Jazz and its women instrumentalists

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 November 2018 under Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

In my new book Speaking the Piano, there’s a chapter about the time I went to America in the 1980s to learn jazz piano.

I loved learning about jazz, but didn’t find a way into the jazz world at that time. One of the reasons was my feeling of discomfort at being a female instrumentalist in a macho jazz world. Women have long been familiar to jazz audiences as ‘songbirds’, but not so much as pianists, despite the achievements of a few women such as Carla Bley, Diana Krall and Norah Jones.

In my jazz chapter I wrote:

‘In 1999 the Open University ran a radio series of ‘Gender and Music’ for which they interviewed leading jazz players such as saxophone player Barbara Thompson, who formed her own group Paraphernalia, and American jazz lecturer and pianist José Bowen. Almost twenty years after I went to Boston, their opening question was, ‘Why are there so few women jazz players when there are so many women singers?’

‘Answering this question, Bowen referred to the ‘very male’ competitive atmosphere among jazz musicians. He mentioned the ‘cutting competitions’ of the 1940s and 50s in which jazz musicians (male) would try to play faster, louder, higher than anyone else on the platform. This was called ‘cutting’ other musicians, an interesting choice of word in itself. (It reminded me unpleasantly of the jazz word ‘axe’ for a musical instrument.) …’There is built into the art form a tendency towards aggression’, Bowen commented, going on to comment (perhaps sarcastically) that ‘in some ways the field was wide open for women if we can get past the social difficulties involved, the hours, and the attitude on the bandstand.’ ‘

Yesterday, several decades after I studied jazz in America, I was startled to receive an email about the upcoming programme in The Jazz Bar, a respected Edinburgh jazz venue which runs an intensive programme of events throughout the year, often with several different artists or groups appearing on a single night. So they know what they’re talking about.

Programmer Edith Kyle wrote in her email:

‘I feel that it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of women in jazz (instrumentalists in particular) as it is still something of a rarity, and with so many accomplished older male musicians on the scene, it can feel like an intimidating atmosphere for women and young musicians to join. I’m making an active effort in the programming to include more and more of these incredibly talented female instrumentalists to showcase as, not only are their performances a fantastic addition to the programme, but representation and visibility is hugely important in inspiring future generations of musicians.’

Good for you, Edith! And absolutely right. But how frustrating to hear that – despite the efforts of the #MeToo generation – women jazz players are still grappling with the same issues I grappled with in the 1980s!!

Robert Philip’s ‘Companion to Orchestral Music’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 October 2018 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

Robert Philip with his new book

It’s a great moment in our household because my husband Robert Philip’s epic study of orchestral music is about to be published by Yale University Press. Pre-ordered copies have started to land on people’s doormats, probably with a thud.

The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music has been thirteen years in the writing. At almost 1000 pages it also turns out to be on the limit of what can be bound in a single volume.

13 years ago, Robert started off with the plan of writing short, snappy entries on favourite orchestral pieces. But he made the mistake of starting with Beethoven, about whom it is hard to write snappily. As he became engrossed in describing Beethoven’s symphonies and their effects, the entries got longer and longer.

When he moved on to other composers, he tried to go back to writing concisely, but the new entries looked sparse beside the ones on Beethoven. So Robert allowed himself to write more expansively about the new works. And so on. The task became more and more mountainous, the research more extensive, while the yet-to-be-tackled composers remained a distant procession on the horizon. But finally the book is finished, and what a huge achievement!

On the back cover are enthusiastic endorsements from Nicholas Kenyon, Rob Cowan, Richard Wigmore and Marin Alsop.

Robert’s work with the BBC and the Open University were important influences.  His years with his beloved OU have made him sensitive to readers who are approaching a subject freshly, and his radio broadcasting has trained him in how to write as if he were speaking to you.

In his new book, essentially a giant collection of programme notes, he writes conversationally but without sacrificing complexity. It’s a marvellously lucid volume which encourages readers to dip in and out of it. Wherever they land, they’re sure to find something illuminating. Perhaps the best place to start is with the introduction, a warm and wise account of how Robert came to love orchestral music.

I’m biased, of course, but in my view this book is the ideal Christmas gift for anyone who loves orchestral music.

