EU music students still waiting for clarity on Brexit

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 May 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  Leave a comment

In the course of my teaching and coaching activities I meet lots of young musicians who have come from other European countries to study in the UK. Britain’s excellent music colleges and universities are extremely popular with Europeans, who often fund their studies through schemes like Erasmus. It’s worth remembering that ‘Erasmus’ in this context means ‘European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of European Students’.

‘Mobility of European students’: a great idea from which British students may soon be excluded.

While they are here, many European music students form support networks, chamber groups, and links to UK orchestras, not to mention personal relationships. As a result they often decide to stay and make London the base for their career. They enjoy its ‘melting-pot’ atmosphere and the stimulus of being amongst other high-powered international musicians.

They were shocked by the result of the EU Referendum, in which they were not allowed to vote. Ever since last June they have been waiting for clarity on their situation. Will they be able to complete their studies? Will their funding be withdrawn? If they are planning to stay on in the UK for postgraduate study, will that still be possible? If they go home to visit their families, will they need visas to come back again? If they stay here for the long term, will they need to apply for touring visas every time they leave the country to play a concert elsewhere? Will they even be allowed to stay here in the long term? Nine months have gone by without these questions being answered, and they understand that they are bargaining chips.

Already some of my young friends have decided to return home for good this summer. They say it is too nerve-racking to wait here in a state of such uncertainty, and their families are anxious. Just last week a young Spanish musician told me sadly that she would not have chosen the UK for her studies had she known that Britain would be outside the EU by the time she finished. These young European musicians are some of my most talented students. I feel ashamed and wish I could reassure them, but I can’t.

Restless audiences vs acoustic instruments

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 April 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

This morning I was making soup and listening to Stephen Jardine‘s phone-in programme on BBC Radio Scotland, as I often do on a Friday morning. They were discussing whether parents should restrain their children from behaving badly in public places such as cinemas, theatres and restaurants. People had strong views on both sides. Some said it’s important to get children used to going to cultural events; others said that it is not fair to let audience members’ enjoyment be ruined by selfish behaviour.

At one point they were discussing the disapproving responses that people get from other audience members. The presenter said something like, ‘It still gives me the chills to remember the looks we got at a concert when my wife’s phone went off in the middle of a Rachmaninov piano concerto.’

My heart sank on hearing this because classical music is so often used to exemplify ‘the uptight audience’. So I thought it was just worth mentioning the difference between acoustic instruments and the amplified instruments that have become ‘the norm’ for many music fans.

If you are playing an amplified instrument, and you want the music to be louder, you simply turn up the volume. You don’t have to play differently. When the volume is loud, it doesn’t matter too much if the audience is making noise of its own, because amplification can easily compete. Not so with acoustic instruments like violins, cellos, pianos, flutes, clarinets – or indeed the traditional Spanish guitar. If you want to make more sound, you have to use your muscles and your physical effort. If you want to play quietly, you have to control the instruments with fine movements.

Players of acoustic instruments spend years learning to master their range of sound. The nuances of  tone colour, from the most delicate whisper to the cry of pain, are the point of musical expression. In concert, musicians have to focus on making those nuances work. They really want audiences to notice all the gradations.

So if audience members are making a noise, eating, drinking, taking photos and obliterating the fine details of tone colour, it makes musicians feel that their work was pointless. Yes, of course we want people to come to concerts and feel comfortable, but we also want them to understand the nature of instruments played without amplification.

Embarking on Beethoven’s opus 111 Sonata

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 March 2017 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  3 Comments

It’s been on my mind recently that I never properly learned Beethoven’s final piano sonata. I’ve been performing and lecturing about the two penultimate sonatas, opus 109 and 110, but when someone asked if I’d like to do opus 111 as well, I had to admit that it isn’t in my concert repertoire.

Why not? Well, I went through a longish period when I felt uncomfortable with a certain side of Beethoven’s music: the gruff, brusque, defiant side. I didn’t really understand it and I tended to leave those pieces alone. The Beethoven I felt at home with was, for example, his Fourth Piano Concerto, which I’m practising for a concert in April (note to self: Eek! It’s April tomorrow.) But I realise it’s ridiculous not to play Beethoven’s last piano sonata, so from time to time I’ve been opening the volume at that sonata and looking at it out of the corner of my eye.

