Different degrees of preparation

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 November 2014 under Daily Life, Musings  •  4 Comments

The current series of ‘Masterchef Professionals’ has provoked quite a lot of interaction between musicians (mostly on Twitter) commenting on how unprepared the competitors seem to be for the cookery challenges which await them. Time after time, in the ‘technical challenge’ section, chefs are asked to do a standard restaurant task like de-bone a piece of meat, prepare a game bird for cooking, or do some classic patisserie. Time after time, when asked if they’ve done this before, they blithely answer ‘No’.  And then we see the judges exchange looks of dismay or alarm as the chefs blunder through a task you’d think was part of every professional cook’s basic training.

Not only that – when given the opportunity to cook a ‘signature dish’ of their own, they quite often admit that they have never timed how long it takes to make it, have never made the whole dish at once, or tasted the combination of component parts.  Competitors seem to be selected for a certain degree of ignorance so that they can ‘go on a journey’ during the series, learning and mastering things they couldn’t do at the beginning.  Human interest, right enough, but not exactly deserving of the title ‘Masterchef Professionals’. I suppose the producers must have decided that it is not entertaining to watch a bunch of supreme experts doing things perfectly.

How different all this is from the world of classical music, where young performers prepare endlessly for their appearance in front of a competition jury. Their preparation includes the usual months of private practice and memorisation, but also consultation lessons with people who can advise about appropriate presentation, not to mention a good many ‘try-out concerts’ of their competition repertoire. No aspiring performer would dream of entering a competition without having played their pieces all the way through a thousand times.  It’s not even imaginable that the judges could ask, ‘Have you ever played an arpeggio?’ and receive the answer ‘No’. ‘Have you ever played a piece in A major?’ ‘No. I’ve played a piece in G, but I don’t know if I’ve ever played one in A’. ‘Have you ever played a piece by Beethoven?’ ‘I’ve seen it done, but never played one myself.’

Would it be diverting to hear the principal judge give a very skilful, moving performance of a Bach Partita, and then listen to a group of competitors sight-reading through the same piece without having heard the demonstration? Hmm. Let’s hope nobody pitches the idea to television.

Classical Music review of ‘Sleeping in Temples’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 November 2014 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

The first review of my new book has appeared. I’m delighted to find it is ‘Editor’s Choice’ in this month’s Classical Music with a five-star review:

‘Those bewitched by Tomes’s three previous books (two published by the clearly perceptive Boydell Press) can prepare for bewitchment all over again. The title borrows from the thinking of Ancient Greeks that sleeping in temples might ‘incubate dreams’; to Tomes, ‘temples’ are the works of music which provide the focus for the lives of performers.

‘Well, music has here incubated a fabulously wide-ranging array of essays, some lengthy, some pithily short, such as her chapter on a teacher colleague’s frustration that his students know how to start a piece of music, but not how to begin. If this sounds a tad over-philosophical (nothing like the case, by the way) then Tomes also spends time musing on the phenomenon of the concert hall cough. Likewise, Tomes chews engagingly on the ever-thorny problem of ‘What is interpretation?’ but also makes space for thoughts on a career spent grappling with the female musician’s interminable dilemma of what to wear when performing … blokes take note. She also side-steps into the world of contemporary art for some uncompromising observations on the primacy of idea and concept as opposed to technical skill.

‘There are fascinating and revealing insights into the business of being expected to memorise music in the solo context, but nothing is more tactile than Tomes’s comments on the stresses and strains of working and especially touring as a chamber musician. No-one offers these kind of reflections on classical music, musicians and musical life for financial gain. The well-spring here would appear to be Tomes’s statement in her ‘Prelude’ that writing about the ‘mystifying’ life of a classical musician helps explain it first and foremost to herself. Her straightforward style nonetheless captivates through its calming rhythms and unfussy erudition, totally lacking in any vestige of self-indulgence.

‘At this time of year I’m bound to say that ‘Sleeping in Temples’ will make a marvellous Christmas gift for the musician or music-lover in your life’.

