Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I was naturally good at music (I could play by ear from a very young age) but did not come from a musical family so I was a bit of an oddity. I started the clarinet aged around 10, having lessons at my local comprehensive school. We didn’t go to many concerts or arts events when I was young, but my parents were very supportive and I loved the local North East Derbyshire Music Service and my County Wind Band. They were very ‘happy places’, run by passionate, dedicated and inspirational musicians. I didn’t really know much about a career in music and I sort of vaguely drifted into music college (Royal Northern College of Music) – which was a bit of a shock. What had been ‘fun’ suddenly felt super-competitive and I think this was the point when I really started working very hard indeed.
But something wasn’t quite right. I soon realised I didn’t get the same buzz from playing in an orchestra as many of my fellow students did. But I did love the theatres, the museums, the art galleries, the urban architecture of Manchester. I used to wander around the abandoned Hulme Crescents (the largest public housing development in Europe, described as ‘Europe’s worst housing stock’ – demolished 1994) feeling sad for it, and I think my fascination with the way that people (audiences) ‘consume’ art and design stems from these days. I started composing (lessons with the wonderful Tony Gilbert) and doubled up my course – two simultaneous programmes of study as a clarinetist and composer. I also loved chamber music and really enjoyed playing contemporary music – it felt more ‘theatrical’. The more unconventional and challenging it was, the better – I was a bit of a thrill seeker. The year I played Max’s Eight Songs For A Mad King was a real turning point. Alan Hacker used to come and give us clarinet masterclasses. He would bring his reed knife and whittle all our reeds down until they were paper-thin. It was like playing a kazoo after he’d finished and we soon learned not to bring our best reeds along! But I really enjoyed his classes and, through him, having what felt like a close connection with the incredible composers he worked with.
I pursued music as a clarinetist for decades, playing lots of new repertoire and chamber music, mixing it up with composition and academia – but still not feeling it was 100% ‘right’. It was only when I was in my late 30s that the penny finally dropped. A colleague pointed out how ‘theatrically’ I described things – and I suddenly realised what was missing from my purely musical life – theatre. It was a peculiar light-bulb moment as I’m certainly no actor and the desire was to MAKE theatrical events rather than be in them. I started to create shows and, a few years later, I resigned from my senior academic post at Guildhall to set up my own company. Goldfield Productions make ‘adventures in sound’. We work with composers, puppeteers, writers, artists, animators, inventors etc to create extraordinary touring cross-arts shows but we always have the highest quality chamber music at the heart of what we do. Everything I do now seems to be connected in some way to both music and theatre and I love it! Goldfield’s work with young people is really important to me too – I’m very passionate about that.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your creative life and career?
I’m inspired by artists in other fields – which I think I like to apply or ‘translate’ into musical ideas. The ones I couldn’t imagine life without – John Berger, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes…the breath-taking imagination of Italo Calvino, Angela Carter….I have many books of fairy-story collections, on design & architecture (especially ‘ways of living’) and amateur music making (past and present). I am often inspired by museum and gallery curators and how they tell narrative through objects and in a space. I love what Paola Antonelli (senior curator of architecture and design) did with MOMA (making design relevant to everyone) and what Paul Holdengraber did with the New York Public Library (turning it into a huge conversation for the City and beyond) – he calls himself a ‘curator of Public Curiosity’. Art and music doesn’t exists in a vacuum for me – its always in a dynamic relationship with those who ‘consume’ it. The things that inspire me the most are those that have engaged people with art in extraordinary ways.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I juggle a LOT now. In addition to running Goldfield as Artistic Director (and being the sole fund-raiser), I also work as a freelance producer for many other companies and venues. Writing (words) has also become a rather big thing. I’ve written 5 children’s productions and, since 2017, I’ve written and presented stories for BBC Radio 3 – a most unexpected outlet for exploration and discovery which I absolutely love. I’ve written around 140 stories so far – each on a topic that I research from scratch. My shelves are rammed with fascinating books that I may never have otherwise bought! I try to play the clarinet every day – even if I don’t have a run of concerts coming up. Playing the clarinet is still very much part of my identity and although I do so many other things that compete for time, I’d hate to give up performing and making music with my chamber music friends. I probably ought to have more sleep and exercise regularly – fitting those in would be a genuine challenge!
