Education via electronic communication

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 June 2021 under Musings, Teaching  •  Leave a comment

As the university year draws to an end, some of my friends who teach at universities have been reflecting sadly on the experience of doing their job online for an entire year. Many of them did all their teaching without ever meeting their students in person. Everything was done by Zoom and the like. Poor teachers, poor students!

It made me think about what would have happened if the pandemic had struck during my (pre-internet) university days. If we had all been sent home for lockdown, that would have been the end of our course of study. The only way the university could have contacted us would have been by post, and they were not geared up to send out work by post, let alone establish efficient systems of dialogue and feedback.

And of course, students wouldn’t have been able to keep in touch with one another. In university holidays there was ‘radio silence’ from my fellow students, with the exception of the occasional handwritten letter, always an exciting event. I was quite a keen letter-writer myself, but even the most ardent correspondents couldn’t turn around a letter and a reply in less than about four days. It was considered over-eager to pounce on a reply and reply to it. Did you have nothing better to do? Self-respect demanded a polite interval before initiating the next chapter in the correspondence. So for most of the time I had no idea what my fellow students were up to when we were not together on campus.

One year there was a postal strike. During that strike I was completely cut off from friends. Strange to relate, we didn’t use the phone for chatting, not even during a postal strike. The one phone in our house was in the hallway where every conversation could be overheard, and in any case we were reminded to keep calls short because of the expense.

Today’s electronic communication, whatever its negative points, has made it possible for people to keep teaching/studying and supporting one another during the pandemic. It’s been a stressful year for students, of course it has, but when I stop to think about how we would have coped in my student days, I realise how much today’s communication possibilities have empowered us in our lockdown isolation.

A bunch of pianists get together after lockdown

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 May 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

At the weekend a bunch of us, all pianists, got together to be sociable and  listen to one another play some live music. One of us had realised that the layout of her house offered the opportunity for us to obey current rules while still enjoying some piano music. Her piano was near the French windows. With the windows open, we could sit outdoors in the garden yet be quite close to whoever was playing.

The weather has been unkind lately, but this was a pleasant afternoon. We sat in the sun and listened while everyone took turns to play something they had been enjoying during lockdown.

Of course we hadn’t met for over a year, so first we had to get over the strangeness of being round the same table in person, testing out our rusty conversational skills. It was tempting to ask each person how they had coped with such an difficult year, but it became clear that this was not the right forum. People feel obliged to smile reassuringly and say, ‘I’ve been fine’; I heard myself saying it although that isn’t really how I feel. None of us has worked out the etiquette of answering such questions yet.

It was wonderful to be so near to live music being created in our presence. At one point, while listening to a Chopin nocturne, I had the impression of light pouring through the dark slats of a shuttered window. Live music is an amazing substance, material, current, or whatever one might call it. It hits you like fresh air.

Classical Top Five podcast episode on trios

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 May 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

This week I was the guest on a podcast called The Classical Top Five.

During lockdown, a group of critics and broadcasters have been making their way through various ‘top five’ categories ranging from the serious to the light-hearted, and this week they turned their attention to trios.

There are many different kinds of trios – string trios, wind trios, trios for piano and various instruments – but as my expertise is in the glorious repertoire for violin, cello and piano, I confined myself to those. It was difficult to stick to just five – even a quick scribbling down of my favourites came to about 25 in the first instance!

Tommy Pearson, Richard Bratby and Charlotte Gardner are the resident experts on The Classical Top Five – they have already amassed quite an archive of ‘top five’ discussions available on podcast.

To listen to this week’s episode about trios, click here.

My new book: The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 April 2021 under Books  •  5 Comments

I haven’t said much about my new book during the past year. In the midst of such upheaval it seemed unwise to count on things going as planned. But happily it’s not long now until The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces is published by Yale University Press on July 13th. The date has shone brightly in my imagination during the dark year of lockdown. Almost all my concerts had been cancelled – but I had this book to look forward to!

