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

The amount 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 probably would not surprise most people. It 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 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, yes problem, that many are aware of. I am here to speak on the effect this “instinct” has had on my life and 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 their research arguments and bibliographies on something that held meaning to us. My topic came to me in an instant: Diversity in Arts Education. Again, this is not an unfamiliar topic for many of us as this has been an ongoing discussion for quite a while. What may be a new discussion for many people 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 their own experiences with it. Over the years, there have been programs and projects generated for the sole purpose of diversifying the Arts, and while these programs are beneficial and give minorities opportunities they may not have had otherwise, there is another side to these developments.

In class discussions, I find myself reluctant to voice my ideas and opinions due to the fear of being ridiculed if I am wrong or if my opinions make others view me differently than they already do. This is 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 difficulty 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 which was their way of saying that it was not due to her merit that she was accepted into the school, but rather it was based solely on her race. Now I want you to really think about this. Put yourself in her shoes: You are a minority in all of your classes, you are working extra hard 24/7 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: You did not earn what you have been given. Do you know what this does to your mental health? You start questioning 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 10x harder in every aspect of life to make it where other colleagues get to almost without effort. As a musician, this feeling was elevated for me even more in performance settings. Impostor Syndrome can affect a musician’s performance in ways such as the development of performance anxiety, fear of making a mistake and being brutally ridiculed for it more than others, not enjoying the moment because of constant worry and fear of making a mistake, and the development of an unhealthy perfectionist mindset. More than anything, Impostor 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, people who may have been 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 never thought lower 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 or understanding because I did not believe that others would do the same. This is such a hindrance to growth. Mistakes and failures are a part or learning and development therefore both are essential.

So then comes the question of how Impostor 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 it. Also, increased implementation of blind auditions in the music world could help eliminate a certain level of bias or discrimination, and the candidates would only 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. The ways that this can be achieved is by increased recruitment by music schools in lower- income areas, increased 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, increased 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. On the personal level, to combat Impostor Syndrome one must first know the signs, be able to recognize the signs when they appear, let go of the perfectionist ideology, treat themselves as they would treat someone else, share their thoughts and feelings with others rather than holding them in, and restructure their thoughts in ways that are helpful rather than harmful.

I am aware that non-minorities and minorities that are not African-Americans also experience Impostor Syndrome, but I as an African-American female 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 of Imposter Syndrome 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 also decided that I am deserving of everything that I have achieved. My accomplishments are earned, and my achievements are due to my dedication and work ethic. I will no longer diminish my talents and abilities but hold on to them tightly. I encourage all of my fellow African-American musicians and others experiencing Imposter Syndrome to push away those negative thoughts when they come across your mind. 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 those 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 and not because you feel as if you must prove it to anyone else. You are deserving, and you do belong.

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