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The psychology of brass playing (part 3 – imposter syndrome)

Have you ever had the feeling that you shouldn’t be here, are incapable of doing something and that someone will eventually find you out?

Then you may be suffering from imposter syndrome. A scientifically recognised condition where we think all the above and it starts to affect what we do and potentially our performances. As we discussed previously this can lead to lack of self-belief and the ability to put across a performance effectively. So when that little voice inside all of us starts chatting to us what can we do about it?

It is quite difficult to get rid of these feelings of inadequacy, but it is clear, with just a little bit of research, that even high achievers also suffer from it but have been able to manage its effects. It appears to begin in childhood and affects everyone to some extent. If you think about it, children are always looking at parents and other adults doing things they can’t or aren’t allowed do. This subconsciously embeds it into their mind that they may not be good enough, particularly if they don’t get many positive messages. It is also connected to perfectionism, which can also be described as a fear of failure or unwillingness to try something because it might not be good enough.

Imposter syndrome is something I come across fairly frequently and, in extreme cases, means that a student regularly stops playing to ask if a note is the right one! This can be frustrating, particularly when the student has some ability, but the solutions are difficult to come by.

Research on this subject has been interesting, many of those suffering from this syndrome don’t listen to, or more accurately hear, any positive messages they are given. Complements are dismissed and any positive points are often put down to luck or a fluke. The focus remains on an often small amount of negative feedback, echoing my recent posts and the fact that, as human beings, we are pre-disposed to concentrate on the negative aspects of anything we may do. So any solution a teacher may consider using positive affirmation, is unlikely to work, so what is the way forward?

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The first thing to acknowledge is that there is probably no “cure” for imposter syndrome. It can only be managed to a point where it becomes a minor issue. Secondly, it seems clear that the sufferer is likely to only manage it when they acknowledge it is a problem and want to do something about it. That sounds a bit like an addiction, but it isn’t the same type of condition, it’s just that in both cases the solution is only available by the sufferer recognising the condition. One other thing that is apparent is that there is often a light bulb moment when something happens that changes the mindset to make someone want to change their prospects. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but the teacher is unlikely to change things directly, the best thing we can try and do is hasten that lightbulb moment which can be achieved by constant positive praise and feedback. That’s not to say that corrections shouldn’t be made where necessary, but care must be taken to show that the remark is in context, as the student probably won’t notice the good bits.

Another strategy is to try and get them to imagine they are someone else playing. A trumpet player who imitates or imagines they are Wynton Marsalis or Alison Balsom, playing in a large concert hall in front of a largely appreciative audience, can have a positive effect. I am no psychologist but it does seem that this strategy, although not always successful, can have the effect of getting them to step away from their own performance and see it differently. Another thing to try is a performance mask, where they see themselves as an actor on a stage, again becoming a different character and thus being able to step away and view themselves from a safe distance.

I would certainly be interested in any other strategies that others may have used to try and combat this. There are always other ways of doing things and, particularly with imposter syndrome, there is no catch-all or silver bullet to solve this for everybody. Ultimately it is only the student that can combat this but we can try and help them along the road a bit.

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