I don’t think anything ever really prepares you for your first “official” choir directing job. My first choir director job came in the form of a junior high position in a Houston suburb. This position had had pretty high turnover and that same year, the position became an itinerant one, meaning the director was in charge of a program at the local 6th grade campus as well as one of the junior highs. Instead of getting my feet wet as the sole director of one program, I found myself as the sole director of two.
The first day of school was incredibly nerve-wracking. Kids of any age are unflinchingly honest, but I knew from my own experience as a middle-schooler, that middle school kids have a unique talent for pouncing on weakness as if they were tigers with a wounded gazelle. So what would that mean for me? Would these kids realize that I was figuring out this whole “choir director thing” as I went along? Did my undergraduate experiences actually prepare me for this? Was I an imposter just playing the role of choir director? Could they tell? Could my administration? Could my Fine Arts team? Despite these questions that haunted me, the year had to continue, the work had to get done, and concert season was quickly approaching.
In the blink of an eye, the school year was done. I had survived my first year as a choir director. My choirs had done well at contest, and our concerts received many audience compliments...I felt like I got away with it. I successfully fooled people into thinking that not only was I a choir director, but I was a choir director who knew what they were doing. Surely, after a summer to recuperate, analyze the past year, and reflect, I would enter into my second year without that feeling of being an imposter hovering over me. Nevertheless, it persisted. My choirs got the highest scores possible at contest, our social events were better, our concerts were better, the compliments were even better. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling. Over the summers, I went to graduate school, acquiring my Masters degree at one of the best music schools in the country. But even with that fancy diploma in hand, I felt that familiar devil on my shoulder telling me that I was just tricking people into thinking that I knew what I was talking about.
Living with imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon as many are starting to refer to it, has been a constant since I entered this career. Every time I stand in front of an ensemble, I feel it. This year, I started my PhD in Music Studies at Northwestern University. They typically only accept two students into the Music Education program each year, and somehow I made it in. We’re almost through the first quarter of the school year, and honestly, I’m still waiting for somebody to tell me that they made a mistake and discovered I don’t actually belong. I’m surrounded by incredible musicians and academics, but I don’t count myself as one of them. I’m just Melanie, that girl from Texas who still regularly trips over her feet and runs into doors.
I’ve spoken with many colleagues and fellow choir directors who feel similarly about their own careers or paths as a choir director. Regardless of how well a concert goes, how many accolades they or their choir have acquired, or how many compliments they receive about a job well done, they feel like imposters.
So what can be done to ease this feeling and how do we do our jobs as choir directors without it getting in the way? Here are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up along the way that have helped me:
1. Remember that everyone experiences imposter syndrome to some extent.
Sure, not everybody is going to always experience imposter syndrome to the same extent as you might. However, everybody experiences it in some way on a continuum. Maybe some days, it’s miniscule and unobtrusive. Other days, it can be much more present and real. Regardless, acknowledging that imposter syndrome is a phenomenon that everyone shares can help you feel less alone and remind you that it is normal.
2. Speak it out loud.
This advice was given to me by a friend who struggles with imposter syndrome as well. Sometimes, we just need to verbalize the internal thoughts that are in our head. By saying them out loud, exposing them to sunlight, we sometimes realize just how ridiculous they sound. Even just a verbal acknowledgment of, “This is what I’m feeling right now. This is okay,” can help to alleviate the feeling, or at the very least make it feel a little lighter or less pressing.
3. Remind yourself of your accomplishments.
I’m not advocating for you to sit in a dark office, stroking your diploma like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, but I do think there is inherent power in reminding yourself of just how far you’ve come, and how much you have grown. Take time to look at the tangible representations of your accomplishments, whether they be pictures, diplomas, old programs of fantastic performances, etc. Think back to the person you were then and what you did and didn’t know. Reflect on your growth and revel in it. Own it!
