The composer’s markings

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 June 2014 under Musings, Teaching  •  3 Comments

In a lot of the teaching I’ve been doing recently, one theme has been running through the lessons.

I find myself pointing out to one person after another that they are not actually doing what the composer asked. I don’t mean in terms of notes – those are usually fine – but in terms of louds and softs, choice of tempo, phrasing marks, crescendos and diminuenods, speeding and slowing down, freedom to alter rhythm, legato and staccato, and so on.

Composers don’t mark their scores very heavily with instructions, but I regard their markings as precious messages from one or two hundred years ago about how they imagined the music, and what they hoped to hear. Many of them were experienced performers themselves and would have known how best to bring their music to life. As players, it seems to me that our first task is to notice what the composer has suggested we do with the notes, and see if we can figure out why. Most of the time there are very good reasons for their requests – admittedly more so with some composers than others. For example, Mozart writes very little on his scores apart from the notes, but every single request is meaningful and illuminating. When I’ve become lazy and ceased to notice his markings, I’m always amazed – when I notice them again – to discover how much better they are than what I’ve been doing instead. The same is true with Chopin, whose markings (and pedal markings) are often surprising and brilliantly counter-intuitive. Not every composer hits the nail on the head with such accuracy, but I still think our starting-point should be to respect their advice.

But these days I often find myself telling people that they shouldn’t feel so free to ignore the markings and play whatever comes into their head on the spur of the moment – loud instead of soft, fast instead of slow, lots of pedal instead of no pedal, slowing down or speeding up randomly, pausing wherever they feel like it, and so on. It seems to me that inventing your own alternatives should only come when you’ve digested the composer’s requests and decided they don’t work. Many students don’t wait for this stage before going off-piste with their own ideas. Is it because we are now too far away from the composers for young musicians to identify easily with them? Is it because they live in a society which glorifies the individual’s feelings and wishes?

I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s musicality or love of performance, yet on the other hand I often suspect that students haven’t even tried to put into practice what the composer has asked. Yes, I agree that the most important thing is that students are playing the music at all – that’s why I find it difficult to lay down the law. Of course I’d far rather hear a young musician having a go at Chopin or Mozart than not having a go at it, but I’m puzzled as to why they so often feel they can play the notes and ignore the composer’s other words and signs.

Battle of repertoire

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 May 2014 under Concerts, Inspirations, Musings  •  5 Comments

I was fortunate to be in the audience at the Finals of BBC Young Musician in the Usher Hall yesterday. What a treat! All three finalists showed a remarkable degree of poise, as well as a superb level of musicianship and skill. I was amazed by their calmness on the platform and their composure in the presence of TV cameras. How do these teenagers do it? They seem to feel so comfortable with microphones, cameras and interviews.

The pianist Martin James Bartlett – charmingly dressed in ‘tails’ – was a deserving winner of the trophy with his beautifully nuanced and precise performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He played with intelligence, aplomb and impressive maturity – I had to pinch myself to remember that he is still only 17. Before he played, we saw a video interview in which he made the delightful comment that he often ‘prefers playing concertos and chamber music to playing solo pieces’, a remark I shall treasure.

At these occasions, however, I often have the uncomfortable feeling that we are not comparing like with like. How on earth can one compare a delicate, pastel recorder concerto by Gordon Jacobs with the thundering power of Rachmaninov? How can one set a soulful Romantic piano concerto against the rock-style drumming of a brilliant fifteen-year-old with a metal wheelbarrow in his arsenal of instruments? I loved the playing of Elliott Gaston-Ross (percussion) and Sophie Westbrooke (recorder) all through the rounds of the competition. In fact, in my house we’d identified each of them as a potential winner of the whole thing. I started the Final with the feeling that any of the three finalists was worthy of being Young Musician of the Year. I was glad I didn’t have to choose between them.

I’ve already said that the pianist was brilliant, but the recorder player and the percussionist could hardly have played better.  Yet their repertoire seemed, perhaps invevitably, limited or one-sided next to the gorgeous lyrical sweep of Rachmaninov in full voice. I sometimes think that the audience confuses the merits of the piece with the merits of the performer, thinking that whoever played the best piece must be the best player, and conversely that whoever played a slight and gentle piece was capable of less. But limitations in the piece are not the fault of the player. And how could a recorder ever conquer the symphony hall acoustics to the same extent that a brand new concert grand piano can?

