Too often it seems that we view learning, studying, practising and performing music as a kind of fight. People talk about “doing battle with Beethoven” or “fighting the fear” (of performing) as if one must take up arms against unseen, powerful forces.

It’s true that learning new repertoire can be a Herculean task, and practising can feel like a form of captivity, the same page of music confronting one day after day, coupled with the sense that one has hardly moved forward from the previous day’s practising. It is also true that in order to learn any repertoire properly, and deeply, we must spend inordinate amounts of time sweating the small stuff – all the details in the score, the directions and signposts the composer gives us to navigate the keyboard and produce a coherent path of sound to take the listener on a unique journey into the composer’s own inner landscape, while also to enabling us to make our own interpretative choices about how we will perform the music.

There is no alternative to the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with the piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted and performed. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

Studying, practising performing and ultimately sharing music, the musician’s “work”, should not feel like a battle or a mountain summit that must be conquered. I know many musicians, professional and amateur, who have personal strategies to prevent this sense of struggle. Spending time with the score away from the instrument can be particularly helpful, familiarising the shape and architecture of the music on the page, and imagining the sound in one’s head, without the added distraction of the geography of the piano keyboard, for example. For very complex music, I like to leave the score, or copies of the score, around the house – on the dining table, by my bedside, so that I see the score regularly, often many times during the day. When I come to place it on the music desk, it already feels comfortable, even if I have yet to touch the piano’s keys

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. A positive, open minded approach to practising can remove the feelings of toil and travail. Making friends with the music brings joy, pleasure and excitement to practising. We should live and breathe our work, beginning every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”.

Our excitement and affection for our music is very palpable when we perform – audiences sense and appreciate it – and it brings the notes to life with vivid colour and imagination.


 

Speaking-the-Piano-front-cover-1-e1530256784320This is the fifth book by acclaimed Scottish pianist Susan Tomes, and unlike her previous books whose primary focus is on the exigencies of life as a professional musician – from ensemble playing and touring, coughers in the audience to concert attire, or dealing with reviews – this latest volume is a series of reflections on learning and teaching.

At a time when music education is under serious threat, at least in the UK’s state schools, Speaking the Piano is in part a paean to the wonderful teachers Susan herself has studied with, including the renowned Hungarian piano professor, Gyorgy Sebok, a celebration of teaching and learning, and a heartfelt plea to retain music education as part of the school curriculum.

My own musical education, acquired internationally and continuing well into adult life, was a fascinating experience. It had an impact on me and my approach to life far beyond the arena of music. As time went by I began to teach the next generation of musicians, and found that the experience of teaching was as fascinating as the experience of learning.

– Susan Tomes

The book is divided into two sections, Teaching and Learning, and in the first section, Tomes draws on her experience as both a performer and teacher as well as her interactions with adult amateur pianists in the Piano Club which she recently established. Her wisdom is evident on every page and her writing is, as always, eloquent and intelligent, but never didactic. She is sensitive to the difficulties faced by many adult amateur pianists – and even some professionals too – in areas such as anxiety, harnessing the imagination, notation and reading music, understanding tempo and dynamics (not only physical but also psychological aspects of interpreting these markings), gestures and movement at the instrument, and myriad other issues, large and small, which face pianists and musicians in general whenever they go to play the music. She writes with honesty and clarity, using her own experiences as a student and teacher as the basis for sympathetic advice and guidance, and one has the sense throughout that she firmly believes in lifelong learning and that a teacher should always be adaptable and open to new insights and ideas, which may come unexpectedly from interactions with students. The book also celebrates the passion and commitment of the amateur pianist and gives encouragement to those who may find learning the piano at once wonderful and also frustrating.

The second part of the book on learning offers longer essays on the masterclass experience (good and bad), the wonders of jazz improvisation, and different genres of music. The final chapter – ‘Music Lights Up the Brain’ – discusses the pleasure of music, and the process of studying and learning music, the skills required to become proficient, and how teaching music performance at a high level (for example, in conservatoire) is a highly specialized art. Tomes also touches on scientific research into the benefits of playing a musical instrument and how learning music in school encourages children to develop self-confidence, cooperation, creativity and collaboration, and ends with a plea to “kindle a fire which will light the young musician’s path as they set out on their own journey of discovery”.

An engaging and engrossing read for music teachers, musicians and music lovers alike.


Speaking the Piano

Boydell Press UK, 2018

Meet the Artist – Susan Tomes

 

 

 

Five Paths, sculpture by Richard Long 2002 at New Art Centre, Roche Court

 

This wonderful, insightful, thoughtful and sensitive article is reblogged from American pianist Bruce Brubaker’s blog Piano Morphosis, and confirms my feelings that we never really “finish” a piece, rather that we simply continue on a voyage of exploration…..

Of a piece

Piano Morphosis