Edinburgh without its festivals

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 July 2020 under Daily Life, Travel  •  Leave a comment

At this time in Edinburgh we’re usually starting to experience the surge of visitors arriving for the city’s festivals – the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and the Book Festival (plus a host of minor festivalettes).

But all have been cancelled, or at least reduced to an online offering, because of the pandemic. For the first time that I can remember, the city centre feels pleasantly relaxed as August approaches. (See photo of Edinburgh’s West Bow, normally a hive of activity during the summer).

In recent years the streets have become so crowded in August that many residents avoid the city centre altogether. A year or two ago I ventured up to Edinburgh Castle in mid-festival with a foreign guest and was aghast to find myself practically shoving people when it seemed there was no other way of progressing up the narrow cobbled lanes amid the tightly-packed throng of visitors.

At the moment the empty streets, which seemed so ominous during the early part of lockdown, feel quite relaxed because Scotland currently has very low numbers of Covid19 infections (touch wood). So this year we residents are inclined to wander out and sniff the air in a city centre shorn of its usual crowds.

Everyone says the pandemic has offered Edinburgh a chance to step back and reflect. Has the success of the festivals got out of hand? Most people would say yes. There are too many commercial operators who sweep in, install their Fringe venues, blitz the place with advertising, efficiently hoover up money and depart. Meanwhile, of course, performers themselves are struggling to make money. The hollowing-out of the city centre, where many flats are holiday lets, has become a scandal. I had always thought the Old Town must be a fascinating place to live until someone with a flat in the Cowgate told me that the quality of life there has gone rapidly downhill. At night it is like living in a perpetual nightclub, the noise unceasing.

So I have decided to enjoy the historic centre ‘mindfully’ this August, relishing the quieter streets and taking the chance to explore the Royal Mile and its little ‘closes’ without having to compete with tour groups, selfie sticks, upraised umbrellas and litter. Who knows – I may never see it like this again.

Remembering an old college friend

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 July 2020 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

Today is a melancholy day, the funeral of one of my first college friends. He had battled for years with depression, anxiety and a cascade of associated health problems.

His passing led to a burst of correspondence between those of us in his circle in those university years. We agreed that if we had been asked at that time to identify someone likely to have an illustrious future in the world of academia, it would have been this person: widely-read, amusing, astute, and a glamorous figure with an arresting choice of outfits. It was so easy to imagine him becoming an eccentric, popular professor.

Sadly, he did not thrive in the years that followed. He never seemed to grasp the nettle of the outside world. We kept hoping there would come a turning-point. He would manage to get off his medications. New therapies would be found. A counsellor might help him to turn the key in his mind. It always seemed as if there was still time for a new leaf. Now we have to accept that there wasn’t.

We have been mulling over the trajectories taken by those of us who used to sit around the table in the college bar, setting the world to rights. Some of that group have flourished, others not. Yet the cards have not fallen in predictable patterns.

Luck, health, opportunity or lack of it – these have played a big part. Talent is important, but it turns out there is no straightforward link between talent and success. Ambition, determination and perseverance have helped, but have not always been enough. Personality and ‘clubbability’ have been assets. Careers with definite structures have made ladders easier to climb. Mental resilience has been vitally important. But how to develop it?

Looking back, I do feel that more could have been done to prepare us for the challenges of the working world. I don’t recall any of my university tutors ever asking me what I planned to do when I graduated. Where was I going to go, how did I intend to support myself financially. Did I have a realistic plan? (I didn’t.) There was no career advice whatsoever. They were kind to me until the moment I left, but then turned their attention fully to the next cohort of students. I found the transition to the working world very hard, and some of my friends found it even harder.

Lockdown practice insights

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 July 2020 under Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

During lockdown I have had plenty of time to practise slowly. Normally, I practise things because I’m getting ready to perform them. But with all concerts cancelled, there was no reason to prepare in the usual way – that is to say, securing things in a way that I knew I could depend on when I was in front of an audience.

Suddenly there was no pressure to pass efficiently through the stages of preparation in order to arrive at a result. When you have a concert date in the diary, you obviously need a result by that date. You can’t still be working out how to play things.

It was interesting to be released from that pressure. (This was one of the only good things about the situation). I was able to slow right down and observe my playing with attention. Nobody was going to hear me performing any time soon, so why not take things apart and oil the wheels a bit?

Practising slowly during lockdown brought lots of insights about playing the piano, actually, but here are just a couple of the ‘physical’ ones.

I noticed that I was often physically ‘hanging on’ to individual notes longer than necessary (ie. longer than their written duration). I think many pianists do this as a way of anchoring their hand on the keyboard, but it’s a habit which is nothing to do with the music. When I saw myself hanging on to a note, I let myself release it, and this made the next thing easier.

I’ve noticed before that after stretching an octave, many of us retain the tension of that hand position after the octave has sounded. We play the next notes with our hand in an open ‘stretch’ position it doesn’t need to be in – holding the thumb stiffly away from the rest of the hand, for example.

And I noticed that a hangover of tension from preceding notes often makes one strike the next notes at a tangent. This decreases the amount of control you have over the tone. If you can release the tension, you can arrive at the next note with the hand ‘in neutral’, ready to face the note or chord with an ideal position.

As a teenager I learned percussion and have always remembered the feeling of striking, say, the side drum in an unlucky way – from an angle, or on the wrong part of the drumhead – so that I got a stifled sound instead of a pure ringing tone. There are analogies here with playing the piano.

After practising with slow attention for weeks (16 so far), I can sum up my discoveries in a few words. Your hands need to be in the right place to play each note or chord with optimum balance and comfort. As each hand position ends, leave it behind and move on. Don’t let your hand hold the memory of the previous position like a pillow that retains the shape of your head.