I don’t know what the answer is, except to stop making further judgements when we get to this level, and just offer all the finalists a lot of concert opportunities, so that we can hear them in their own choice of repertoire and in venues suited to their instruments. It’s not showbiz, but it might be fairer. In the meantime I hope that Elliott Gaston-Ross and Sophie Westbrooke may take a leaf out of Martin James Bartlett’s book and consider going in for the competition again when they are two years older and that much more experienced.

News of my new book

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 May 2014 under Books  •  2 Comments

I’m delighted to be able to say that my fourth book will be published by Boydell Press later this year. I’ve just pressed ‘send’ on the final version of the manuscript – a huge relief after working on it intensively for over a year. I had to prise my fingers away from the computer keyboard this afternoon to stop myself embarking on yet another round of tweaking. Probably no-one but me would notice the changes, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop. And of course you always hope that someone, somewhere will notice and be pleased by some particular phrase (so, just like practising the piano really).

The book is another collection of thoughts on what it’s like to be a classical musician. It contains chapters on why I like this kind of music, what it’s like being a pianist, what ‘interpretation’ is, the custom of playing from memory, the challenges of keeping a chamber group together for a long time, the demands of daily practice, and the link between music and health. There are reflections on what it’s like being a classical musician in a world obsessed with other kinds of entertainment. There are other chapters too, but perhaps that’s enough for now.

The book is called ‘Sleeping in Temples‘. The reason for the title is explained in the last chapter. It’s due to be published in November – just in time for Christmas.

‘The noblest prospect …’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 May 2014 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Travel  •  4 Comments

piano moveI’ve been quiet lately because I’ve been busy moving house (see scary picture of my grand piano being hauled through the window). After living in London since leaving university, Bob and I have moved to my home town of Edinburgh. To my surprise my return was mentioned in this delightful column by Michael Tumelty in the Herald on May 6.

It’s an exciting time to be returning to Scotland. How do I feel about an independent Scotland? That’s the question everyone asks me, both north and south of the border. I’m still mulling it over. I’m trying to amass information about the choices, with the help of some very well-informed people.

But there’s no doubt that the atmosphere is different in Scotland these days. When I was growing up and hoping to become a professional musician, there was a strong feeling that anyone serious about a musical career would have to move south of the border. ‘The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road which leads to England’, Samuel Johnson quipped in 1763, and over 200 years later there was still quite a lot of that sentiment about. Most of the talented Scottish students I looked up to had gone to English universities or music colleges, and in due course I followed their example and stayed.

But now there’s a sense that moving the other way would be invigorating. Scotland now has a more positive sense of identity, an international outlook, and a growing sense of its own potential to do things differently. In the past couple of years I’ve met creative people in a number of different fields who, like me, once felt that they had no place in Scotland, but are now excited to live or work there. We all feel that whatever the result of the referendum, Scotland has signalled its intention to be heard. It feels good to be here at this moment in its history.

BBC Young Musician

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 April 2014 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

Here it is again, the heart-warming parade of talented young musicians competing to be BBC Young Musician of the Year. With every passing year it seems more remarkable that there is such a wellspring of young talent directed at classical music. It’s tremendously motivating to see it in action.

And here again are all those remarks from listeners – judges, presenters, the general public – about the ones who ‘look as though they’re really enjoying themselves’. The ability to look as if you’re enjoying yourself is also highly prized by people tweeting about the competition. In many people’s minds it seems that the more enjoyment you can show, the ‘better’ you are.

Why does that annoy me? I suppose because I know that preparing for such a competition is actually a very serious matter. It requires hard work and dedication over a long period. The pieces themselves are emotionally complex, and often extremely difficult from a technical point of view. It’s a matter of wonder to me that so many teenagers have attained such a high technical level, a level that seems in fact to rise from year to year. But I know that in their long hours of solitary practice, how they look is a very minor ingredient if it’s an ingredient at all. If you were able to spy on them during their practice hours, I doubt whether you’d see much smiling or gyrating.

So when I see them on the platform, I’d expect them to look absorbed, focused, and involved. I’d expect to see concentration, determination, and perhaps nerves or insecurity. I’d hope to see (and I often do see) grace and stylishness of manner. I’d expect to see body language – even awkward, ungainly body language – which expresses their commitment to music, or their love of the pieces they’re performing. But ‘looking as if they’re enjoying themselves’ is, for me, neither here nor there. They might be feeling all sorts of emotions on the platform, and witnessing those emotions can contribute to my feeling that they’re authentic and interesting. If they are actually enjoying the performing experience, then great! That’s fun to see. But I don’t want them to be encouraged to ‘act enjoyment’ for its own sake, and I don’t want them to think that failure to smile and bounce around makes them any less compelling as musicians.