Waging War: 5 Battle Strategies to Defeat Impostor Syndrome

Raise of hands, how many of you feel like you’re faking your way through life? Like you don’t actually know how to do your job, or people think you’re a lot smarter than you actually are?

Impostor syndrome (also “imposter”), impostor phenomenon, impostor experience, impostorism, and fraud syndrome are all terms that encompass the idea of feeling like a fraud. It’s been a bit of a buzz topic lately, especially with a few celebrities speaking out about it, like Neil Gaiman:

In addition to Gaiman, the following well-known figures also report having felt the phenomonen: Maya Angelou, Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chuck Lorre, John Green, Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Diana Crow1, Seth Godin2, and Amanda Palmer3. I especially love that Palmer dubs it “The Fraud Police.” It’s less impending if you name it, right?

Actually, both Palmer and Gaiman have very vivid fantasies of imaginary people coming to them in the  middle of the night and telling them, “We know you’re a fraud, and now we’re here to take everything away from you and to tell everyone you’re a fool.”3,4

What Impostorism Is

The first study on impostorism, by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, published in 1978, explains that those “who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”5  In a later interview, however (in 2015), Clance amended the definition: “if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome of a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”6

It’s a growing body of research, but the more psychologists study the phenomenon, the more they learn how universal the experience is. In fact, that first study by Clance and Imes asserted that it was only the women in academia who felt this way, but men were later included after ‘fessing up to being quiet on the matter.6

Impostorism can be defined with three major characteristics. Those with impostorism:

  1. Believe that others view them more favorably than they deserve.
  2. Have fear of being found out and then viewed as a failure.
  3. Have trouble internalizing their actual, tangible successes.7

How Impostorism Presents Itself

If you’re really down the rabbit hole of not believing your own worth, you may not know you meet any of the above criteria. One of the easiest ways to tell is if you find yourself exhibiting a behavior consistent with this mindset.

There are many behaviors that those with impostorism may exhibit, but there are four pretty standard ones that Clance and Imes outlined, and later works still agree. Someone with impostorism may exhibit one or two of these, but it’s rare for them to show all four.

1. From the belief that hard work will cover up a lack of intelligence or talent. They work hard and make sure to do so behind closed doors. This can look like someone who pretends to be playing games on the computer when a family member walks by, but they’re actually studying. Sense of approval from others reinforces this behavior.

2. From a sense of phoniness. They believe they participate in intellectual flattery by doing types of work that will please others (i.e., choosing a paper topic that they know their professor will like). If they had not flattered their superiors, they would have failed because they’re just not smart or good enough. Actual success feeds this behavior.

3. From a desire to be liked as well as thought of as competent. They use charm and perceptiveness together to win approval, like flirting with intent. And when they do win approval, they don’t believe they earned it. That if they were actually intelligent, they wouldn’t even need outside approval to convince themselves of their value. Again, success itself reinforces behavior like this.

4. Avoidance of success completely, out of fear of failing. As in, they don’t even try to win something they possibly could win because they’re afraid they’ll fail, and everyone will see, so they just avoid the situation altogether. This one can go hand in hand with depression and is fed by opportunities for success.5

As you can see, all of these behaviors feed into themselves. They encourage more of the same behavior, and it may seem like an impossible war to someone who’s been stuck in the cycle for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s not just the internal mindset and behaviors that contribute to the problem. There are also external factors.

What Irritates the Problem

Although impostorism is a fairly universal experience, it tends to be worse in fields like academia or the arts where there is a lot of competition. Instead of waning all on its own, as it does for many people, impostorism is developed by physical events.

In a study about academic faculty and the ways they cope with impostorism, Holly M. Hutchins and Hilary Rainbolt discovered four types of  “imposter incidents,” which they describe as “disruptive events that created doubt, shame, and questioning of who they [the participants] were.”8

These four types of events perpetuate rather than diminish feelings of fraud:

1. Moments when expertise is questioned. This can be when someone straight up asks you if you’re qualified or when you have to teach in your field, like giving a lecture or presentation. I just dealt with this myself with some suburban moms asking if I was qualified to teach their children beginner piano, and I almost said, “Even with my degree, I’m not qualified at all!”

2. In moments of self-evaluation of one’s work. The faculty members in this study spoke specifically about submitting their work for publication and applying for grants and tenure. Universally, this might look like when you’re trying to prove your worth (like in a job interview) or dealing with negative criticism or comments.

