Leaving the EU

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 January 2021 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

Now that Brexit has happened and the UK is out of the European Union, I have been reflecting on the fact that I have seen the whole arc of our membership of the EU from start to finish.

I was a student when we joined what was then the European Economic Community and later became the EU. It felt wonderful to be given the freedom to work, study and live in all those European countries. I remember stepping off the train at Gare du Nord in Paris and being amazed that I was being cheerily waved into France without having to queue up for a stamp in my passport.

From then on, travelling to the European continent, whether for work or pleasure, was a big part of my life. Sure, if we hadn’t been part of the EU I could still have gone there with extra bureaucratic effort and expense, but knowing that we were part of the EU gave me and my friends a larger sense of possibility and belonging. As most of the music we played had emanated from those European countries, the sense of belonging was important to us.

As of January 1, UK citizens have lost the right to live, work and study in 27 EU countries. We are out of the Erasmus programme, which has changed the lives of so many students I’ve worked with over the years. Some were British musicians going abroad to taste the air and enjoy the respect given to classical music in Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands. Some were travelling the other way, to sample the rich musical life of our prestigious UK music conservatoires. All of them seemed to love their sojourns in those other countries.

We’re told there are great opportunities for the UK now that it’s out of the EU. But I shall never be able to bring myself to believe that losing the right to work, study and live in any of 27 EU countries is anything other than a big step backwards, especially for young people.

New Year’s resolution

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 January 2021 under Musings  •  7 Comments

I was complaining to a fellow musician recently about how hard it is to make myself practise the piano every day, even though there are no concerts to prepare for.

Until the recent Tier 4 lockdowns, I had been hoping that concerts for live audiences could resume around Easter 2021, when most people should have been vaccinated. But the ‘new variant’ of the virus, plus the complexity of rolling out the vaccine, has blurred the focus on Easter as a return to normality. I was rather shocked when a couple of friends with insider knowledge of the NHS suggested I shouldn’t pin my hopes on those summer festivals happening in person. I confess I had, indeed, been pinning my hopes on that.

My musician friend said that, as there are no immediate prospects of live performance, we might as well approach our daily practice in a different way – not as the sprint towards a particular concert, but as an opportunity to re-engage with the learning process itself.

I suppose there was actually a long period in my life when I practised the piano every day without knowing when the next concert would be, or indeed whether there would ever be a concert at all. That period was my childhood, when little concert opportunities arose maybe once or twice a year. The scarcity of concerts didn’t deter me from practising – in fact I had hardly conceived of a time when practice would be directed at a particular performance. I was content just to learn more pieces and get better at playing the piano.

Later, when I had turned professional, the need to be in good form with a particular programme on a certain date became the driving force of my practising. There’s always an element of learning, of course, but the imminence of a concert was the paramount driver. But this cannot be the main reason to practice at the moment.  My diary is currently empty, or at any rate consists of nothing more than light pencillings decorated with question marks.

In the quiet months to come it would be good to re-engage with the spirit of learning as I used to when I was a child – travelling hopefully, rather than experiencing my musical life as a series of arrivals. This at any rate is my new year’s resolution.

Wishing everyone a good start to the New Year – surely there is light at the end of the tunnel.

‘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.

Otters

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.