Cognitive advantage

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 September 2013 under Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

A doctor friend has sent me an excerpt from the current edition of the British Medical Journal in which their writer ‘Minerva’ reports:

‘Great composers have tended to die young, but great performing musicians often carry on getting better as they get older. An article in PLOS One (2013 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071630) asks whether older professional musicians have cognitive advantages. The investigators from Toronto compared professional musicians with non-musicians who were matched on age (mean age 60), education, vocabulary and general health. They found that in almost all tests of cognitive function, the musicians did better. Minerva particularly treasures the recordings of public performances which the Polish pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski gave up to his 100th year. There is more cognitive function going on in them than most of us ever achieve.’ BMJ,2013;347:f5444


Munich competition afterthoughts

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 September 2013 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

Since the end of the ARD Competition in Munich I have been mulling over the concept of competitions. Of course we all understand the point of competitions, and many are prepared to put up with the negative aspects in the hope of benefitting from the positive ones.

Personally, I always found it hard to play my best in competitions because of the unnatural atmosphere, but these days many young musicians seem to approach them as a necessary evil. I know some musicians who go in for half a dozen such competitions each year. They seem to take the view that if a jury doesn’t like them in one place, another may like them in the next, and eventually someone is sure to like them, especially if they go in for a mixture of competitions big and small. This seems to be borne out by the fact that every candidate already has a bunch of prizes on their CV.

As I travelled home from Munich I couldn’t help reflecting that there was an astonishing collection of musicians (jury + competitors) gathered under one roof for ten days. Although we’d all accepted the conditions, it suddenly seemed a great pity that there was so little opportunity for ‘knowledge transfer’. Yes, we did give the competitors feedback if they wanted it, but such feedback is given on the occasion of someone leaving the competition, and in my experience they are rarely in the right frame of mind to hear advice at that moment.

On my particular jury were seven extremely experienced piano trio players, some of whom I had never met before. It was remarkable to be sitting next to them, day after day. Would it have been better for us to spend ten days coaching the young musicians, perhaps playing with them? Could we have had a huge festival? Would it have been fun to ‘mix and match’ among the trios, a kind of chamber music speed-dating? Might there be a way to combine masterclasses with some ‘awards’ at the end? It would have been nice, too, to go out to dinner with the competitors and swap stories of life in the music profession. Sometimes you can avoid problems by hearing how someone else solved them.

Of course, such events would need serious commitment of time and money. But I could not help wondering if, instead of Group A (the jury) sitting in judgement on Group B (the young musicians), we could put our heads together to devise a forum which would bring A and B together to share knowledge in an active and constructive way.

Munich competition ends

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 September 2013 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  2 Comments

Munich jury photo 2013The ARD-Competition in Munich ended with three out of the four categories (violin, viola, bassoon, piano trio) awarding no first prize. Only Yura Lee won a first prize in the viola category.

I wonder if it is generally realised by the public that the rules in Munich do not allow the first prize to be shared. There may however be two second prizes, or two third prizes. If there are two very good finalists, and the jury feels it would be unfair to elevate one above the other, their only option is to award two second prizes. There are of course occasions when the jury feels that no-one deserves a first prize, but it seems to happen quite often that the best option is to give two second prizes.

The Munich audience gave the whole competition tremendous support from the very beginning. Every day there were hundreds of people waiting to be allowed into the hall to hear the various rounds. They followed proceedings with great attention, and had clearly chosen their own favourites, whose performances were applauded loud and long. People often waited in the foyer to hear the results of the individual rounds. Our jury chairman was Menahem Pressler, the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio. At the end of the final, when he announced that there was no first prize for piano trio, the jury was booed by the audience. Luckily I had been warned this might happen, by a colleague who experienced it at a previous Munich competition. It was my first experience of being booed, and not fun. Although I must say my discomfiture was outweighed by my admiration for the audience’s commitment to the young players. I have not experienced anywhere else such a level of public support for classical music.

In the photo you can see the two prizewinning trios, the Trio Karenine and the Trio Van Baerle, standing on the left and right of the photo. The chairman of the jury, Menahem Pressler, is left of centre in a grey jacket.

Tools of the trade

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 September 2013 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

I am still working on the jury of the ARD Competition in Munich, which reaches the Final of the piano trio competition on Saturday.

Obviously I can’t write anything about the competitors, but I can say how interesting it has been to hear so many different groups playing in the same hall. In the first round, there were twenty-four trios, and naturally all the pianists had to play the same piano. It’s fascinating how at one moment it seems that the acoustic of the hall is not favourable to the piano, while half an hour later, when someone else is playing it, you can hear everything clearly. Sometimes you can see pianists pausing for a second to hear how the sound is ringing out into the hall, and adjusting their touch accordingly. One can learn a lot from seeing and hearing the same instrument tackled by 24 different pianists.

At the same time, there is enormous variety in the instruments used by the violinists and cellists of the trios. Some are fortunate to be playing on wonderful instruments with enormous carrying power, while others are doing their best with more homely instruments. I’d like to say that we are not influenced by the quality of the instrument, but of course it is impossible not to respond to a magnificent violin or cello. The variety of those instruments introduces an extra complication into the assessment. How would violinist A sound if they were able to play on the instrument of violinist B, an instrument worth a million dollars? Would cellist X sound so striking if she or he had to play on cellist Y’s modest instrument? We try very hard to concentrate on artistry, but this being music, sheer sound quality cannot help being a factor.

I said to my string-playing colleagues that it would be interesting to have all the violinists play the same violin, or all the cellists the same cello. They laughed and said this would never work, because you have to spend a lot of time with a particular instrument, especially one with a complex personality, before you really know how to handle it. Yet I can’t help pondering the curious situation in which such a huge range of string instruments passes before us, while all the pianists have to play the same piano.

‘The Walk’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 September 2013 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

At the weekend I went to watch a tango club at which an old friend of mine teaches. I know nothing about tango, though I’ve been to a few Argentine tango shows in London, and recently I had a lot of fun playing in a late-night performance of some Piazzolla tangos.

After watching the tango couples for a while, I asked my friend, ‘What is the very first move that you learn when you begin to learn tango?’ He nodded towards the dance floor and replied, ‘Shall I show you?’ ‘No thank you!’ I squeaked fearfully. He smiled and said, ‘I’m going to ask you again, and this time you’re going to give a different answer. …Shall I show you?’ ‘Yes please’, I squeaked fearfully.

We got up on the dance floor (me in my stout shoes) and he explained that the simplest thing, as well as the most refined, is ‘The Walk’, where a couple ‘in ballroom hold’ simply walks to the rhythm of the music, the man moving forward, the woman moving backwards. The man leads and the woman follows, but there should be no pushing, dragging, clutching, or encroaching on the other’s space when not appropriate. The two dancers should be perfectly balanced, aware of one another’s weight and momentum, responsive to directional changes, their heads ‘floating’, their feet gliding on the floor.

‘Walking’ fluently around the dance floor to the music without overbalancing, being pushed or pulled is not easy (especially if you’re the one going backwards). I learned that ‘the walk’ is considered the heart of the matter. I tried it for a while and began to get an idea of how enjoyable it might be. My friend told me that an Argentine tango couple, coming to the club recently to have their expertise assessed, chose to devote most of their demonstration to ‘the walk’, emphasising their ability to make the simplest, loveliest line. It reminded me of that story of the mediaeval painter Giotto, who, when asked by an emissary of the Pope for a demonstration of his skill, responded by taking his paintbrush and drawing a perfect free-hand circle. The simplest thing, but also the best proof of mastery.