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.

Moon on the water

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 September 2014 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  1 Comment

DSC02197I have had a lovely week at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove. Last September, there were swirling mists and rain. I remember I spent a lot of time taking atmospheric photos of old gates and rocks looming out of the sea mist. This year, by contrast, the weather was fine all week. And there was a harvest moon, which became a talking point every evening. Just before dinner, a huge pink moon would hang just above the coast. After supper, it would have turned silver and risen to hang above the sea, throwing a brilliant swathe of light across the water (see photo). In other years, a torch has been essential for finding one’s way back along the stony paths to the cottages. This year, the moonlight provided plenty of illumination.

It is always very interesting to work with people from other countries and cultures, and from different generations. There are such different expectations about how much to say in rehearsals, and how to say it. There are different ideas about how to work at things, and what kind of work is most productive. Some people want to persevere in rehearsal for hour after hour, while others like to let things settle without saying much. There are different technical standards and artistic approaches, which somehow have to be melded together in the course of a week’s rehearsal. Sometimes the older players think they know best, and sometimes the younger players do. Each has to find a gentle way of putting their ideas across. Despite what may seem like incompatibilities at the start of the week, most groups do manage to find a blend and even an appreciation of one another’s qualities, which makes the performances at the end of a Prussia Cove week some of my favourite performances anywhere – whether I’m playing or listening.

Another dose of Prussia Cove

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 September 2014 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

P1100454I’m looking forward to another visit to the International Musicians’ Seminar ‘Open Chamber Music’ at Prussia Cove in Cornwall, where a large group of musicians (mostly string players, but also some pianists) gathers to play chamber music. At this time of year I always find myself imagining the journeys undertaken, at their own expense, by friends from different parts of the world to converge on one small, wild, inspiring spot by the Atlantic.

Imagining their journeys is a bit like looking at one of those ‘fractal’ images so popular a while ago, because the journeys start in, for example, California with enormous planes crossing oceans, continue with trains chugging across England (more and more slowly) to the south-western tip, and then gradually everyone is decanted into little vans which turn off the main Penzance-Helston road and wind expertly down the narrow lanes between stone walls and old trees bent and salted by the Atlantic breezes until we reach the sprinkling of houses and cottages along the cove. At that point everyone breathes out with relief (usually followed by a sharp intake of breath as they remember how cold, damp and windy it can be).  They dump their luggage in their cottages and swap their cool urban outfits for thick jumpers, anoraks and stout shoes. And a moment later the candlelit dining room is full of musicians who have never met before, or haven’t seen one another for a year or longer.

There’s a big age range, from student to senior. The idea is that different ages will bring different qualities to the mix. Everyone works in two different chamber groups for a week, and at the end of each week there are three public concerts in the region. The seminar is three weeks long, but most people attend just one week. Each person is involved in two groups, so everyone has at least five hours of scheduled rehearsal each day, and they often work longer voluntarily. Sometimes players ask to play with one another, and sometimes they’re randomly allocated to work together – often a mixture of both in the same group. They may be playing pieces new to them, or old favourites they fancy playing with different colleagues than usual. It’s nice to have new light shed on old problems, or to find that old problems no longer exist.

Personalities may ‘click’ or not; this is usually apparent very quickly. Some people are brilliant with soothing diplomacy which enables the group to plough on constructively. Some groups love each other from Day One and are sorry to be parted at the end of the week. Other groups are detonated by a culture clash or a temper outburst, occasionally followed by the sight of an enraged figure waiting on the path with suitcase packed for a dramatic early exit. Mostly, though, the mixture of styles, personalities and backgrounds produces something very rich and special. It helps to be working within sight and sound of the sea, which gets into people’s dreams. Walking along the cliff paths in a high wind after a rehearsal can blow away many vexations. So many talented people in such a remote and unusual place – no wonder many feel the experience sets them up for another year in the real world.