12 classical musicians on imposter syndrome
After my third flute lesson at Carnegie Mellon University, I burst into tears. In front of my professor.
I thought I had played so poorly, it proved I wasn't good enough. I felt like a disgrace to the flute studio, to its legendary faculty & alumni, my soon-to-be-legendary peers, our studio pianist, my family, my high school flute teacher…
Kindly, my flute professor Alberto Almarza told me it wasn't a matter of being “good enough,” but of overcoming self-doubt and trusting my work.
I nodded tearily. Once I left the room, I cried for two or three hours.
Now, I laugh when I tell this story. Hours of crying sound blown out of proportion. But in truth, they came from a deep-rooted terror that I didn’t belong.
Months earlier, I auditioned for Carnegie Mellon's flute studio, one of the most prestigious in the nation. As an ambitious 18-year-old, this audition meant everything to me. I thought I ruined it.
When I got my acceptance letter in March, it seemed like a miracle. Even after I woke up from shock, telling myself this wasn’t a mistake, I carried all that doubt with me — through the summer after high school, into my first flute lesson at CMU. I carried it with me for the next four years.
The fear that I didn’t belong in the flute studio because I wasn't good enough — known as imposter syndrome — crippled my sense of self-worth as a musician. Only in my senior year would I begin to rebuild that confidence.
Recently, a fellow musician mentioned not feeling "good enough." To me, she was one of those prodigies destined for a dazzling career. It seemed impossible that she could doubt her worth.
But it made me think, maybe I wasn’t as alone as I felt in the School of Music.
When given a chance, what might other classical musicians say about imposter syndrome? Out of curiosity, I sent a survey to colleagues, former classmates, & acquaintances.
This article shares their responses.
“Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you aren't good enough to fill a certain role, or that you don't deserve to be where you're at in life.”
“As a perfectionist in a work-driven and prestigious environment, my errors sounded like caverns compared to my peers' cracks. Every time I performed for my friends and teacher, a memory slip felt like a life sentence, and a bad tone day was looming expulsion.”
“It’s devaluing your accomplishments by telling yourself that they were not achieved through your own means, and came to be due to external circumstances.”
“I would end my teaching nights by telling myself that I once again successfully tricked all my students into believing I am a piano teacher. It’s going into every lesson hoping they don’t see through me as the fraud I feel like I am.”
“Imposter syndrome is the feeling that constantly lingers behind all of your choices as a person at a place, because you feel that you do not belong in that space.”
“Human beings need to be nurtured so they can grow beautifully. Imposter syndrome is what happens when people surrounding you are taught to point out the negatives... If music was the escape from the culture at home, finding the same negativity at college or in professional life can be even more upsetting, since it makes what used to be a safe place not so safe anymore!”
“Imposter syndrome made me feel as if everyone in my life was pretending I was worthy of my musical accomplishments & at any moment, I would find out."
“It's second guessing your abilities, never feeling good enough or prepared enough even after putting in practice hours, not feeling like you belong with a certain group of professionals.”
“It made me make drastic career moves. They were all for the better anyway, but it was tough.”
Imposter syndrome is enlaced with the need to belong — to believe you're “enough” for the standards holding a group together.
When you pick up an instrument as a child, the concept of “enough” is typically far from mind. Instead, music gives you a place to be expressive and powerful, sometimes even safe.
But as you enter the institutions of classical music, what was your “safe place” becomes a site of endless comparison and scrutiny, an inner battleground for belonging.
“I was constantly telling myself that I was not working hard enough when I saw others go into practice rooms for several hours at a time, almost without stopping.”
“As a green freshman observing the hard work of those around me, I took this to mean that the way to succeed in college was to allow no slack for myself, be as picky as possible in the practice room, and put practice before anything else in my life.”
“[Imposter syndrome is] the constant feeling that I am behind, a feeling that makes me shy away from opportunities because I am not 'deserving' or I am not 'confident enough.'”
“I felt like I was always making up for something that I lacked. I did not participate in a lot of leaps & challenges that were required for my major because I felt that I was not good enough — this really hindered my growth as a person, student, and artist.”
