Musicians: Erica Sipes

Photo courtesy of Kingmond Young

Erica Sipes is yet another of the fine folks I know from both the Twittersphere and blogosphere. Being a dual-instrument artist (Pianist and cellist? UGH I’m a bit jealous of that! :p), she displays a formidable prowess as a seasoned musician. Married to vocalist and teacher Theodre Sipes, they have a daughter together named Emma, and with those responsibilities Erica even finds time to write a blog, and do an interview like this one. 😉

CM: Erica, you are trained both as a pianist and a cellist. Which of these came first, and which of the 2 do you prefer?

ES: I seem to have come full circle. I started out with piano at age 5, walking into my first lesson declaring that I wanted to learn how to play the Mickey Mouse Club theme song first. After eventually learning that (It took a bit longer than that first lesson) I quickly fell in love with chamber music and found myself playing in chamber groups with string players all the time. When I was about 10 or 11 I was working with a violinist colleague of mine and apparently I was quite fond of letting her know when she was out of tune. I think that is what inspired our coach, a wonderful violinist that I worshiped, to suggest that perhaps I too should take up a string instrument. Perhaps she thought I should get a taste of my own medicine. I picked the cello and continued to do both piano and cello for a few years. In high school I couldn’t keep up both instruments. One day my mother, who was doing her best to keep me on track in regards to practicing, told me that maybe I should just quit piano. I knew that she didn’t really mean it and that it would kill her for me to follow through so like a typical teenager I saw the opportunity and said I would. I called my piano teacher, who I admired dearly, and quit. It pains me to think about that now; Piano had always been a source of therapy for me. But at the time and even now, I think it was the right decision. I needed to make that choice for myself and I still see that time as crucial in me figuring out my musical self.
I finished out my high school years on cello, found myself competing in quite a few competitions, and then auditioned as a cello major at several music schools – Juilliard, New England Conservatory, and Eastman. I ended up at Eastman studying with one of the most incredible cellists I’ve ever known, Paul Katz. His sound made me melt, made me fall in love with the cello all over again. That first year was a tough year for me for many unmusical reasons and it was during a particularly tough time that Paul discovered that I also played piano. He heard me accompanying another cellist from another studio and I remember him asking me at my next lesson why I had ever quit the piano in the first place. I told him my whole rebellious teenager story and he said quite simply, “Well, that was one of the stupidest things you’ve ever done.” Within the next few days or weeks he had me signed up to audition for the piano department. After not practicing piano for years, I put together an audition and surprised myself by getting in. At the time, Eastman did not typically allow anyone to be a double performance major so I had to write an essay stating my case which I then had to present to the president of the school. That was intimidating! And it was quite the interesting meeting. In the end he agreed to let me be a double major for one year. By the end of the year I had to choose one or the other. I didn’t even make it that long. Having not played piano for a long time, I concentrated on piano and by the middle of the second semester Paul Katz told me that he thought I should make the choice then and there. So I did. Piano. In all honesty, I don’t know whether or not it was a difficult decision. I knew that piano was the practical choice since as someone who loves collaborating I knew I’d have a lot of career opportunities. But there is no doubt that the cello meant the world to me as well, with its unique ability to transmit vibrations from the instrument straight into my own body. So that’s it, really. I consider myself primarily a pianist now but since becoming a mother 6 years ago, I have brought the cello back into my life, playing in orchestras, chamber music, and sometimes even solo. As a collaborator and coach, I never turn down working with a cellist; It’s the next best thing to playing the cello part myself. Recently, I’ve also started playing around with accompanying myself on the cello, thanks to the joys of modern technology. It’s quite the interesting experiment and I plan on doing more of it soon.

CM: Are you comfortable juggling your multiple duties as a musician and a mother, and a blogger on top of those?

