Meeting up again with my first piano teacher

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 March 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Teaching  •  1 Comment

A lovely surprise awaited me when I played at the Brunton Theatre on Tuesday. Sitting in the front row was my first piano teacher, Gordon Lindsay (‘Mr Lindsay’, as I knew him). He taught me from when I began piano lessons at the age of seven until I was nine or ten. Since then, apart from glimpsing him in the audience a few years ago at a Queen’s Hall concert of mine, I don’t believe I had set eyes on him.

At the age of 91, Mr Lindsay still had the bright gaze that I remembered. It was he who taught me to read music. I still recall the excitement of learning what those black blobs meant, and how to count up the ‘lines and spaces’ of the stave. I remember we did the first exercise in the book, using just three notes: ‘This is up. This is down. This is up and down.’

On Tuesday I was giving a lecture-recital about Debussy’s ‘Images’. Whenever I talk to the audience, I always instinctively search for sympathetic-looking faces to address. It was easy to find that sympathetic face, because Mr Lindsay was following every word with alert interest, his blue eyes shining. What a pity we had lost touch for so long!

How important is it to perform from memory?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 March 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

I still have mixed feelings about playing from memory. I find that the memorising is the part of my concert preparation which takes the longest. Even after I’ve worked out exactly how I want to play something, there’s a long extra stage which is mostly concerned with memorisation. Memorising cannot be done quickly, or at least, if it’s done quickly it is not reliable. In a two-hour solo programme, ‘reliable’ is what you most definitely need to feel. For me, it requires the co-operation of several kinds of memory: aural, intellectual, photographic, muscle. Only when all these have been tested and found secure can I feel calm on stage.

Why do I play from memory? To be honest, I think it’s largely a matter of not being able to jettison the attitudes drummed into me when I was learning the piano as a child. Although I now see other perspectives, and realise that there are lots of varying attitudes out there, I still feel (rightly or wrongly) that playing from memory is something the audience expects.

I am not one of those who feel that performing from memory is ‘liberating’. Playing from memory, yes – but performing from memory is a different matter. As for ‘liberating’, I probably feel freer in chamber music, where I can have the music in front of me and glance at it if I feel like it. I usually know things more or less from memory anyway, whatever type of music it is, but if the printed score actually isn’t there, it feels different.

In the run-up to my recent Queen’s Hall solo recital, I performed the programme from memory to several different audiences in different cities. My memory was 99% secure every time, but on each occasion I had a terrifying moment or two of ‘blankness’ – and always in a different place! There was no knowing where it might happen. Once it was in Debussy. Once it was in Schubert, and once in Beethoven. The moments were tiny, but enough to make my heart skip a beat.

On the day before my Queen’s Hall recital, I played the whole programme through at home from memory. This time there were half a dozen moments where the dreaded ‘inner voice’ whispered to me, ‘You don’t know this!’ I was rattled. I had to give myself a stern talking-to.

In the event, all went well. The final concert was more secure than all the rest and I enjoyed it.

At drinks afterwards, I mentioned to someone how pleased I was that my memory had functioned securely. She did a ‘double-take’, looked surprised and then said, ‘Oh yes, you did play from memory, didn’t you? It’s only now you say it that I realise there wasn’t any music on the desk. Well, how amazing!’

Perhaps her response wasn’t typical. But amongst all the nice feedback, I don’t think anyone even mentioned the fact that I had played from memory. They took it for granted, I suppose. But it did make me wonder how important it is to do it.

Classical Music magazine article

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 February 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

Finally I have managed to track down a copy of this month’s ‘Classical Music’ magazine, which for some reason has become harder and harder to find in the shops. Knowing there was to be an article about me in the February issue, I tried to find the magazine in a number of relevant shops, and even in several different cities, but drew a blank. (In case you’re wondering: no, the publisher didn’t send me a copy of the magazine.) Even in Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford they didn’t have ‘Classical Music’ and said they hadn’t been able to get it for 18 months. In most other shops – including larger branches of WHSmith where I’ve bought it in the past – they just shook their heads when I asked about it.

