Kate Molleson

In the first chapter of her latest book, Sleeping in Temples, the pianist and writer Susan Tomes describes what it was like to grow up an earnest young music student in Edinburgh in the 1960s. She remembers venturing through to Glasgow every Saturday morning for classes at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where her piano teacher Michael Gough Matthews astounded her with the suaveness of his shoes. "Shoes which were beautiful rather than sensible, for heaven's sake!" she writes, suspecting that she herself was probably wearing her black school lace-ups - "as I did every day of the week."

The exotic Gough Matthews scribbled one particular mark in the score of a Mozart piano concerto that struck Tomes as significant when she came across it several decades later. It was an instruction in Italian, a language she didn't speak as a girl. "When my teacher wrote 'dev'essere drammatico!', it was an appeal to my imagination," she explains. "It was shorthand for, 'Think big and realise that there are excitingly different ways of doing things out there in the world, you little Scottish girl in your home-knitted cardigan!'"

Somewhere in her adolescent subconscious, Tomes took the hint. She left Edinburgh to become the first woman to study music at King's College, Cambridge - "a lesson in surviving extreme social environments," is how she once diplomatically summed up that experience to me. After graduating she co-founded Domus, a roaming piano quartet that performed in a pop-up geodesic dome, and later spent 12 whirlwind years touring the world with the Florestan Trio, among the finest piano trios of our time. Evidently her childhood in sleepy Duddingston didn't blinker her horizons too adversely.

Now Tomes is back: not in Duddingston, exactly, but along the road. "We moved up last May," she says, settling into an armchair in a handsome bay window. She looks pleased to be back. "Our street in Wimbledon was turning into a building site and our neighbours were getting younger and richer every year. It was as though they were just waiting for us to go." Eventually they did go, she and her husband Bob, or rather they came back, in search of more breathing space and a decent garden.

What the move had nothing to do with was retirement. "That never even crossed my mind until people in London started asking whether I'd be doing any playing at all up here." Tomes pauses. "I suppose I am at the age when people begin to retire... But I am definitely still playing. Definitely." She insinuates that she was a little disappointed that her return to Scotland didn't make more of a splash; that concert promoters weren't queueing sooner at her door. "Maybe there's that obstinate Scottish thing: just because you've come back from the big city, doesn't mean I'm going to run down the road and invite you for dinner."

She insinuates something else, too, to do with what she calls the older women thing. "You sort-of become invisible," she tells me with an expression somewhere between bemusement and weary irritation. "It might seem reasonable that the more experience you have on stage, the more people should take notice of what you have to say. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case. The music business is geared towards young artists - all the bursaries and schemes and media opportunities. Which is great, but the converse is that there are no channels to help older artists get attention."

In Sleeping in Temples, Tomes confronts a tricky set of issues around women, age and authority roles within performing ensembles. "Chamber groups do replicate some aspects of family dynamics," she writes. "I've sometimes felt as if my dual role as pianist and older woman/mother has made me twice as annoying." She refers to "a lively debate going on in the press about whether, even now, women have established the right to be acknowledged as authorities or whether, when they have reached such positions, they can assert their authority without being judged strident, nagging or whining." She notes the gender-neutrality of piano music itself (as opposed to roles in dance or theatre), but suggests that the industry has not yet become so enlightened.

It was back in her Domus days that Tomes started writing. She mused on the nature of performance and the ins and outs of life as a touring chamber musician, and she soon discovered three things: she was good at writing, she found writing helpful, and other people found her writing helpful. The impetus behind Sleeping in Temples, her fourth book, came from conversations with other female pianists. "Several women said, couldn't you write about this? About the experiences we've all had of being talked over and not listened to in rehearsals? I had a long discussion with a women doing her PhD on the treatment of the chamber music pianist, particularly of women pianists by male colleagues. She suggested I could draw people's attention to these things, and that felt quite motivating. You see, the combination of being a woman and the perception of being just an accompanist..." She shakes her head, as if to say, 'but that's a whole other can of worms'.

Sleeping in Temples deals with these and other issues in a reasoned, unsensationalised voice. There are chapters on agents fees, on how to dress for concerts, on the perennial topic of audiences who cough. Tomes's observations are sometimes amusing - "most players don't even bother to read programme notes, or if they do, it's usually to mock them by reading out bits they find ridiculous" - but more often she writes as she speaks: clearly, earnestly, a little school-teacherly. I could imagine her giving this book as a lecture, or as a polite pre-concert talk. If its insights don't stand out as wildly radical, that might be because its tone is so consistently sensible. Something of those black school shoes still lingers in Tomes.

The heart of the book turns its focus to ineffable questions around interpretation and musical meaning. Tomes is adamant that a piece of music doesn't exist until it has been played, that "even the finest instrument is silent until someone plays it." I like her notion of describing herself as a hermeneut - someone who practices hermeneutics, or the art of text interpretation. Although, she points out, "it is probably wise to suppress that thought before I'm tempted to describe myself thus on my passport and make people even warier than they are when they see 'classical musician'."

And she's right. 'Classical musician' is still a strange and remote job description for many innocent bystanders. Tomes tells me that her publishers wanted to scrap the chapter on coughing: too trivial, apparently. But it is exactly these kind of insights that can give audiences a sense of the musician as human, the musician as ordinary. And it's exactly why candid books like Sleeping in Temples are so necessary.

Susan Tomes gives a lecture-recital at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, today at 1pm. Sleeping in Temples is out now from Boydell Press