3. Competition or comparison. This one’s pretty obvious. For piano, a great example is when you’re looking up recordings of your repertoire to listen to, and you find a wonderful rendition by a four-year-old prodigy. It makes you re-evaluate why you play at all. But in general, any kind of comparison can do a lot of damage to one’s perspective of self.

4. Moments when one is asked to accept success. Winning awards, getting asked to be a judge in one’s field, and being invited to speak as an expert all aggravate the cycle because impostors really can’t internalize their own success.8

Strategies to Break the Cycle

So it is a war, not just a one-night battle. There are so many forces encouraging feelings of fraud, and this can make you feel trapped. But, all you have to do is interrupt the cycle to find a way out. Just one little bump, and there’s some hope. Each of the studies and articles I looked at have different strategies to cope,  but these five are fairly universal ideas that are easy to do.

 

1. Be open and honest with yourself.

Remember how Amanda Palmer gave her feelings a name?3 Part of the psychology of naming is that you choose to accept that the idea is a real, tangible thing. This isn’t AA, but it’s the same concept. The first step is to accept you have a problem and choose to do something about it.

I think I’m going to call mine Fred the Fraudmonger. That seems like a great villain name. Let me know if you’ve picked out the perfect name for yours. But the idea is to face it like it’s a tangible enemy. Be proactive, and let yourself feel it.

I’m coming for you, Fraudmonger!

2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.

In the same speech in which Amanda Palmer dubbed impostorism “The Fraud Police,” she had everyone in the room raise their hands if they had ever felt like a fraud. All the faculty sitting on the stage behind her raised their hands as well, and she said “If they didn’t, they’re lying.” She’s right. That’s exactly why Pauline Clance said that if she could redo the original study, she’d call it the “impostor experience.” It’s that universal. Some people just have more trouble with it than others. Palmer even says at the end of the video that the feeling never completely goes away; you just learn how to deal with it.

For some, just knowing that it’s part of being human helps them accept it and move forward.

3. Be honest with others and vice versa.

In her book, Presence, social psychologist Amy Cuddy includes a chapter solely about the impostor experience. She sums up her research and interviews with,

As I review the research and talk to people like Pauline [Clance] and Neil [Gaiman] who’ve experienced the same fears, I see the one quality of impostorism that stands out from all the others: it makes us feel alone in the experience, and even when we learn that other people have similar fears, we don’t take heart.6

Sometimes it’s really not enough to hear that all these famous people suffer from the same feelings. Because they’re actually talented, and I’m obviously not.6

The APA lists talking with people as two separate ways to deal with impostorism.9 Find someone you trust and aren’t afraid to just be open with.

In some cases, mentors are excellent to talk with, but don’t be surprised if your mentor actually makes you feel worse. I’m not trying to be mean to all the mentors out there (I mean I guess as a piano teacher, I am also one), but in different study by Hutchins, results showed that in all but 3% of the participants’ experiences, mentors actually made feelings of impostorism worse. The mentors didn’t do anything wrong, but the fact that they were so successful, and the participants in the study felt they weren’t added to the issue.10

The original study by Clance and Imes discusses the high effect of group therapy sessions. “A group setting is also valuable because one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved.”5

There’s always someone to talk to. The worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself and suffer alone. You may actually be helping another person by bringing it up.

4. Look at the hard facts.

If you have a degree, you earned it. If you won awards, you earned them. Take another look at the tangible evidence of your skill. You can’t fake all of that. It’s impossible. Try looking at everything objectively, or as if you were in the heads of the people who gave all these certifications to you.

Another part of this is to say “thank you” and mean it when people congratulate you for success. Instead of shying away and mumbling something to the effect of, “Oh, no it was nothing,” or “It wasn’t my best work,” try standing up tall with a big smile on your face, look them in the eyes, and say, “thank you.” This is one of the best things you can do if you’re a performer too. This is actually one of the major points of last week’s post about Alpin Hong, who says that the “joyful expression of appreciation…cannot be overestimated.”

All in all, just own your successes. And if you have trouble, go back to number three and find someone who can help you find a way to be excited about your triumphs.

5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

In a commencement speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, Neil Gaiman spoke a little bit about impostorism. The advice he gave was that if you still don’t think you can do it, pretend that you’re someone who can do it. The full quote is wonderful.

