of becoming an artist and passing her skills on to the next generation. Each chapter is an essay on a topic or concept that she has mulled for a long time. Some are ideas that she has treated in previous publications—which include Beyond the Notes (CH, Dec’04, 42-2132)—but that she now views slightly differently.

‘She addresses the perennial concerns performers face—the physical aspects of performance, playing from memory, the effect music has on listeners, technology, interpretation, and a host of other subjects—showing considerable thought and in-depth thinking. She is an analytical writer who is completely absorbed in her field and takes great pleasure in her playing and thinking about that playing. She has put in print many of the important thoughts that are in the forefront of a performer’s mind and in doing so has left a legacy for the next generation to read and explore.’

CHOICE, a publication of the American Library Association, March 2015

Marking Criteria

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 March 2015 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

The Joseph Haydn Competition in Vienna came to an end on Wednesday with a prizewinners’ concert and presentation of prizes by the sponsors and jury. Afterwards, there was a reception hosted by the university. Immediately I was approached by someone with a role in scientific research and evaluation. He wanted to know whether, before the competition began, we the jury had agreed on a list of the exact criteria we were looking for, and the marks to be given for each.

When I said we hadn’t, his face fell. ‘You hadn’t?!’ he exclaimed. Then I tried to explain that the jury was indeed looking for a whole range of things, from technical mastery through stylistic understanding to persuasive artistry, but that these things cannot be allocated points in isolation from one another. I’m sure we’d all been involved in attempts to impose ‘scientific’ marking systems, but the most important elements of artistic impact remain stubbornly outside ‘measurement’. How can you give exact points for the amount that something moves you or illuminates something new? Many musicians are afraid of the currently fashionable trend for ‘measuring’ everything, because this leads to a situation in which only those things which can be measured will be included in the criteria.

My companion sighed and said that every musician, actor and artist with whom he had ever discussed the matter had said the same thing. It was frustrating, he said, for those trying to create scientific methods of evaluation that could be used across the university, and between universities. I can see this, of course, but I can’t see any way around it except not having competitions or exams in the arts at all. But that would have all kinds of other effects on artists’ possibilities, and many of them would struggle to come to public notice. Most would be reluctant to swap subjective assessment for a scientific system which prioritises the demonstrably ‘perfect’, because we all know how inadequate that would be.

I once took part in a training day for a system of music exams which, instead of asking the examiner for a single mark out of 25 for each piece of music, required the examiner to break down that mark into, say, 5 marks for technical skill, 5 for historical awareness, 5 for structural understanding of the music, 5 for artistic imagination, and 5 for performance and communication skills. It was a total nightmare. In attempting to comply with the marking scheme, we quickly discovered that these things shade into one another, and sometimes cancel one another out. It seemed that the old system, of coming up with an ‘unscientific’ but intuitive mark of, say, 20 out of 25 was probably as meaningful.

‘You’re going to tell me that it’s not quantity, but quality that matters, aren’t you?’ said my companion. ‘Yes.’ ‘But please tell me, how is quality defined?’ ‘I don’t know how to define it, but you know it when you hear it’, I said. ‘You know it when you hear it’, he echoed – ‘yes, every musician I’ve asked has told me that!’

Gramophone magazine review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 February 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

The March issue of Gramophone Magazine carries a review of my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’. As the review is not available online except to subscribers, here’s an excerpt:

” ‘Out of Silence’ [my previous book] was written in diary form. ‘Sleeping in Temples’ is a series of extended and unconnected essays on all manner of things musical but written with the same clarity, honesty and questioning spirit. And, like ‘Out of Silence’, there were several passages that had me metaphorically punching the air.

…Though it is to those with an interest in classical music whom her book will chiefly appeal, paradoxically it seeks to demystify and illuminate the subject for the average Jo.

…Stimulating, insightful, full of ideas and passing anecdotes as she reflects, often wryly, on events drawn from her long career, Tomes brings to the page the same care, fastidious attention to detail and immaculate phrasing that she brings to her keyboard playing.”

Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone, March 2015