Australian radio ‘The Music Show’ interview

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 October 2018 under Concerts, Daily Life, Teaching  •  Leave a comment

This Sunday morning, 14 October, ABC radio in Australia is broadcasting a substantial interview with me on ‘The Music Show’, presented by composer Andrew Ford. We were talking about my book ‘Speaking the Piano‘.

The interview was recorded with me in Edinburgh and Andrew in Sydney. We talked for a while and apparently most of it came out well, so the programme’s producers decided to devote the whole episode to it on Sunday. There are music clips to punctuate the discussion.

It airs at 11.00 Sydney time, which is 0200 in the UK. Don’t worry, I don’t expect anyone to set their alarm clock! But here’s the link, and after the programme has aired in Australia, the audio will be attached and you can listen to the interview at a comfortable time.

A little knowledge

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 October 2018 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  5 Comments

I was doing a radio interview the other day about my new book ‘Speaking the Piano.’ While waiting in the studio, I got chatting to the man on duty in reception. I was holding a copy of my book. He asked me what it was about, so I told him it was about learning music.

‘I wish I had learned more about music’, he said. ‘I always wanted to play guitar, but my brother was the only person in the family who had lessons. I really wanted to play a particular song by Coldplay, so I pestered my brother to show me the chords. He showed me and I copied him until I could do them.

‘Over the years he showed me a few more songs I liked. In the end I could play the chords for half a dozen songs, but I never learned any more than that. I never learned to read music.

‘So, apart from those half dozen songs, I can’t play any others. It’s a shame I stopped there,’ he concluded.

‘Did anyone ever tell you what chords they were – like the names of the chords, where they were located within the key of the song?’ I asked.


‘Show you how to read a chart of guitar chords?’


‘That’s a pity’, I said, ‘because with the chords of those six songs you could have played lots of other songs, because many of them use the same chords. You just have to recognise what they are and know how to find them in the right key.’

They say that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Here, a little learning had made someone feel inadequate. If anyone had explained the principles behind the chords, how they were notated, how they were related, how to transpose them into other keys, a whole world of songs would have opened up for this young man. Instead, he had gone for years believing that he could play six songs and no others.

‘You could start again now’, I suggested. He gave me the doubtful look with which I’ve become very familiar when I suggest to adults that they could take up the musical instrument they abandoned in their teens. ‘I suppose I could’, he said politely.

Please! Let’s teach children properly about music while they are still at school!

Email, instant messaging and the whirligig of time

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 September 2018 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

I was complaining last week to a fellow musician about the difficulty of getting students to reply to emails. ‘You’d think they would reply to email precisely because it’s so easy to click on ‘reply’ and write a few words’, I said.

‘I have exactly the same problem’, he said. ‘I think it’s because a lot of them see email as old-fashioned. I don’t know why, but it seems to require a certain style of writing. You know how most people begin an email with ‘Dear X’, and then they write in proper sentences and paragraphs, with spaces in between, and finish with ‘best wishes’ and all that. Students can’t be bothered with it.’

‘Old-fashioned???’ I squeaked. ‘I feel I’ve only just mastered it! What are we to use instead?’

‘That’s my problem too’, said my friend. ‘I can’t bring myself to use WhatsApp to arrange lessons or sort out administrative issues. It feels weird to write ‘hi friday ok this week? [smiley face]’. But it also feels wrong to text or WhatsApp them saying ‘Dear X, I was wondering whether Friday at 3pm would suit you for your lesson time this week?’ Especially if they reply, ‘Cool thx’. You feel like a fool.’

‘But you do get a reply to one of those instant messaging apps?’ I persisted.

‘Yes, I usually do. But like you said, if I send an email, I often wait ages for a reply, and quite often they just ignore it completely. It’s strange, because to me email still feels incredibly quick and easy. I used to do lots of my admin by letter, sent in the post. Email feels almost trivial by comparison, but it doesn’t seem to feel like that to students.’

‘Everything has changed so quickly!’ I said.

So quickly’, he agreed. ‘And the strange thing is: when we were taking the trouble to write proper letters, put a stamp on them and walk to the post box with them, we almost always got replies. Nowadays I almost feel that writing someone an actual letter, in an envelope, would make it less likely they’d bother to answer. They’d look at it, think, ‘God, how laborious!’ and put it aside with a sigh. If I want an answer now, I email people because I reckon that if there is a ‘reply’ button, they’ll use it.’

‘Except that they don’t, it seems’, I mused.