Susan Adams was born in Ottawa into a family that encouraged music study. She began playing at the age of five, and started taking lessons when she was six years old. Susan studied the piano privately in Ottawa with Jaromey Anderson and under Boris Roubakine at the University of Calgary, where she obtained a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance.
Canada Council grants enabled her to study early keyboard instruments and related subjects at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland. She studied harpsichord, continuo and organ with Jean-Claude Zehnder, and early piano with Klaus Linder. Susan had the opportunity to play many historical instruments in the well-maintained collection at the Schola. Travels to Holland enabled her to have lessons with Gustav Leonhardt.
In Canada, Susan has concentrated on performing and recording the works of Bach, Couperin, Rameau and Scarlatti on a variety of harpsichords. Playing the Viennese-style fortepiano, she has specialized in the music of Haydn, Mozart and J.C. Bach. A focal point of Susan's work is this website which features recordings of her playing as well as information about the traditions of historical performance practice and repertoire.
What drew you to the harpsichord and other older keyboard instruments, and away from the more modern piano?
I was originally drawn to the harpsichord by the music of Bach. It came as something of a shock to learn, as a young student, that Bach didn’t write all of these great pieces for the piano. A friend showed me how to put sheets of paper over the strings of the piano ‘to make it sound like a harpsichord.’ Few things could be further from the truth, but I played happily on my new instrument until the buzzy sound became too annoying to tolerate. Later, in university, I had a friend who had assembled a little Zuckermann harpsichord from a kit. It was for sale! I wheedled funds from sceptical family members, and that was the beginning of our instrument collection.
What’s in your CD player?
Mozart symphonies, often, or Gustav Leonhardt playing Bach, or Alicia de Larrocha playing Granados. I like Renaissance choral works and French music of the early 20th century, but mostly I enjoy quiet, which is rare, or an environment of natural sounds.
When you are enjoying quiet, do you hear music in the background of your mind?
I generally have some Bach or Mozart bubbling away in the background, as well as snippets of whatever I’m learning. That happens particularly when I’m memorizing something, and it can be very irritating when I’m trying to sleep. In that case the best remedy is Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”.
Who are your favourite artists?
I admire Monet, Dégas, Vermeer, Riopelle and the person who invented Caramilk chocolate bars. I loved Halston’s designs, and Armani is pretty wonderful, too.
What’s on your bookshelf?
A lot of historical fiction and Canadian authors; Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies, for example. I’m always looking for good science fiction but it’s hard to find these days. In the same vein, I enjoy science-for-dummies and math-for-dummies books, and anything about colour and design. In addition, I own an extensive collection of books about fibre arts (my other addiction). And “The Technique of Piano Playing” by Josef Gat is a must!
The beautiful landscape of Arizona. I loved the colours, the light and the stillness of the desert. There’s a pervading sense of space and well-being.
What is your most fabulous luxury?
That has to be our stunning Bechstein piano – seven feet four inches of pure beauty! Or maybe our charming and elegant fortepiano…or perhaps the smooth and rich French double-manual harpsichord…no, wait, what about the crisp, ringing Italian harpsichord? Or our sweet, old Erard piano, with the bass like a big bell? You can see I’m having a problem choosing. I suppose the real luxury is having the opportunity to play all of these instruments. And of course, Clive keeps all of them in absolute, perfect tune – his abilities in that area are key to a perfect playing environment.
I’d max out my credit card at. . .
Any well-stocked yarn store. I love the colours, the textures, an abundance of beautiful yarns displayed all together – yum! And of course, then I come home, and steal time away from music to produce something wonderful to wear from what I’ve bought, for myself, or for Clive, or for. . .
I can’t stand it when. . .
There is too much noise; it makes it impossible to think. Noise is an insidious pollutant, whether it comes from machines or from people. Sometimes I have to walk out of stores because I can’t tolerate the music they’re playing.
What do your think about when you are playing Mozart?
