Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 December 2013 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

The BBC2 series ‘Masterchef‘ has come to an end with Steven Edwards winning the title. One of the competitors’ final tasks was to cook for a roomful of distinguished chefs, well known from Michelin-starred restaurants around the UK.

This is always a fascinating event, partly because of the way these leading chefs talk about food. When asked for their opinion on the dishes before them, they often say straightforward things like ‘well cooked’, ‘bang on’, ‘looks great’, ‘well-flavoured’ and ‘very enjoyable’. These are all people who perform artistry with ingredients on a daily basis. Yet they all seem very reluctant to commit themselves when it comes to describing the food they’ve just eaten. Perhaps they feel shy in front of the others and don’t wish to be teased. Perhaps they don’t feel relaxed in front of a TV camera. Maybe they say ‘it was well cooked’ and then go home and write in their diaries that it made them feel they were walking alongside the Seine on a crisp autumn afternoon with the scent of woodsmoke in the air. Maybe they call their partners and say it was like seeing the poetry of Seamus Heaney come to life on a plate.

I couldn’t help comparing them with a roomful of wine writers at a similar event. Surely the adjectives and metaphors would flow as freely and colourfully as the wine! But then let’s not forget that wine writers are not the ones who actually make the wine.

It’s a useful reminder that people who are very good at ‘doing’ are often not very good at ‘saying’. You see it in all sorts of fields, music included. I suspect some people actually feel it is important not to put things into words. Fair enough. Though in the case of Masterchef Professionals, it feels like a missed opportunity to give us a glimpse of how these eminent chefs actually think about food.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 December 2013 under Concerts, Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

butterflyI’ve been practising Schumann’s ‘Papillons’, a cycle of piano pieces containing various motifs and references which reappear in his later piano music. It seems that for Schumann, butterflies were associated with the novels of Jean Paul, one of his favourite authors, who often wrote about the soul’s struggle to resolve its identity. In fact, the link between butterflies and souls goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Psyche, goddess of the soul, was often portrayed as having butterfly wings. I believe that other cultures have also linked butterflies and souls.

So it’s not surprising that butterflies have appealed to composers. In Schumann’s case they seem to be some sort of code for little motifs which come and go, appear here and there, turn upside-down and backwards if they want. One of Grieg’s best-known piano pieces is called ‘Butterfly’. Ravel wrote his piano piece ‘Noctuelles’ about night moths. Poulenc has a piano piece called ‘Phalenes’, another kind of moth. More recently, Harrison Birtwistle has written a ‘Moth Requiem’ inspired by Robin Blaser’s poem about a moth trapped inside a grand piano. It’s a curious thing that all these butterflies and moths should be associated with the piano, on the face of it too percussive an instrument to evoke these mysterious creatures.

Butterflies, starting life as caterpillars, represent the possibility of transformation. What could be more magical than something which begins as an earthbound, slow, crawling creature and ends as an airborne scrap of colour and beauty? I’ve read that the butterfly is the only creature which changes every cell in its body when it transforms itself inside the chrysalis. The DNA of a caterpillar, it seems, is wholly different from that of a butterfly. No wonder this unique process has inspired composers to take simple cells of music and give them new identities.

But why did Schumann use the French word ‘Papillons’ for his piano pieces? He wasn’t French. Why not use the German word? It’s a bit of a mystery, but it seems that in Jean Paul’s ‘Flegeljahre’ there’s an important chapter about a Masked Ball which made a great impression on Schumann. The German word for a masked ball is ‘Larventanz’, and ‘Larven’ can mean not only masks but also larvae, or butterflies-in-waiting, a play on words which doubtless appealed to the author as he made his characters mistake one another’s identities. ‘Larventanz’, though, perhaps isn’t the prettiest of words. Maybe Schumann just liked the sound of ‘Papillons’ better than the sound of ‘Larven’, or preferred it to the brittle sound of ‘Schmetterling’, the German word for butterfly. Maybe he wanted to conceal a direct link to the novel. Or maybe when he swapped from German to French he simply made a graceful sideways hop and a skip to another part of the forest.

Unusual challenges on the platform

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 November 2013 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  5 Comments

I was doing some teaching at Oxford University the other day, and we were discussing the challenges of making a good entrance on to the concert platform when giving a recital as part of your exams. I was discoursing on the need for calm or confidence, and trying to recommend various thoughts and mind-games that might help as the performer crossed that strange space between the entrance door and the piano stool, chair, music stand or whatever.

My students agreed politely and then added that it was perhaps especially difficult to make an elegant entrance with your instrument if you were wearing a long academic gown and ‘mortarboard’ hat.

I had had no idea that Oxford students taking exams were required to wear academic dress, but it seems that they are. Nobody is exempt from this long tradition, not even musicians giving a concert performance. Apparently they may, once they reach their chair, take off the academic gown and mortarboard and put them aside while they play, but at the end of the performance, these items must be picked up and put on again.

I asked whether it was not possible to ask for a dispensation in the case of musicians who are, after all, trying to prepare themselves for the world of public performance, but was told that it was out of the question. All sorts of other groups would object to the exemption, asking (understandably) why it is any more relevant for engineers, doctors, IT specialists and so on to have to wear academic dress for their exams. In fact, not so long ago, it seems that there was a vote on the subject at which students displayed a preference for keeping the old traditions going.