Be wise because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.4

So pretend you’re someone who did earn those degrees, someone who truly deserved those accolades and awards, and just act like that person would. It helps.

There’s a lot of debate in the psychology world about how much acting actually contributes to changing your thought process, but it’s worth a shot, and there are plenty of people out there who defend this idea.

Nudge Forward

The key to any of these strategies working is to expect it to be a slow process. We’re fighting a war, not a battle.

Realize it won’t happen in a day, but little nudges (apparently it’s a real psychology term) will weaken the cycle. Over time, it just might break!

Nudge theory explains why most New Year’s Resolutions don’t stick (these goals are way too big). It is the idea that to change your behavior (and your thoughts), you have to do so in small steps that slowly build up over time.

Governments all over the world actually have their own “nudge units” to encourage people to make better eating choices and to recycle. And all they do is start placing healthy food at eye level, and putting junk food where it’s harder to get to.11

Just thinking deeply about your specific type of impostorism and how it affects your behavior is a great start. Here’s a recap of five strategies to break the fraud cycle:

  1. Be open and honest with yourself.
  2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.
  3. Be honest with others and vice versa.
  4. Look at the hard facts.
  5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

If you found any of these sources interesting or helpful, there is a list of recommended resources as well as the works cited in this article below. Check either or neither of them out. Just remember to pass the ideas on. I don’t lay claim to any of this. I’m not a psychologist; I just enjoy research. Cite studies where applicable, but carry the ideas on forever if they help you.


Recommended Resources

Amy Cuddy, TED Talk  and Presence (Amazon Goodreads). Both are excellent resources. I recommend watching the TED Talk first, and if you want to dig more into the scientific studies and read more interviews regarding how the body shapes the mind and the idea of “fake it ’til you become it,” then the book is for you.

Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 (also embedded above).

Amanda Palmer’s Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011 (also embedded above).


Works Cited

1. Wikipedia. “Impostor Syndrome.” (2018, July 30).

2. Richards, Carl. “Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome.” The New York Times. (2015, October 26).

3. Palmer, Amanda. “The Fraud Police.” Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011.

4. Gaiman, Neil. “Make Good Art.” Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012.

5. Clance, Pauline Rose, and Suzanne Ament Imes. “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15.3 (1978): 241.

6. Cuddy, Amy Joy Casselberry. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Company, 2015.

7. Leary, Mark R., et al. “The impostor phenomenon: Self‐perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies.” Journal of personality 68.4 (2000): 725-756.

8. Hutchins, Holly M., and Hilary Rainbolt. “What triggers imposter phenomenon among academic faculty? A critical incident study exploring antecedents, coping, and development opportunities.” Human Resource Development International 20.3 (2017): 194-214.

9. Weir, Kirsten. “Feel like a fraud?” American Psychological Association. (2018).

10. Hutchins, Holly M. “Outing the imposter: A study exploring imposter phenomenon among higher education faculty.” New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 27.2 (2015): 3-12.

11. Wikipedia. “Nudge theory.” (2018, June 11).

7 Ways to Identify Music Majors in the Wild

Although music majors aren’t an entirely rare breed, they can easily be mixed up with others within their own species, the sleep-deprived college student. Noted by their sluggish behavior and small will to carry on, it’s a wonder the species thrives enough to have so many classes within it. Today, we focus on seven key ways to identify the class of music majors in their natural habitat.

Music majors…

1. Always have rehearsal or a practice session to be at.

They avoid social interaction, always with this excuse. “Sorry I have rehearsal…”  Sometimes, it’s like they don’t exist outside of class. Are they speaking the truth?

2. Post pictures of their instrument or music on social media.

That’s how you know they’re telling the truth about all that practice time. Aesthetic photos of “bae” and the most difficult sheet music in their folder grace their instagram, colored by fun filters. #practicing #truelove #100daysofpractice

Except, are they actually practicing? At the very least, you know they’re in the practice room.

3. Can speak in about 10 different languages, but can’t always understand them.

Vocal majors especially have to be able to passably pronounce a ton of foreign languages. Can they say important things like, “Where is the bathroom?”

Absolutely not.

But they can say cryptic things to you with no context whatsoever. And they probably will.

Die Luft ging durch die Felder,
Die Ähren wogten sacht,
Es rauschten leis die Wälder,
So sternklar war die Nacht.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

Robert Schumann. From Mondnacht, Op. 39, No. 5.