Eventually I tracked down a copy in the library of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, but it was not for borrowing, so I read it and took a photo on my phone.

Assuming, then, that most of my readers won’t have seen the magazine, I thought I’d at least post a photograph of the article in case anyone wants to enlarge the photo and read it…

Five-star ‘Scotsman’ review of my Queen’s Hall solo recital

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 February 2017 under Concerts, Reviews  •  6 Comments

I haven’t written anything here for a while because I have been busy preparing for a big solo recital programme last Thursday in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh (and for several ‘run-up’ concerts in different parts of the country). All went well, and after a very happy evening with a great audience on Thursday I was delighted to read a five-star review in today’s Scotsman:

‘This was a beautifully conceived, brilliantly executed programme by a pianist who combines a rock solid technique with a rare ability to communicate her deep understanding of the music she plays. With little fuss, Susan Tomes distils the essence of a piece of music into its purest form in the most profound and moving way. Debussy’s Preludes Book 2 is inspired by a delightful mix of the mundane and fantastical. Like a sound colourist, Tomes brought these 12 sketches vividly to life, from Peter Pan’s dancing fairies to circus jugglers and the more abstract moonlight, mist and fireworks. She also highlighted Debussy’s fascination with peripheral action, the splashes of tumbling notes that twinkle like stars in the distance.

Schubert’s Impromptus No 2 in G flat and No 3 in A flat are familiar repertoire staples, but Tomes unveiled them as if fresh off the page. It was the same for one of Beethoven’s most emotionally intense late sonatas, Op 109 in E major. Totally deaf, the composer was obsessed with Bach, from a religious and musical viewpoint, which influenced the structure and form of the sonata. The deceptively simple theme in the first movement belies a moody undercurrent which rises to the surface every so often and lets off steam in the edgy prestissimo. However, it was the rhapsodic Sarabande with its variations that danced under Tomes’ fingers. It concluded with a repetition of the theme, the final chord pedaled into heartbreaking infinity.’

Ryan Gosling’s piano playing skills

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 January 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

I haven’t yet seen the movie ‘LaLa Land’ (it doesn’t open in the UK until tomorrow). But I enjoyed hearing BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ item this morning on how Ryan Gosling, who plays a struggling jazz musician in the film, learned to play the piano for it. He does all the piano playing in the film, and you only need to google ‘Ryan Gosling piano playing’ to see how adorable everyone finds it.

The woman who taught him described how they worked together two hours a day, five days a week (I think) over a period of months. She admitted that he had largely been spared the drudgery of scales and arpeggios. I was intrigued that learning to read music was not mentioned. According to his teacher he is ‘a musical guy’ and was able to make excellent progress being taught by ear, or so I seemed to gather.

In the BBC studio, another piano teacher swiftly showed one of the presenters how to play one of the stirring themes from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (familiar to many from the film ‘Billy Elliott’). He pointed out that there were just two simple hand positions required, and much of the theme could be played within one hand position. She grasped the principle straight away, and obviously being musical herself, was able to copy the teacher beautifully.

‘Perhaps that is how all piano teaching should be’, I mused. How many people have told me over the years that they gave up because they hated the daily drudgery of scales and arpeggios!

But there’s a reason why piano technique has to be acquired slowly and securely, and why aspiring classical pianists need to learn to read music – it’s because of the repertoire. Piano music is some of the most glorious music we have, but much of it is very complex. Only an exceptionally gifted person could hope to learn it by ear. Moreover, nobody without a very solid technique could hope to play the best of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert.  In other words there’s a relationship between the length of time taken to master a) notation and b) the instrument, and the richness of the music that slowly moves within your grasp.

Jazz is a different matter because there is a long tradition of learning to play by ear, and most jazz is improvised. There are great jazz pianists with techniques equal to anything in any genre. But with a simple technique you can still join in and play something. Nobody has prescribed what notes you must play. It’s very different to classical music.

After listening to the Today programme, I enjoyed a brief vision of teaching my students entirely by ear. But just a moment’s consideration showed me that such a method wouldn’t, alas, enable them to tackle the great piano pieces they long to play.