Flipping musical misperceptions on their heads: Erica Sipes

My guest writer today is American pianist, writer and professor Erica Sipes. Erica is the author of the popular blog, Beyond The Notes, which provided the inspiration for my blog when I started almost ten years ago. In this article, Erica writes about an issue which often rears its head for many a musician.

Having been a piano collaborator for the majority of my professional life, working primarily with students, I have noticed a handful of unhelpful perceptions music students tend to have that I cannot ignore. I have a sense of urgency about it all because my fear is that if some things don’t change in the music world, especially in studios where music lovers of varying levels are learning the skills it takes to express themselves in this way, fewer and fewer people will want to pursue music, either as a profession or as a pastime. And with that, fewer and fewer people will be willing to share their gifts with others. For me, losing both music students and people willing to perform would be a tragedy that our society can’t and shouldn’t bear.

What are these misperceptions that are at the root of my concern?

  • That note-perfect performances are the endgame.
  • That professional musicians have reached where they are because they are naturally endowed with the ability to deliver memorized, perfect performances, without experiencing performance anxiety.

With very few exceptions, these perceptions dominate the minds of most musicians, regardless of whether they’re students, amateurs, or professionals. In my mind however, they can create an environment that makes the thought of performing for others daunting, terrifying, and sometimes debilitating. They can also lead to these unfortunate conclusions:

  • If you can’t deliver a note-perfect or almost note-perfect performance then you shouldn’t perform. And if you do and you make a mistake, or God forbid several…or a lot, then you’ve failed.
  • If you get nervous that means you don’t have what it takes so you shouldn’t do it.
  • If you can’t perform by memory, you shouldn’t bother performing.

I believe these misperceptions are in the music world for several reasons. For one thing, music teachers and performers alike often struggle with the same things that students do yet because they are professionals, they feel they cannot be transparent and honest about it all. What goes into a performance is more often than not a completely private matter so students and audience members don’t see what is bound to be there – frustration, failure, the need to keep trying different things to get the desired result, and dissatisfaction with one’s performance. Students don’t realize that these are not all bad things – they are part of a natural process that we all need to learn to work through as artists each and every day, and throughout one’s life.  Perhaps this lack of transparency stems from a fear that doing so will diminish one’s reputation. I can understand that to some degree although if we all keep feeding this attitude, I fear we’re only making matters worse for ourselves and also for our students. I honestly believe that if we could have more honest discussion about these issues, we’d find ourselves much more willing and even eager to perform more. This would then extend to students and to anyone interested in pursuing music, even if it’s as a hobby or a passion. They won’t be as likely to write themselves off the moment they encounter challenges; they will realize that it’s part of the process and the artform; and hopefully they will see that the gift they can give through offering their music to others is a rewarding one when approached in a realistic, healthy manner.

Since I used the word “offering,” I’d like to also suggest that perhaps that word could be used in place of the word “performance” on occasion. I think doing so would put us in a healthier frame of mind when it comes to sharing our music with others. And isn’t that what we’re really wanting to do? To offer a bit of ourselves and the gift of music to anyone who wishes to receive it? I recently watched an interview with the pianist Marc-André Hamelin who said something that really resonated with me. “To me a performance is not an exhibition – it’s an offering.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. Yet how many of us actually see it that way? In adopting this word I think it would also help by making the definition of what a performance is more broad. So often I think people think a performance is only a legitimate performance if it takes place in an important, revered venue. I believe that a performance is a performance no matter the location or the size of the audience and more importantly, that each one is an offering and a gift.

I want to end this post by suggesting some ideas that might help us as a society of musicians, to help reduce or eradicate some of these false perceptions.

  • As performers we could be more transparent about what goes on behind the scenes. Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Tiffany Poon are musicians who come to mind who are excellent at doing this and I don’t sense that it has hurt their reputations in any way. Quite the opposite, really. I think many find it refreshing and encouraging.
  • As teachers we could set ourselves the goal, on occasion, of learning and performing a piece, whatever is comfortable, and sharing the entire process with our students. They already see us as their musical heroes so I promise you their view of us will not be diminished. And a “performance” or “offering” can be in any form –  at a studio recital, studio gathering, local church or live-streamed…anywhere, anytime. It would go a long way for them to receive that gift from us.

I want to close this post by sharing what inspired me to share these thoughts. I recently had an encouraging and interesting conversation with a colleague of mine who was preparing to give a faculty recital that same evening at the university where I work. We talked about how baffling performing can be both in the moment and afterwards – that our perceptions tend to be upside down from what the audience experiences. We also discussed how we both find that we need to perform any given piece multiple times before we really start to feel the experience is more comfortable and slightly more predictable. From beginning to end this was what I would consider a wonderfully transparent conversation and all the more so because we weren’t alone. Standing by my side the entire time was a young flute student with whom I had just rehearsed and who was getting ready to perform in a concert.

This young flutist was an ideal fly on the wall during such an honest chat with my colleague. As with many of the musicians in the school, she hasn’t done a lot of performing with only a pianist by her side so she was understandably anxious. Watching her watching us out of the corner of my eye and then seeing her visible release of at least a tiny bit of apprehension about her upcoming performance, made me think how transformational a glimpse into the realities of a professional musician’s psyche could be for musicians at different places in their journey. I can’t help but think that adding more of this transparency into the musical world would help ensure that music-making and learning at all levels could benefit us all.

Erica Sipes

Piano Music, She Wrote


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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