Watching the Euros

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 July 2021 under Daily Life, Musings  •  4 Comments

I’ve been watching the Euro 2020 football matches on TV – to the surprise of some of my friends. But I find that things are always interesting once you start to know a bit about them, and as there is so much coverage of the championship, it makes sense to take an interest.

As I don’t know the first thing about football, I watch as if I’m watching a musical performance, or perhaps a dance event. I use the same yardsticks that I do when assessing how convincing a musical ensemble is – tempo, flow, intensity, dynamic movement, individual brilliance. The relationship of each player with the ball (in this analogy, ball = music). The ‘entrainment’ one can observe in the way the whole team moves around the pitch, which differs quite a bit from one team to another.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not all that surprisingly, my musical yardsticks work rather well. I’m often right about which team is going to win, even though I couldn’t join in with the most basic discussion of football tactics. I suppose it’s only natural that the same ingredients of tempo and flow which have to be mastered for a musical performance should be discernible on the sports field as well.

Giving the public a glimpse of the jury’s reasoning in music competitions

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 June 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations, Musings  •  1 Comment

Last week I followed the Cardiff Singer of the World competition on TV with great enjoyment through all the rounds. I was so impressed with these singers who, despite a year of lockdown and no opportunities to sing to live audiences, were able to come out and perform so generously to a hall empty of everyone except the orchestra (behind them) and a three-person jury (out front).

Performing to an empty hall is a feat of imagination. In normal circumstances one gets so much from seeing, hearing or sensing the audience’s response to things as one plays. Their reaction can be very encouraging. Therefore when there are just a few people to sing to, and those few are taking care to betray nothing through their facial expressions, you have to conjure up an invisible audience.

As it happens, I was very happy with the result of the Cardiff competition – having admired South Korean baritone Gihoon Kim since his appearance in Round One.

However, I did regret that we were offered no insight into how the jury had arrived at their decision. These days there are lots of competitions on television – I’m a fan of the Great British BakeOff, the Great Pottery Throw-Down, Masterchef, and the Great British Sewing Bee among others. In all of them, we get to listen in on the judges’ deliberations and the feedback they give directly to competitors. This is a form of educating the public and I find it very helpful.

So to follow a competition where the jury simply gives us a winning name, but no insight into why they chose that person, feels a bit disappointing. We did have expert commentary from various distinguished singers along the way, and a few comments from members of the jury speaking in a personal capacity, but we were not told the basis on which the jury selected the winner of each round, or the overall winner. This would have been particularly interesting in a year when all five finalists were so good. Even though the jury’s decision matched mine, I’d love to have known something (lots of things, actually) about their criteria.

I tend to think that these days it isn’t enough just to announce a winner. It’s also important to make listeners feel informed and included. At the very least, hearing what the jury was looking for and why they preferred X to Y will help people to add more ingredients to their listening, and that can only be a good thing.

Wigmore Hall, 23 July at 7.30pm

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 June 2021 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

My new book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces comes out in July and I’ll be marking its launch with a concert on 23 July at Wigmore Hall, for a long time my favourite concert hall.

The programme is drawn from pieces discussed in the book (the photo on the right gives a glimpse of the cover).  In the first half of the concert I’ll be playing a selection of solo piano pieces, and then I’ll be joined by violinist Maria Wloszczowska, Felix Tanner and Philip Higham for Fauré’s C minor piano quartet, a piece of chamber music which holds many happy memories for me. The whole programme – around 70 minutes, without an interval  – is given in detail on the Wigmore website.

Information about July concerts has only just gone up on the website – in these unusual times, the rules change so frequently and unpredictably that it’s pointless to advertise events too far in advance. On Monday, when the government said that restrictions would be ongoing until 19 July, I held my breath in case July concerts would have to be cancelled. Luckily that didn’t happen, but ticket numbers are still limited. Currently at Wigmore Hall, tickets are offered first to Friends of Wigmore Hall, by ballot, and then to the general public. You can join the Friends in order to be in the ballot, of course – you’d always have access to priority booking.

I first played at Wigmore Hall as a child, in the finals of the National Junior Piano-Playing Competition. It’s startling to realise that I have been playing there (on and off) for over half a century!

Education via electronic communication

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 June 2021 under Musings, Teaching  •  Leave a comment

As the university year draws to an end, some of my friends who teach at universities have been reflecting sadly on the experience of doing their job online for an entire year. Many of them did all their teaching without ever meeting their students in person. Everything was done by Zoom and the like. Poor teachers, poor students!

It made me think about what would have happened if the pandemic had struck during my (pre-internet) university days. If we had all been sent home for lockdown, that would have been the end of our course of study. The only way the university could have contacted us would have been by post, and they were not geared up to send out work by post, let alone establish efficient systems of dialogue and feedback.

And of course, students wouldn’t have been able to keep in touch with one another. In university holidays there was ‘radio silence’ from my fellow students, with the exception of the occasional handwritten letter, always an exciting event. I was quite a keen letter-writer myself, but even the most ardent correspondents couldn’t turn around a letter and a reply in less than about four days. It was considered over-eager to pounce on a reply and reply to it. Did you have nothing better to do? Self-respect demanded a polite interval before initiating the next chapter in the correspondence. So for most of the time I had no idea what my fellow students were up to when we were not together on campus.

One year there was a postal strike. During that strike I was completely cut off from friends. Strange to relate, we didn’t use the phone for chatting, not even during a postal strike. The one phone in our house was in the hallway where every conversation could be overheard, and in any case we were reminded to keep calls short because of the expense.

Today’s electronic communication, whatever its negative points, has made it possible for people to keep teaching/studying and supporting one another during the pandemic. It’s been a stressful year for students, of course it has, but when I stop to think about how we would have coped in my student days, I realise how much today’s communication possibilities have empowered us in our lockdown isolation.

A bunch of pianists get together after lockdown

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 May 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

At the weekend a bunch of us, all pianists, got together to be sociable and  listen to one another play some live music. One of us had realised that the layout of her house offered the opportunity for us to obey current rules while still enjoying some piano music. Her piano was near the French windows. With the windows open, we could sit outdoors in the garden yet be quite close to whoever was playing.

The weather has been unkind lately, but this was a pleasant afternoon. We sat in the sun and listened while everyone took turns to play something they had been enjoying during lockdown.

Of course we hadn’t met for over a year, so first we had to get over the strangeness of being round the same table in person, testing out our rusty conversational skills. It was tempting to ask each person how they had coped with such an difficult year, but it became clear that this was not the right forum. People feel obliged to smile reassuringly and say, ‘I’ve been fine’; I heard myself saying it although that isn’t really how I feel. None of us has worked out the etiquette of answering such questions yet.

It was wonderful to be so near to live music being created in our presence. At one point, while listening to a Chopin nocturne, I had the impression of light pouring through the dark slats of a shuttered window. Live music is an amazing substance, material, current, or whatever one might call it. It hits you like fresh air.