No more bullfrogs […for now]

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 August 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  3 Comments

My readers will know that I hate people coughing in concerts. I don’t mean the sudden cough that the person can’t help and does their best to stifle – I mean the self-indulgent barking cough which rings out across the hall and seems to be targeted at specially quiet moments in the music. When you’re performing, especially when you’re on your own on stage, a volley of coughing can really jolt your concentration.

Well, I have noticed a strange thing lately – both when I was playing, and when I was in the audience. There is virtually no coughing from the audience. In fact, there is a quality of silence which feels quite revolutionary. Like many new behaviours, it must be related to the pandemic.

Ever since coughing was identified as a symptom of coronavirus, people who venture out to live concerts are determined not to cough if they can possibly help it, to avoid striking fear into the hearts of those around them. People who know they have coughs simply don’t go to concerts at the moment.  Socially distanced seating is probably a factor too: the sight of a hall sparsely dotted with chairs is inhibiting. And I suppose that, because we’ve all been washing our hands and keeping our distance, there are fewer ordinary coughs and colds around anyway.

This week I went to a piano recital in a church where, previously, coughs were amplified by the building’s acoustics. Bouts of coughing could cover up quiet moments in the performance. But this time, from quarter of an hour before the concert and right through the concert itself, there was deep silence from the audience. I found myself enjoying it almost as much as I was enjoying the music. It felt like an active sort of silence, a community effort, each person contributing their share of silence to the whole.

Will it last? Nobody knows, but while it lasts, I’m grateful for it.

Piano Power

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 August 2021 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

Recently I’ve heard or coached a number of amateur pianists whose playing I haven’t heard for 18 months, or before All This started.

I had been afraid that everyone’s playing would have fallen apart, but actually my impression was that lockdown has enhanced rather than degraded the skills of the people I’ve been listening to. They had clearly been playing the piano quite a lot during the months at home, with more time than usual to appreciate music and music-making.  Obviously there weren’t any concerts going on, so they hadn’t been working towards a particular performance. It wasn’t that the prospect of an audience had galvanised them into practising more. It was, perhaps, more that the impossibility of an audience had thrown the focus back onto the music itself and the result here and now.

It seemed that the experience of lockdown and, for some of them, isolation, had given new significance to their hours at the piano. To my ears there was a quality of attention to the sound which made their playing more compelling to listen to. They were more ‘in the moment’.

I found myself thinking that it’s a pity one can’t harness this kind of ‘piano power’ and use it as a form of renewable energy – to heat people’s houses, or to recharge the batteries of their electric cars. For now, it’s enough to know that the time we devote to music-making can recharge our own batteries!

My book turns up in Western Australia

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 August 2021 under Books  •  Leave a comment

A reader has sent me a photo of my new book on his garden table in rural Western Australia (see photo).

It’s astonishing to me to think of this book, a copy of which I have photographed on my own garden table, flying to the other side of the world to start a conversation with someone new. For a long time, the words lived inside my head and were gradually transferred to my computer, where I was the only person who looked at them and worked on them.

As the words settled into some kind of permanent shape, I did start to imagine other people reading them, but those imaginary readers were somehow ‘in the cloud’, bobbing about weightlessly like Renaissance cherubs; I didn’t visualise them in actual locations. So to see that the book (or, I should say, a copy of the book) has travelled, independently of me, all the way to the hills of Western Australia is startling and extremely pleasing.


How to subscribe to this blog – an update

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 August 2021 under Daily Life, Website Updates  •  Leave a comment

Update: if you’ve been trying to subscribe to my blog in the last day or two and have encountered problems, please note that the link is now working properly.

I’ve just been writing to my subscribers to tell them that new blog posts, delivered to them by email, now look different because they come via a different route. Google Feedburner, which used to deliver these mails, has ceased to operate and instead I’m using a service called, whose name appears at the top of emails to subscribers.

This seems a good moment to remind you that anyone can subscribe to this blog, free of charge. You sign up by clicking the link in the left hand margin of my home page, under ‘Read the Blog via Email’, and give your email address. Every time I publish a new blog post, a copy of it will pop into your email inbox. It’s free, it’s easy to use, your name will not be published, and it saves you from having to check back to see if there’s anything new on my home page. (Believe it or not, some people actually do!)

Toppings Bookshop ‘author event’ last night

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 August 2021 under Books, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Last night I did an ‘author event’ – the first in-person event of this year – at Toppings Bookshop in Edinburgh. This bookshop, fairly new to Edinburgh, has been beautifully designed around the many interestingly-shaped rooms of the historic building. Curved wooden bookcases follow the line of the curved walls. Rolling library ladders enable you to climb up to higher shelves. Readers sit by windows with cups of tea from pretty teapots (see photo). As a visitor you don’t know what to look at first, the books or the artistry of the store.

My husband Bob ‘interviewed’ me about my new book. To make this feel spontaneous, we hadn’t agreed on the questions beforehand. I had a pretty good idea of what he might ask, but all the same his actual questions were new to me and prompted a genuine off-the-cuff response. At the end, audience members asked questions  – and very intriguing questions they were too. Like: ‘Do you ever feel like varying the text of classic pieces of piano music by improvising phrases of your own instead of what’s written?’ (Answer: no, but it’s quite a long answer.)

After a year and a half of the pandemic, doing live events is a strange mixture of familiar, disquieting and heartening. We have trained ourselves to be wary of people sitting close together. Yet many of us long to be back in settings where we can be close together, enjoying the energy of the crowd. ‘Crowd’ is not quite the word for my bookshop gathering, but all the same they had a unity. They were wearing masks, but sitting close together and reacting ‘as one’ to particular moments in the discussion, just like a concert audience would. For me, this was a lovely feeling. I’ve missed it!