From Erica Sipes: Fear of talking

In my first guest post here on Greg’s blog I wrote about a performance I recently did of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, and the words I spoke beforehand to the audience.  So many people I perform with seem surprised that I enjoy this aspect of performing and that I feel so strongly about sharing in this way.  It’s made me realize how daunting it can be for many musicians, whether they are students, amateurs, or professionals, and it is this fear that is the inspiration for this post.

I’ve had my share of public speaking anxiety through the years but here’s the thing – I actually believe that talking to our audiences can be a key to quieting our nerves.  It is also, in my opinion, a key to making more people in the audience more comfortable and ready to receive whatever it is we’re about to give to them.

Working TogetherAt Radford University where I teach and accompany, the students perform frequently in departmental recitals.  I struggle a bit internally, especially when a singer gets up to perform, even more so when what he or she is singing is in a foreign language.  Perhaps because of time and budgetary constraints the translations to the songs being sung are often not included in the program.  The titles aren’t even translated into English so for the most part the people in the audience don’t have any clue as to what a given song is about.  In my mind this is a great way to shoot ourselves in the foot!  We’re not at a music conservatory where every piece performed is something that everyone in the audience grew up listening to – most of the students have come from small, rural communities.  This is an opportunity for the students to hear some great music for the first time but how can they even begin to enjoy it when they haven’t a clue what the words being sung mean?  And how does this affect the performer?  Here we have a young singer braving the stage, often for the first time, staring out at an audience full of their colleagues who are looking back with blank and bewildered faces.  How rewarding an experience can that be for the singer?  How rewarding can it be for the audience?  Even I don’t care to listen to singing when I don’t know what I’m listening to and I’ve been listening to classical music all of my life!

So what can we do?  Every time I play for a singer in a situation where no translation is being provided, I suggest that the singer come up with a one sentence explanation for what their song is about that can be presented before beginning the song.  When done well it can not only help the singer focus, it also helps the audience to have something to grasp onto.  It can be like a piece of scenery that can help put everyone in the same place at the same time.  It can also break down a bit of the wall that can so often plant itself between the singer and audience, especially when a foreign language is involved.  Although it’s rare that a student will work up the nerve to take my suggestion, when they do I find the courage it always makes a difference in a positive way.  The faces in the audience soften and take on a more receptive look, they respond more to subtleties in the singer’s expression…sometimes it can be downright magical and all because of a handful of words.

My feelings about this also apply to instrumental music.  These days I almost always say something before I perform, unless I’m in a situation in which it would be inappropriate or awkward .  The more I speak, the more addicted I become to addressing the audience because so many incredible experiences have come from me  reaching out to the audience in some way.   One of the most interesting and unexpected results that has happened is that there have been several times when I’ve had audience members stand up to ask questions or to share something personal about how the music has affected them at the end of a performance before everyone has dispersed.  This has happened to me here in the States but it also happened to my husband and I in Germany. It has meant that the audience, at the end of a performance, has felt like they can stay and chat rather than flee the minute the last note is played.  It has meant that I get immediate feedback and connection rather than having to face the lonely, quiet Green Room by myself.  It has meant that music-making has become a social activity, which in my mind is the way music is supposed to be.  And the beauty of it all is that with each wonderful experience like this I have grown to love performing more and more — nerves no longer have a hold of me because of my thirst for communicating musically and personally.

As I mentioned at the start of this post I am not fearless when it comes to public speaking.  I still get butterflies every time I go out to talk to my audience so it’s something I continue to work on and practice.  But I figure I’d have butterflies regardless of whether or not I talk.  I may as well let the butterflies escape while I’m speaking so that by the time I sit down to perform they’ve had a chance to fly off somewhere else.  And the rewards are just so great – I can’t not do it anymore.

So keep it short, keep it simple, keep it sincere – that’s my motto.  Then sit back and watch what can happen with that little act of bravery.

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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  1. says

    Bravo Erica!
    Part of the reason for those butterflies is the learned TABOO against addressing our audience. Folk, rock and jazz artists introduce their music all the time… and that creates an intimacy classical has been missing. We had been taught to assume that our audience already knows something of what they’re going to hear… or that they are going to read any program notes provided. That may be true at large concert halls… but assuming the opposite elsewhere quickly reveals itself to be a “warming up” rather than a “dumbing down”.
    I’ll be the first to admit that I talk too much in concerts… and often off-the-cuff. This is because a little informality, honesty and humor… treating an audience like family and friends who will forgive you… not only release the butterflies but open hearts and minds. This is esp. true when we can add deep insights into our personal perspectives. We MUST reset the context for loving classical, also using analogies, and put ourselves in the shoes of those we’d like to attend more formal concerts.

    • says

      Thank you, Rick!

      You have such a wonderful way with words.