4. Try not to compare yourself or your ensembles to others.
It is so incredibly easy to look at what other colleagues are doing and compare your achievements and your ensembles to theirs. How could you not? We only grow when we know what areas to improve, and sometimes that means seeing what others in the profession are doing. That is healthy. What isn’t healthy is when you stop using others as inspiration or for ideas and start comparing your group, self, or work to theirs. At the end of the day, it isn’t really beneficial. The problems and struggles of that ensemble and conductor are going to be different than the ones your ensemble or you are facing. If you find yourself constantly comparing, try and narrow your focus exclusively to your own choral realm.
5. Talk to your friends, colleagues, and mentors.
Sometimes we can get lost in our own thoughts or headspace, or we can feel like we are the only ones struggling with imposter syndrome. Reach out to others in your network that you trust to see how they navigate imposter syndrome. You might be surprised at some of their responses. And remember to let them know they can lean on you when they are experiencing it too.
6. Listen to performances ONLY for the positive elements.
We’ve all listened to recordings of our ensembles’ performances. After months of rehearsal and aural analysis, it is only natural to harp on mistakes or places where things “could have been better.” I challenge you to try and listen to a previous recording—preferably after a little time has passed—and only focus on positive critique. What did y’all do well? What are elements of the performance that were particularly effective? What are you proud of? This isn’t always easy, but it’s important to not get swept away in the negativity and to recognize those moments which are true indicators that you do know what you’re doing. Don’t dwell!
7. Speak with a mental health professional.
I cannot express how helpful therapy can be. It isn’t just for people struggling with “big” problems. Therapy is a useful tool to help navigate through some of these moments in your life. Talking with somebody who is a true “outsider” to your life can help give you perspective and realize where some of the imposter syndrome is coming from, and potentially give you personalized ideas for how to combat it. There’s never any shame in being vulnerable.
8. Ignore the haters.
In my first choral directing job, I found myself the target of a high-level administrator, one who never seemed to think that what I was doing was “enough.” There was never any positive reinforcement, only negative. Never anything good, only bad. This fed my imposter syndrome and made it grow into an untenable monster, where I was convinced that nothing I did would be good enough, no matter how hard I was working. I came to find out later that this administrator targeted me because of some problematic personal viewpoints that had nothing to do with who I was as a choir director, but everything to do with the woman I am. His disdain was toxic and affected how I saw myself for years. If you find yourself with somebody like this, I recommend trying to find ways to separate yourself from their critique and recognize that it might be coming from an unrelated place. And even if it isn’t unrelated, take it with a grain of salt. Don’t let it deter you from putting in good work, and most importantly, don’t let it alter your perceptions of yourself.
Imposter syndrome is a challenging obstacle to conquer. I was recently speaking about this with my mentor, Dr. Sarah Bartolome, finding it ironic that I was about to write a blog on the topic while experiencing it so viscerally. Her wise words resonated and have stuck with me:
“You will never fully overcome imposter syndrome. It comes and goes. It can be a healthy trigger for self-awareness and reflection. It cannot be debilitating though...it is normal, and it is perennial.”
As I continue my own journey, and as you continue yours, keep this in mind. Your imposter syndrome is a part of you, but it doesn’t have to define you. It can push you to be better, but don’t let it push you to be worse. It isn’t going to go away. But maybe, just maybe, learning to live with imposter syndrome is the true way to conquer it.
Melanie Stapleton (she/her) is a music educator, researcher, author, and choral director located in Chicago. She is currently a PhD student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, pursuing a PhD in Music Studies with a specialization in Music Education and an interdisciplinary certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the founder of Blurring the Binary, and holds a Masters of Music Education from the University of North Texas as well as a Bachelors of Music Education from Louisiana State University. She is a strong believer that the choral ensemble should be a musical family and a safe place offering unconditional love for all. When not teaching, she can be found hanging with her Golden Retriever, Queso, playing video games, or jamming to the latest choral hits.