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Beyond the Notes by Susan Tomes (The Boydell Press, 2004)

Susan Tomes is a thoughtful pianist and writer, some of whose contributions to the daily press have been assembled in this, the best book about the life of a chamber musician which I have ever read.

It gives us a vivid and enduring account of the vicissitudes of inexperienced musicians starting their professional life on the road with the Domus Ensemble and its improbable portable concert hall; recording successes with Hyperion (the Domus piano quartet and latterly the Florestan Trio) and a second part of reflections on many aspects of the musician's life reprinted from her articles in Financial Times and The Guardian, two of them reproduced below, and all are available on The Guardian's archive.

SUSAN TOMES WRITES IN THE GUARDIAN

Susan Tomes kindly sent me a copy of her article in The Guardian about 'warming up'. I am sure it will interest other cyber-readers who missed it and have not found it on line. I copy here also her article about recording Schubert's Eb trio, which I had appended to my review note about the Florestan Trio's recent appearance at Wigmore Hall.

Work and Play
Published in The Guardian, 28 December 2002

A recent report on athletes' preparation came to the conclusion that whether they warm up or not doesn't actually make much difference to the result. This must have come as a surprise not only to athletes but to their fans, who regularly watch them warming up until the moment before competition begins. Perhaps warming up is not physically essential, but for athletes it seems to be psychologically important, a sort of inventory of their powers. For musicians the process clearly works on a number of levels, but as with athletes it's not at all clear how much the ritual of preparation has a direct effect on the performance itself. After all, the performance is as much mental as physical. Does the ritual help to keep thoughts in, or does it help to keep them out?

When I was a violinist in the National Youth Orchestra, every rehearsal and every concert was famously preceded by a two-minute silence. Having tuned the instruments, we all sat quietly until the arrival of the conductor, whose entry was always timed to perfection. I rather liked this enforced silence before an intense burst of music. For me, whatever sound came next was more meaningful if it emerged from a still background. However, for many of my string-playing friends the silence was torture. They resented the interruption to that physical bonding process with their instruments, feeling that they would have to start all over again when the rehearsal began.

How musicians psyche themselves up for performance has fascinated me ever since. Some like to prepare months ahead of the concert, whereas others deliberately leave preparation almost too late, to generate more adrenalin. Some like to be left in peace to assemble their thoughts before a concert, while others practise right up to the last minute. Indeed, many are still practising while standing outside the door to the platform. Only seconds of silence separate their off-stage practice from their on-stage performance. They seek to create a continuum of sound in which the concert is only the last and most vivid segment. This applies particularly to string players, who seem to bond with their instruments more than other musicians do. Perhaps because of the strong tactile elements of playing a string instrument, they develop a sensual hunger for their instrument which is only satisfied by continuous physical contact with it.

Silence before concerts is often imposed on pianists because there isn't a piano backstage. As a pianist, therefore, I'm often forced to sit quietly and watch other people preparing for the concert. Mostly what they do is to practise the difficult bits. They play them over and over again, trying to nail the tricky fingering into their subconscious so that under the strain of platform nerves, the patterns will remain. However, the effect of repeating difficult passages is by no means calculable. A statistician once told me that obsessive practice may actually lessen the chances of success on stage. A player feels that the more often he can correctly repeat a difficult passage backstage, the more certain it is to be right in the performance. From a statistical point of view, however, a run of 'perfect sixes' actually increases the chance of something different happening next time. Twenty successful repetitions in the dressing-room actually makes it more likely that the twenty-first - which occurs onstage - will fail. This may be a mathematical truth, but most musicians would balk at it.

Many players feel that they have to concentrate intensely to get difficult things right in performance. If you could get inside their consciousness you would feel the outside world fading away every time there was something challenging to play. Such an approach seemed normal to me too until I watched the Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sebok demonstrating to students that concentration isn't always the answer. He believed that if you have done the necessary practice, it would actually help to de-focus your concentration at the relevant moment. It was funny and instructive to see him deliberately distract a student while they were playing something terribly hard. If he intervened at the right moment, they would look up in surprise while their hands, unhampered by the mind, whizzed effortlessly through the difficult bits.

