Imposter syndrome is rife in the classical music world. Here’s one way to tackle it. Go back to first principles and listen.
It may surprise people in the ‘classical music world’ (wherever that is) to learn that I don’t consider myself knowledgeable, well-connected, serious, well-respected, well-liked, or informed enough to consider myself a legitimate classical music fan, expert or commentator.
In addition, I’m often convinced that everyone in the industry thinks I’m a pain in the arse, someone who really must be removed from a list of invitees, not least because his interview technique centres on asking embarrassingly superficial questions, and whose overly long and poorly researched articles are consistently constructed with facile insights and woefully poorly edited quotes.
I frequently tell myself that I should be better at ‘playing the game’, that I should work on a more plausible poker face, and spend less time on Twitter in order to save my reputation. I should research more. I should know more too. I should be able to recall dates, connections, facts, and quotes far quicker than I actually can.
And, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in an auditorium on a press ticket telling myself I don’t deserve to be there and that the reason I’m there is only because I’ve ‘tricked’ people into giving me a ticket.
None of what I’m telling you is exaggerated. The negative self-talk is real. It can be all-consuming.
The bar I set myself is quite high. This is of course imposter syndrome. In the classical music world (if you’ve found it yet perhaps you’d be good enough to share directions) I think it’s rife. In an industry that is built on elite performance, legacy, deference and convention perhaps it’s not surprising. The industry is so small too, which means it’s competitive. And competition fuels negative thinking.
I have experienced my version of imposter syndrome for years. Fifteen years.
A friend who ‘mentored’ me as a Proms season ticket holder years back triggered this self-doubt when he scorned my early efforts to write concert reviews. I still feel the anguish too after a BBC producer gleefully corrected my mispronunciation of ‘Ligeti’ on camera in an interview. I still feel a stab of it whenever anyone asks me how I pay the bills blogging about classical music. And don’t get me started on the apparently innocent question ‘Who are you writing for?’
But imposter syndrome has been a trusted pal. About ten years ago I saw it as an inspiration for Thoroughly Good’s editorial strategy. Why not make your lack of recall a focus for what’s really important? After all, it’s just music. You shouldn’t need to know anything. It’s just music. Listen.
This response to imposter syndrome has sometimes seemed like a defensive act. An apology. Me recoiling from self-criticism by retreating. Regrouping. Me licking self-inflicted wounds.
In the past few months, however, I’ve made a deliberate attempt to return to first principles: reflecting on the experience of what listening live is like. Such a personal response is distinctive.
COVID restrictions accelerated this process. Being denied the opportunity to attend live events made hearing live music when it was finally ‘allowed’ a giddying experience.
In the intervening period, a programme of therapy demanded by the challenges brought out by the inevitable demise of an ageing parent righted decades of dissociative behaviour. In an instant, that which had merely been observed or reported was now something that was experienced. Overnight, listening has become a visceral experience, one ushering in emotions I’d not really experienced quite so intensely before. Sound demanding a trigger warning, if you like.
As I’ve written before, proximity to the action on stage is key. Hearing the sound as close as possible to the source of production is the priority. Sit as close to the music ‘at source’ as I can and I can almost touch the textures a string section creates. I can sense a melody played by a high oboe and flute as though my fingers are caressing the fur of a kitten. To hear the soft touch of an entire ensemble underpinned by a solid bass section is like being wrapped in a billowing duvet.
The concert was the BBC Symphony’s performance of Lalo, Franck and the Brahms Violin Concerto. The event was a big deal for me. I took a friend – ‘Vicki Haircut’ – who only five days before had, whilst cutting my hair as she has done for the past twenty years, said how she’d never been to a classical music concert and how she’d like to some day. An hour back at home I’d booked tickets for the next available concert I thought she’d enjoy.
Taking a newcomer to a classical concert comes with all manner of stress. A risky business.
Vicki and I ended up sitting at the back of the stalls behind the first violins and within earshot of the Radio 3 commentary box where Petroc Trelawny presided. Not a bad price.
It was better than I could have hoped. The proximity to the orchestra yielded all of the textures I revelled in. I sat there hoping like hell that Vicki would signal something that confirmed she was touched or moved or maybe just appreciative. I looked to the audience whilst soloist twenty-one-year-old Daniel Losavkovich led us through the cadenza, my eyes shut as though I was waiting for Vicki to unwrap her Christmas present.
Vicki leaned in when the applause rippled across the auditorium. “This is incredibly moving,” she whispered in my ear. Best Christmas present ever.
Here’s the thing. These kind of listening experiences are the foil to that imposter syndrome I mentioned earlier.
When you know the reason the live music experience moves you, the dreamiest Christmas present is being able to share that with an unsuspecting bystander. Sure, if you’re going to pick this over you’re well within your rights to say that I can’t prove that my friend’s experience of listening live was the same as mine in the moment. But there was something warm, genuine, and unequivocal about her response that made me think this evening’s entertainment was money well spent.
Going back to core principles. That’s the way to tackle imposter syndrome.