ES: [chuckles] I love the word “comfortable?”! Well in all honesty, no, I’m not at all comfortable juggling everything. And I have to say that I’d throw “wife” into that list too. But I take great comfort in knowing that there are so many other women who do just as much juggling as I do and that we all find it incredibly fulfilling albeit challenging. There is a quite a network of us on twitter and I depend on them on a daily basis for encouragement, shared laughs, insights, you name it. It’s a wonderful place, as I think you know yourself.
I have also undergone somewhat of a personal evolution over the past few years and much of it has been sparked by my blog. I have always loved to write but never been good at the old-fashioned spiral-bound journal thing. When I discovered what a blog was a lightbulb went off in my head and I thought, “This might be the ticket!” I started “Beyond the Notes” as a place to dump all the stuff that buzzes around in my head all the time – It truly gets painful sometimes if I don’t. I’ll never forget one post I wrote a while back that was mostly about my struggles with being a mom and feeling guilty for wanting to practice and perform rather than be a mom. One of my readers instantly contacted me and gave me the most wonderful advice. I don’t remember it word for word but it was basically something like, “You have a gift and kids are smart. Your daughter probably recognizes that you have something very special going with your music. There’s nothing wrong with her seeing that passion. I bet it’s even a good thing for her to see you work as hard as you do and with such determination”.
I treasure those thoughts to this day and point to those comments as the spark that got me on the track that I’m on right now. So in spite of the difficulty of balancing it all, I wouldn’t change any of it, really. Each role feeds into the next in a wonderful, fulfilling way. Hopefully, through practice, I’ll get better at being more comfortable with juggling it all.

CM: Something I always wonder about classical musicians and their origins; Were you always a fan of classical music from the beginning of your career?

ES: Oh yes. My parents have always been classical music junkies and they even dabbled around in it themselves while I was growing up, not on a professional level, but just as avid fans. Growing up in San Francisco, they dragged my brother and I to many concerts early on, mostly chamber music concerts and it was the combination of piano and strings that made me feel like I didn’t have a choice; I was blown away by the sound, by the communication that could happen in such a non-verbal way. So at the beginning of my musical life, classical music was basically all I knew. It wasn’t until I was older that I started really listening to other stuff. In spite of my first musical love, I do have a secret desire to someday be a jazz pianist too; I have so much admiration for jazz players and I really love listening to it. I took a semester off from Eastman to work in a restaurant in San Francisco and then in Switzerland and it was when I was working both places that I befriended some amazing jazz pianists. Whenever I had a break I would go and visit with them, listen to them, and ask questions. For someone that grew up learning a musical language that seemed full of rules and perfection, this new world was incredibly appealing and seemed so much more personal in ways. So who knows. Perhaps someday I’ll get to add “jazz pianist” to my list of roles.

CM: You definitely appear to be all about making the music experience a happy one. Was this something you always believed or was there something in your life that cemented this for you?

ES: I’m so glad you brought this up, Chris. Yes. For me, music isn’t worth it unless it is a happy one for whomever is involved in the process; The student, the performer, the teacher, the audience member. I am shocked, really, at how many professional musicians have a hard time performing and that are consumed by nerves yet still go out on stage night after night because that’s their job. I don’t think I could put myself under that type of pressure if I didn’t truly enjoy what I was doing. And what gets me is that I really don’t think it has to be this way. I think we, as a profession, have backed ourselves into an almost impossible corner. Most of us are perfectionists to some degree, mostly to a high degree; That’s what gets us to the level we’re at. But I think we easily forget that performing is a different thing than practicing, largely because performing involves an audience, a magical interaction between generally unrelated people. Forget perfection, just share yourself! So what got me to this place? I definitely didn’t think about any of this when I was younger. I was your typical performer that would walk off stage and frown, say negative things about myself and my playing, slink out of the green room with hardly a word for the audience. But there were two things that happened that have influenced the performer and musician I am today. The first thing happened when I was still a teenager living at home. I gave a recital at our house which of course, wasn’t perfect. Apparently I was quite clear about this thanks to the scowl that was on my face when it was done. A neighbor, who was not a classical music fan, wrote me a note the next day that said he enjoyed my performance immensely until he saw the look on my face. He requested that next time, I smile. That note angered me at first but he was right and I’m so glad he had the guts to give me his honest reaction. I believe that note is still in my mother’s files at home, it meant that much to all of us.
The second thing that happened was a biggie; My daughter being born. She was not an easy baby in just about every way imaginable and I suffered from severe post-partum depression and anxiety for several years. This wasn’t just mild, it was really, really horrible and could have been dangerous. But we made it through and it was that dark time that made me realize how much music, performing, and playing music with others means to me. I need it in my life. And now that I am a mom and a wife I don’t have time to be a “perfect” musician. Playing all the right notes isn’t even an option since practice time is so hard to come by and in working through all of this, I’ve realized that nobody else cares or even knows whether or not I’m missing notes here and there. Even I don’t care as much because what I know is that I simply must play or risk being a truly unhappy person. So what a relief! And with that relief comes an incredible joy that translates to those that listen and it’s their constant positive feedback that has shown me that I’m on the right track.