He had similar results when he asked someone to concentrate on one hand while the other was playing something hard. Assuming that the student had actually worked out the necessary fingering, it worked like magic to let the hand find its own way without conscious supervision. The student's expression of delight and amazement at such moments made us all laugh, but there was a serious underlying point. Concentration was clearly a mixed blessing, and could even create problems. There were other parts of the mind and body which knew what they were doing. 'Think nine times and play once', was Sebok's wise advice.

This extends beyond the concert platform. Music conservatories are full of people who think that the more they practise, the better they will be. All day long the honeycomb of practice rooms buzzes with their industry. To impress their teachers, students set themselves arduous practice goals. I know students who start practising at 7 a.m., grab a coffee at 10 a.m. before classes begin, and practice again in the evenings. Not many discover how to practice productively, and most people spend long periods 'practising' what they can already play. A college health advisor recently told me that his days were full of students seeking advice about their aching backs, shoulders and hands. Yet if they did more practice away from the instrument, focusing on the mental instead of the physical, they would benefit greatly.

How even well-prepared musicians approach a concert day varies enormously. Some of my colleagues get themselves keyed up by telling themselves they haven't yet done enough practise, even at 7.25pm. There are still minutes to go, in which something could be achieved! Their sense of responsibility towards the audience expresses itself in trying this and that right up to the moment of walking on stage. To stop tinkering around with things would seem like dangerous complacency.

For others, however, it's essential to interpose some peaceful time between rehearsal and concert. Some like to think about the whole shape of pieces, or if they are about to play from memory, to run through things in their head quietly. Some like to distract themselves by reading a book or chatting. I myself like to go and wait at the side of the stage where I can hear the murmur of the audience and get a sense of their mood. For me the relationship with the piano is secondary to what I hope to do as a musician. My focus is on the music and on communication of it to the audience. I need to play the piano to achieve this, but playing the piano isn't the sine qua non of my musical life. Perhaps performers of my temperament hope to create in themselves an appetite for the music by holding it at arm's length for a while. We're aware of the audience sitting in silence waiting for the music to begin. If the artist sits on the other side of the curtain in silence too, the music may come as a gift to audience and artist alike.

Clearly some players have to make themselves uncomfortable in order to perform. By doubting themselves as much as possible before the concert, they instinctively build up a performance tension which is released in the presence of the audience. Telling themselves that they are not ready heightens their sense of occasion, sometimes with excellent results. But other musicians, like me, need to feel comfortable in order to perform. It's important for us to tell ourselves (if it's true) that we have done and thought enough, that we should stop now, and look forward to giving our best onstage. For this type of player, self-doubt has a harmful effect on their playing. They need to feel and draw on a sense of trust.

I loved the anecdote I once heard about the distinguished German pianist Wilhelm Kempff. A fan of his gushingly asked him, 'Mr Kempff, you never seem to play wrong notes in your recitals. How come you never play any wrong notes?' Kempff quietly replied, 'I only practise the right notes.' When I first heard this story I immediately had a sense of all the time that we spend in effect practising the wrong notes; thinking the wrong thoughts, doubting our ability to get it right, watching ourselves for failures of nerve. Kempff's approach seemed to indicate a mind at peace with itself. To practise 'only the right notes', and only in the right way, would eliminate whole areas of unproductive work of the kind which occupies practice rooms in colleges and concert halls throughout the world.

© Susan Tomes

Susan Tomes is a thoughtful pianist and writer, now contributing regularly to the Guardian. Below I append her account of how the Florestan Trio made their new disc of Schubert's great E flat trio - 'a test of musical sensivity, intellect and physical endurance'.

