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.

Why go on having tuition when you’ve ‘finished training’?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 September 2018 under Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

I’ve been in London coaching young post-grad and professional chamber groups for ChamberStudio, a wonderful enterprise which provides mentorship and further training for instrumentalists who have ‘finished studying’ but still need or wish to have access to advice and tuition.

Why would people want to go on having coaching when they’ve got degrees, diplomas, prizes and professional engagements? Why make yourself vulnerable in that way?

This topic came up several times during the weekend.  One of the young musicians summed it up by saying that some of the most helpful concepts he had encountered – to do with musical interpretation – were concepts he didn’t even hear about until he had finished with formal training.

If these concepts were so important, why didn’t he encounter them until his late twenties? The answer is complicated and probably indicates how much of musical training is taken up with the sheer work of mastering an instrument to the level needed to play the great European repertoire. (It’s possible, of course, that all along the way, teachers were trying to introduce advanced concepts, which the student had no room in their head to take in at that stage.)

A very simple example would be the extent to which one’s musical awareness can be deepened by really listening to what others in the group are doing. It’s not just a matter of playing one’s own part beautifully, though of course that will contribute a great deal to the whole effect. But what we were working on was the ability to lift one’s head from one’s instrument – or from the printed part – and  notice, actually notice, take in, digest and react to what the others are doing.

Many groups play as if chamber music is just a matter of several parallel lines being played at the same time. As you look at each player in turn, you just know that their colleagues are shadowy figures in their consciousness. But if you can persuade them to become aware of one another, to allow themselves to be influenced by one another, to see themselves in relation to the whole, the music-making becomes alive.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in practice it often does. You have to be very comfortable with yourself and your instrument before you can truly let the other players into your mental space. Sometimes this doesn’t seem possible until a person has matured in other ways. But formal education (rightly or wrongly) is usually ‘finished’ by the time a person is in their early-to-mid- twenties. So it’s hardly surprising that there are new levels of discovery which still await.

A collection of photos on Guardian Witness

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 August 2018 under Daily Life, Travel  •  1 Comment

For over a year I’ve enjoyed contributing weather-related photos to the Guardian newspaper via their ‘Witness‘ site, which invited readers to send in images that captured the ‘feel’ of the month. Several times I’ve been lucky enough to have one of my photos chosen by the editor to be published in the print newspaper.

Whenever I was out for a walk it was fun, though perhaps not so much for those who were with me, to get out my phone and try to take a good photo when something interesting caught my eye. Occasionally one of my  companions would say, ‘Ah, now that is a Guardian-quality image!’

Alas, the Guardian is now closing its Witness site and moving to other ways of collecting news and images from its readers. As a result, the 78 photos on ‘my page’ on the Witness site will disappear on September 30. If anyone is interested in seeing them, you can view them here until the end of September.