4. Live off of snacks instead of actual food.

All those rehearsals and practice sessions leave very little time to sit down and eat. So, when music majors actually do eat, it’s usually random snacks from their backpack. Nuts, chips, granola bars, cookies, you know, all the stuff you should live off of instead of veggies and meat…

5. Have a mostly black wardrobe.

It’s easier this way. Trust me. With as many performances in a week as music majors have, it’s a good idea to have many concert black outfits to choose from. If they barely have time to eat, what makes you think they’ve got time to wash one outfit multiple times a week?

Plus, if you wear black everyday, you don’t have to worry about forgetting about a performance. You’re all ready to go!

6. Are always singing or humming.

And are always harmonizing. In the car, the grocery store, the bathroom…

7. Always have a pencil on their person.

You are shameful and must commit seppuku if you do not have a pencil in rehearsal. As a result, music majors always have pencils hidden in multiple places on their body and in their bags. It’s better this way.

There ya have it! Seven ways to spot a music major in the wild. There are many more tell tale signs, but that should give you a good head start as you begin your wildlife observations.

Remember to record other behavioral findings in your journal and share with your fellow scientists below. Happy trails!

Meet the Composers: Tchaikovsky

Meet Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский for those who can read it). A flamboyant orchestral composer, he is best remembered for the range of his dynamics: the use of actual cannons in his 1812 Overture to his gentle The Nutcracker and heart wrenching Swan Lake.

Born in 1840 in a small town in Russia, Tchaikovsky grew up in the peak of Romanticism. He began piano at a young age and quickly proved his talent with the instrument. His parents sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg to give him a leg up. But, due to this separation and the death of his mother from cholera when he was 14, he suffered much emotional trauma that he carried for the rest of his life.

It is said that he wrote his first composition in memory of his mother: a waltz.

As he grew, he continued to practice music, but it wasn’t until he was much older that he or his father realized he had skill and love enough to be a professional composer or performer.

He went on to compose orchestral works, operas, and even ballets, and all of his works helped shape the music we know and love today.

Although many classical music students remember him as the guy who put cannons and hammers in his orchestral works, he also wrote touching works.

Swan Lake is based off the tale The Stolen Veil, a  tragic tale of love that can only be shared in death (no, you don’t get spoiler warnings if the story is centuries old!). The most memorable theme comes from when the Swan Queen Odette and Prince Siegfried meet, and Odette transforms from a swan into a woman.

It’s a haunting theme that begins and ends in melancholy. It grows from a minor melody into one more triumphant (as she transforms) and then sings again of her imprisonment.

It is of note that he also created an orchestral suite from some of the pieces in the ballet in order to “save this music from oblivion.” This may have been from the poor first reception of the work. Regardless, it’s one of the most beloved romantic works of all time.

Although one may argue that true artists remain separate from their work, perhaps Tchaikovsky shared similar feelings. Nonetheless, the story and the theme continue to permeate the media.


Further Reading

Tchaikovsky’s life

Wiki

Biography

Tchaikovsky Timeline Presentation

Swan Lake

Lumen Learning

All You Need to Know About Swan Lake

Swan Lake Suite

Other works

All Compositions

3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Pointless as a Musician

Constant self criticism, practicing perfectionism, locking yourself away for hours. Such is the life of a musician. Half of it, anyway.

The other half of being a musician can be so rewarding, but when you’re stuck in the first half, it can feel like there’s no point in trying. There’s so many more people that are better than you. Child prodigies show up and learn skills in half the time. You started late, and there’s no such thing as “catching up” in music. You just aren’t as good as you thought you’d be at this point in your life.

At some point, you knew you wanted to be a musician, and you knew why. It just got lost along the way.

Here are three questions to ask yourself when you feel like you have no purpose as a musician.

1. Why did you start?

Maybe you started lessons as a child because your parents made you. Maybe you had to pick an elective in school, and band was the least offensive idea to you. Even if the very beginning wasn’t your choice, you’re here because you’re worrying about the reason you bother practicing. It is now your choice.

Music gave me a sense of belonging when I felt I could never fit in. I was the girl who ate lunch by herself everyday, but I joined choir and found a community. After that, I started piano, and I felt like I found an entire world of love. It’s a little odd since it can be rather solitary, but either way, I found a place to belong.