So there is the on-going personal challenge of keeping all the balls in the air, and combining this with the kids and family life. But there are also the wider challenges of sustainability for Goldfield and the arts in general, short and long-term funding, trying to ensure that funders are not entirely shaping the art we make, how we can tackle the reduction of music education in schools, how we can possibly do justice to the huge volume of new music being created …I guess these are everybody’s challenges, but they are constantly on my mind.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of Goldfield’s recent Erika Fox CD for NMC Records. We (Goldfield Productions) often work with composers over a long period of time in a bespoke way (‘what do they need that we can provide?’) and we aim to have a transformative impact on their development / careers. But the relationship with Erika and her music exceeded all expectations! She was a true ‘neglected’ voice. Two years ago, the only way to listen to her music was to go round to her house and put on one of the cassette recordings she had salvaged from the 70s and 80s when her music was often played and won numerous awards. With huge support from funders, trustees and NMC records, Goldfield set out to record six of Fox’s chamber works on what would be the very first album of her music, released in June 2019 in her 82nd year. Press and public response has been overwhelmingly positive and Erika’s composition career has literally taken off again with new commissions coming in and high profile recognition and performances in the UK and abroad. Its amazing that this sort of change is possible. Its a privilege to be part of it but the credit is due to Erika – she is a genuine, remarkable and unique voice. We just had to get the music out there.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I still love playing new music and I’m definitely happiest in a chamber music setting. I’ve got a super-flexible embouchure so anything that involves lots of colours, multi-phonics, endurance and generally finding non-clarinetty type sounds is good. I like to discover and learn new musical languages – learning Erika Fox’s language last year was fascinating. That said, I also think I play Brahms well and I do a cracking good Copland concerto. For sheer pleasure, I play unaccompanied Bach on the clarinet….but only in private.
How do you make your production choices from year to year?
I seem to have an inexhaustible number of ideas (kept in scrap books, note-pads, on my phone, in my head….) but they don’t all come to fruition. I’ll think about stuff for ages – playing with it, developing it in my mind, testing it out in different imaginary contexts…is it a piece of theatre… radio..a site-specific work? I don’t think ‘I’m going to make an opera’. I think ‘I’ve got an idea– what will it become?’ I’m really careful about what I invest time in. It has to be right. ‘Right’ means – a great artistic idea expressed in the most succinct way, with the best people to deliver it, something that is wanted or needed right now (even if people don’t know it yet!), a wholly balanced proposition (budget, aims, outcomes, reach, partners, people, venues etc). There is something beautifully satisfying about a production blueprint that is ‘right’. I do a lot of brutal self-culling and whittling down of ideas to make sure that they are truly the best they can be and I’m constantly looking at how we are communicating art and ideas to audiences.
Here’s what happens when you make a show: initial idea and brainstorming (‘OMG this is going to be amazing’); long period of fund-raising and work going into development (‘OMG this is really hard’): period of intense challenges (‘OMG this is going to be awful’): finally, the home straight as it all comes together (‘OMG this is going to be amazing!’) Four stages. Every. Single. Time.
Do you have a favourite venue to perform in and why?
I’ve put shows into all sorts of venues – museums, tiny churches, vast warehouses, concert halls, theatres, schools, outdoor spaces, galleries… but the Parabola Theatre at Cheltenham Music Festival stands out as special because it was the first venue that gave me a shot at being a producer. I am forever indebted to Leksi Patterson and Meurig Bowen who – for reasons best known to themselves! – believed me when I strode over to their table in the Barbican café in 2012, waving a small book of poems, proclaiming ‘I’m going to make an opera!’ I had literally NO idea how to do it. And – even worse – I didn’t know that I didn’t know! (Hey – how hard can it be? It’s just like chamber music with some singers, right?) What a learning curve. I raised a budget of c. £170,000 (how? Fear of failure and gritty determination), put together an opera company and an 8-date tour for what was going to become Nicola LeFanu’s Tokaido Road. After that, I DID know how to make an opera. It nearly killed me, but I loved it and it set me off in a new direction. Cheltenham Festival gave me was the venue for the world premiere and we’ve been back many times since with other shows. I always feel very happy in the Parabola. I’ve played on the stage a lot too – sometimes in my own shows, sometimes in other peoples’ productions.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I really do have an enormous amount of empathy for a lot of music. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of lesser-known, lesser-loved music from the 1960s. Thanks to some brilliant listening-lists from friends, I have discovered and re-discovered works by Lumsdaine, Dale Roberts, Bacewicz, Ustvolskaya, Bedford, Jolas, Subotnick, Gilbert to name but a few. Its an often neglected and overlooked decade, yet the music is beautiful, well-crafted, shocking, surprising, fun, funny and wonderful. I am pondering what to do with a lot of this repertoire …. I’m very driven to play and programme the brilliant music we already have.
