Five Things to Consider (What to Wear and How to Decide: Owning Our Choices)

This week’s Five Things Friday is by trumpeter and educator Sandy Coffin. I have known Sandy through freelancing in NYC and my recital at the International Women’s Brass Conference was right around the same time as her presentation so it is great to feature Sandy’s presentation with the Brass Chicks community in this format.

Sandy - Version 2 – Version 3

Sandy Coffin is trumpet player who has performed all around the US and Europe, premiered several new pieces written especially for her, presented lecture-recitals on original 19thC instruments in both the UK and NYC this past year, is working on a recording project of ‘lost’ cornet solos, teaches Brass Band at a private school in NYC, tutors with the National Youth Brass Bands of Scotland Summer Course, has won a bunch of awards, created a successful concert series, just signed an arranging contract with a music publisher, has degrees from Oberlin and MSM—and still isn’t sure what to wear.


Based on my presentation at the IWBC June 2017 at Rowan University and my interview with Christine Chapman, published in the Fall 2015 IWBC Newsletter.

As women, we do not have a ‘default’ dress code; we do not have a standard equivalent to the ‘suit and tie.’ Women have a particularly wide range of fashion options when the dress code says ‘formal,’ but each option carries certain connotations. The choices have become increasingly complicated for everyone, both women and men, so how do we go about making informed and appropriate choices?

[Note: this is not really about orchestra attire – when given specific guidelines, follow them!]

I think it is important, especially in these complex times, to talk about some of these issues, and particularly about how we choose to physically present ourselves in our performances, photos, and social media / publicity materials.  I don’t believe there are any definitive answers, but hopefully talking about these things can help us all make educated choices – and allow us to excel in our performances.

  1. Can I actually play my best in this outfit?
  • Whatever you choose to wear, be sure you can breathe easily and fully, and can move as needed – to get on and off stage, for mute changes, instrument switches, page turns, choreography, managing interactive electronics, etc.
  • If you choose to wear a cocktail dress and heels, be sure you feel grounded and balanced in your heels! (Low incline platform shoes are great for that.)
  • Practice often in the outfit to be sure. Video record yourself from various audience perspectives to be sure you are really presenting the image you want to project.
  • Be informed about the performance space and audience sight lines. You don’t want to be surprised by the angles people are looking from – and what they can see. Keep them focused on your performance, not your wardrobe.
  1. How do our clothing, hair, make-up choices impact how others perceive us (the individual and/or ensemble)?
  • Be aware of the story you want the audience to experience during your performance. You are not anonymous while producing sound on a stage. Wearing a cocktail dress and heels just because it seems to be the female equivalent of a man’s suit (performance uniform) without being aware of the cultural signals such an outfit projects can be inappropriate on stage.
  • Be aware that different regions bring different cultural norms to the table. You don’t have to change yourself to fit, but you always need to be as aware as possible of the context others will have as they interact with you.
  1. How do they impact how we perceive ourselves?
  • Self-perception is an integral part of performance presentation. Do you feel comfortable? Exposed? Powerful? Vulnerable? You don’t want to be focused on what you are wearing – you want your energy to go into your performance.
  • Learn what styles make you feel most in control of the situation, strong, and secure.
  • Determine what brings you closest to your own self-image of a successful performer.
  1. What factors can we use to determine what the consequences of our clothing/appearance decisions might be?
  • Stay aware of the signals that some clothing was designed to project. Educate yourself. Talk with theater costume designers or fashion professionals.
  • Choose the cocktail dress and heels if they make you feel good as a performer. But own the fact that a formal or sexy cocktail dress was designed to send signals about different things than a man’s business suit was. (Their names say it all…)
  • Aim for PERFORMANCE POWERFUL. It is great when a performer is aware of how an outfit can be perceived, including the hidden signals that may have little to do with the music, and intentionally chooses to present themselves in that framework because it makes them feel strong. Clothing choices that seem to be made in the hopes of distracting from performance difficulties are less great.
  • Get feedback from others about your performance presence, but reflect on what makes you feel good on stage. You need to feel solid and grounded, strong and powerful, so spend time reflecting on what makes you feel best.
  1. Are you prepared to deal with the full range of consequences of those decisions, including comments and unsolicited behaviors from others, and success or failure that has little or nothing to do with the actual performance
  • When you feel solid, grounded, strong and powerful, the audience will join you in feeling that.
  • You must own the story that you are presenting to the audience. Tell that story as powerfully as you can. Clothing and makeup choices should serve as backdrops or props in the telling of that story, not simply a costume for yourself. Keep it all integrated.
  • Remember that others are going to bring their own agendas and interpretations to that story. Plan in advance for what those might be, based on cultural allusions, your own experiences, and research into the experiences of others. You can’t control other people’s responses or behavior, but you can prepare yourself in advance on how you would deal with a variety of responses.

Additional reading:
“What’s Up With That Anyways?: Conversations with Christine Chapman” by Sandy Coffin. NoteWorthy, Official Newsletter of the IWBC, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall 2015, page 5.

Reflections on Risk: by Ashley Fure,



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