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

 

 

 

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