Interview and podcast for ‘The Music Show’ on ABC Radio in Australia

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 September 2021 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

This week I did an interview about my book ‘The Piano’ with Andrew Ford, the knowledgeable host of ABC’s long-running ‘Music Show‘ in Australia.

He has woven in archive clips of other pianists talking or playing favourite music, so it has become an pleasing mosaic of views on the piano’s wonderful repertoire. The whole thing lasts about an hour.

The interview will be broadcast in Australia on Sunday 19 September at 11.05 Sydney time – they’re ten hours ahead of the UK, so that means 01.05 GMT for any night owls wishing to listen in. The programme stays online afterwards, of course.

There’s also a podcast, available internationally and ready now:

(Photo: me warming up for the Lammermuir Festival last weekend.)


Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 September 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

Last week I was thinking of writing a blog post about knitting. What is the connection between knitting and pianism, you may ask? Well, I had been reading about the 19th-century pianist Clara Schumann, who continued to tour and earn money for the family after her composer husband Robert had died.

At that time it was still the fashion to have mixed programmes, where an artist might play several times during a concert, their appearances separated by contributions from other artists. In her later years, while waiting for her next turn on stage, Clara Schumann was said to sit amongst the audience, knitting. How I would have liked to see that!

It’s interesting to me that she didn’t knit quietly backstage. She came out into the hall and sat amongst the audience. Clearly she liked to be in the thick of it, and didn’t mind being seen with her knitting. I daresay it was well known that she had many children to look after. One can imagine the scene: ‘Mum! You promised you’d finish that jumper for me, and now you’re going away on another stupid tour!’ Clara: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come home with your jumper all finished.’

Nor indeed did Madame Schumann sit quietly backstage with the score of the piece she was going to play, studying it one more time before going on stage (as many pianists do). She preferred to do something unconnected to music. Personally, I would not knit during a concert, because knitting makes my hands feel stiff, but no doubt that is just my poor technique. I do however like to go out front and sit in the audience listening to other people play, and all the better if I have a crossword or something like that to look at. People may think I’m not listening, but I am – the fact is that, for me, multi-tasking promotes a relaxed sort of alertness.

Knitting has been in the news because of champion diver Tom Daley, who, while waiting his turn for another Olympic dive, sat amongst the spectators with his knitting and crochet. The sight inspired many young people to take up these craft skills.

As I was pondering this curious link between Clara Schumann and Tom Daley, I happened to turn on For Peat’s Sake, a TV programme about the ancient skill of peat-cutting on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides.

Peat is dug out of the earth, cut into big square slabs, dried out and carried home to use as fuel for the fire. We saw archive photographs of islanders cutting peat in Victorian times. Women with wicker baskets strapped to their backs carried peat slabs piled crazily high. Leaning forward to counterbalance their heavy loads, the women of the island made their way home over the peat bogs. And to my astonishment many of them were knitting as they walked. Considering the terrain, that was quite a skill. Didn’t they need to look at where they were putting their feet? Or were they watching their step while knitting without looking at their hands?

Either way it was a stellar example of multi-tasking. Yet these women seemed unimpressed by their own skill. Their resigned expressions seemed to say, ‘Well, if I have to lug this lot over the fields, I may as well get another sock done’.

So knitting has been a theme of my week.

There is something intriguing about knitting while doing something else. An aunt of mine could knit and watch TV, her needles flashing as she focused on the screen. It was interesting to see because, as a pianist, I was familiar with letting my hands follow an intricate pattern ‘on their own’. And I recognised the sense of active restfulness that can result from it.

A review of my book on Pianodao website

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 September 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

A review of my book has popped up on Pianodao, a website devoted to the piano, pianists and piano education. You can read the whole review by clicking here.

For now, some excerpts:

‘Before the last rays of summer settle into the colours of autumn, let me tell you about this wonderful book, my summer holiday read, but equally suitable for the cozy evenings ahead, or for that matter as a Christmas gift.

‘Indeed, whether you find yourself wanting inspiration for fresh beginnings, a reboot in your piano journey, or simply a brilliant read, Susan Tomes’ The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is poised to perfectly hit the spot and deliver the tonic you are looking for. … As with all Tomes’ writing, the book can be enjoyed as an extended paean to the piano, and her respectful rapture is equally captured by the gorgeous cover and presentation afforded by publisher Yale University Press, London.

‘Were this book merely a glorified list, it would have value and much interest as such. But of course the selection of pieces is merely the skeleton on which the body of this book is brought to life.

…’The chapters dealing with each selected piece are generally three to four pages in length, giving them ample space for enjoyable storytelling alongside the broader historical narrative, and for humorous diversion alongside technical analysis.

‘As such, the book could equally be digested as a single excellent account of its subject, or dipped into for its 100 pithy and highly readable short chapters, which offer a reference work or even object lesson in how to write the most brilliantly engaging programme note.

‘Personally I have done both, enjoying the book as bedtime reading over a few weeks, as well as dipping back to remind myself of the delicious insights and contextual accounts with which Tomes has populated this fine book. And I cannot recommend highly enough that you do the same.

‘The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is quite simply an essential purchase for any piano enthusiast, offering as it does a veritable feast of salient information and insight into the instrument and music which we love so much.’

reviewed by Pianodao in September 2021


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.