What is your definition of success?
For me, I think that ‘success’ is often to do with facilitating things and usually connected to making what I consider to be positive change. For example, someone telling you that they enjoyed contemporary music / opera / classical music for the first time because of something you did… when a young person says that the project they have taken part in has been a total game-changer for them… when you can bring the music of a composer to a new generation of listeners… when an artist you have commissioned has been able to push themselves in a new creative direction…
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to young aspiring musicians?
Be nice and be kind. Be polite and courteous to everyone (even…especially…more ‘challenging’ people…we’ve all got our own problems and these can surface in all sorts of ways). Never forget that making performance art / music takes a whole team and the person that books the venue / fetches the coffee etc is as much an essential part of that team as the director or leading singer. Be yourself and have fun, but always do your job and follow your passion with total professionalism. Be the sort of person you would want to work with…smart, hard-working, reliable, calm, generous, open-minded, honest, cheerful, considerate, efficient etc No one is perfect (I very much include myself in that), but try your best.
Listen to your instincts. If I had paid more attention to my love of art, galleries, theatre and architecture in my 20s (rather than trying to suppress it and be a ‘proper’ musician) I might have set up my company years earlier!
Be open to change. Sometimes, the path you think is ahead of you veers off in a new direction. Another door opens, you meet someone or see something which becomes a catalyst to dramatically change the way you think about things. The arts are volatile – be good at adapting to change within organisations and also within yourself.
Love what you do. That’s really important because working in the arts in the UK is tough. There is a lot of competitiveness and not enough money. But on the plus side you will get to work with some of the most extraordinary, talented and marvelous people that ever existed, your life will be rich with culture and you will – hopefully – enhance the lives of others too. That’s not a bad way to live 🙂
Build up strategies for resilience. At some point, things will get tough but its part of what makes you successful. You learn far more when things don’t quite work out than when everything is smooth sailing. You learn about yourself, your attitude to risk, your own definition of ‘success’. You don’t really know just how resilient, strong and determined you are until you have to be. Patience is important too – it can sometimes take a long time to get things off the ground.
Stay curious and keep questioning things. Don’t be afraid to keep challenging yourself and the world around you and asking how you can you best express the things you want to say.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’d like Goldfield to still be flourishing, growing and evolving. I’d like to push myself more as a writer. I would only return to composition if I felt I had something to say, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I would like to have made great strides in my thinking about how audiences ‘consume’ music and how this understanding feeds into the art and events we make. I would like to be as curious, as energised, buzzy and optimistic as I feel now.
What are your most treasured possessions?
1. My books.
2. A necklace with a plaster cast of an ammonite that my parents made in the late 1970s. I wear it a lot.
3. The things the kids made for me when they were little – there is so much unconditional love embodied in these tiny, wonky, honest objects and each one tells a story.
What is your present state of mind?
Curious, energised, buzzy, optimistic.
Kate Romano is the founder and Artistic Director of Goldfield Productions. She is also an independent producer of opera and music theatre and is passionate about story-telling and cross-arts productions.
Kate is a writer for the BBC Orchestras and the Proms. A regular BBC Radio 3 presenter, she has written and narrated around 150 short stories for Essential Classics and the 2019 Our Classical Century season leading up to the Proms. She has written and directed Goldfield’s five acclaimed children’s productions which have been seen by over 9000 children in 60 primary schools. In June 2019, Kate took up the post of Director of Aspire! at the Lichfield Music & Literature Festivals, developing a new outreach and participation programme for the festival.
