BBC History Magazine podcast about ‘The Piano’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 July 2021 under Books, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I recently recorded a 30-minute podcast for BBC History magazine – talking to interviewer Ellie Cawthorne about my new book, ‘The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces‘.

The podcast is now available by clicking on this link:

You don’t need headphones or special equipment to listen to it – if you’re sitting at a computer you can just listen on your usual speakers. Scroll down the BBC History Extra page and click ‘play’ on the History Extra Podcast banner under ‘The piano – a musical history’. Of course, you can also listen on your phone or however you usually listen to podcasts. There’s an advert at the beginning, and another in the middle – but just keep listening.

The photo shows me signing copies of my new book in Blackwell’s Edinburgh bookstore.

Publication day for ‘The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 July 2021 under Books, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

My new book comes out today. Perhaps there’s no real significance to the formal publication date, especially as pre-ordered copies have been landing on people’s doormats for a week or two now – but still, it feels like a day to be happy.

I made a YouTube playlist to go with the book, featuring twenty favourite pieces in excellent recorded performances. You can read my comments about them here, on the Yale books blog.

My goodness, there’s some fabulous piano playing to listen to! For example, if you don’t know it, have a listen to Track 16, the blind African-American jazz pianist Art Tatum leading Dvorak’s Humoresque a merry dance in 1940.

Quite apart from admiring his piano technique, any pianist can learn from the way Tatum keeps his jaw relaxed while he plays – something that one doesn’t see very often in performance! I’ve never fully understood why, but keeping the jaw relaxed helps to relax the whole person.

Watching the Euros

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 July 2021 under Daily Life, Musings  •  4 Comments

I’ve been watching the Euro 2020 football matches on TV – to the surprise of some of my friends. But I find that things are always interesting once you start to know a bit about them, and as there is so much coverage of the championship, it makes sense to take an interest.

As I don’t know the first thing about football, I watch as if I’m watching a musical performance, or perhaps a dance event. I use the same yardsticks that I do when assessing how convincing a musical ensemble is – tempo, flow, intensity, dynamic movement, individual brilliance. The relationship of each player with the ball (in this analogy, ball = music). The ‘entrainment’ one can observe in the way the whole team moves around the pitch, which differs quite a bit from one team to another.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not all that surprisingly, my musical yardsticks work rather well. I’m often right about which team is going to win, even though I couldn’t join in with the most basic discussion of football tactics. I suppose it’s only natural that the same ingredients of tempo and flow which have to be mastered for a musical performance should be discernible on the sports field as well.

Giving the public a glimpse of the jury’s reasoning in music competitions

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 June 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations, Musings  •  1 Comment

Last week I followed the Cardiff Singer of the World competition on TV with great enjoyment through all the rounds. I was so impressed with these singers who, despite a year of lockdown and no opportunities to sing to live audiences, were able to come out and perform so generously to a hall empty of everyone except the orchestra (behind them) and a three-person jury (out front).

Performing to an empty hall is a feat of imagination. In normal circumstances one gets so much from seeing, hearing or sensing the audience’s response to things as one plays. Their reaction can be very encouraging. Therefore when there are just a few people to sing to, and those few are taking care to betray nothing through their facial expressions, you have to conjure up an invisible audience.

As it happens, I was very happy with the result of the Cardiff competition – having admired South Korean baritone Gihoon Kim since his appearance in Round One.

However, I did regret that we were offered no insight into how the jury had arrived at their decision. These days there are lots of competitions on television – I’m a fan of the Great British BakeOff, the Great Pottery Throw-Down, Masterchef, and the Great British Sewing Bee among others. In all of them, we get to listen in on the judges’ deliberations and the feedback they give directly to competitors. This is a form of educating the public and I find it very helpful.

So to follow a competition where the jury simply gives us a winning name, but no insight into why they chose that person, feels a bit disappointing. We did have expert commentary from various distinguished singers along the way, and a few comments from members of the jury speaking in a personal capacity, but we were not told the basis on which the jury selected the winner of each round, or the overall winner. This would have been particularly interesting in a year when all five finalists were so good. Even though the jury’s decision matched mine, I’d love to have known something (lots of things, actually) about their criteria.

I tend to think that these days it isn’t enough just to announce a winner. It’s also important to make listeners feel informed and included. At the very least, hearing what the jury was looking for and why they preferred X to Y will help people to add more ingredients to their listening, and that can only be a good thing.

Wigmore Hall, 23 July at 7.30pm

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 June 2021 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

My new book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces comes out in July and I’ll be marking its launch with a concert on 23 July at Wigmore Hall, for a long time my favourite concert hall.

The programme is drawn from pieces discussed in the book (the photo on the right gives a glimpse of the cover).  In the first half of the concert I’ll be playing a selection of solo piano pieces, and then I’ll be joined by violinist Maria Wloszczowska, Felix Tanner and Philip Higham for Fauré’s C minor piano quartet, a piece of chamber music which holds many happy memories for me. The whole programme – around 70 minutes, without an interval  – is given in detail on the Wigmore website.

Information about July concerts has only just gone up on the website – in these unusual times, the rules change so frequently and unpredictably that it’s pointless to advertise events too far in advance. On Monday, when the government said that restrictions would be ongoing until 19 July, I held my breath in case July concerts would have to be cancelled. Luckily that didn’t happen, but ticket numbers are still limited. Currently at Wigmore Hall, tickets are offered first to Friends of Wigmore Hall, by ballot, and then to the general public. You can join the Friends in order to be in the ballot, of course – you’d always have access to priority booking.

I first played at Wigmore Hall as a child, in the finals of the National Junior Piano-Playing Competition. It’s startling to realise that I have been playing there (on and off) for over half a century!