My previous books have been concerned with performance. I hadn’t focused specifically on repertoire – for a long time I felt that there were lots of people who had done that, were doing that and could do it better than I could. After all, I’m not a historian or a musicologist. But gradually I began to see that I had other qualifications. My experience of playing, rehearsing, performing and recording these pieces has given me a wealth of knowledge about them – not academic knowledge, but what one might call ‘embodied knowledge’, accumulated during years of grappling with piano parts and sharing them with concert audiences.

My original plan was to pick a favourite area of piano repertoire and explore it in great detail. But I worried that such a book would be of limited appeal. I wanted to write something of wider interest. How to do that without spreading myself so thinly that my remarks about any particular piece seemed glib and inadequate? Then someone gave me a present of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, which has delighted many readers. As I browsed through it I wondered if the same approach could be taken to piano music.

Putting the idea into practice was tricky. What criteria should I use to pick the pieces – my own favourites, or tried and trusted masterpieces? Where should I begin? Should I stick to ‘important’ pieces, or was it OK to include little gems, oddities, provocations? My first attempt, based on my favourites, produced a frankly lopsided list with about 30 pieces by Mozart, 20 by Schubert, 20 by Schumann, 20 by Debussy and Ravel, and so on. This wouldn’t do. I had to take a step back and be more objective.

I spent a lot of time shoving around pieces of paper with the names of pieces on them, making mosaics on the floor before I found a pattern which seemed to tell a meaningful story. I decided to start at the point where the harpsichord was supplanted by the piano. That moment in history felt important because as the piano developed, its greater tonal variety inspired a different type of music. To keep my choices to 100, I found that I sometimes had to cheat a bit and include ‘sets’, such as Chopin Preludes or Debussy Preludes, rather than artificially pick out just one. I didn’t feel too badly about this – after all, a symphony can easily last for an hour, but everyone would agree it is just ‘one piece’. So why not allow a 40-minute set of preludes to count as one choice?

Although I tried to be objective, my 100 pieces inevitably reflect my character and interests. Solo pieces occupy the lion’s share, but my love of chamber music led me to include many collaborative pieces which I believe are the best of their composers’ work. My love for jazz made me include some of that too.  I’m sure that being a woman has influenced my approach. Above all, the fact that I’m a pianist has stamped itself upon my choices. I know how a lot of this stuff feels under the hands, how it finds a home in the imagination. I have experience of what it’s like to try to give it shape and bring it to life in front of listeners, and it was a great pleasure to describe it.

Piano tuning on the horizon

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 April 2021 under Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

My poor old piano has not been tuned for almost a year because of the lockdown.

As the tuning became less delightful, I have practised ‘mind over matter’  – a kind of ‘fingers in ears, la la la! I don’t hear anything wrong’ approach. In fact, my piano has held up remarkably well, but the sourness in certain notes is starting to gnaw at my concentration. ‘Non-essential businesses’ are due to open here on April 26, so perhaps it’s simply that I’m allowing myself to notice the tuning more, now that there is a chance of remedy on the horizon.

I’ve always thought it’s silly that pianists are not able to tune their own instruments, and have to pay professional tuners to do it for them. Of course, piano tuning is an art and a skill learned through extensive training. Tuning a piano properly can take several hours. All the same, it seems crazy that pianists don’t have basic tuning in their skillset.

Most musicians can tune their instruments themselves. On many instruments you can also alter the tuning by adjusting where you put your fingers on the strings, by changing the tension of your lips on a wind instrument, and so on. But a pianist is stuck with whatever state the piano is in.

A year of lockdown has focused my mind on our helplessness in this regard. This lockdown has already gone on much longer than any of us imagined. What if there are more lockdowns? If I were responsible for the piano curriculum at a music college, I would probably start to think about adding some basic tuning skills, so that pianists could do first aid on their pianos while waiting for the experts to be allowed in.