I started working hard as a musician because I was so thankful for it.

2. How are you making the world a better place right now?

You may feel like you aren’t influencing the world at all, but remember that change has to start in one place. That place is small.

The moment I realized I could actually make a difference was during a family trip out west. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, is this massive gallery of instruments from all of world history. It’s divided according to geographical location and is absolutely not limited to Western Europe. I’d love to go back; there’s a lot to learn there.

My favorite part of the museum, though, is the Steinway grand sitting out in the lobby. They encourage anyone to play it.

When we took our trip, I had only been playing piano a few months, so I was still in the honeymoon phase of learning an instrument. At the urging of my mother, I quickly sat down and played one of the only two songs I knew. I developed this arrangement of “Beauty and the Beast” back then because I just loved piano that much.

To that point, I hadn’t really had a bad performing experience, so I got to enjoy playing a Steinway for the first time ever without much anxiety. When I looked up, I was surprised how many people had stopped to listen. A group surrounded the piano, and there were even people smiling down at me from the balcony above.

Afterward, a few congratulated me and asked about my background, but one person stuck out: a little girl (with her parents of course!).

She jumped up and down like I had physically flown around the room with fireworks exploding behind me. That’s when I knew I could do magic; I could influence people with music.

I hold this memory close and pull it out when I need reassurance that I can play a role in making the world a better place. It starts with making someone smile.

3. Who are you working hard for?

This answer changes with your circumstances. When I was younger, I practiced simply to make the people around me smile. But the more I learned of how dark the world can be, I decided to work for those who need a little light.

Music gave me a community when I was alone. It’s a refuge for some with mental illnesses or dire situations. I practice for them, so they know they’re not alone.

But I know I can do more. There are many musicians I look up to who donate heavily to or create their own charities. With budget cuts leaving kids without access to music education and without the same community I found, I was thrilled to learn of Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation. I want to work hard to support that and other groups that are making real impacts in the world today. I can use my love to help others live.

The people who will benefit from that are the people I work hard for.

Whoever it is you’re personally working hard for, think about them when you feel pointless. It could be your parents, your sister, your teacher, your student. Let them motivate you.

It’s easy to get caught up in the monotony of practice and performance and forget just how hard being a musician can actually be. When you find yourself in the practice room in tears asking yourself, “Why?” ask these three questions too.

  1. Why did you start?
  2. How are you making the world a better place right now?
  3. Who are you working hard for?

I hope these help, and if you have any other questions that help you, add to the discourse! You can comment below or share elsewhere.

7 Ways to Avoid Frustration While Practicing an Instrument

Music might be this magical language of the soul, but it can still be infuriating to practice, especially if you’re fairly new to the craft.

I recall countless high school hours spent banging out Hanon exercises or Bach (I vividly remember anger associated with my left hand when I was learning his Two-Part Invention No. 1, BWV 772). The longer I practiced, the louder it got because I was angry. Luckily for my family, all we had was a keyboard, and I always used headphones.

Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t do more psychological damage from self-directed hatred (or, you know, physical harm to my hands). Somehow, after all that angry practice, I got into a decent music program and continued my piano studies.

Many teachers will tell you they don’t teach students how to play; they teach students how to practice. Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher, “Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” But the student still has to focus on adventure in the practice room and trying to find the best way to practice.

No one can tell you.

That’s frustrating; it really really is. But there are a few tips I can pass along that will hopefully help at least a little bit.

1. Practice Every Day.

This is a duh, but some of us still don’t do it. You can’t “catch up” by practicing longer one day if you didn’t practice the day before. That’s not how learning works. It’s better to do 15 minutes each day than four hours one day. We’ve all been guilty of this thinking at some point, so we’ll just get it out in the open.

2. Set small goals.

Until you have an idea of how quickly you are able to learn a piece, I don’t suggest sitting down and saying, “I will learn this whole page today.” You’ll only feel you let yourself down when you don’t achieve that.

Instead have smaller goals, like “I will practice for 20 minutes without stopping today.” Until you have a lot of experience, you can’t know how quickly your fingers will take up a certain piece. Once you get to know your learning tendencies, you can then make more challenging goals.

3. Keep a practice journal.

This helps direct your practice. Sometimes it’s hard to get your mind into the practice space, especially if you don’t have as much time as usual. School, work, difficult people in your life, and your bed calling out to you will all inevitably creep into your mind and cause you to mess up if you don’t do anything to focus.