Last week, out of the blue, a friend in the US kindly sent me a DVD about the American pianist Seymour Bernstein. I learned that he had voluntarily given up a promising concert career in mid-life because of nerves and misgivings about the rightness of a solo concert career as a way of life. Since then, he has become a teacher/composer/educator with a high reputation for ‘holistic thinking’. He came to public attention when he made friends with the actor Ethan Hawke, who was inspired by a chance conversation they had about nerves and performing. Ethan Hawke made a lovely film about his mentor called ‘Seymour: an Introduction‘.

I watched the DVD last night. In it, Seymour Bernstein uses the opening of Beethoven’s final piano sonata to illustrate Beethoven at his most ‘macho’. He played the opening bars with a Beethovenesque growl. It was a strange coincidence that someone should send me a DVD with this scene in it at the very moment when I was wondering whether I had the energy to grapple with the piece myself. But in fact it’s prompted me to begin. And I look forward to learning the second and final movement, the wonderful 20-minute ‘Arietta’ with its variations.

Seeking a female word for ‘virtuoso’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 March 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  6 Comments

Yesterday we had a meeting of my piano club, a group of adult amateur pianists interested in developing their playing. The subject of ‘virtuosos’ and ‘virtuoso technique’ came up in relation to a piano piece with some fast, technically difficult ‘show-off’ passages. We wondered where the word ‘virtuoso’ comes from and what it really means?

A little research showed that ‘virtuoso’ comes from the Latin word ‘vir’ = a man, and from the word ‘virtuous’ in an old sense of ‘distinguished by manly qualities; full of manly strength.’ Some of us felt that the phrase ‘a female virtuoso’ is therefore unsatisfactory. It seems perverse to describe a woman as a ‘virtuoso’ once you know that the word signified manliness. But women pianists can be every bit as dazzling as men. Perhaps we need a new word to describe them?

There used to be a word ‘virtuosa’, but the OED says it was a specialised word, ‘now rare’, referring to a learned religious woman. Although some modern dictionaries claim the word is available to signify ‘a female virtuoso’, it has never caught on in the world of music.

So if ‘vir’ is the Latin for ‘man’, how about using the Latin word for ‘woman’? It’s ‘mulier’ (today its descendant is found in the Spanish ‘mujer’, a woman). A female equivalent of ‘virtuoso’ might be something like ‘mulierosa’, ‘full of womanly strength’. I tried to imagine using it in a phrase like, ‘the mulierosa pianist Martha Argerich’. ‘Clara Schumann had a mulierous piano technique.’

Hmmm. But is ‘womanly strength’ the female equivalent of ‘manly strength’, or are women’s strengths different? In that case we still need a good word for ‘a woman musician with a dazzling technique’. The search continues.

Meeting up again with my first piano teacher

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 March 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Teaching  •  1 Comment

A lovely surprise awaited me when I played at the Brunton Theatre on Tuesday. Sitting in the front row was my first piano teacher, Gordon Lindsay (‘Mr Lindsay’, as I knew him). He taught me from when I began piano lessons at the age of seven until I was nine or ten. Since then, apart from glimpsing him in the audience a few years ago at a Queen’s Hall concert of mine, I don’t believe I had set eyes on him.

At the age of 91, Mr Lindsay still had the bright gaze that I remembered. It was he who taught me to read music. I still recall the excitement of learning what those black blobs meant, and how to count up the ‘lines and spaces’ of the stave. I remember we did the first exercise in the book, using just three notes: ‘This is up. This is down. This is up and down.’

On Tuesday I was giving a lecture-recital about Debussy’s ‘Images’. Whenever I talk to the audience, I always instinctively search for sympathetic-looking faces to address. It was easy to find that sympathetic face, because Mr Lindsay was following every word with alert interest, his blue eyes shining. What a pity we had lost touch for so long!