I was fascinated by this unusual spin on the challenges of the performance situation. It may even be that wearing a black academic gown and mortarboard can be used to advantage when making a dignified entrance, but I imagine it is not so easy to make a dignified exit, especially if you have to carry a large musical instrument.

Piano practice and neighbours

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 November 2013 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  7 Comments

Several people including a lawyer have sent me a link to yesterday’s BBC news story about a pianist in Spain whose neighbour took her to court over her piano practising, alleging ‘psychological harm’ from having to listen to it. Spanish prosecutors had initially sought a jail term of over seven years, and now they are asking that the pianist be banned from professional piano playing for six months.

Every pianist’s blood must run cold at this story, for many of us have wrestled with ‘the neighbour problem’ over the years. Yet there are lots of questions I’d like to ask about this Spanish story. Did the young pianist really play for eight hours a day, five days a week as alleged? She was a music college student at the time. So how could she have been at home to practise for eight hours a day? Was she never attending classes, never practising at college? Which hours of the day did she play at home – normal hours or unsocial hours? Many cities have regulations which apply to practising an instrument in apartment buildings. In London we don’t, as far as I know, but a musician friend in Switzerland lives in an apartment block where he is officially allowed to practise between the hours of 9am-1pm and 3pm-8pm or something like that. Admittedly, for a very sensitive person, or for one confined to the house by ill health, listening to someone practising the piano even during those permitted hours could be a burden. Pianos and apartment buildings don’t go together, but for many pianists there is no alternative. Was the Spanish pianist aware of her neighbour’s distress? Did she try to negotiate or compromise?

What never seems to be mentioned in these stories is that the ‘psychological harm’ can go both ways. When I first moved to London to try to carve out a career, I bought an old Bechstein grand piano and moved it into rented accommodation. I have never been one of those ‘eight hours a day’ practisers, and I rarely practise at home in the evenings, so I’ve never considered my piano practice unduly tough for my neighbours. Nevertheless, when I started playing the piano in my first London accommodation, my next-door neighbours started banging on the wall. It was a thick Victorian wall, too, so they must have used more than a human fist to bang so loudly. It sounded as if they were using a battering-ram.

I was horrified. I tried to vary the hours when I played the piano, but whenever I started up, the banging would begin, seemingly inches away from my left ear. I found that I was tensing up before I made the first sound. I always started gingerly, waiting with dread for the banging to begin, and of course there was hardly a moment when I could relax and enjoy music-making. It was hard on my technique as well as my nerves. My neighbour graduated to banging on the front door. On the one occasion that I opened the door, he said, ‘We’ll get you out in the end.’ And indeed, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that I wasn’t up to the daily battle. I didn’t want him to think he had won, but I couldn’t see any positives in staying.  If ‘psychological harm’ was caused, I’d maintain that it was done to me at least as much as to my neighbour. It was an unfortunate start to life as a professional pianist, and since then I have always looked for houses with ‘halls adjoining’, so that there is no party wall between my music room and any room in the house next door.

Today there are digital pianos which you can practise in silence, but that’s not the reality for most classical pianists who need to play acoustic pianos at home. It’s all very well to say that we should go out and practise somewhere else, but where? After you’ve finished life as a student, you don’t have access to music colleges with practice rooms any more. Friends have neighbours too. And most classical musicians certainly can’t afford to rent a separate studio – what kind of studio would it be, anyway, that carried no risk of disturbing anyone in the building? No: for most pianists there is no alternative to playing at home, and hoping against hope that their neighbours are kind and tolerant – perhaps even that they enjoy live music.

Messages out of the blue

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 November 2013 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  1 Comment

Bowdoin masterclassHere I am talking with a talented young pianist at the very enjoyable masterclass I gave at Bowdoin College in Maine a few days ago. It was enjoyable partly because of the students and partly because of the audience, which included some townsfolk not used to coming to such events. One of them said to me afterwards, ‘It had never occurred to me to go to hear someone else having a music lesson, but I’m glad I did!’

I am home from the USA with many impressions to digest. When I’m in a new city, I like to walk around and see what life is like there. In Europe one is not conspicuous when doing so. But walking around in American cities often gives one a strange slice of life, because so many Americans are wedded to their cars. Not many people are out on the streets. I often noticed that when I mentioned I had walked across town, people were astonished. One person told me that she has friends who will hardly walk a block. Walking around all day ‘just for fun’ seems to mark one out as eccentric. To walk aimlessly around in the downtown area of any major American city is to share the streets with the disenfranchised – people who don’t have or can’t afford cars. It gives a strange, and I suppose one-sided impression of what the population of the town is like.

My favourite thing that happened in America on this trip was something unexpected. One sunny morning I was alone in a sunlit concert hall, practising Mozart’s A minor Rondo.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone slip in at the back of the hall and stand behind a screen, listening. It seemed a benign presence, so I didn’t say anything. Late that evening I had an email from that person, a Chinese student, thanking me for a special experience. It was a beautifully worded and thoughtful message which made me feel we were characters in an ancient Chinese novel of courtly life.

This is one of the (potentially) good things about the internet – that if you are moved to write to a stranger, you can usually find out how to contact them. In the old days, it was such a daunting task to figure out how to reach someone you had never met that mostly you didn’t even try. Many impulsive messages remained unsent. Now I get lots of messages out of the blue from people who heard or read this or that and feel like saying something about it. I love this sort of correspondence. The Chinese girl’s unexpected message will stick in my mind as the nicest thing to happen on my visit to America this year.