A ‘Strictly’ for pianists?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 November 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  3 Comments

I was discussing ‘Strictly’ with a friend who’s also a fan of the show. He asked me:

‘How do you think it would work if celebrities were partnered with professional pianists, to learn to play the piano in a few weeks and then perform, say, a piano concerto in front of a TV audience?’

I started to say that quite a few competitors on Strictly have had prior dance training, but equally it’s true that many of them stress the fact that they have never danced before, or at least not more than joining in with the dancing at a wedding reception or whatever.

Before I had formed an answer to the question about ‘Strictly’ for pianists, we had started laughing. It seemed obvious that such a format wouldn’t work, at least not if competitors were truly starting from scratch. Yes, perhaps they could learn some simple tunes and chords in a few weeks, but the idea of playing a piano piece as dazzling and intricate as the dance routines we see on Strictly …. ‘not gonna happen’.

Now I should stress that I have great admiration for the dancers on Strictly. I think the professionals do an extraordinary job of teaching the celebrities, who in turn achieve amazing things in a short time. Watching everyone’s progress week by week is a delightful experience – and this year’s bunch is already performing at a high level.

However, I can’t imagine that the format would work with piano-playing (or many other musical instruments). Dancing is an extension of what we do anyway, but playing the piano to a high level is not quite as ‘natural’. Of course, almost everyone is musical, so in that sense, playing a musical instrument is an extension of an innate quality.

However, an instrument is not part of your own body, no matter how much we musicians like to imagine that it is. A piano is a complicated mechanical device that takes effort to master, and (for classical repertoire at least) there’s also the matter of learning to read music. It takes special study and a long time to lay down neural pathways and train the fine muscles of the fingers to a level where you can control the piano and perform music designed to delight, impress and move an audience.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that so many people persevere with learning the piano. The first steps come easily, but to go beyond them takes patience and discipline. Luckily, by the time they get past the first steps, many people are hooked. The peaks of the piano repertoire hover before them like a gorgeous mountain range and they are drawn towards it, day by day, month by month, year by year.

‘This is a hugely stimulating book that inspires and enlightens’, says International Piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 November 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

Renowned piano teacher and educator Murray McLachlan has reviewed my book in International Piano:

The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces

To read more reviews of this book, click here

Musical Opinion review of ‘The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 November 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

The quarterly magazine Musical Opinion has a review of my book in its October-December 2021 issue.

Some excerpts from Julian Jacobson’s review:

‘Susan Tomes’ new book is aimed at the informed amateur or mélomane, in the untranslatable French word: the Radio 3 (perhaps rather than Classic FM) listener or Wigmore Hall and festival devotee. Analysis is kept to a minimum and couched in general rather than technical terms, however there are many delightful insights into how the music actually feels to play. Biographical and historical material is well covered with a light, non-polemical touch.

The selection is by no means restricted to classical music: Tomes’ own experience in jazz, extending to a period of study in Boston with Jaki Byard and her performances of the jazz-inflected salon music of Billy Mayerl, lead her to include a whole section on jazz, and her experience as a celebrated ensemble pianist has engendered penetrating essays on major chamber works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Fauré and others. Rightly she sees this as essentially not separate from the great solo repertoire.

…Ultimately the book is a joyous celebration of the piano, its central place in musical and general life, and its range of style, emotion and density from Scott Joplin through the virtuosity of Islamey and the third Rachmaninoff Concerto to the lofty heights of the Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Appassionata and the Ives Concord Sonata. There are no music-type examples: everything is described in terms which will enhance the listener’s experience without intimidating those who do not read musical notation.’

For more reviews of this book, click here (and scroll down to the bottom of the page)

In the pocket of the music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 October 2021 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

The autumn season of Strictly Come Dancing is under way and this year the judges seem inclined to give us a bit more insight into what they are looking for. I have enjoyed learning more about posture, weight, inside edges, head position, arm extensions, ‘spotting’ ( a technique to stop yourself getting giddy when spinning), being aware of one’s partner even when they are not in one’s sightline, and so on.

I always enjoy it when judges speak about musicality because of the different ways they do it. Sometimes they say that one dancer ‘is musical’, while another ‘has musicality’. They talk about being ‘on the beat’ and dancing ‘to the beat’. They talk about staying with the beat and listening to the music.

On Saturday night, judge Shirley Ballas told one contestant that he was ‘in the pocket of the music’. This I particularly liked. In this image, it was obvious that the music must be the leader, while the dancer is effortlessly carried along.

When judges speaks of keeping to the beat or listening to the music, there’s just a suggestion (conveyed by that little word ‘to’) that the dancer and the music are separate things. It’s as if the dancer perceives the music as being something outside themselves, something they must attempt to glue themselves on to. As it happens, this year’s remaining dancers are all very musical, but in previous years we’ve often seen dancers reaching for the beat as though it were something distant.

Being ‘in the pocket of the music’ conveys the idea that dancer and music are combined. When it happens, this is easy to see. No longer does one feel that the dancer is striving to keep to the beat. Instead it feels as if the dancer is expressing the beat.  Subtle distinctions, but we know them when we see them.

Review of my piano book on David Barton Music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 October 2021 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

Another nice review of The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces, this time on David Barton Music, the website of an educator and researcher.

He begins with a description of the book’s contents – and here’s how he sums up:

‘Tomes explores each selected piece in turn, placing it within a historical, cultural and musical context. Whilst reference is made to the musical components of each work, this isn’t an analytical volume. It’s an absorbing, and often surprising, read. It’s easy to lose yourself in Tomes’ compelling and personal writing. Perhaps one of the book’s greatest assets is that it is very much written from the hand of an experienced pianist. Tomes knows many, if not all of these works intimately.

‘Whilst its primary audience is pianists, musicians and those interested in the great repertoire of the piano, it should also be of great historical and wider cultural interest. This is a book about music, and indeed the piano itself, in context.

‘To complement the book, Susan Tomes has curated a Spotify playlist which you can access here.

‘I want to also make special mention of the beautiful cover design for the book which makes it both modern and eye-catching.’

The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces by Susan Tomes, is published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300253924, RRP £16.99.