Book review: ‘Sleeping in Temples’ by Susan Tomes

Acclaimed pianist and chamber musician Susan Tomes is also an engaging writer. I have enjoyed her previous books and her blog, which offer interesting and revealing insights into the daily life of a classical musician and her personal thoughts on the many facets of music making. Her latest book, Sleeping in Temples, continues this, focusing on subjects such as the exigencies of finding the right concert clothes to coughing and other noises made by audiences, the physical and mental strains placed on musicians in their working life, and the pleasure people gain from attending concerts.

The title comes from an Ancient Greek habit of sleeping in temples in the hope that the powerful atmosphere would “incubate dreams”. In her final chapter, Susan explains that throughout her musical life her own version of “sleeping in temples” has been the privilege of spending time with the “sacred texts” of the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al, the challenges of living and working with this music, and her great love of it, and its ability to take us on powerful emotional journeys and through varied and contrasting landscapes.

In a series of essays and musings, Susan reveals the joys and challenges of her career as well as discussing some perennial issues surrounding classical music and the musician’s day-to-day life, including what ‘interpretation’ really means, the effects of daily practise on one’s character, the benefits and burdens of memorisation, the influence of significant teachers, and the links between music and health. In one chapter she explores the fascinating dynamics that exist within a chamber ensemble and debunks the myth that the members of a string quartet, for example, are the greatest of friends outside the rehearsal room and concert hall. Another chapter ponders the (misguided) attitude that classical music “is not for everyone” (an attitude I encounter regularly and have done since an early age, having always been interested and engaged in classical music), and the pleasure and relief of connecting with like-minded people at university. The light-heartedly titled chapter ‘Fashion Parade’ explores the performer’s attire and the importance of finding the right shoes (for pedalling) and dress. The chapter has a more serious intent, however, as “appropriate” concert attire and the way solo musicians and orchestras dress is the subject of continued debate and has an impact on the way the music and the musicians are perceived by the audience: it shouldn’t matter – after all, the music is the most important thing – but somehow it does. In ‘Bullfrogs’, Susan examines that perennial irritant – coughing at concerts – and the performer’s own anxieties if struck down with a cold or cough and how adrenaline can miraculously “cure” a cold for the duration of a concert (another experience I can identify with, having played my diploma recital last April with a dreadful chest infection). The book also describes some of the challenges facing classical musicians today, including the effect of high quality recordings on live performance.

Sensitively and articulately written, this absorbing and insightful book will delight and inspire musicians and music lovers, and indeed anyone with an interest in classical music. Highly recommended – put it on your Christmas list.

Sleeping in Temples – Susan Tomes. £19.99. Published October 2014. ISBN 9781843839750. Full details here

Susan Tomes’ website and blog

4 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Sleeping in Temples’ by Susan Tomes”

  1. The music bookshop Travis and Emery in Cecil Court offered me a Beckettian experience today. Two ‘ladies’, one elderly and batty, the other young and overzealous to compensate, showed me through their higgledy-piggledy shelves of second-hand books and scores without finding ANY of the 4 straightforward things I wanted. Then my eyes lit on Susan Tomes’ ‘Beyond the Notes’. I had read your review above, so was interested and asked for ‘Sleeping in Temples’. “Oh, said the younger lady, no, we don’t have it, you see (pointing at ‘Beyond the Notes’) we only get this sort of thing by accident”.

    Ah, that clears that up, then!
    PS I bought the Tomes, is it very similar to the newer one?

    1. Beyond the Notes is like a diary, with short musings on all sorts of things, which Susan cleverly relates to her music. Sleeping in Temples considers aspects of being a pianist and a musician – I have enjoyed all of Susan’s books, but Sleeping in Temples is for me her best so far.

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