The question is: can these insights be preserved when life resumes its usual tempo? After all, the pressures of normal life cause these bad habits to form in the first place. But if you want to change a habit, you must first learn to pay attention to it, and I have, so I am hopeful.

Exploring the Shelves, 20: Bach’s first Invention

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 July 2020 under Inspirations, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

Most people who learn piano will have come across Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, but their eyes may not have alighted on his Foreword. Mine hadn’t until the other day.

‘Forthright instruction, wherewith lovers of the clavier, especially those eager to learn, are shown in a clear way not only 1) to learn to play two voices clearly, but also after further progress 2) to deal correctly and well with three obbligato parts, moreover at the same time to obtain not only good ideas, but also to carry them out well, but most of all to achieve a cantabile style of playing, and thereby to acquire a strong foretaste of composition.’

Bach seems to take it for granted that the student will be doing some composing of their own – a healthier attitude than we have today, where we tend to divide students at an early stage into players or composers – more’s the pity.

Bach’s attitude to ‘forthright instruction’ struck me as refreshingly different to current theories about ‘knowledge transfer’. A little while ago I went to a talk about the future of university education in which it was put to us that ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ should think of themselves as moving forward hand in hand on a journey of equals, each respecting what the other brings to the experience.

Whereas Bach just states that his instruction is forthright, clear, correct and will show the student how to play well and get good ideas about composition.

He backs up those claims with ‘inventions’ of wonderful range and clarity.  Nothing is withheld: he shows exactly how to construct little themes of different characters and utilise them in clever and pleasing ways.  His skill is so openly and generously displayed that one might think it is easy to copy him. Nevertheless, anyone who has tried will know that Bach has quietly avoided all kinds of traps which await the unwary. The way he fits things together, nothing awkwardly crammed in or left out, brings to mind the ‘mathematical bridge’ (such as the one in Queen’s College, Cambridge) which strikes the beholder as a lovely rounded arch, although it is made from straight pieces of timber.

Invention no 1 in C major is the most famous. Its little theme, announced by the right hand, is answered in a lower octave by the left, beginning a dialogue in which one hand follows the other at half a bar’s distance. We are shown how to get the most out of this theme: inverting it (bars 3-4) so that every rise in pitch becomes a fall and vice versa; swapping the roles of right and left hand (bar 7); linking right-way-up and inverted versions to form a smoothly descending passage (bar 15). Moreover, he uses the four opening notes as a ‘cell’ in their own right. In notes twice as long, this cell becomes an ascending quaver motif in the bass (bars 3-4, bars 5/6), in the right hand (bars 11-12) and a descending motif in the left hand (bars 19-20). In bar 21 he flips the left hand motif back to its original format so that we suddenly recognise it as the opening theme, or at least the first six notes of it (CDEFDE).

A century later, the technique of one ‘voice’ following another at a distance was given a different slant by Romantic composers, particularly Schubert and Schumann, to conjure up the illusion of the Doppelgänger or mysterious double which dogs the narrator’s footsteps, trailing him like a shadowy version of himself. This is not how Bach uses the technique of ‘imitation’. With him, it is a demonstration of the art of civilised dialogue – considerate, balanced and wide-ranging, with a touch of grave humour when things turn upside-down.

Exploring the Shelves, 19: Gershwin’s Three Preludes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 July 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  2 Comments

This is probably the penultimate in my lockdown series about neglected music on my shelves. It has been a helpful focus for me during a phase when more people had time to read. As we start to come out of lockdown, it seems right to wrap it up. I’ll try to get to number 20!

Today I’m looking at George Gershwin’s Three Preludes. Not neglected, of course, but I haven’t heard them played in concert for quite a while. The three preludes are all we have of a projected series of 24 which Gershwin hoped would stand alongside other celebrated sets of 24 preludes, such as Chopin’s. Alas, he never got around to writing more than five, and two were somehow dropped along the way.

He premiered the Three Preludes himself at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan in 1926. The hotel had opened just two years earlier and was considered an icon of Jazz Age elegance. You can google photos of its gorgeous ballroom which still features a grand piano, and it’s easy to imagine Gershwin sitting at it in his pinstripe suit. It shows something about his milieu that his preludes were premiered in a ritzy hotel.

I’ve always felt that he secretly had a jazz band or an orchestra in mind when he wrote these pieces – it’s easy to imagine rasping clarinets, blaring trumpets and horns, double basses doing rich pizzicato, and a sizzling rhythm section. It’s as though the piano is being used to evoke other instruments.

Prelude 1 is probably the most successful, partly because it seems to invite a bit of swing. Number 2, which Gershwin called ‘a sort of blues lullaby’, has a sultry melody which is easier to play if you imagine your right hand is a clarinet or saxophone. In the middle episode I find it helps to imagine yourself as a singer with a deep bass voice – you can almost hear the words of his bluesy lament. In number 3, I can’t prevent myself hearing the words ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ (from Porgy and Bess) under the main theme. The piece has great energy, but the writing isn’t particularly pianistic, and as a consequence one often hears it played with more gusto than grace.

Gershwin was an accomplished pianist in a style tending towards hectic bravura. It was a very popular style of piano playing in the 1920s and had a big influence on the playing of Billy Mayerl, a Gershwin fan on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s a 1928 recording of Gershwin dispatching his Three Preludes with a sort of devil-may-care élan. Far from pulling his piano music around or lingering indulgently to show his emotions, it’s as though Gershwin wanted it downed in a single go, like a shot of whisky. Quick – there’s another party to go to!

For me, a little of this kind of playing goes a long way. I love Gershwin’s music, but have often felt there is more beauty in it than he cared to bring out when he played.