Gaps between hype and reality

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 April 2019 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

Recently for work reasons I’ve had to look through the websites of lots of different young musicians and chamber groups. Websites are dazzling! It’s clear that everyone now employs sophisticated media skills and professional designers. Gorgeous artwork, glamorous photos easily mistaken for fashion shoots, web pages that dance about to a mysterious rhythm; video, audio clips, starry biographies, subscriber opportunities … the design values are very high.

I was contrasting these images in my mind with the low-tech publicity we used when I was starting out in the profession, before websites existed. Xeroxed sheets of information typed on an old manual typewriter. Simple, basic artwork. Photos taken in someone’s back garden with your flatmate’s camera. Badges designed by one of the players! (see photo).

Today, having been seduced by Vogue-level images and professionally edited sound clips, I’m sometimes disappointed by the reality of people whose images turn out to have been burnished to an unjustifiable sheen.

In the old days, there was also a gap between hype and reality, but it was the other way around. Publicity was so simple that it didn’t lead you to expect anything grand, but often one was pleasantly surprised by the high level of the actual playing, and even by the appearance of the people whose homely snaps didn’t do them justice.

On balance, I think I preferred the days when the reality outshone the publicity.

Musicians studying across Europe

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 April 2019 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

I’ve just returned from a week in Germany, on the jury of the Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition in Weimar (see photo of the splendid Music Conservatory where it all happened).

There were groups from most corners of the world. Many of them were living proof of the benefits of cross-European study. Although there were a few groups whose players came from the same country, it was actually more common to see names from three or four different nationalities. This is because since the 1980s it has been easy (and cheap, if not free) for people from mainland Europe to come to study in London, and for Brits to study in Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna and so on.

In Weimar there were a couple of groups ‘from London’, but in fact their members were (for example) Swedish, Dutch, Bulgarian and German as well as British. All have been able to take advantage of Erasmus and other reciprocal schemes which facilitate study across Europe. The result is a lively mix of people who have developed mutual tolerance as well as a wider spectrum of musical styles and approaches.

As Brexit approaches, and with it the prospect of these schemes closing a) to British students wanting to study in the EU and b) to European students wishing to study in the UK, I must say I spent a lot of the week contemplating the young chamber groups with a sense of poignancy, almost a feeling of sorrow for something about to be lost, or at any rate made harder.

Some of the best music-making was by groups with diverse nationalities. That cannot be a coincidence. Offering young musicians a taste of life in other countries and of other cultures’ attitudes to music has been hugely beneficial. They make friends and forge working relationships across Europe. It seems to me that without exception they become more open-minded.

Let us hope that whatever happens, ways will be found to keep open these educational pathways which lead to mutual understanding.

40 years of women in mixed Cambridge colleges

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 March 2019 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

Last weekend I was at a dinner in Christ’s College, Cambridge to celebrate 40 years of women in the college (founded 1505).

Women have only been allowed to study at the University of Cambridge since 1869, when Girton College was founded. Newnham followed in 1872, but even for decades after that, women were not considered full members of the university. They could study, take exams, and have their results recorded, but the awarding of full degrees to women didn’t happen until 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War.

Mixed colleges didn’t get going in Cambridge until 1972, a date which means a lot to me because I was one of the first women admitted to King’s College (founded 1441).

40+ years of women in mixed colleges is a milestone, of course, and thank goodness the path has been opened up, but there were quite a few  women at last weekend’s dinner who expressed the view that it wasn’t exactly something to celebrate, as forty years is a mere blink of an eye in comparison to centuries of exclusion. Even after four decades of co-ed colleges, there are still invisible barriers to women’s full equality with men in the university – and of course elsewhere. So it was with a sense of rueful pride that we raised our glasses.

I was reminded of a marvellous quote from The Women’s Journal of 1891. Defending women against the charge that history does not list  many women in its public roll-call of scientific or artistic geniuses, the editor wrote:

‘When women have had for several centuries the same advantages of liberty, education and social encouragement in the use of their brains that men have, it will be right to argue their mental inferiority if they have not produced their fair share of genius. But it is hardly reasonable to expect women during a few years of half liberty and half education to produce at once specimens of genius equal to the choicest men of all ages.’

The intonation of public speaking

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 March 2019 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I seem to have turned into the kind of person who stops what they’re doing in the afternoon in order to tune into live Parliamentary debates about Brexit. Last week I spent several afternoons listening to politicians giving speeches, scripted and unscripted.

Being a trained musician is interesting on these occasions. I’m so used to listening for tone, nuance and inflection that I can’t help being aware of those things in public speakers. I’m used to discussing how to make something sound as though you mean it, how to match musical content to expression. And conversely: pointing out what seems forced or artificial even though it is expertly done.

From my small experience of radio presenting, I know what it’s like to be guided through a script recording by a producer with ideas about how to make it ‘come alive’. I’ve had producers mark up my script with symbols of where I should raise the pitch of my voice excitedly, lower it to indicate seriousness, or count a couple of silent beats to let the words sink in. Those who know me well tell me the result isn’t always pleasing.

Some of the most important political speeches of recent weeks have been read from scripts (possibly provided by speechwriters). You can hear that the speaker has been coached in pausing here, stressing this word, looking the audience in the eye and slowing  the pace on key phrases. They may be following Rules of Effective Communication, but alas, it doesn’t always equate to sounding sincere.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those theatrical creatures who pride themselves on their oratory. They super-charge every rise and fall of the voice, often in a way which doesn’t exactly match the content of what they’re saying. This too can leave the listener feeling manipulated.

On the whole, people with something to say and the wish to say it are naturally gripping to listen to. One sees this over and over again on the news when people talk about events they have been caught up in. They give no thought to how they’re going to speak, but their experience is so vivid, and their wish to tell their story so honest, that whatever words they find are compelling.

Toe-tapping in the Baroque era

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 March 2019 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

I did some guest teaching at the University of St Andrews the other day. During one of my sessions, a member of the audience asked an interesting question. I didn’t know the answer and am still thinking about it.

He said: ‘I have some modern recordings of Baroque music. The orchestra plays with a lot of swing and bounce. The tempos are fast. It makes you want to tap your toes along with the music!

‘I wonder though whether this entertaining, toe-tapping style is something modern, something that has developed since the jazz age, the swing era, and all that. Obviously that music is in our blood now, so maybe it’s natural for today’s musicians to try the style in old music as well.

But do you think musicians in the Baroque era played with that kind of rhythm and swing? Did audiences smile, nod their heads and tap their feet to the music? Or would that have been  impossible, something they would never have dreamed of doing?’

I said what came into my head: that we can’t know for sure how long-ago musicians played, nor how audiences reacted. There are no 18th Century films or sound recordings, so unless we have first-hand descriptions, we can only speculate.

But my guess would be that in every era, especially with music which originated as dance, people would have enjoyed tapping their toes along with the music. Of course Baroque audiences might have been restrained by the setting they found themselves in – the church, for example, or the formal atmosphere of the court. Even today we are held in check by that sort of context. Apart from that, however, I’d guess that musicians have always hoped to get their audiences’ toes tapping, and listeners have always been happy to respond.