Write down your goals at the beginning of the practice session and then reflect on how well you achieved them at the end. Connect this to your future practice session by setting your goals during your reflection time. Review these at the beginning of your next session, and bam, you’ve got a focused mind that is less likely to get distracted.

4. Celebrate the little things.

Because we are taught to be critical of our sound, we tend to forget to get excited when we play correct fingerings at tempo for a tricky cadenza that was killing us. Celebrating is so important, and it will help you stay in a positive-growth mindset. And that’s where we all need to be.

Shoot for at least three things you can be excited about, and write them down in your practice journal. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.

5. Take a Break.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, and you’re beginning to pound out notes, it’s time to move on. You can get a sip of water, just breathe, even take out your phone (but really, don’t let yourself look at it for more than a minute. If you can’t control yourself, leave it outside the practice room).

The human brain can really only focus on one thing for about 20 minutes at a time, so don’t get upset with yourself if you can’t stay diligent for longer. The professionals take water breaks too. Plus, hydration helps your brain work better too.

6. Move on.

The kitchen timer practice method actually helped me more with frustration than anything else. In it, you practice a phrase (around 4–6 measures) for a specified amount of time (I’ve pretty much settled on two minutes), and when the timer goes on, you move onto the next phrase.

This method forces you to plan out your practice session because you need to come back to each phrase at least two more times in the session. It’s the returning to it that helps you learn. More than anything, though, it helps me avoid getting fixated on something I can’t seem to get. And most often, I get it solidly by the next go ’round. I do technique practice this way too.

7. Smile.

The classical music community on Tumblr jokes a lot about practicing including lots of tears, banging your head on the wall, or just lying on the practice room floor in the dark. Practice is hard. Accept that. But find a way to make yourself smile too.

You’re doing amazing things that so many others can’t even understand. Find something that can make you smile.

I have a few inspiring quotes above my piano that remind me why I’m torturing myself with practice. My favorite right now I mentioned previously, and I’ll put the picture here too because it just makes me happy.

All in all, take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even love practicing!

What are your favorite tricks to keep yourself going during a difficult session? Do you have any favorite quotes? Share them below! And if you like this post, don’t forget to hit that like button and share, so I can keep making awesome content!

Meet the Composers: Palestrina

Meet Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Known as the “Prince of Music” he is responsible for hundreds of works that are known as “absolute perfection.” I love his music so much that he is a supporting character in a novel I wrote (not yet published; I’ll let you all know when it is).

Perhaps this is because he avoided chromaticism in his music, or it’s simply because of the natural beauty in his voice leading. Whatever the case, there’s so much to dig into in his music.

Sicut Cervus is one of about 250 motets Palestrina composed. I encountered this piece in high school, and many of my music friends say the same; thus, it makes a good introduction into the work and style of Palestrina.

The text is based on the first verse of Psalm 42, “Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.” Or, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Good ole KJV.

It’s curious that this version of the Latin uses the term “fountains of waters.” I know that some cultures view fountains as symbols of good fortune, so I’m curious if “fountain” is used in the original Hebrew, or if it was added in some translation. History buffs, please share if you know anything of this; I didn’t have enough time to dedicate to research this.

The way Palestrina sets this text is divine. It makes you want to just sit back and absorb the sound. Sicut Cervus uses imitative polyphony, which is kind of like a round. Think of when you sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with a large group of people. One subgroup starts, and when they get to “Merrily, merrily,” the next group starts at the beginning. The melody sounds good on top of itself and creates harmony internally. Imitative polyphony is also commonly used in the fugue.

The 16th century relied heavily on this style, but it is not the only style Palestrina used.

This imitative polyphony enhances the image of flowing water in Sicut Cervus. You can most easily see this in the last repetition of “ad fontes aquarum” particularly in the top two voices, as the moving parts of the melody trickle down from the soprano and into the alto, like water trickling from a fountain.

Sicut Cervus remains one of my favorite works of choral music of all time, and it will be for some time, no doubt. As we explore more of Palestrina’s works, we’ll dig more into technique and style, but for now, sit back and enjoy this recording.

Creating Music, Part One: Where to Begin

Classical musicians are cover artists. We play the scores of composers from long ago, and we get to put our own spin on the music.

But what about creating our own from scratch? It’s not always easy to start off. Compare it to writing in your own native language (English for the sake of the analogy).