As a clarinetist (chamber musician and soloist), she has performed at most major UK venues and festivals. Kate has given over 70 premieres and has recorded for NMC, Metier and Minabel. Her debut solo CD was awarded 5* reviews from Gramophone and ‘Pick of the Month’ in the chamber music section for the BBC Music Magazine. Kate studied at the Royal Northern College of Music where she graduated with first class honours, she holds an MPhil from Cambridge University and a doctorate in composition from Kings College London. From 2003 – 2016 she held a senior academic post at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and co-founded the schools’ flagship doctoral programme. In 2014, Kate was awarded a Fellowship from the School.
(photo: Chris Frazer Smith)
The miracle of an aristocratic performance lies in its capacity to vaporize everything that surrounds it….
Mark Mitchell, ‘Virtuosi’ (Indiana University Press, 2000)
Earlier this year I was privileged to hear two performers who are the living embodiment of superlatives like “world class” and “greatest living pianist”. In Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Martha Argerich did miraculous things with the pacing and rubato to create a performance which felt fresh, vivid and spontaneous, but when asked to describe exactly what she did, I was lost for words. Equally, in Evgeny Kissin’s solo performance, also at London’s Barbican Hall, there was a moment when, in just two chords of a Chopin Nocturne, it seemed as if every piano concert I’d ever attended coalesced into those two chords, such was the performer’s magic. There’s something ineffable in the way musicians like Argerich or Kissin, Pollini or Uchida play. These are performers whose artistry leaves one lost for words.
Artistry is not the same as virtuosity, which can be defined and discussed in terms which are commonly understood: accuracy, fluency, technical mastery, fidelity to the score, spontaneity in performance. It is far more difficult to differentiate between a technically masterful performance and a truly artistic one. There is no defined vocabulary to describe artistry, and so commentators, critics, reviewers et al may fall back on inadequate superlatives or clichéd metaphors. I’m listening to the pianist Keith Jarrett as I write – and I can’t explain why his playing is so good. As performances by Argerich and Kissin – and Jarrett – prove, true artistry cannot be described in words.
Some say that artistry is bestowed upon performers by listeners/audiences and critics, but I think true artistry comes from the musician and is something which remains unaffected by musical taste, the comments of critics etc and other extrinsic forces. It is intrinsic and unique to the individual musician.
Artistry is about getting to the essence of the music to such an extent that the performance takes the audience beyond itself, transcending the everyday and transporting it to another place where it can dream or imagine. In these instances, the performer allows their ego to step aside so that the music can speak. This ‘transparency’ in performance is quite rare, and not all performers seek nor desire it. Some prefer to draw attention to themselves or remind us of the difficulty involved in what they are doing.
To achieve transparency artists engage in a paradox which is familiar to all those who seek true personal expression: they must master the technique and craft of their art (music in this instance) to such a point that they are free to think about interpretation, and to put art ahead of ego. This requires performers to have a certain level of humility and an appreciation that while the mastery of their art is powerful, they do not hold all the power – that lies within the music.
I feel that special secret current between the public and me. I can hold them with one little note in the air, and they will not breathe. That is a great, great moment.
– Arthur Rubinstein
Once this state of interpretative freedom is reached, another facet of artistry comes into play – the control of fine details of musical nuance. Such details are not fixed by the composer/score, and though they may be implied within the text, the translation of such details into sound is reliant on the performer’s own understanding of the music. Performance is an act of producing “versions” of the music and no two performances will ever be alike. The control of nuance will determine the version the performer performs. Much of this nuance will be pre-planned, practiced, memorised, and finessed to such a degree that it sounds spontaneous in performance, but the rest comes ‘in the moment’ of performance – a genuinely spontaneous, quasi improvisatory response to interaction between performer and music, performer and audience, the responsiveness of the audience, the performer’s mood and sensibilities, the ambiance of the concert hall, the time of day….It is this kind of musical “sprezzatura” that creates those magical, “you had to be there” moments in live concerts. It cannot be planned in advance – and yet it comes from the performer’s meticulous preparation, their deep knowledge of the music, their experience and their mastery of their art.
If you are lucky enough to witness it – and you certainly won’t find it at every concert you attend – you will know it (but you might not be able to explain it), and it will stay with you and resonate for years to come. It will be the touchstone against which other performances are measured. It is there, too, for the performer, but it’s an elusive state, fervently to be desired and recreated.
At every concert I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen. I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew.
– Arthur Rubinstein
The euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the act of performing, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it.
And then, suddenly, it is all over…..You wake the morning after with a sense of deflation, the euphoria of the previous night now replaced by ennui.
