Adapting touring methods because of climate change

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 September 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  2 Comments

This morning I heard a report about scientists who have made a list of recommendations for touring musicians to cut back on carbon emissions. Amongst other things it recommended that musicians should use instruments or equipment ‘held by the venue’. Good luck with that, symphony orchestras!

When I had finished laughing at the phrase ‘artists must swap private jets for trains’ (I’ve never been anywhere near a private jet), I realised that of course the overall direction of the report is right. As usual, ‘music’ is assumed to be pop, but clearly all musicians must consider this issue. It makes sense to go by train, to minimise travel between concert locations, even to minimise touring itself in favour of cultivating a deeper relationship with the home audience.

And I might point out that pianists have long been ‘using instruments held by the venue’!

But most classical musicians – especially string players – strive mightily to get the particular instrument they want, and when they have it, they want to play it in every concert. There is probably no touring group – be it string quartet or full orchestra – who would agree to play a bunch of instruments they’d never seen before and over whose quality they had no control. Classical music is still an acoustic art. The sound of each instrument is crucial, and the blend of particular sounds is something we work hard to create.

But I do think there is room for classical musicians to think about touring, which indeed is often organised around dates which suit individual venues, rather than around a route which makes geographical common sense. And it’s true that many musicians [used to] fly out to play a single concert and come back the following day.

It’s not so long since most music-lovers only heard a visiting orchestra on rare occasions. When I was a child, my piano teacher arranged for her pupils to have discounted season tickets to the Friday night series of the Scottish National Orchestra. Every Friday in the Usher Hall we heard the same orchestra under the same conductor, Alexander Gibson. Concerto soloists varied, but the soloist was the only person who had made a long journey. I was perfectly happy with hearing the same orchestra every Friday – in fact I enjoyed seeing the same players each week. What changed every week was the programme, and for me that was the main thing because I was getting to know so much music.

No more bullfrogs […for now]

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 August 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  3 Comments

My readers will know that I hate people coughing in concerts. I don’t mean the sudden cough that the person can’t help and does their best to stifle – I mean the self-indulgent barking cough which rings out across the hall and seems to be targeted at specially quiet moments in the music. When you’re performing, especially when you’re on your own on stage, a volley of coughing can really jolt your concentration.

Well, I have noticed a strange thing lately – both when I was playing, and when I was in the audience. There is virtually no coughing from the audience. In fact, there is a quality of silence which feels quite revolutionary. Like many new behaviours, it must be related to the pandemic.

Ever since coughing was identified as a symptom of coronavirus, people who venture out to live concerts are determined not to cough if they can possibly help it, to avoid striking fear into the hearts of those around them. People who know they have coughs simply don’t go to concerts at the moment.  Socially distanced seating is probably a factor too: the sight of a hall sparsely dotted with chairs is inhibiting. And I suppose that, because we’ve all been washing our hands and keeping our distance, there are fewer ordinary coughs and colds around anyway.

This week I went to a piano recital in a church where, previously, coughs were amplified by the building’s acoustics. Bouts of coughing could cover up quiet moments in the performance. But this time, from quarter of an hour before the concert and right through the concert itself, there was deep silence from the audience. I found myself enjoying it almost as much as I was enjoying the music. It felt like an active sort of silence, a community effort, each person contributing their share of silence to the whole.

Will it last? Nobody knows, but while it lasts, I’m grateful for it.

Piano Power

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 August 2021 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

Recently I’ve heard or coached a number of amateur pianists whose playing I haven’t heard for 18 months, or before All This started.

I had been afraid that everyone’s playing would have fallen apart, but actually my impression was that lockdown has enhanced rather than degraded the skills of the people I’ve been listening to. They had clearly been playing the piano quite a lot during the months at home, with more time than usual to appreciate music and music-making.  Obviously there weren’t any concerts going on, so they hadn’t been working towards a particular performance. It wasn’t that the prospect of an audience had galvanised them into practising more. It was, perhaps, more that the impossibility of an audience had thrown the focus back onto the music itself and the result here and now.

It seemed that the experience of lockdown and, for some of them, isolation, had given new significance to their hours at the piano. To my ears there was a quality of attention to the sound which made their playing more compelling to listen to. They were more ‘in the moment’.

I found myself thinking that it’s a pity one can’t harness this kind of ‘piano power’ and use it as a form of renewable energy – to heat people’s houses, or to recharge the batteries of their electric cars. For now, it’s enough to know that the time we devote to music-making can recharge our own batteries!

My book turns up in Western Australia

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 August 2021 under Books  •  Leave a comment

A reader has sent me a photo of my new book on his garden table in rural Western Australia (see photo).

It’s astonishing to me to think of this book, a copy of which I have photographed on my own garden table, flying to the other side of the world to start a conversation with someone new. For a long time, the words lived inside my head and were gradually transferred to my computer, where I was the only person who looked at them and worked on them.

As the words settled into some kind of permanent shape, I did start to imagine other people reading them, but those imaginary readers were somehow ‘in the cloud’, bobbing about weightlessly like Renaissance cherubs; I didn’t visualise them in actual locations. So to see that the book (or, I should say, a copy of the book) has travelled, independently of me, all the way to the hills of Western Australia is startling and extremely pleasing.


How to subscribe to this blog – an update

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 August 2021 under Daily Life, Website Updates  •  Leave a comment

Update: if you’ve been trying to subscribe to my blog in the last day or two and have encountered problems, please note that the link is now working properly.

I’ve just been writing to my subscribers to tell them that new blog posts, delivered to them by email, now look different because they come via a different route. Google Feedburner, which used to deliver these mails, has ceased to operate and instead I’m using a service called, whose name appears at the top of emails to subscribers.

This seems a good moment to remind you that anyone can subscribe to this blog, free of charge. You sign up by clicking the link in the left hand margin of my home page, under ‘Read the Blog via Email’, and give your email address. Every time I publish a new blog post, a copy of it will pop into your email inbox. It’s free, it’s easy to use, your name will not be published, and it saves you from having to check back to see if there’s anything new on my home page. (Believe it or not, some people actually do!)