From Erica Sipes: Performing Schubert in bluegrass country

[From Greg: Again I’m happy to introduce a guest blogger, my friend Erica Sipes, a pianist and cellist who plays and teaches in rural Virginia. Erica brings a perspective that I certainly don’t have: She tells us what it’s like to bring a new audience to classical music in small towns. For an overview of her thoughts on that — invaluable, I think — see her own blog posts about the classical city mouse, and the classical country mouse. In the post you’ll read here (which she and I decided we’d crosspost from her blog)  she talks with deep feeling about introducing a rural audience to Schubert’s Winterreise, a long and demanding song cycle that we might all too easily think wouldn’t work for an audience new to classical concerts. But not so. Tomorrow she’ll post what she said at the concert, to introduce the music to her new audience. Today she talks more generally about the performance. So wonderful, to expand my blog, and have people writing things I couldn’t possibly write myself. We’ll crosspost more from Erica in the future.] 

I was both nervous and excited about this — a performance of Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, in the little rural town of Floyd, Virginia, where bluegrass is the music and language of choice.  Go to the main street in town on Friday nights and you’ll hear your fill of bands playing both in the Floyd Country Store and out on the streets.  Eat at a local eatery and you’ll find bluegrass being played there too.  That’s not to say the locals don’t appreciate anything else.  They are an incredible bunch of people that seem to embrace new experiences and people.  They love music, they love people, they love their town and the beautiful land where they’ve chosen to live…it’s as simple as that.  But still, Winterreise?  Does a song cycle that lasts over an hour, sung entirely in German and without an intermission stand a chance in a town like Floyd?

The singer with whom I worked, Ed Cohn, is a local himself, a man that moved there not so long ago after studying and living a musical life in the San Francisco bay area. Since he had moved to this tiny town in southwestern Virginia, he had never shown his “classical” side to any of his friends.  He had instead woven himself into the fabric of the community as the owner of a bed and breakfast, as an avid organic gardener, and as a wonderful down-to-earth citizen who seems to have fit right in.

Claiming his friends didn’t know much about classical music and that he was pretty sure this would be a new experience for a lot of the local community that might attend, he made it clear to me that he wanted to present this performance in a way that would make it as comfortable as possible for those in attendance.  Being a big fan and advocate for talking to the audience I volunteered to say a few words before launching into the performance.  I had a feeling that whatever I chose to say could very much influence how the audience received this epic piece of music that can be a challenge for even the most seasoned classical music buff to sit through.

Image taken by Floyd resident Jim Best, who attended our performance and kindly shared this photo with me afterwards.

Image taken by Floyd resident Jim Best, who attended our performance and kindly shared this photo with me afterwards.

The day of the performance occurred just a few days after a pretty big snowfall in our area.  As my husband and I took the 45 minute drive out to Floyd that day I found myself absorbed in the wintery scene in which we found ourselves.  Driving through some of the most beautiful countryside, past icy streams and snow covered fields, I was struck with a parallel between the landscape in Schubert’s song cycle and the one that I was witnessing through the car window.  I had an indelible sense that this performance was going to be just fine — that the audience was going to walk away with something very special, not because of our performance, but because of the timeless, borderless message that Winterreise has to offer.

We were greeted that afternoon, in a small, unsophisticated, but intimate performing space, with about 50 people in the audience.  We were both a little curious what was going to happen with two young girls that came in separately with their mothers.  One girl looked to be about 7 years old, the other was perhaps a little bit older, with Downs Syndrome.  When the time came, I spoke for about 10 minutes and then our journey together began.  Just as my performance was several years ago, this too was an unbelievable experience and I was genuinely inspired by the sense I was getting not only by Ed but also by the hushed audience.  I was amazed at how attentive folks were from beginning to end and further surprised after taking our bows, by an older man that stood up and raised his hand to speak.  After everyone had turned their attention to him he said,

If someone had told me 17 years ago that I’d be sitting here in this spot today listening to Winterreise I would have said, “That’s great!” but I wouldn’t have believed them.

What a comment!  And his wasn’t the only one.  Just about everyone stayed afterwards and passed on comments that completely erased my doubts as to why we were there performing that particular work that afternoon.  There was the lady in her 80’s who, with tears in her eyes and a heavy southern accent told me how difficult those poems were, especially at her time in life, but that she was so glad to have been challenged in that way.  There was the mom of the seven year old who rattled off a list of all the things she heard in the music with excited, sparkling eyes, her daughter nodding her head all the while, albeit with sleepy eyes.  There was the man in his 80’s that shared with me all the musical groups he plays with in the area just for fun.  He’s the type of fellow I imagine will die with his instrument in his hands and a smile on his face.  There was the man who blew me away with the most poetic description of how the performance affected him.  Sharing much the same thing in an e-mail he sent the next day, he wrote,

…the piano had the last word creating without fault a musical picture frame for each piece which intensified the message with silence of pure gold.  That frame was a window, a door through which my heart and breath were invited to become one with the story, no longer observer, but participant, no longer of performers but companions.   When I got home I could not separate from the story: without taking off my coat I stoked the fire and went back to the snow to try my arm on for size, the hills, the same breathing, the heartbeat of an awakened person accompanying me from the 1800’s.

He concluded by sharing how he found himself connecting some of his own personal struggles with those of the character in the song cycle.  By the end of his e-mail I was in tears.  Everyone I spoke to that day seemed to be glad that they had been part of the experience with us and it meant the world to me to hear their words and reactions.  It gave the performance purpose that extended way past mere entertainment or cultural experience.  And although it was intended as a musical offering for them, they ended up bringing me an even more valuable offering…

Themselves, in all their bluegrass-loving glory.

Thank you, Floyd!  I hope to make some music with y’all soon.

[Coming tomorrow: What Erica said to introduce the piece.]


Erica Sipes is primarily a pianist but also a cellist who has a passion for bringing joy, personality, and fun into making, listening to, and performing classical music. She is a blogger, freelance pianist, collaborator/accompanist, closet cellist, occasional private teacher, addicted chamber musician, and performer who is almost always willing and eager to perform with anyone who promises to try and have fun in return. She also loves helping people figure out more efficient ways to practice, prepare for recitals, and to accomplish their musical goals, big and small.  

Her blog can be found at and her website for her practice coaching business is at


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    • says

      Thanks so much, Tom! I think it’s wonderful, too. Likewise the second part, Erica’s introduction to Winterreise, which I’m about to post. I’d recommend her blog in general. Really lovely, smart, inspiring reading. I’m so happy to do a little to make it better known.

  1. says

    Erica, thank you so much for this, and for the post with your introduction to the cycle. Thanks for your obvious appreciation for those listeners and your attentiveness to their unique reactions, whatever their age and expertise. Thanks for focusing on these often-neglected yet crucial aspects of musicking, and for showing a way to be warmhearted in words.

    • says

      I’m thrilled to be able to share here, John and I’m so glad you caught the posts. Speaking to audiences has become almost as important as the performances themselves. Or maybe I should rephrase that…communicating with the audience is now part of my performing. Not only does the audience seem to appreciate it, but it also helps me to focus on what the task at hand.

      Thank you for taking the time to add your feedback here, John. I really appreciate it!


    • says

      Many thanks, Mara. And please don’t hesitate to share classical music with anyone. I have yet to find someone in the audience, no matter their background or preferred choice of music, who isn’t willing to listen.