My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

New YouTube series - Bach in 5 Minutes!


Video editing has always intimidated me but I've been determined, especially after putting up my Patreon page, to start working on doing more of them. Here's the first hopefully of many. A Bach friend of mine recently recommended I take a break from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier to learn Book I. I was hesitant at first but after reading through it I realized that for the most part, it's a breath of fresh air compared to the second book. So I thought, why not try to learn them as quickly as possible? I most likely will regret those words but I do always like a good challenge. So I'm going to try to spend as little as possible time learning as many as I can, relying on my typical pattern-hunting and analysis method, then spending around 5 minutes walking through each one, one at a time, and then recording a "first performance" of them. My goals for the project are:  
  • Learn the Preludes and Fugues in Book I quickly
  • Help folks see what I mean by learning music via pattern hunting and analysis
  • Show how fun, musical, and rewarding it can be to learn music in this way
We'll see what happens! Enjoy!! 


Monday, June 29, 2020

At a fork in the road



I find myself at a fork in the road yet again, as are so many others. But in all honesty, I'm actually excited about the possibilities, especially with what I'm announcing today, because in doing this I am pushing myself way past my comfort zone, which is not something I tend to do.

In the past few weeks, as I've been grappling with what comes next for me as a musician, or maybe as someone returning to the non-artist workforce, I've had several quotes visit me that are all pointing me towards one path.
"Do one thing every day that scares you"  - Mary Schmich
I'm doing that.

For quite a while now I've toyed around with the idea of creating a Patreon site for myself. What is Patreon? Patreon is a web platform that enables creative people to ask their fans for help and support so that they can continue doing what they do. People interested in supporting an artist can sign up to donate an amount every month and in return, based on which tier is signed up for, patrons get access to various perks.


So why is this so scary? To answer that, let me share the second quote that has graciously visited me this week by way of the beautiful, poignant story, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, written by Charlie Mackesy. (I highly, highly recommend everyone have a copy on their coffee table, especially right now during this crazy time.)
"What is the bravest thing you've ever said?" asked the boy.
"Help." said the horse.
"Asking for help isn't giving up," said the horse. "It's refusing to give up."
Most people who know me already know that I am incredibly passionate about music, and more specifically about the art of learning music in a way that fosters success, pride, joy, and the desire to share music with others. About 7 or 8 years ago I started my practice coaching business, Beyond the Notes, because of this passion. I've had some clients and have presented many workshops to both teachers and students, and each time has been received with a lot of positive feedback but honestly it's been difficult - I simply haven't had enough work come my way. I've spent many a sleepless night trying to figure out what's standing in my way. I've made some changes, I've consulted with a lot of people, and I continue to try new things but one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome has to do, I believe, with people being embarrassed to ask for help - and that's challenging. I also think a lot of teachers also don't know quite what to make of me - to some I seem to be a threat. I am not planning on abandoning my business - I will continue to work on making it a success, but in the meantime, Patreon is, I'm hoping, a solution to keep me from having to ditch it all to get another "regular" job.

So why Patreon?

People come to me all the time on social media for help. It it crystal clear to me that for whatever reason, that is a safer place for them to ask me questions about practicing, performance anxiety, sightreading, and anything else that I regularly talk about. And social media is, for me, an excellent place to teach in way that impacts a lot of people all at once. I regularly livestream my daily practice to hundreds of people every day in addition to also livestreaming sightreading sessions. In both I discuss a lot of why I do what I do so that it's a learning experience for anyone watching. Often times questions arise from viewers that lead to discussions that end up pulling in many others. It's a dynamic, exciting, informative, and more importantly, a safe place to learn, which is why I love it. I also regularly post motivational quotes and tips on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. I'd love to also return to writing more blog posts and to post shorter instructional videos but all of this takes a lot of time - time that I'm not currently getting paid for.

During all this time at home I've been continuing to do all this same work but because of the current situation I'm not making any money through freelancing; that all came to a halt several months ago and gigs are regularly getting wiped off my calendar. We are thankfully doing fine, but I'm feeling more and more like something needs to change. I feel guilty putting so much time into what I consider my "mission-oriented" work when I'm not bringing home a paycheck. That's why I'm asking for help. I'm asking for support and for cheerleaders who understand what it is I do to stand up and to say, "Yes! Keep doing what you're doing! We see the value in it!"

So if you're at all interested, please head on over to my Patreon site:

https://www.patreon.com/EricaSipes


Take a look around and let me know if you have any questions.

And thanks for reading if you made it this far. Stay safe, everyone!

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Looking to puzzles to learn how to piece together music

Have you ever tried to put a jigsaw puzzle together with the pieces turned upside down? My guess is your answer is something along the lines of, “No, why on Earth would I do that?”