This is in fact quite normal and the explanation for these feelings is simple: you’re coming down from an adrenaline ‘high’.
Anxiety is a natural part of the performance experience and should be accepted as such. While many of us may dwell on the psychological and emotional symptoms of anxiety (the fear of making mistakes, memory slips, negative self-talk etc), most of the symptoms we feel ahead of a performance are in fact physiological, the result of the release of adrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is produced when we find ourselves in stressful or exciting situations. Known as the “fight or flight hormone”, it works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs. This gives the body an increased and almost instantaneous physical boost. In a performance situation, the side-effects of adrenaline pumping through the body include racing heart or palpitations, sweating, breathlessness, nausea, and trembling or shaky hands, arms or legs. It also brings a heightened sense of awareness and increased respiration which can make one feel light-headed or dizzy. Understanding the physical symptoms of performance anxiety can go a long way to managing the unpleasant feelings, together with deep practising and good preparation, which can remove some of the psychological stress. We do not need to “fight the fear” but simply accept that these sensations and feelings are normal and common to us all – even musicians at the top of the profession.
The symptoms of the release of adrenaline do not leave the body the instant the stressful situation ends, and when one is not actually in a genuinely dangerous situation, the effects of adrenaline can leave one feeling jittery, restless, irritable and sleepless. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, you may continue to feel excited, “on a high”. Many people find it beneficial to “work off” the adrenaline rush after a particularly stressful situation (the clichéd example perhaps being the rock star trashing a hotel room after a gig!). It can take several hours for the body to settle down and the day after the concert, one can feel very flat as adrenaline leaves the system and one’s hormonal levels return to normal.
In reality, there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness. There may be another concert to prepare for, new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revived and finessed. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. The performance is what endorses all the lonely hours of careful practice and preparation.
“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)
Stage fright? Blame Liszt – article by pianist Stephen Hough
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
My mother sent my father to the American G.I. flea market to buy a western suit in order to attend a cousin’s wedding. My father came home without a suit; instead, he returned with an old turntable and a stack of LP records. In the stack of LPs were all of the most important works from Mozart’s violin sonatas, to Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, Beethoven’s piano concerti and symphonies, as well as Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade. My father wanted all of his children to learn how to make music, so he forced me to take up the piano. He took me to live concerts where I found the experience took me to the most beautiful world that humans can experience. I remember those blissful hours in concert halls watching artists strive to achieve something that seemed so impossible from a child’s point of view, and that inspired me to want to be one of them. I am always trying to achieve something that is beautiful and inspiring.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I have to say it is my husband David Finckel, who is one of the most disciplined and imaginative musicians. To have a lifetime partner that is committed so deeply to an unwavering belief in the power of music, is so determined to uphold the highest standard, and is in constant quest for excellence in his musical life has influenced and affected me every single day. It is a blessing to have a lifetime partner who is in the same pursuit as a musician and artist.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I am a very optimistic person. I love to be challenged, so I don’t really remember meeting any challenges, I only remember seeing opportunities.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
My recordings are like my children, I cannot possibly tell you which one I like more than the others. And I rarely have a performance that I am completely satisfied with, but I am always proud of the concert as long as my audience seems happy.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I love Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak and Beethoven. That doesn’t mean I play them best, but I know that I always try my best when I perform any works.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I carry a large repertoire each season, between 40 to 60 pieces. My repertoire choice usually comes from the design of specific program. In the program, you need to find balance and variety. It is a combination of my passion that particular season and my program design where I find that magic formula that provides audiences with the most satisfying musical experience.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Alice Tully Hall in New York City, one of the greatest halls, with its warmth and beauty of sound, as well as its complete silence. Alice Tully Hall also has the greatest piano in the world. It is an oasis for any musician to make music in such a beautiful space with such perfect acoustics. The color of the wood is modeled after the most gorgeous Italian string instruments, and the intimacy between the audience and the performers provides all the inspiration one would need.
Who are your favourite musicians?
My favorite musicians are Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jascha Heifetz…
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I played three concerts the week after September 11, 2001 for the most attentive audience. In all of the slow movements I could hear the sobs of the audience, as well as my own. Those were the most important concerts that I ever played in my life.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
My definition of success is that I improve everyday, I try my best all of the time, and I make music that hopefully touches people’s hearts.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I tell young musicians to be truthful to the score, always work hard, and be ready to be a strong advocate on behalf of great music, the music you truly believe in.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My idea of perfect happiness is to play a great concert, have a great martini and a great meal afterwards, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up in time to catch my next flight.
