Updated: Aug 2, 2020
Why am I even composing? I feel like I don't know what I'm doing,
and I just don't even know if I'm very good at this.
I wouldn't be surprised if most composers, let alone artists, photographers, musicians, directors, etc. have had a thought like this at one point in time. In fact, studies have shown that more than 70% of people experience feelings like this at some point in their career. The phenomenon, known as "Impostor Syndrome," is a psychological belief that one feels as though, despite their education, experience, background, and overall competence within a field, their merits, accolades, and overall success is undeserved or due to luck or deceiving others. The idea behind this was first introduced in a 1978 article "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, and although the initial research was focused on the prevalence of successful and high-achieving women, it's been recognized to affect both women and men equally.
Measuring Imposter Phenomenon:
In 1985, Dr. Clance designed a scale that can be used to determine if characteristics or fear are present and include elements such as: fear of evaluation, fear of not continuing success, and fear of not being as capable of others. The latter, for me, is a particularly strong personal feeling and one that I'll touch on in just a little bit. Valerie Young continued to research this idea of impostor-ism and identified five subgroups that people often fall into.
The perfectionist - focuses on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame
The superwoman/man - measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, on the home-front, host/hostess, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.
The natural genius - also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for you, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to master a subject or skill or that you’re not able to bang out your masterpiece on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.
The soloist - cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be you and you alone. Because you think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.
The expert - is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. Here, the primary concern is on “what” and “how much” you know or can do. Because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.
A lot of people have these feelings in some way, shape, or form. I do whenever I come up with a really cool idea. I often become nervous that I've heard it somewhere before, and I'll scour my memory for any hint that the melody or motive might be stolen from somewhere in my subconscious. It can be nerve-wrecking at times. What if I submit something that sounds really similar to something else? I'll be regarded as a fraud. But at the same time, what if I'm merely inspired by something I've heard before? I often hear melodies that I like, but at some point my brain deviates from where the recording goes to where I wish it would go. These deviations usually create new melodic ideas which may sound similar or vastly different from the source material. I then write 4 or more versions of these new melodic ideas, and twist them around and flip them or alter the rhythms, contours, or endings to discover what possibilities are hidden within this original idea that was never pursued. This has more to do with my writing-process, which I again will feature in a future blog post, but the looming concern of impostor syndrome always seems to hide just beneath the surface whenever I write. And often times this can lead to...
This can be one of the most crippling effects of IS and can be terrible difficult to overcome. It's that voice inside your head that tells you that it might be easier to just give up or pursue something different than your passion, and quite possibly one of the worst decisions a person might have to make is the choice to actually stop pursuing the thing they love, usually because of financial reasons.
There are plenty of times in the past decade where I've questioned my pursuit to become a composer. Many people I know that went to school for composing found other careers, some of them music, but in many instances left their pursuit of writing music behind in grad school. Little successes in your career, like your first sale, publication, commission, etc. can be an incredibly gratifying experience, though, and give you the motivation to continue, and I'm extremely fortunate that the many times I've had my doubts, one of these little successes found its way to me. This being the "luck" factor that many associate with these feelings of IS.
It's difficult to overcome these feelings, especially starting out. Trying to enter a piece into a competition or for publication when you're competing against a sea of other composers, some of which may be highly-experienced, can be daunting, and if you're met with constant rejection, the desire to continue starts to wane after a while. Even weirder, though, is when you do finally have some success and wonder:
Why did they choose this piece?
There are so many better works they could have chosen by way better composers."
The fact is, they chose your piece because they liked it. They saw or heard something in it that may have been unique or just stand out in a way that made it special compared to the rest of the submissions. In several cases, pieces that I submitted to competitions and won or received some sort of accolade of 2nd place or honorable mention were ones that stood out. Something that I wanted to experiment with, and usually were not well-received by publishers despite having been well-received in a competition. Competitions, specifically ones that have an age limit set to help new and emerging composers, can be a great opportunity for younger or newer composers to build their chops and maybe even receive some recognition. I'm going to touch more on competitions in a later blog post.
Overcoming Impostor Syndrome:
The most obvious way that I can do this is to tell you:
"You're experiencing this success because you deserve it.
You earned it."
Maybe no one's ever told you that before; so take my words to heart. It's far harder to fake success than it is to achieve it because you've spent years studying, practicing, and working hard to reach goals that you set for yourself.
I said I would touch upon the fear of not being as capable of others, and here it is:
Don't compare other people's success with your own.
This is probably one of the hardest things that I had to overcome myself. I used to compare my development as a composer with friends who were also composers several years my senior, and gauge where I should be in my career by where they were at their age. And in all honesty, it was daunting and somewhat debilitating effort at trying to push myself that was actually not very beneficial.
One fact of life, is there are always going to be people who are probably better than you. I recently heard music composed by a 20 year-old that blew me away. The production quality, writing, and orchestration were all top-notch and leaps and bounds of where I was at that age, and I was rather jealous. And while this young composer clearly has a lot of talent and will likely experience a lot of success in their career (and I honestly really hope they do), their success is not the same as mine, nor should the two be compared.
Different Routes to Success:
I've been contacted by other composers who asked me about my success with publication and my experience with it, some details of which you can read here. And while a few of them had difficulty getting pieces published, they were developing relationships with band directors and receiving commissions, the latter of which I've received very few of. So, I in turn asked them about their success with commissioning parties and developing consortiums.
Some composers find their success in the realm of marching band, which I have very little experience with. Still, other composers find their niche writing for small ensembles, large orchestras, writing commercial music, arranging, film scoring, and the list goes on. There's work out there, and you can certainly find it, but one person's path may not be the same as yours.
The most important thing is to continue your pursuit and keep writing. Composing is like practicing, the more you do it, the better you get. That's actually a really good future blog topic. So, stay tuned for that.
In the mean time, I'm going to leave you with the words of Adam Savage and his story of his experience with impostor syndrome.