You started reading somewhere around the age of five. Then you probably began to write short sentences and progressed to essays during the time of grade school. You learned to write poetry, the easiest form being the haiku, and possibly some fiction. Throughout this process you learned to express at least some part of yourself in a literary manner.

Now think about your journey with music. Your parents may have started you in lessons when you were just starting school and learning to read, or you may have waited until you could join band in the fourth grade, or maybe you didn’t even think you’d like music until you started taking piano in high school.

Nonetheless, the fact that you are reading this probably means you are a musician and have studied musical literature in some way, shape, or form.

You probably know at least the bare basics of theory, and if not, you’re not afraid to ask for help. The internet is full of resources.

And maybe you’re like me. You want to learn to express yourself with music too. Playing already composed music is one of the most amazing things you’ve ever done, but you also feel this urge to create.

Yet, instead of starting you off with short sentences, the music education system had you learn all the grammar, had you read only the very best of musical sentences. And the result of that is you know how elementary your own creations seem.

You have to start there though, and that’s okay.

You’ve got all the knowledge of theory and grammar that you need to learn how to write music much, much faster than when you learned to write.

At the risk of adding to an already loud discussion of advice blogs and Youtube channels telling you how to break into arranging and composing, I hope to help in any way I can.

Remember how all your teachers always say to “listen more than you play.” They’re referring to paying attention to your technique, to other members in your ensemble, to recordings of the greats. But something they don’t always talk about is that tiny voice inside you.

You experience the world differently than anyone else. For synesthetes, it’s very obvious; they literally see color when others don’t. For the rest of us, it’s the memories we’ve made that paint the world in different shades in our minds.

You hear things in a way that no one else does.

So when you’re listening to a song that you want to arrange, you might add notes here or there, or you might sing along and add harmonies.

Listen.

Be confident in that voice. Arranging and composing is one of the rare times when you actually get to listen to that voice.

For the rest of your life, you’re encouraged to be more objective, to listen to technique, to think about what the audience or the judges are looking for. But here, in this creative space, listen deep inside.

Your instincts will guide you.

Of course you still have to work hard. There will be countless hours when you don’t know how to finish a song. The muse refuses speak to you. But keep trying different things; it’s a puzzle to be solved. You’ll find the answer.

Exercise: Pick one of your favorite songs that gets you moving, one that you either literally or figuratively dance to when no one’s watching. Learn the melody on your instrument (or just sing it) and then turn off the track and have fun with it. Don’t worry yet about writing anything down. Just let yourself have fun. Good luck!

I plan on doing a series of arranging tips, so this is the first. There are so many resources available today for musicians, so I’ll gather up what I’ve found helpful and try to build upon that. Let me know if there’s any specific topic regarding arranging or composing that you’d like me to touch on. You can do so in the comments below or send me a private message via my contact form (or even on tumblr if you prefer)!

How to Practice Like a Prodigy

Were you a child prodigy? Did you have to suffer through the same courses of practice and lessons as people obviously not as gifted as you? Then this post is for you!

Presenting How to Practice Like a Prodigy: A guide for those incredible geniuses who only ever excelled at their craft.

  • Play through your pieces from beginning to end. That’s it. Just do that. Us amateurs never do that. Ever.
  • Never, I repeat, never listen to a professional play your piece. Don’t listen to multiple recordings. You’re better than them, and your rendition will shed new light on classical composers’ true intentions.
  • Who needs scales and arpeggios? You mastered those in your sleep. And don’t get me started on Hanon
  • Forget about warm ups altogether. You need to be able to play your pieces cold, 100% of the time. You never know when a piano is just going to show up needing to be played.
  • Leave your phone on the music stand. That way, you’ll be prepared for emergency phone calls…or you know seeing when your crush likes your status about practicing…
  • Take lots of aesthetic photos for your blog. You’ve got to build your personal brand; the road to success is full of marketing! Bonus points for extra-complicated looking music.

#allthefilters #Ravel #howdopeopleevendothis
#pleasedonttakemeseriously

  • Finally, don’t listen to any criticism from your teachers, other musicians, or any of your favorite blogs regarding your practice methods. Only you know what’s best for you.

Fellow musicians, what are your tips for practicing like a prodigy? Please enlighten us by sharing in the comments below. Aesthetic photos of sheet music and/or your instruments are also highly encouraged!