      You bring up several great things here. The first has to do with program notes. I used to be addicted to program notes both as a performer and as an audience member but that was because I have always been really into the written word. It finally dawned on me at some point that not everybody looks forward to cracking the program open and reading while they’re at a concert. I actually think my first experience talking to my audience was when I was in college and I went back home to perform a recital at a retirement home. I had decided to perform a set of pieces that had just been written for me based on poems by Rilke that traced the life of a woman from girlhood until her final days. Because of where I was performing them I was a bit nervous – first of all because it was a new piece and I wasn’t sure how they would receive it and second of all because of the topic. I felt like I had no choice but to talk about why I had chosen the poems, a bit about how special it was to be performing a piece written just for me by a friend, and so on. What blew me away was that it was that piece that the residents loved more than anything else. I can’t help but think that talking to them beforehand made that possible. It was incredibly exciting.

      The other thing you mentioned that I want to respond to is your comment that you tend to talk off-the-cuff a lot. Usually I do the same thing but just recently started wondering if I should prepare a little more. For my recent performance of “Winterreise” I wrote out what I wanted to say and actually read it for my husband to see what would happen. It went very well and I still managed to feel like I was “just chatting” but it definitely felt different from my more off-the-cuff talks. I’d be curious to find out if you ever plan what you’re going to say.

      Thanks for reading, Rick, and for taking the time to comment!


      • says

        Sorry for the delay in seeing this Erica!
        The answer is that I DO script out depending on the audience. For an older or veteran audience I’ll script out. They expect more POLISH in information than the younger audiences I’m working towards. Even so, I always welcome some unscripted moments to break the ice. It usually comes from onstage (another musician) but sometimes from the audience. A little dialog, however brief, breaks up the monotony of a single voice and everyone enjoys the surprise. When introducing my own comps, I always speak without notes now because I say the same things. But the first half of the concert, I don’t speak before the first (rousing) piece, then I do a welcome and set the tone for the rest of the program… hopefully one of empowered self-discovery.

        With younger, mixed or sometimes school audiences, I rarely script because they prefer spontaneity and improv. Here someone WILL usually call out and we have to respond with both humor AND information. But always I’ll be asking myself while writing or rapping… Am I addressing their burning questions? What if I were sitting out there? I give myself a time limit (which goes by VERY fast) and move on to the next piece. I have a specific framework when I program so it’s easy to connect pieces.

  2. says

    Very beautiful and well put Erica! My experience has been that if one can share their inner excitement for a work and for performing it, get so thrilled and having an “I-can’t-wait-to-tell-you about-this” attidtude really calms the nerves……. and Remember, the audience came of their own volition, so they WANT to hear you ….. chat as if in your home with a roomful of guests…friends.

    • says

      Yes, Jackie. Good point about the audience coming of their own volition and wanting to hear and see us…all of us…not just our fingers, our voice, or whatever is physically involved with performing. Our hearts, our memories, what inspires us…there is so much more than just the notes and I believe it’s that multi-dimensional and personal aspect that people enjoy so much. And I completely agree that approaching talking about what we love with excitement can do wonders with calming down any nerves.


  3. says

    I can’t help but agree with almost everything here. Erica, your remarks on Die Winterreise were excellent and I’m sure very helpful! And your suggestions and advice here also very helpful. But I feel I should say that I have been to concerts where the remarks went on too long and were sometimes ill-informed and misleading. If you are going to talk to the audience, I think you should approach it as professionally as you do the performance–it is part of the performance, after all. Ill-prepared and poorly thought-out remarks are not always a big plus!

    Anyway, I was inspired to put up my own post on this here:

    • says

      Thank you for sharing your own thoughts here and in your own blog post. I agree with everything you say, although I’d like to think that more and more performers will practice the art of public speaking in addition to practicing their instrument so that any words spoken will only serve to highlight and improve the experience for everyone involved. I’d like to add that I often refrain from speaking to the audience until I’ve already played the first piece on the program. I agree that it is often best to just walk out and let the music to the talking at first. That’s what the audience has come for so that’s I give them. I avoid the situation that I saw in the youtube video you have posted in your article. Once the first piece is done and I’ve taken my bows I then address the audience. That seems to work well, at least for me. Of course the “Winterreise” performance was a little different for several reasons so I had no choice but to speak at the beginning.

      As for your point about program notes, rest assured I love program notes – always have, always will. So thank you for being one of those unseen heroes that writes them! I have discovered, however, that not everyone wants to take the time to read them. Talking directly to the audience helps me to reach out to those people and it also helps the audience to see a personal, human side of myself – something that words on a page can’t do quite as well.

      Thanks again for sharing, Bryan. I look forward to following your blog now that I know about it!


      • says

        I think you have it exactly right in your approach! I just wish more performers had that gift. Yes, good point about playing first, then talking. I think there is something magic about a good concert or recital when the artist simply walks on stage, bows, sits down and plays. It is as if we are all suddenly transported to another world… Yes, lots don’t read the program notes. And I have worked with singers that did not want to put the text in the program because they didn’t want the rustling of paper when they were singing! I can understand that, but I also think that the audience deserves to know the text! If only all singers sang the words as clearly as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. With him you can not only hear the words, but the individual letters.

        Thanks for your kind words. I try to do a bit of everything in my blog with the proviso that it is always about the music.


    • says

      You’re making a good point, Bryan. Musicians need to approach talking to the audience with some of the discipline they bring to their musical performance. A little training wouldn’t hurt, or at least some feedback from others. I’ve seen some famous musicians give weak presentations, because they hadn’t (apparently) thought hard enough about the effect they were making.