27072-books-origjpgPublished by Faber & Faber
Publication date 1 September 2016
Length 112 pages
ISBN 9780571330911
Format Hardback

 

This book is an absolute joy from start to finish. So much so that I read it in one sitting, busily making notes in the margin and nodding my head in agreement.

Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians was originally written in 1848 to accompany his famous, and still very popular, Album for the Young, a suite of piano pieces for children and students. Schumann was a remarkable man, not least for his huge and varied oeuvre of miraculous music, but also his championing and support of other musicians, as well as teaching, writing and encouraging young musicians. Celebrated cellist Steven Isserlis has taken Schumann’s advice and expanded upon it, added his own commentaries and words of wisdom, and often matching Schumann’s humorous or witty tone with his own amusing observations. Schumann’s advice, though couched in the language of his age, is always relevant and Isserlis, through his own words, demonstrates how perceptive Schumann’s wisdom is by passing it through the lens of his own experience as an established and highly-regarded classical musician. He brings the advice right up to date for today’s musicians working in a profession that is increasingly busy, competitive, uncertain and stressful. Such advice includes the importance of playing with others, receiving critical feedback from one’s peers and teachers, appreciating audiences and understanding the structure of music.

Divided into five sections, the book explore keys facets of the musicians life and work, from being a musician through playing (and performing), practising to composing, something which Schumann felt all musicians should do, and which far fewer practising musicians do today (Steven Isserlis’s good friend and colleague the pianist Stephen Hough is a notable exception, whose polymath musical life Schumann would certainly approve of). The final section contains Isserlis’s own pieces of advice which are thoughtful, intelligent and accessible. Isserlis reveals his reverence and enthusiasm for his chosen art in a way that is never didactic, sometimes profound, always realistic yet never depressing. The tone throughout is modest and sensitive, for musicians can be fragile souls. prone to much self-doubt and anxiety.

Not just a handbook for young musicians, this delightful and wise book is a manifesto for all musicians, music teachers and music lovers, one which one can read in a single sitting, or dip into at one’s leisure to extract a nugget.

Highly recommended.

One of my favourite quotes: “As you grow up, communicate more with scores than with virtuosi”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Fiction:

‘Music and Silence’ – Rose Tremain

‘An Equal Music’ – Vikram Seth

‘Grace Notes’ – Bernard Mac Laverty

‘A Disturbance of the Inner Ear’ – Joyce Hackett

‘The Song of Names’ – Norman Lebrecht

‘The Concert Pianist’ – Conrad Williams

‘Longing’ – J D Landis (a novel recreating the extraordinary love affair between Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck)

‘The Page Turner’ – David Leavitt

‘The Language of Others’ – Claire Morall

Non-fiction

‘Piano Notes’ – Charles Rosen

‘The Piano Shop on the Left Bank’ – T E Carhart

‘Grand Obsession’ – Perri Knize

‘With Your Own Two Hands’ – Seymour Bernstein

‘Notes from the Pianist’s Bench’ – Boris Berman

‘Piano’ – Louis Kentner

‘Piano Lessons: Music, Love & True Adventures’ – Noah Adams

‘A Musician’s Alphabet’ – Susan Tomes

‘Beyond the Notes’ – Susan Tomes

‘Chopin’s Funeral’ – Benita Eisler

‘Mozart and the Pianist’ – Michael Davidson

‘The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience’ – Kenneth Drake

‘Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson’ – Tricia Tunstall

‘The Inner Game of Music’ – Barry Green

‘Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations’ – Bruno Monsaingeon