I Lived

Inspired by the Daily Post’s daily prompt, Retrospective.

Looking back isn’t always easy. A lot of you are probably thinking of cringey moments from high school or college when you should’ve done something differently, but you can’t; the moment’s passed.

Until recently, I’d been pretty good about not letting myself regret mistakes or big decisions. To, as Longfellow puts it, “Let the dead Past bury its dead.”

But now I look back at my time in university and am shocked that two years have already passed since I graduated.

I could go on and on about what I regret most in my time fleeing my calling after leaving school, but that’s not very productive. Sharing music seems like a better idea. Plus, it cuts to the heart of matters a bit quicker.

“I Lived” by OneRepublic seems fitting. I listen to this a lot when I’m feeling nostalgic, and I hope I can pass these ideas down to someone younger than me. And I hope I also learn to listen to this advice going forward.

It’s not about striving for success; it’s about living.

What about you? Are there any songs with ideas you’d like to share with younger folks?

Langston Hughes and The Weary Blues

While Langston Hughes was not a Jazz musician, he is known as a leader of the Jazz poetry genre. His poetic forms, remembered for their spirit, contain many stylistic devices also characteristic of music, especially the blues. This fully American music stemmed from the mixing of cultures, from the two traditions from which Langston Hughes was birthed. His work represents a culmination of the African-American, post-World War I, and Jazz traditions. But, for the sake of length in this post, we’ll just look at the African-American and blues traditions.

The African-American slave tradition tore people from their homes and introduced them to new living conditions and to new music. Earlier slave music is notably rhythmic, and this lends itself easily to poetry. The rhythms came from the work being done, monotonous tasks such as hammering or pushing weights, and this combined with a new vernacular of African shouts and hollers with the English of America. It created something personal, for each slave on each plantation had their own story to sing about.

The beauty of this tradition is that even though every slave had their own story, they chose to combine them to create a community of song. The “freedom song” then began to contain repeated lines that a leader could sing and the group could finish.

A visual way of thinking about it is with letters. AAB is a typical call and response form that is used throughout all of history. In it, a leader sings a line (A), the people repeat that line (A again), and then the leader creates a new line (B) that could be a call to action or a transition into the next verse.

This call and response form created standards for their music while still allowing the singers to continually create new lines. Jazz, however, is not a sole child of slave songs and spirituals.

Jazz is a music birthed of freedom.

The blues fully developed as a form when slaves were freed, and they spread around America in attempts to locate their lost relatives and a better life. In the process, they shared their life stories with those who would listen. Langston Hughes travelled widely and discovered new and interesting people who all influenced his work. The early blues structure based itself off of the early English ballad, which was perfect for the sharing of stories, and that evolved into the now-traditional twelve-bar AAB blues form.

In the case of “The Weary Blues,” Langston Hughes reinforces the AAB traditional blues but does so without actually repeating text. While the lines of the narrator do not repeat, the number of syllables for each line does repeat and then varies on the third line. The poem begins with two lines of ten syllables each: “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,” followed by one line of six syllables: “I heard a Negro play.” The meter in these lines, however, does not remain constant, which signifies Hughes employment of the traditional African sense of rhythm.

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Hughes uses the same technique in most of the lines of the narrator, such as “With his ebony hands on each ivory key. / He made that poor piano moan with melody. / O Blues!” In limiting himself to maintaining two lines of the same number of syllables, Hughes allows himself to improvise within a framework, to redefine meter within a specific structure, which makes it effective, for it is deliberate. “The Weary Blues,” however, does contain lines with syllables that do not seem to correspond to any other line and seem not to serve a purpose. These unmatched lines represent the blues spirit in its attempt at improvising around rhythm. Since dissonance and disjoint rhythms characterize Jazz, the representation of Jazz in the meter of specific lines displays the understanding of blues rhythm that Langston Hughes must have possessed.

While Langston Hughes was not a musician himself, he yearned to be, and to fulfill his dreams of music, he read his poetry to audiences with live accompaniment. He collaborated with famous Jazz legends like W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Louis Armstrong, some of whom may have inspired his “The Weary Blues.”

This post is based on a project I did back when I was still in university. There is so much more to unpack in this poem like improvisation, modernism, and even more about rhythm, so I hope to revisit this poem in the future.

What are your thoughts on the blues, Jazz, or Jazz poetry? Share in the comments below!