CM: We’ve seen some interesting examples of classical players trying new things outside of the box; Along with the interest in jazz music you had brought up earlier, do you ever think about doing collaborative music with outside genres, like with a folk or rock musician or group?

ES: Definitely, but I’m pretty shy and also a bit chicken. We live in Appalachian country and are surrounded by incredible fiddlers and folk musicians. I just found out that one of the young cellists I regularly work with has been invited by a celtic band in town to join in with them at gigs and I have to say I’m a bit jealous. I’m thinking that I might have to accidentally show up with my cello to see if they might invite me in as well. And as I mentioned earlier, I would also love to get into jazz someday. I’m pretty good at “reading” jazz from a transcription but that’s not the same; I want to experience the real stuff. I want to sense a string bass’ vibrations underneath the piano’s sound and the drummer’s rhythm inside me…it’s hard to get that type of physicality in classical music and it intrigues me.

CM: Do you ever worry about the state of classical music as a business, or do you think it’s still holding steady?

ES: That’s a popular question these days and I really think it’s a tough one to answer. I do think that the classical music world, as a business, is bound to change in the next few years. But my guess is that it has been constantly changing ever since “classical music” became labelled as such. There have always been the traditionalists that like to keep things as they’ve always been and the innovators on the other side. I don’t think these two camps will ever go away, personally. But I should also add that I’m certainly not an expert, especially living in a small town in southwestern Virginia. I keep as up-to-date as I can through twitter and the web but it’s difficult for me to really understand what the major cities are going through, especially the larger performing organizations. What I do know is that in our neck of the woods, if musicians present an offering of classical music to the public, there will always be new folks that will listen and enjoy. Music of any type draws people in because I believe there is something about it that hits a nerve in everyone; It is infectious, whether it’s jazz, gamelan, classical, bluegrass. The most important thing to me is that classical music is always out there in the real world and available in an everyday way and with a spirit of excitement and passion. Who cares if my performance isn’t note-perfect? Who cares if I play on a clavinova instead of a concert grand? Who cares if I play an odd assortment of repertoire? Who cares if I’m not playing alongside the most talented musicians in the field? If I am constantly out there making music in any way that I can and I’m excited about it, not worried about it, I feel that I’m doing what I can to keep classical music in people’s ears. Even better, I hope that my doing this will cause others, young and old, to be curious enough to try playing an instrument themselves or to pick it back up again. Music is a gift for all, whether it’s in the playing or the receiving and we can never have too many gifts of this nature. Fortunately, I think there are many musicians out there right now that have somewhat of a similar philosophy. That gives me great hope for the future.

Beyond The Notes (Erica’s webpage w/blog)
Erica’s YouTube channel

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8 thoughts on “Musicians: Erica Sipes

  1. Wonderful interview! You’re such an interesting person, Erica. I loved learning about your musical life.

  2. Nice interview and great inquiry Chris!
    Erica, I can feel the excitement in the musical world you share with others; your enthusiasm resonates in Twitter, your blog and this interview as well. To me your piano playing exemplifies a masterful technique and a deep love of music. I enjoy listening and viewing your cello work on other sites and I’m also reminded of the two friends we share in the Eastman Cello Department.

    – Jim

    • Thank you for your comments, Jim. Your feedback means a lot – it’s good to know that my enthusiasm and love translates beyond the screen, beyond the stage. Such an encouragement – thank you! I’m thankful to have met you on twitter.

      All the best,
      Erica

  3. Chris and Erica,

    Really enjoyed reading this! Erica, you are a unique musician and person…definitely worthy to be the subject of this kind of interview. You have really made an impact through your involvement in twitter and your blog, and I love the ideas you are advancing. I’ve always been impressed with your willingness to share your personal experiences, challenges, and plans for continued musical development. This interview hits all of these and offers much for others to learn from. Thanks to both of you for providing this!

    Bob

    • Bob,
      Thank you as always for being such a supportive force behind all the crazy thoughts I’m always thinking. Meeting you on twitter and through our blogs has given me so much freedom to keep thinking about all of these important topics that aren’t often discussed.

      Here’s to many more wonderful discussions.

      -Erica

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