Good response. Why would anyone even think to do that?

Perhaps it’s to make a really important point?

Many musicians, especially young musicians, read music in a way that’s similar to trying to put a puzzle together upside down. It doesn’t matter if they’re sight-reading or if they’ve been working at a piece for weeks, many view the music in a way that in my opinion severely limits the ease at which they can process the music and inhibits their ability to interpret it in a musical way.

Let’s go back to looking at puzzles. If you happen to have a puzzle lying around, pull it out and give my challenge a try. Turn all the pieces over so all the backs of the pieces are what you’re looking at it and see how you fare. What do you have at your disposal to figure out which pieces go together? All you have to go on is whether the piece is an edge piece of an inner piece what type of connectors the pieces have – let’s say they’re usually innies and outies, or female and male. (I won’t go into the details of which are which. If you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you can figure it out.) That’s really not a lot to go on so in order to put together the puzzle we end up having to resort to a lot of trial and error. And if you’re not good at finding a method to keep track of what combinations you’ve already tried this process can be very time consuming, uninspiring, frustrating, and downright painful.

Not much fun, right?

All right, so let’s flip those pieces back over and try again.

Ahhhh…now we have more to go on! We’ve got the shapes of the puzzle pieces, the colors and patterns, and knowledge of what the puzzle’s picture as a whole will be. With all these extra clues we get more strategies to use too. You can put the edge together first, using color, pattern, and shape to help; you can focus on trying to find pieces that create specific items in the picture; you can put together pieces that all have a similar graphic pattern or color.

Strategies bring successes…
Success brings a completed puzzle…
A completed puzzle brings a sense of accomplishment…

Now we’re having fun and wanting to do another someday.

How we process notes on a page of music is similar to how we process puzzle pieces. If we see all those notes as individual notes that are differentiated only by specific letter names it’s like looking at those puzzle pieces turned upside down. The end result is that it’s much more difficult to see how the pieces relate to one another and work together to create a larger picture, or part of a picture.

If instead we look for patterns in our music, if we consistently look for interesting clues, we’ll find that music learning is not only easier, but also more musical because those same patterns and clues can naturally lead us into the world of musical interpretation. Each time I look at a puzzle piece, whether it’s an actual puzzle or to a piece of music, I see new clues, new patterns, or new colors. With each new discovery comes a burst of excitement and inspiration. And as pieces start to fit together my understanding of what I’m creating becomes clearer, making me even more motivated to complete the puzzle and to share the bigger picture with others. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s creative. It’s one of the many reasons why I love learning music.

Now I have to take a moment to admit that sometimes puzzling can be a struggle, usually because of the puzzle itself. I will never forget the day my dear husband, early in our marriage, brought one home that made me quickly want to embrace gardening instead. It was a puzzle of hundreds, maybe thousands of penguins standing on an iceberg in a snowstorm. It was basically like trying to do one of those upside-down puzzles although at least I did have more than one color to go on – I had two: black and white. If I wasn’t such a stubborn person I would have given up early in the game but instead I decided to approach it like I do music. I tackled it in small chunks of time and started looking for as many clues as I could. I quickly came to realize that the puzzle wasn’t just black and white; it actually had many shades of both of those colors. As soon as I realized that, it became much easier to finish it. That’s not to say it was as fun as other puzzles I’ve done but still, it got done and in and I learned something in the process. That’s what mattered. Thankfully most of the puzzles and music I learn are not penguins standing on icebergs but are instead endlessly exciting and interesting. 

On an ending note, a plug for my favorite puzzle-making company of all time - Liberty Puzzles.
Examples of their whimsy pieces
Made out of thick laser-cut plywood in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, their puzzles are the most exquisite, delightful puzzles you will ever put together. They are also unique in that their piece shapes are not like the ones in your grandmother’s puzzles. In fact with Liberty Puzzles it’s pretty rare to be able to distinguish edge pieces from inner pieces – they are all completely unique. To add to the fun they include what are known as whimsy pieces which are pieces in the shape of something – a person, bird, dragon…it makes putting together these puzzles a different kind of challenge but one that is well worth it!


The most recent Liberty puzzle I completed. So much cool detail! 

With that little infomercial over, (not paid for by the company but out of my deep respect for them) happy puzzling, everyone! Whether it’s a jigsaw puzzle or a musical one, remember to keep looking and use your eyeballs and your brain. The big picture is sure to come together more easily that way!


Thursday, July 25, 2019

A gathering of musical minds!