Classical Music magazine, Nov 2014, ‘Editor’s Choice’, *****

Thinking back or planning ahead?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 October 2014 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

An interesting discussion the other night with a bunch of student pianists. We were discussing the kind of situation where you have to perform several different pieces in a row without being able to leave the stage. This is sometimes the case in, for example, a competition, where the rules state that you must perform your programme in a single sweep. Almost everyone finds it hard to remain on stage and go straight from one piece to another without the opportunity to do what they’d usually do when they’re off stage for a moment – jump about, take a drink of water, make a joke, breathe deeply or whatever.

One of the pianists had just performed a twenty-minute programme consisting of four very different works, all of them difficult. In between the pieces, he sat still for quite a few moments before continuing. When we were giving ‘feedback’, I asked him what he had been thinking during the pauses, expecting him to say that he was preparing his mind for the next piece.

‘To be honest’, he said, ‘most of the time I was actually trying to eliminate tension after the piece I’d just played. My heart was beating really fast and I was basically waiting for it to slow down to something near normal. I wasn’t really planning for the next piece. I just wanted to get to a point where I felt able to begin it!’

This was an interesting response and a useful one for all of us. It’s absolutely true that when you are compelled to stay sitting on the piano stool between one piece and another, you have first to cope with the energy, the adrenalin, the concentration and effort required by the piece you’ve just played. Unless you can ‘swallow’ that energy or find a way to surf along on it, it will be hard to plough into another challenging piece, probably a piece in a different mood altogether.

We often talk about preparing the mind for what we’re about to play, but it suddenly struck me as equally important to talk about how to disperse tension from mind and body – or how to use the energy to your advantage, if there’s a way to do that with an audience watching you.

My new book is out

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 October 2014 under Books  •  5 Comments

Sleeping in Temples cover imageMy new book is officially out today from The Boydell Press.

In fact, in the mysterious way of modern publishing, it seems to have been available from various outlets for a few weeks now, as I discovered with surprise when I got a letter about it from a reader, weeks before its advertised release date.

Sleeping in Temples is my fourth book, a collection of personal essays about what it’s like to be a performing classical musician: what motivates us, what the ups and downs are, how we work at the music, what effect it has on our lives and characters, and why we persist in being devoted to classical music despite being  aware that most people look elsewhere for their musical heroes.

The book is substantially longer than my last one, and I think the tone is more serious, because of what I feel is the nature of the challenge facing many classical musicians. It’s not all heavy stuff, though; the serious chapters are interspersed with lighter ones, and longer chapters with shorter ones.

You can order the book direct from the publisher or from your favourite online retailers. Here for a start are links to the Guardian Bookshop, and to The Book Depository. It should also be available from larger bookstores. A friend bought a copy this week from Hatchard’s in Piccadilly.

In the next weeks you can hear me speaking about the book at McAlister Matheson bookshop in Edinburgh on November 13 at 6pm, and at the Bath Book Festival on November 14 at 5.15pm in St Swithin’s Church, with some live piano music too.

Why is the book called ‘Sleeping in Temples’? All is explained in the last chapter.

A keyboard rolling like the sea

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 September 2014 under Daily Life  •  5 Comments

I have a new pair of glasses with varifocal lenses. How can glasses have become so expensive! Every few years, one seems to need new glasses, and economising on the choice of frame is neither here nor there when the lenses themselves cost hundreds of pounds.

Since my last pair of glasses, lens technology has improved, and there are now more things ‘factored in’. For example, there’s an area of the lens meant to make reading music more comfortable. The music desk of a piano is a bit further away than where you’d naturally hold a book or newspaper. The same would be true of an orchestral player’s music stand. Therefore musicians often need an intermediate reading distance as well as a ‘book-reading’ distance. Many musicians have a special pair of glasses for reading music. That’s in addition to their ordinary reading glasses, of course. I know lots of musicians whose lives are a merry-go-round of different glasses.

When I sit at the piano wearing my new varifocals, the keyboard appears to have a subtle curve to it. This is a weird feeling, because obviously I know that the keyboard is a straight line. My eyes are telling me one thing, while my brain tells me another.

Furthermore, if I sweep my gaze from left to right of the piano keyboard, or from right to left – as one constantly does when playing piano music – the whole keyboard seems to roll, like a gentle swell on the sea.

No doubt my brain and my hands will find a way to ‘ignore’ these effects, but in the meantime the sight of the gently rolling keyboard is a novel and slightly sickening distraction.