Lessons learned from a musical mid-life crisis

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.”

14Erica 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.


    • Greetings, Mr. Josserand. I’m so glad you discovered my blog as well. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.


  1. Thanks for writing about this topic. It’s so easy to think that I’m the only one who has these roadblocks! I found this Menahem Pressler quote inspiring.

    “You don’t have to be a concertizing artist…you can sit in a small town and teach and find not only satisfaction in teaching, but feeling that when you transmit music to someone else and reach their lives you have really done something in your life. Therefore, your life is important because you bring so much.”


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