Impostor Syndrome and Conducting Technique

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I have written before about Impostor Syndrome, and how the whole ‘maestro myth’ can exacerbate it for conductors. A recent mentoring session revealed some interesting relationships between this aspect of musical identity as it shapes in our internal narratives of self and as it manifests in the physical actions we use to direct our choruses.

At the start of the session, it looked like a reasonably routine bit of work on technique in terms of calming down the amount of movement the director was using. It is a change a lot of us need to make in our earlier years as a director, and indeed, it can remain a central issue for many of us even as we get more experienced. I have a lot of sympathy for people with this technical flaw, as it is one I have had to work on a lot myself!

We don’t need to restate here why it is better to develop a more stable and controlled way of inhabiting one’s instrument as a conductor, as it is something well-enshrined in the literature in the truism ‘less is more’. (And which I have also reflected on several times, such as here and here and here). But it is worth reflecting on the effect that stability versus over-conducting has on the conductor-choir relationship - or possibly, what it tells us about it.

We were working from a video of the director in rehearsal, and the director found this initially quite an uncomfortable experience. Asked to describe what she saw, she readily produced a list of faults, and rather struggled to see the very musical and expressive things that were also there. Asked how she would respond, as a singer, to the director she was watching, she found herself able to step away from her discomfort more, and identify that she would want to please her.

This was such an interesting moment. Because what had been coming through the video to my eyes was a director who was likewise eager to please. And then, it seems that, having put herself in the singers’ shoes, she was able to articulate the thought,’ I need to leave more for the singers to do, don’t I? I’m trying to do everything for them.’

This dynamic seems to be at the heart of the relatively new conductor’s anxieties about legitimacy. What if I’m not good enough? What if they see through me? Over-conducting emerges as a mechanism to over-compensate for this fear of not measuring up.

(And actually, on reflection, I think her initial discomfort with watching herself may be linked up with these anxieties about legitimacy. She was able to analyse what she saw much more easily (in both a cognitive and emotional sense) once she had mentally stood outside herself. I wonder if part of the freeing-up of this objectivity came from the fact that in standing outside herself, she recognised - and thereby conferred validity upon - the conductor she saw. I’m not sure I’ve expressed exactly what I’m trying to think there, but I’m sure there’s a valid point lurking somewhere in this paragraph.)

So, what do you do about this? Well, there were some specific exercises I suggested, some for her private practice, and some to do in rehearsal. Technical work is often a useful way to tackle issues of technique after all.

We also talked about use of language. If your gesture doesn’t get the response you want, rather than doing a bigger gesture (the ‘please, please do it this way’ response), you can stop the choir and say: ‘My gesture didn’t get the response I expected; let me try that again.’ This is usually quite effective, as it makes everybody pay close attention to the gestures, so even if you don’t get what you actually wanted, you do get exactly what you gestured, which gives you the feedback you need to refine what you do.

And then, when you do get what you want, you say: ‘Thank you, we’ve got that sorted now.’

The language here is chosen quite carefully so that the conductor takes responsibility for the musical results without either blaming the singers or apologising for the problem. But all share in the credit for fixing it.

We framed both the exercises and language use in terms of the Dilts Pyramid. If you need to change the conductor’s capabilities (directing skills) and/or their beliefs (I’m not good enough) and/or identity (am I a real conductor?), you need to change their behaviours. Rehearsal vocabulary and physical technique are the foundational sets of behaviours that define the identity of the conductor both in the eyes of their singers and in their own lived experience.

You can’t make someone stop feeling like an impostor just by telling them they’re wonderful. (Although one of the things they do need to do is accept the ways in which they are doing a good job.) If they believe that they lack experience and thus authority, they are likely to over-energise their gestures out of an unconscious anxiety they won’t be ‘believed’, since identity and beliefs shape our capabilities and behaviours.

If they change their behaviours to produce a more stable frame and controlled gestures, they will be easier to follow as a director, will get better results from their singers and thus start to believe in themselves rather more.

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