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Should I Be Here?: Impostor Syndrome in the Lives of Black Musicians

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

It would probably not surprise most people the number of times that I have walked into a rehearsal, masterclass, convention, or performance and noticed that I was one of the few-- if not the only-- African-Americans in the room. Noticing this has become an instinct over the years; it is not something I consciously do but rather something that just happens. This instinct was born from observations I made through my younger years. Going to concerts and noticing only a handful of people of color on stage with usually one or none being African-American led to this instinct. Attending honor bands and youth orchestras where, again, I was a minority led to this instinct. Being in ensembles where I could count the number of African-Americans on one hand led to this instinct. I am not here to place blame; this is a problem that many are aware of. I am here to speak on the effect this “instinct” has had on my life, along with the lives of many other African-American musicians in the Classical Field.

When I was an undergraduate freshman, my English professor encouraged everyone to do research arguments and bibliographies on something that held personal meaning. My topic came to me in an instant: diversity in arts education. Again, this is not an unfamiliar topic for many, as this has been an on-going discussion for quite a while. What may be a new discussion for many people, however, is the effect that the lack of diversity in the classical arts field has on minorities. Merriam-Webster defines imposter syndrome as, “a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.” I have spoken to many friends and colleagues about imposter syndrome and what their own experiences with it have been. Over the years, there have been programs and projects generated for the sole purpose of diversifying the Arts. While these programs are beneficial and give minorities opportunities they may not have had otherwise, there is a different side to these developments.

In class discussions, I find myself reluctant to voice my ideas and opinions due to the fear of being ridiculed. What if I am wrong or if my opinions make others view me differently than they already do? These thoughts are silly, right? Education is all about learning, so why would I be scared to be corrected? Earlier this summer, I read a post online by an African-American woman who attended Harvard. She spoke on the difficulties she faced while attending, and they were not due to the course load or complexity of the program. The hardships came from her classmates and professors who either directly, or indirectly, made her feel as if she did not belong there. I distinctly remember her recalling a conversation where a classmate told her that the only reason that she was at Harvard was due to Affirmative Action. This was their way of saying that her acceptance to Harvard was based solely on her race instead of her merit. Really think about this. Put yourself in her shoes: You are a minority in all of your classes. You work extra hard every single day to prove to everyone, even yourself, that you belong where you are. You refrain from participating in class discussions due to fear of being ridiculed for a wrong response, and now someone says your biggest fear out loud--that you did not earn what you have been given. You start questioning your every accomplishment, achievement, and award because maybe there was a quota that needed to be reached. Maybe they really wanted a minority winner that year and you were the only one who applied. I saw myself in this woman’s recounts.

During a conversation with a friend last year, I remember breaking down over the feeling that I, as a black woman, have to work ten times harder in every aspect of life to make it to the same position my colleagues get to effortlessly. As a musician, I found myself battling this feeling of frustration even more in performance settings. Impostor syndrome can affect a musician’s performance in many ways. It can lead to the development of performance anxiety, increased fears about making a mistake and then being brutally ridiculed for it more than others, it can cause people to stop enjoying the moment because of constant worry and fear of making a mistake, and it can lead to the development of an unhealthy perfectionist mindset. More than anything, imposter syndrome can cause a musician to not perform their best and also distract them from their purpose of doing what they are meant to do. I developed performance anxiety for many different reasons, and one of those reasons is that I am fearful that if I make a mistake in a rehearsal or in a performance, the people waiting for me to slip-up and prove that I am not supposed to be where I am will finally get their satisfaction. I still felt this way, even when I saw colleagues make mistakes in rehearsal every so often, and I never thought less of them because of it. I would merely think to myself “Oh maybe they’re tired. I get that,” or “They’ll get that next time I’m sure.” Yet, I would not give myself that mercy, because I did not believe that others would do the same for me. This is such a hindrance to my personal and professional growth. Mistakes and failures are a part of learning and development, and therefore both are essential.

Then comes the question of how imposter syndrome can be solved. On the societal and structural level, I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot force anyone to change their beliefs or viewpoints. However, having allies who understand how imposter syndrome can affect people is one step in the battle of combating the problem. Also, increased implementation of blind auditions in the music world could help eliminate a certain level of bias or discrimination, as candidates would be chosen based on their performance and nothing else. This would allow players to be confident in their achievements and merit and not have to question whether or not other factors played into the decision-making process. To be even more granular, the continuation of the diversification of arts education would also help this situation. If more minority students were exposed to the Arts at younger ages, there would be a correlation to the increased number of minorities occupying jobs and positions in the classical music field. There are many ways that this expanded exposure could be achieved, including: the increased recruitment by music schools in lower-income areas, greater funding for low-income schools where there is generally a higher percentage of minority students, the development of lesson programs that offer free or highly affordable lessons to students, more federal funding for Arts education in general, and the creation of more programs that promote diversity such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program and NYO2. Additionally, to combat imposter syndrome on the personal level, one must first know the signs, be able to recognize these signs when they appear, learn to let go of the perfectionist ideology, treat oneself as they would treat someone else, share one’s thoughts and feelings with others rather than holding them in, and restructure one’s thoughts in ways that are helpful rather than harmful.

I am aware that non-minorities and minorities that are not African-Americans also experience imposter syndrome. However, as an African-American female, I wanted to share my personal perspective and the perspective of many other African American musicians. I, like many others, have come to terms with the role that imposter syndrome plays in my life. I realize that I can never fully know if any, or all of my accomplishments were biased in any way due to my race, but I have decided that I am deserving of everything that I have achieved. My accomplishments are earned due to my dedication and work ethic. I will no longer diminish my talents and abilities and will hold onto them tightly. I encourage all of my fellow African-American musicians, along with others experiencing imposter syndrome, to push away those negative thoughts when they come across our minds. We are no less deserving of our wins, and our losses are no more detrimental than they are to others. Do not be scared to be the only one of “you” in the room; that does not mean you should not be there. Do not doubt yourself when you have a bad day, everyone has them, and you are as human as anyone else. You do not have to know everything about each topic you discuss--no one does. Push yourself within your own limits, but not because you feel as if you must prove yourself to anyone else. You are deserving, and you do belong.

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