I get a lot of interesting emails thanks to this blog. Most of them are not ones I end up responding to. Fortunately a few months ago I got one that did very much interest me. It was a request from the website www.sheetmusicnow.com to contribute a tip about musical success for an infographic they were wanting to put together for their website and social media accounts. Of course coming up with just one was painful so I ended up sending them a handful to choose from. (Honestly I don't know why I like Twitter so much since I obviously have a difficult time editing my brain.)

They sent me the final result today and I couldn't be more honored. I hope you enjoy these nuggets of wisdom from these other musicians, some of whom I know but most are new for me to discover too. Click here to see it.

And if you're curious about the other tips I sent them that they didn't use, here they are...
  • Constantly check in to see who you are as a person and as an artist. What you find is what you should share, in the music you perform, with your colleagues, with your audience. Also be open and eager to learning about your colleagues and their music. It is through people and connections that you’ll find success and happiness.
  • You will excel as a human and as a musician if you learn the art of giving yourself objective, constructive feedback on a regular basis. Constantly check the language you use with yourself with the goal to use the same language on yourself that you’d use with someone else.


Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Art of Practice Performing: bringing performing into the practice room

I don't really know where I got the idea to start making practice performing a part of my regular routine but it's now something I rely upon all the time and that I attribute to my comfort on the stage.

Let's start with what practice performing is to me.

Practice performing is a time in my practice sessions when I take off my practice hat and pretend like I am on stage performing in front of an audience - no stopping and no negative verbal commentary, with a focus on delivering a performance full of musicality.  Those are the basic facets.

Practice performing can be done at any point after I've learned the notes of a particular section, movement, or piece and when I can play it at a tempo that is somewhere in the ballpark of where I'd ultimately like to perform it.

What are the benefits of practice performing?
  • Because I set the goal for myself not to stop no matter what and to say not-so-nice things to myself out loud during practice performing stints, it's great practice for when I actually do perform. It takes practice to know what to do instead. If I really do a number on a passage and my brain starts dishing out lines like, "you should have practiced more" or "you're not ready" I purposefully play a more productive, objective mental tape that I've prescribed like, "Keep singing" or "where do I want to go with this phrase?"  Doing this in the practice room on a regular basis makes it much more likely that in performance I'll choose more positive tapes and have a healthier attitude.
  • It's a good assessment tool throughout the later stages of learning a piece. So often it can feel like I'm never going to get it up to speed, or that a difficult passage won't ever be comfortable. When I push myself past my comfort zone by asking myself to practice perform I often surprise myself in a good way. I realize that I can, in fact, make it through with some amount of grace and musicality in spite of missed notes or improvised passages. That's an encouraging thing and worth a lot in terms of getting me back to the practice room, especially when I'm at that frustrating plateau stage.
  • Practice performing gives me a chance to switch from leaning on the analytical, left side of the brain (I like to think of it as the nerdy side), to the more creative right side. In the process of learning music and during most types of practicing the left side is what I strive to be in touch with a majority of the time. That's the side of the brain that helps solve problems and analyze the music. But that's also the side that I'd rather not have come to the party when I walk on stage. It's the right side of the brain that brings music to life, that brings creativity and imagination to a performance. When it comes time to perform and nerves kick in, guess which side likes to present itself more? Yup, the nerdy, analytical side. That's why I invite my creative side into the picture on a regular basis during these practice performing stints. It makes it more likely that I'll be able to find it when I want it at performance time.
  • Often when I do practice performing I record myself so that I can listen back, not to listen for all the tiny mistakes or to allow for those annoying negative tapes to start playing, but rather to listen as if I'm an audience member. Does the music have a natural flow? Does it have a good sense of architecture about it? Are there highs and lows? Does the phrasing sound natural? Sometimes in listening back I hear hidden melodic lines I hadn't noticed before or I'm moved by a harmony that I hadn't yet noticed. It's a way to encourage constructive feedback rather than self-defeating criticism. Self-defeating criticism will cripple a performance and can be felt by the audience. Constructive feedback will allow a performance to go on successfully and in a way that can be enjoyable, even for the performer. 
  • When I know that I'm going to do a practice performance of something later on in a practice session it makes it much easier for me to focus on the disciplined work and problem solving that needs to happen beforehand. 
  • Practice performing helps me to fall in love with the music all over again. It also helps me get back in touch with why I study music and why I perform for others. I remember that it's not about all the individual notes being the right place at the right time, it's about the music behind those notes. 
Is practice performing fun? I think at first most musicians would answer with an emphatic "no!"; we would rather not think about performing since it's often fraught with a lot of anxiety. But just as we have to practice our music on a regular basis, I believe performing also needs to be practiced, with or without an audience. So next time you're in the practice room, take off that practice room hat and step onto the stage for a moment. You never know - you might find that performing can be pretty fun, especially when it's just for yourself and your imaginary audience.