Wu Han LIVE III is the third collaborative release between the ArtistLed and Music@Menlo LIVE labels, featuring pianist Wu Han’s recordings of Fauré’s magnificent piano quartets from past Music@Menlo festivals.
Wu Han is a Taiwanese-American pianist and influential figure in the classical music world. Leading an unusually multifaceted career, she has risen to international prominence through her wide-ranging activities as a concert performer, recording artist, educator, arts administrator, and cultural entrepreneur
(Artist photo: Liza-Marie Mazzucco)
Guest post by Erica Ann Sipes
A few years ago I found myself in the middle of a musical mid-life crisis. I started playing music when I was five and went to music school for my undergraduate and graduate degrees but after that I opted for getting married and shelving my dreams of being a high-level performer. (These two things don’t have to go hand and hand but I decided to link the two.) As with so many people who study music throughout their lives, music has always played a huge role in my life. Without it I am simply not me. So along with playing my roles as wife, mother, library supervisor, and toystore manager, I have also always worn a musical hat; I’ve played for church and school choirs, accompanied students and professionals, and have been a practice coach to others. My musical mid-life crisis occurred several years ago, not because I wasn’t incorporating music into my life but because I wasn’t giving enough value to that musical hat. I was judging it against my immature notions of what I had always thought it meant to be a successful professional musician.
One of the problems with devaluing our musical hat’s worth is that it can often keep us from sharing our gifts and the gift of musicking* with others who need it – in other words, just about everyone. As I’ve engaged others in conversation both in person and on social media and as I’ve dealt with my own struggles, I have come to the worrying conclusion that too many of us aren’t sharing our gifts as much as we can and perhaps should, largely because of labels and misguided notions that make us question what we have to offer. Post-musical mid-life crisis, I am here to help redirect as many of us as I can to a healthier respect for our musical selves by looking at some typical devaluing roadblocks that we set up for ourselves and that can keep us from feeling confident that we have something to offer others as musicians. Here are a handful of these roadblocks:
- I can’t deliver perfect, flawless performances.
- I can’t easily perform by memory.
- I can’t perform difficult, virtuosic music.
- I like to perform music that’s not considered legitimate classical.
- I don’t get invited to perform at the best venues or around the area, country, or world.
All these statements are ones that I myself can claim. A few years ago they would have driven me back into my shadows but now I gladly accept them because I realize I am no longer a child. With becoming an adult we can shed these expectations that for many of us aren’t possible or practical. We no longer need to use them as our measuring sticks for success because we can reframe them to motivate us rather than cripple us. Here’s some reframing in action:
- Perfect, flawless performances are miracles, at least they are for me. And audiences rarely hear mistakes. What’s important to me is delivering the essence of a composition, its composer, and myself. If I can move the audience in some small way – to smile, to reminisce, to cry, to laugh, to dream – I have succeeded.
- There is no need to perform by memory unless I want to. These days, with the advent of iPads and page-turning pedals, with a flesh and blood page turner, or with a little paper and tape ingenuity, having music in front of me doesn’t make me any less of a musician. I’d rather perform with music than not performing at all because I’m not comfortable playing by memory.
- I have small hands and have struggled throughout my life with overuse and misuse injuries so it’s not in my best interest to perform virtuosic works. There are plenty of amazing pieces out there to perform that can impress the audience but won’t jeopardize my body’s health.
- I enjoy performing music of many different styles even though I’ve mostly received training in classical music. Jazz, ragtime, blues, minimalism, movie soundtracks…it just doesn’t matter. If I like what I’m playing I’m more likely to play it well. Audiences also like variety. If someone has an issue and doesn’t like something, oh well! There’s always going to be pieces on any given program that someone doesn’t like. And because I’m not a famous pianist I don’t have to worry about bad reviews.
- There are wonderful venues in the most unexpected places and for me, personally, satisfaction comes more from the audience anyway. I’d rather play in a restaurant with a decent piano and an appreciative, engaged audience than I would a famous venue with an audience that isn’t receptive. Would I turn down an opportunity to play at a great hall? Of course not. But not being invited to perform at them does not meet I don’t have something to offer.