Peter Grahame Woolf


A winter's journey
by Susan Tomes
Friday March 1, 2002
The Guardian

The Florestan Trio - of which I'm the pianist - has recently spent three cold winter days recording Schubert's great trio in E flat, the most monumental work in our repertoire. The weather seems fitting, because the piece has always been associated in my mind with a winter journey.

When I first learned it and rehearsed it with my former group Domus, there was a lot of discussion about the right tempo for the slow movement, one of Schubert's finest inspirations. Some favoured a very slow tempo to bring out the music's tragic character. Others wanted to honour his marking, con moto ("with movement"), with a flowing tempo, but a sense of moving easily forward seemed too flippant for the great sadness in the music.

We spent that Christmas in rural Scotland, and rehearsed the trio further. One sparkling winter afternoon I went out for a walk in the deep snow. Suddenly it occurred to me that my footsteps trudging in the snow were exactly the right tempo for the opening chords of the slow movement. Simultaneously it seemed clear that the trudging steps of the slow movement were analogous to a winter journey. It was one of those moments where a musical gesture seems to reveal its roots in a physical one. Since then the piece has retained its "winter's tale" character for me, and this week's recording with the Florestan Trio seemed like a destination of some kind, completing a stage in the journey begun in the snowy Scottish landscape of 20 years earlier.

The main challenge of this epic work, 50 minutes long, is to understand the huge structures and make them clear to our listeners. The piece appears so rambling and discursive that it is easy to immerse yourself in the beauty of subsidiary ideas and lose track of where you are in the whole structure. Though we have analysed it, we often don't know exactly where we are in the piece until we're performing it. Then it comes alive in an extraordinary way, creating folds of events and chains of emotional links that lead back eventually to the original point of departure, only seen from a heightened perspective.

Intriguingly, our getting to know the work better has not stilled debate about how to play it. Like all great works in any medium, it seems to go on developing as the participants develop, and to keep pace with one's ability to understand it. The opening page of the score used to seem quite simple and straightforward to me. Later, it came to seem austere and monolithic, and at other times, reserved and noble. These changes must reflect changes in me, but the piece is so multifaceted that it responds easily to new perspectives.

My own understanding of the work has to be blended with that of my colleagues, violinist Anthony Marwood and cellist Richard Lester. Our rehearsals of the trio involve endless discussion, which only ever seem to reach a temporary stopping point, holding still just long enough for us to perform it. We may hold the same views about it for a run of performances, but then someone will suddenly say, "I don't like the way we do such and such any longer", and someone else will say, "Yes, I've been feeling uncomfortable, too", and we're off again on our interpretative debate. How soft is "soft"? Is there an absolute, or is it only soft in relation to loud? Should there be a hint of the dance, and would that make it more touching, or less? Which is sadder, the minor or the major?

When you record a piece, you have to make decisions. Committing ourselves to these decisions is rather painful, but at the same time there is a consensus about how we like to perform the trio at the moment, even if we are all likely to suggest another approach next year. Secretly, I think, we would all like to have a qualifying remark, such as "2001 vintage", printed on the CD cover. The recording will be no more or less than a distillation of our thinking at this particular time.

But the process of recording does not stop the discussion going on. Our sense of possibilities is still so active that we even record different versions of some passages and go backstage to listen to them, waiting to see what sort of effect they will have on us. Luckily, we always seem to agree on this. One version clearly fits into the overall shape of our performance, the other feels misleading, and we discard it.

It is very hard to record a piece with such a broad wingspan as the Schubert. We have argued many times about whether mistakes are acceptable on a record. Nobody is perfectly accurate all the time in a performance, and three players mutiply the possible errors. Therefore, when we have recorded a whole movement two or three times, to "get down the basic shape", we are then faced with a very long process - several hours per movement - of recording shorter sections again and again.

