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.

Outsider Art

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 November 2013 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  10 Comments

DSC01293Here I am in conversation yesterday with Professor Mary Hunter in the Studzinski Recital Hall during the Klavierfest at Bowdoin College, Maine.

We were billed to talk to the audience about various issues to do with performing, but as many conversations do these days, it turned into a kind of ‘Whither classical music?’ discussion. It seemed appropriate to wonder what was happening to young audiences when we were in the heart of a college campus, but found ourselves addressing an audience largely made up of older people from the town. The fact that it was a Saturday morning may have had something to do with it, but all the same I was struck by the absence of students. What more can you do to reach out to them than make the effort to be right there in the middle of their campus, talking, teaching and playing?

Someone in the audience (I’d acknowledge him if I knew who he was) commented that pop music has now become The Establishment, with pop artists feted by presidents and prime ministers on both sides of the Atlantic. Classical music, he suggested, has already become almost a kind of ‘Outsider Art’. Paradoxically, this may even give it a new lease of life, because outsider art pursued with skill and dedication often attracts followers. We agreed that it might even be better for classical music to situate itself consciously at the margins rather than struggling to maintain some kind of position at the centre of the music world, where there is overwhelming competition – not least in the form of decibels. Someone else said they had asked some of their students what they didn’t like about classical music. ‘Too soft’, they said.  And yet it is not soft. It has every kind of tone colour the human hand can produce.

One chord, two chords, three … or more

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 October 2013 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  Leave a comment

Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who died this week, famously said (tongue in cheek, I suppose) that when you’re composing a song, ‘one chord is fine, two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz’.

I had that quote in my mind last night as I listened to the concert marking the end of three days of coaching young professional chamber groups for the Marryat Players autumn chamber music meeting. This year my co-tutor Tim Boulton and I had four excellent groups – the Gagliano Ensemble, the Albany Trio, the Aomori String Quartet and the Epstein piano quartet. By chance their chosen works combined to make a fabulous concert programme – the Dvorak Terzetto, the Shostakovich second piano trio, the Janacek 2nd string quartet known as ‘Intimate Letters’ (long a favourite of mine) and the Brahms C minor piano quartet.

But it was not an easy programme – everything was either technically demanding, musically intense or both. There were no points where the audience could sit back and let things wash over them – it was all music that grabbed them and wouldn’t let go. As usual, we had underestimated how long the programme would take to perform once we had added a few little speeches and a bit of coming and going as well as moving pianos, music stands and chairs – and of course some prolonged applause. It was almost 10.30pm when the concert finished, though everyone said the evening didn’t feel overlong because there was so much to watch as well as listen to. People always seem to be struck by how absorbing it is to have live music played in front of them.

As I listened to these incredible pieces, played with such skill by fourteen very talented young players, I wondered what Lou Reed would have said about the music. If three chords takes you into the realm of jazz, what on earth would he have said about Janacek? What realm do those unearthly harmonies take you into? Another songwriter said that to write a good song all you need is ‘three chords and the truth’, which of course is true, but luckily the truth is not confined to three chords and can also be expressed through hundreds of different chords juxtaposed in every way the imagination can devise.

City Music Society on 16 Oct

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 October 2013 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

City Music Society, which holds its concerts at Bishopsgate Institute near Liverpool St Station in London, is starting its ‘early evening’ autumn series on Wednesday night, 16 October, with a piano recital by me. Tickets are free for students under 25 with valid ID. For members of City Music Society, tickets are £18, and £21 for non-members.

I haven’t played at Bishopsgate Institute for a long time, and a quick search on Google Images suggests that the hall has been attractively renovated since I last saw it.

My programme includes Haydn, Schumann, Mozart and Billy Mayerl. The concert starts at 7pm, unusually early for London concerts these days. I’m always being told that people with City jobs already find it hard to get to concerts for a 7.30pm start, so I’m hoping that starting at 7pm will not lead to people trooping in after the Haydn Sonata has finished. Troop in before 7pm please!

The temperature in London has been dropping in the last couple of days. I went for a walk the other day in a light jacket and  regretted not being more warmly dressed. It has been so nice during the summer not to have to worry about cold hands. Let’s hope it’s a while yet until the season when pianists have to hunt backstage in concert halls for a sink with nice warm water in which to soak their hands before a performance.