Ever since my musical mid-life crisis I have worked to move roadblocks from my life that keep me from doing what I love. I’ve also learned to take off my musical hat and to really look at it in order to evaluate its true value. Upon doing so, I’ve discovered my hat is in fact invaluable. Music brings me together with people and is a bridge to my communication with strangers, whether they’re in the audience or sharing the stage with me. Music gives me an outlet where I can tell my story. Music gives me a chance to prove to myself that I am a legitimate musician.
I strongly believe that there are more of us out there with these golden musical hats – we just need to get some dynamite and blast the roadblocks away…or chip away at them slowly if that’s more your style. As I’ve been doing that, I’ve been able to truly listen to and appreciate the feedback from audience members and what ’ve learned from them is how much music can heal, restore, and inspire others, myself included. I don’t think there’s a limit to how much of that the world can hold.
So let’s take another look at our musical hats, get rid of some roadblocks and grow up, shall we? The world needs you to.
* ‘Musicking’ is a term I got from Christopher Small’s wonderful book by the same name. A definition of the term that I love can be found in the abstract for one of his articles in the Journal of Music Education Research: “Musicking is part of that iconic, gestural process of giving and receiving information about relationships which unites the living world, and it is in fact a ritual by means of which the participants not only learn about, but directly experience, their concepts of how they relate, and how they ought to relate, to other human beings and to the rest of the world. These ideal relationships are often extremely complex, too complex to be articulated in words, but they are articulated effortlessly by the musical performance, enabling the participants to explore, affirm and celebrate them. Musicking is thus as central in importance to our humanness as is taking part in speech acts, and all normally endowed human beings are born capable of taking part in it, not just of understanding the gestures but of making their own.”
Erica Ann Sipes, pianist, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music. She has been an adjunct faculty member at Radford University and at the Governor’s School for the Arts, and has freelanced as a piano collaborator and coach in Michigan, Idaho, and Virginia. For the past two years she has led the piano intensive program at the Roanoke Youth Orchestra’s Summer Institute. She has also performed with the Roanoke Symphony on occasion and has performed as a piano soloist with the New River Valley Symphony. In the summer of 2012 Erica officially launched her own business as a practice coach, Beyond the Notes, offering coachings, workshops, planning sessions, and practice boot-camps for anyone that could use some help with practicing.
Erica can often be found talking about practicing, piano, and music or livestreaming her practice sessions on Twitter (@ericasipes). She has also been a prominent blogger, writing frequently about her views on performing, learning music, and the classical music world in general. Her blog, “Beyond the Notes” can be found at http://ericaannsipes.blogspot.com.
‘….Petits Concerts’, a series of convivial recitals at the 1901 Arts Club, an intimate salon style venue just a stone’s throw from Waterloo Station, continues its second season with a December feast of Beethoven, a prelude to the celebrations in 2020 to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.1 No.1
Piano Sonata No.14 ‘Moonlight’, Op.27 No.2
Piano Trio in B flat major ‘Archduke’, Op.97
In this ninth recital in the ‘…petits concerts’ series, pianist James Lisney is joined by his daughters violinist Emma and cellist Joy in a programme featuring some of the composer’s best-loved works.
The first 20 people to book a full-price ticket for this concert will receive a complimentary 4-CD box set of ‘Beethoven Complete Works for Piano and Violin’ by James Lisney and Paul Barritt (Woodhouse Editions). This offer is also open to students.
Other Woodhouse Editions CDs will be available to purchase at the concert.
Inspired by concerts given by Charles-Valentin Alkan at the Erard showroom in Paris in the 1870s, and hosted by concert pianist James Lisney, ….Petits Concerts brings musicians together in the spirit of “music with friends and amongst friends” in a setting which harks back to the 19th-century European cultural salon. Proceeds from the concert will be donated to The Amber Trust, a charity which helps blind and partially sighted children across the UK who have a talent or love for music, of which James Lisney is a patron.
Previous concerts in the series have proved very popular and as this is a small venue, early booking is recommended
From 2pm on the afternoon of each concert James Lisney will be giving piano lessons at the 1901 Arts Club from 2pm. Lessons cost £100 for 90 mins with proceeds going to charity. For further information or to book a lesson, contact James Lisney