Friday, December 13, 2013

Excellence Impostor Complex Ramble

I grew up in a household of excellence. I took excellence for granted. My parents and brothers were far smarter than I was, and they seemed to be able to do things that I just couldn't do (like math). I remember wishing that I had a different kind of mind than I had (or have), so that I could operate in their intellectual and musical ranks.

I also had friends in high school in Newton who were fantastic musicians, and the Greater Boston high school musical scene was packed with people with extraordinary talent and ability. I had people to admire who were New England Conservatory students, and people to admire in the Boston Symphony. I had my musical heroes very close to home.

I figured out how to fool people pretty early on. I could hold my own in adult conversation when I was a teenager, and I could use my highly developed intuition to give people the illusion that I was smart. I was on a personal search for truth, and I read a lot about music. I also loved music deeply. I did see myself as having certain advantages through what one person on the outside referred to as my "breeding" (though I would never use that word myself), and I fought vigilantly to break down the barriers that got in my way. Some of those barriers might have been imaginary, but a good many of them were real.

It was pretty crazy for me to feel that if I began playing the flute in the seventh grade (a late age in a competitive field), I could, through sheer perseverance and hard work, rise to the top of the "pack," and get into a good school as a performance major. I thought that if I worked harder than anyone else, it would make up for what I lacked in experience and brain power. Ultimately, I confess, what got me into Juilliard was my "breeding." Julius Baker taught my mother, and he admired my father's playing. I also studied with one of his students. I managed to fool him with my armor of charm, and, after being initially rejected because of my less-than-perfect orchestral audition (the first of many), he pulled some strings and got me accepted. I never really felt like I belonged at Juilliard, until I found out that my path there was not all that unusual.

I still think that my audition for Baker was a brilliant "wool-over-the-eyes-pulling" moment. I played the slow movement of a Mozart concerto, and I prepared my interpretation by listening to Julius Baker's recording of it. Every time he changed color, I made a little mark in my music. Those were the places I changed the color of my sound or made some kind of musical inflection, but I intentionally didn't inflect the same way he did. I intuited that those places were moments of sensitivity for him, and I suppose I was correct.

I suppose that getting into Juilliard became a mark of excellence. I was surrounded by people who were excellent players, and made friends with people who were fine musicians. I was a champion practicer.

I have applied my late-starter mentality to everything I have done musically: learning new instruments, writing about music, and writing music. I love having a long road ahead of me, and I love encountering real brilliance and real talent, but now, at the age of 54, I'm starting to understand my limits. I am turning more into a consumer of music than a producer because there is so much to play, particularly on the piano, that is far greater than anything I could imagine writing.

Specializing has never been my strength. I am polyamorous as a musician. I can't commit to a single instrument or a general era. I can't commit to writing in a particular style. My tastes go all over the map. I admire those who do specialize, though. I also admire people who can write about music in a compelling way.

I wonder if Richard Taruskin ever has feelings of inadequacy. I wonder if he ever feels like an impostor. When I read his essays, particularly the ones collected in The Danger of Music, I understand how directly, cleverly, and correctly a person can write about music. I also understand, particularly through Taruskin's eyes (and hand) that composers are all complicated people. I am grateful to him for quoting Debussy:
"The emotional satisfaction one gets from putting the right chord in the right place can't be equaled in any of the arts," he wrote exultantly in 1915, after a year of blocked inactivity. "Forgive me. I sound as if I've just discovered music. But in all humility, that's rather what I feel like."
Taruskin's 1988 response in the New Republic to Harvey Sachs' Music in Fascist Italy called in this volume "The Dark Side of the Moon," discusses details about the prejudices of many early 20th century musical icons that most of us really don't want to acknowledge.

So ends my ramble. Perhaps I should go and do something productive. Or read more Taruskin.


Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

We need more people like you, Elaine! In my opinion, there are too many "specialists" who fail to see the big picture. You possess such humility! You are a brilliant woman with a tremendous capacity for enlightening others and enriching lives. It is refreshing to learn from one who is curious about so many facets of music, life, and learning.

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks, Margie. You make me blush.

Anonymous said...

Based on what I know of classical musicians of all sorts, while you might not be at the absolute top rung of that ladder, I venture to say you exceed the accomplishments of many, and especially of many musicologists who can barely play one instrument, or twelve-tone advocates who cannot sing their favorite row. Let's see: flute, violin, viola, viola da gamba, piano and putting out a rather serious and long-running blog. Based on simple comparisons, I'd say you are doing quite well for yourself. Are there betters? You bet, but there are demonstrably a whole lot of lesser, so puff up some pride, Madame Faux Impostor, you just might be the real thing after all, just in your own way.... Best wishes.

Elaine Fine said...

You too make me blush, Anonymous. But when push comes to shove, I haven't had a real job in music since I was 21, and haven't had a full-time job (you know, the kind that allows you to pay the rent and eat) since I was 25. In the current environment of impostors vs. people who are not, there is a certain amount of monetary recognition that slopes my lot towards that of an impostor.

Thank goodness I am in a position (i.e. I am married to someone who supports me both financially and morally, and finds value in what I do) where I can do the things that I do without having to rely on profiting from them in order to live. My tax return is laughable, so I am pretty thrifty, and I try to pretend that the fact that I could not support myself where I live doing what I prefer to do doesn't matter.

I do feel fortunate that I have time and space to do the things I do, but rarely do I get much in the way of support from all but a handful of people who live in my town. If it were not for the musical groups that I have basically created--with cooperation from my cohorts (punctuated by occasional chances to play out of town), I would have nothing to do in the community where I live except teach a single music appreciation class at the local community college.

Anonymous said...

When push comes to shove, Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave. If one were subtract all -- all -- the musicians who teach in universities and conservatories from the population sample because they don't "blow a horn" for a profit, the measure of music, musician and all with materialism's benchmark of money would show most musicians "poor." Indeed what was Bach's economic and political status that allowed us to lose many works to the dust? And what measure is it that Van Gogh was dirt poor? I reject the measure of the materialist world, and this includes that will-o-the-wisp, popularity. The alternative, as it has ever been for artists, is to persevere. And so you do. Yippee for a small corner of Illinois.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Despite the personal (and always self-motivated) creative activities that distract me, I so often feel like a bowl of chopped liver (as in, "what am I, chopped liver?"). It's nice to know that people care.