We used to say that we'd much rather be musically "right" than technically right on a disc. But Andrew Keener, our producer, points out that, although we always say that in the recording sessions, when he sends us his edited version for our comments six months later, we always pounce on any wrong notes or mistakes and implore him to correct them. We, too, have become consumers of the artifice, and think that performances on record should at least be technically perfect.

Although recording often focuses on short sections, the process can also reveal things about the large shape that we had not realised. An example of this occurs towards the end of the finale. We find ourselves recording the last pages at the end of a very strenuous day. Each time we play them, our accuracy rate seems to decline, and finally Andrew suggests that we should all go home, have a rest and return the next morning to "have another go at it". So we adjourn for the night.

The following morning we listen to what we have done. It is clear that, because the last movement is so long and so physically tiring, the climax of the movement is underdone in our performance. Just before the theme of the slow movement returns wearily for the last time, there is a series of "sighs" that signal a last outburst of defiance before the inevitable sadness returns. In the context of the whole movement, we feel that these sighs should increase in intensity, the last carrying a huge emotional charge, like the roar of a caged lion.

But in practice I find this very difficult to do. My hands are so tired after almost 50 minutes of playing; I have just negotiated two or three extremely difficult fast passages, and my left hand hardly has the strength for another section of fast repeated chords - perhaps easier to control on Schubert's light-action piano, but something of a feat on today's heavier Steinway grands. In addition to this we have to gather energy for the final "roar". In performance, this musical gesture is often dictated by our level of physical fatigue, and one might think that this makes organic sense. However, listening back to what we have recorded - and particularly from the night before - it is clear that our tiredness has actually robbed that climactic final "sigh" of its power. It sounds feeble, not defiant. Our performance, with its "real-time tiredness", underplays this important moment.

Approaching it freshly the next morning allows us to tackle the last pages on their own, unaffected by performance fatigue. Here is one instance of the recording process actually helping our artistic vision. Recording can create an opportunity one would never have in the concert hall. Some might think that it is a false opportunity, an illusion. Yet one might also think that the composer did not intend physical fatigue to ruin one of his greatest emotional expressions in the piece. He no doubt imagined everything played at the right intensity all the time.

In a concert performance the sense of being at the extreme of physical possibilities can be very powerful, and some loss of accuracy can even add to that effect. It might also work on disc as a recording of a live performance, but even then the "wobbliness" might pall after a couple of hearings. Our record of the E flat Trio will have an accuracy and freshness that it does not have in concerts, and as a recorded performance it will be more enduring as a result - though it won't be more human.

During the final pages, there is a very important moment that has always eluded us slightly. After staying in the minor key for a very long time, Schubert suddenly turns to the major for the last page of the score. It is a gesture that, coming so close to the end and after so much emotion, can seem almost trivial, like a reader closing the storybook with a glib "and so they all lived happily ever after". What does it mean? We have tried all sorts of ways of playing it. Is it a moment of relaxing and warming, or a moment of triumph? Should it be a gentle forte or a surprising one? Does it need extra time in that bar? Should the string players sing out or blare out? Whatever we have tried, there is always a suspicion of "acting" about it.

So it is educational to listen to what we have recorded. As observers, we can hear that this moment is also underdone. What we hoped was noble reserve sounds like timidity. This last-minute turn to the major must have immediate affirmative force, with nothing sentimental about it. We realise that we need a moment of expanded time at the arrival of the major chord, and a very positive assertion of it from everyone: no cracking or wobbling in anyone's tone. There must be a sense of having turned the corner towards safety, but without any hint of gloating. We must "come home" and realise it too.

At least, that is how we feel now. Other players will find other solutions. But for the moment, we end our recording with the feeling that we have achieved the shape we wanted, the shape we understand. And so our recording becomes a portrait of us painting a portrait of Schubert.

(The Florestan Trio's recording of Schubert's Trio in E flat was released by Hyperion summer 2002.)


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© Peter Grahame Woolf