At the Wigtown Book Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 October 2022 under Books, Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  5 Comments

On Saturday, I appeared at the Wigtown Book Festival in Dumfries and Galloway in the west of Scotland (see photo of me being interviewed by Stuart Kelly).

Wigtown is Scotland’s ‘national book town’, boasting an astonishing number of bookshops for a small town which is difficult to get to. Yet as several people pointed out, transport links to that part of the country were actually better in Victorian times. That’s one reason why ‘the Glasgow boys’ used to come down in the 1880s to paint in the lovely Galloway light, because the area was easy to reach on the train from Glasgow.

On my first day in Wigtown I popped into a cafe. A man at the next table recognised me and came over to tell me that he had read all my books. All my books! I’m not sure that such a thing has ever happened to me before, not outside a small circle of friends. Yes, it was a book festival, but it still seemed amazing.

Not only had this nice man read all my books, but he also remembered coming to a concert of mine about 20 years ago. I had played a Schubert piano sonata, and introduced it beforehand.

In my introduction, I had explained (he said) that after telling them a bit about the piece, I was going to go offstage for a few moments before returning to play the sonata. I said it could be stressful to speak to the audience and then immediately sit down and play. Something weird happens in your brain when you have to turn from public speaking to playing music without a moment to collect your thoughts while nobody is looking at you. You can feel quite jangled.

Evidently I had added, ‘Imagine an actor who’s about to play the role of Hamlet. He steps forward to tell the audience a bit about the play before it begins. He would naturally then go offstage and ‘get into character’ before re-appearing as Hamlet. It would be jarring for everyone if he finished his introduction and then strolled onto the stage set without a break in which we could forget that he was an actor and get ready to believe in him as Hamlet. In a similar way, I need a quiet moment to become the performer’.

Rather a good thing to say, actually, I felt on hearing it relayed back to me after an interval of many years. Yet I had only a faint recollection of saying it, while someone in the audience could recall it in detail. Memory is so complicated!


A reunion dinner and some old neighbours

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 September 2022 under Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

In our student days, those of us studying music (and in fact anyone who wanted to continue their piano studies) were allowed to hire upright pianos and put them in our rooms. Not infrequently there were two or more people on the staircase with pianos in their rooms – I remember one year when I and another pianist had ground floor rooms across the corridor from one another. My piano-playing neighbour was actually studying philosophy, but he was a very good pianist who practised more than I did.

On our staircase there were four other rooms. Not only did the other residents never complain about the piano-playing, but they used to say that they enjoyed hearing this or that.

I had forgotten about all that until last week’s dinner when a couple of people spoke to me and recalled that they used to like coming back from lectures or the lab and hearing me playing Debussy or Ravel, my big favourites at the time. One person even said that when certain pieces pop up on the radio these days, they bring back happy memories of sitting with a book on the grass outside my window, piano music weaving in and out of his thoughts.

Wow, I was lucky with my neighbours! I didn’t realise it at the time. Of course, we were all students together. Mutual tolerance was the order of the day.

The topic of ‘neighbour nuisance’ is a lively one these days – lots of people have told me, in comments on my blog, how annoying they find it if someone practises the piano nearby. So for a long time I have been mindful of the need to keep piano practice to certain hours, and to warn my neighbours of any upcoming events which might be more than usually noisy.

But at the dinner last week, I was transported back to that blessed time when my fellow students enjoyed the sound of my piano practice.

Traditions of music-making can’t be allowed to fade away

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 September 2022 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

I often tweet about music and related matters. Usually the response is small – I’m thrilled if my tweets reach a couple of hundred people. So my experience yesterday was exceptional.

I was watching The Queen’s funeral which, as you’ll know, had a variety of music in it – pipe bands, regimental bands, organ music, trumpeters, sacred choral music, hymn singing by the whole congregation, a lone piper, and two newly-composed choral pieces by Judith Weir and James MacMillan. As usual, the power of music was striking.

On the day before, I heard John Rutter say on the radio that for many people now, such grand occasions are the only time they encounter the great tradition of sacred choral music. It’s true. The first time I heard such music on a regular basis was when I was a student, lucky to be at a college with a choir whose mastery of this repertoire was famous. I could have heard it sung live in the chapel almost every day, except that I didn’t, because I ‘had other things to do’. One of my tutors advised me to go as often as I could because I’d never again have the chance to hear this ancient music being sung ‘live’ with such expertise. He was right.

Great traditions of music have become remote from many of us as music has been de-prioritised in school education. Music is not one of the favoured STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It isn’t considered a route to a proper job. Never mind that so many of us turned to music and other arts for sustenance during lockdown; there is no link between the arts and earning power. A few musicians may indeed ‘make it big’, but the recipe has never been dependable.

When I hear complex music – instrumental or vocal, sacred or secular – beautifully performed, it strikes me that we need a steady supply of skilled musicians if such music is to remain performable in the future. And that means training. It means skilled teachers. It means immersion in music and styles of performance. Individual practice has to start in childhood in order for adult skill to be firmly based. But does it start in childhood? Less and less.

Yesterday I tweeted, ‘No-one watching the Queen’s funeral can fail to have been moved by the power of music and the skill of the performers and composers. Can we now please stop treating music as an optional extra in UK education?’

To my surprise the ‘likes’ started ticking up instantly, and as I write there have been 4,408 ‘likes’ and 798 retweets. For me this has been an exciting experience. I can only assume that my comment has struck a chord with many who would like musical training to be part of the core curriculum.

A minute’s silence at the start of a concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 September 2022 under Musings  •  6 Comments

I went to a couple of concerts at the Lammermuir Festival – by the excellent Quatuor Mosaiques – over the days since the Queen’s death. Each concert started with a minute’s silence in honour of The Queen.

At the end of the minute, the players arrived quietly on stage and the concert began without the usual tuning.

The audience was probably in the mood to listen anyway, but I felt that the minute’s silence had deepened the sense of focus. It made me wonder whether the custom of beginning a concert with a minute’s silence (not in honour of anyone particular, just to recognise the musical occasion) would be a good thing to adopt more generally.

Back in the 1980s my group Domus used to do children’s concerts in our portable geodesic dome. We tried various formats, and for a while we got the children to do ‘listening practice’. We all stayed quiet for a minute or two and then shared what we had heard during the quietness. It was never silent, of course. As we were in a glorified tent there were always noises outside, from birds singing and traffic noises to funny snippets of talk from passers-by who didn’t know we were listening. Some children had even noticed the sound of their own breathing.

Eventually we dropped ‘listening practice’ because it felt a bit too much like a lesson. But we always felt that after listening practice the young audience was in a better frame of mind to settle down and listen to us playing. It was probably good for us too. The exercise focused everyone’s minds on the possibility of paying attention, a skill which can enhance any aspect of life.

Picking blackberries

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 September 2022 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

Several times recently I have been out blackberry picking on the hills around Edinburgh. I’ve gone at different times of day, mostly at weekends.

Each time I’ve met other people picking blackberries too. We’ve swapped ideas about what to do with them. Blackberry crumble, blackberry jam, blackberries combined with apples or plums in various ways. Blackberry syrup, to pour over ice cream.

After a few such occasions it dawned on me that my fellow blackberriers were all of roughly my age. Where were the children? We agreed that we hadn’t seen children picking blackberries this year. Yet we all remember picking blackberries ourselves as kids.

My companion suggested that perhaps blackberry picking was like classical music – ‘something you come to later in life’. After all, picking blackberries requires patience, delicacy and persistence in the face of setbacks.

Blackberry picking as the classical music of the harvest season? Something to ponder.