While playing Mozart I’m generally occupied with maintaining the graceful lines of the music. The piano and harpsichord are decaying instruments – in other words one cannot make a note louder after it has been played – so there is always a balance between tempo and the spinning out of musical ideas. I also have to listen to the room where I’m playing; a large, dry hall requires different tactics from a house concert.
I can’t get enough. . .
Chocolate! Swiss, Dutch, Belgian, Austrian, I love it all! We have a wonderful chocolatière named Annegret, here in Kelowna. I’m getting to know her work very well.
I like where I live because. . .
It’s so breathtakingly beautiful. I am moved by the light, the dry, sunny climate and the interesting land forms. For me the Okanagan valley is a spiritual place and I feel privileged to live here. I suppose we’re at the northern end of that desert I was admiring in Arizona, the Sonoran – unique in Canada, to have such an environment, one that connects so many thousands of miles of landmass, and lifeforms.
What entertains you?
I’m fascinated by playing with fibres; knitting, weaving and sewing. I’m an absolute textile nut. Give me a piece of string and I’ll find ten interesting things to do with it. I especially find a connection between weaving and music – it must be all those strings. And weaving drafts have a notation which looks similar to music, except on four lines, so when I’m threading the loom I’ll often hum the pattern to keep track of things. Knitting was my first fibre addiction, and I’ve been knitting most of my life. (Thanks, Mum!) I have a nifty book holder which enables me to read while I’m knitting, as long as the pattern is fairly simple.
How about some practical keyboard hints for students or lovers of keyboard music?
Sure, some of my best sermons are on subjects like:
Seating: Sit so your wrists and arms can move freely in any direction. Usually this will mean that your forearm is parallel to the floor. Don’t park your centre of gravity way back on the bench. Instead, perch on the front of the bench with some weight on your feet. This automatically straightens your spine and allows you to relax.
Focus: It is important to imagine the sound you want to make, a split-second before you play. On the piano, focus your energy at the level of the escapement. This is the point where the hammer swings freely against the string. If you aim too deeply, you will pound the piano, whereas a too-shallow focus produces an anaemic sound quality. On the harpsichord, the quill plucks the string about a third of the way through the key travel, so the rest of the stroke is just follow-through. It’s pretty hard to focus too high on a harpsichord because the quills simply won’t pluck. Aiming too deeply thumps the jack rail. If you were a pilot, you’d say you were ‘flying in front of the plane.’ Imagining what’s just ahead, a moment before you get there, to ensure you get the result you want.
Wrists: Your wrists are your shock absorbers. Keep them flexible and relaxed by exercising their range of motion away from the keyboard. Too many people go through life with rigid wrists. The exercises in Josef Gat’s book are invaluable. Hawaiian dancing is good, too.
Thumbs: When passing your thumb under your hand as in scales, for example, begin to move your thumb while the other fingers are playing. This minimizes lumps. A happy thumb comes from a relaxed wrist.
Scale fingering: Generally scales are fingered so that groups of three and four fingers alternate. (We’re talking about modern fingering, here. Historical fingering is a whole other can of worms.) In major scales with flats, the right hand 4 always plays B-flat, and the left hand 4 always plays the newest flat in the key signature. In G-flat major, use the white keys next to the group of three black keys. In F major, the thumbs play together, a happy situation which is rare among scales. In major scales with sharps, the right hand 4 plays the leading tone, and the left hand 4 plays the supertonic. In scales which use all of the black keys, 2, 3 and 4 play the groups of three black keys, and 2 and 3 play the groups of two black keys. Thumbs play the other notes, except at the top and bottom where you use whatever is next in line. Practice scale fingerings by playing twice on each note – you’ll be surprised how this grinds it into your brain. And try starting from the top of the scale instead of the bottom.
Are you bored yet? I’ve got a lot more hints, so if you are having a specific problem, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What would your epitaph be?
“Don’t make crumbs, I just vacuumed.”
May I quote you?“Relax your wrists.”