“The journey through the depths of imposter syndrome originated almost entirely internally, [but also] from watching people I admired work from a place of stress and fear.”
If imposter syndrome is the fear of not belonging, then what makes belonging so elusive?
In pursuit of transcendence, the world of classical music has idealized perfection. But when perfection becomes internalized as the only measure of worth, people look down upon anything that falls short.
Fearing such disdain, people develop imposter syndrome from the urge to be "perfect." This urgency is perpetuated by the power structures around classical music — elitism, whiteness, and the politics of conservatories & symphony orchestras. These power structures thrive off of a culture that is toxically competitive.
However, the real power of imposter syndrome is its ability to sink deep within a person, to erode their identity & worth as a musician.
“I was always doubting my decisions and hindering my own progress by downplaying the successes and magnifying the failures. It did not dawn upon me to learn from the failures, and move on. Instead, the failures made me feel more depressed and even more out of place."
"It ate a large chunk of my self-confidence. This led to self-deprecating comments that were common throughout my daily routine, and it was difficult to break out of that cage."
"I began adopting the goals of others as my own, the expectations of others as my own."
“In college, imposter syndrome made me doubt my values, both as a human & creative person. When the sobering reality would hit that I’ve compromised my own values, who I am as a person for someone or something else, it was debilitating. Heartbreaking. Confusing. Another layer of confusion — my lowest lows would be when I felt most like myself, and my highest 'successes' is when I would feel like a fraud.”
“Imposter syndrome gave me performance anxiety, which blended into general anxiety in my everyday life, since music is my everyday life. It gave me terrible and obsessive practice habits, which led to tendinitis. Almost made me want to quit something I’ve loved my whole life and was good at!”
“I constantly struggled to deliver confident performances. I think it inhibited my personal and musical growth, as I always doubted my own abilities.”
To grow, we have to believe in our worth.
Yet how do you balance perfectionism with a healthy sense of self-worth? If we're constantly reaching towards the asymptote of perfection, there must always be something that isn't good enough.
“Humility is very important when it comes to artistry, since it is a necessity for constructive self-improvement. However, it becomes unhealthy when it starts to compromise how one perceives the value of their work & identity as an artist.”
“Imposter syndrome makes me want to work harder at my craft, but also lowers my self-esteem and confidence as a musician."
“The level of musical detail I oriented myself with in college drastically improved my playing, but because I was implementing the strategy in a harmful way, I was unable to actually notice the improvements.”
“It took a long time for my ears to develop enough to detect both the growing reliability my own playing and also moments in which my peers could do better. This evened my views out.”
Inside the practice room — even while scrutinizing their own playing relentlessly — people have overcome imposter syndrome by choosing to believe in their worth & potential.
“Imposter syndrome comes from a good intention (the desire to achieve more, improve, and to be more successful), but delivered & executed poorly in our mental state (comparing, self-doubt, self-depreciation, etc.). If you acknowledge that you are just as deserving as anyone else on this campus, and that you bring something to the table that no one else can (if you can identify what you bring, even better), you can find better methods to turn those good intentions into good executions and deliveries.”
“Everyone is on their own timeline and making discoveries at their own pace. Each person has their own skills and qualities that can make them 'successful' in their own way. How do you define success?"
“Imposter syndrome has the ability to adhere your self-expectations to the methods of others, without actually reflecting on what techniques serve you the best.”
“My peers have been nothing but supportive and positive. However, I had to learn how to transform my perception of their talent from fear and self-hatred into inspiration. That was a long mental project that I am still working on (and probably will work on for the rest of my life). The mental transformation I underwent from my freshman year to now (that still continues to this day) has been by far the largest obstacle I've ever had to wrestle with.”
"Practicing gratitude helps. I try to believe that eveything happens for a reason, and I will always be where I belong."
“The most important approach to help combat imposter syndrome is to stay true to yourself: your passions, beliefs, and values. When you hold fast to what you love most, it can overcome any internal or external voices that try to tear you down. To achieve your goals, it is important to accept where you are now and look forward to what your potential is down the line. Keeping this attitude is not easy, but it can be easier if you resist feeding into the unrealistic standards of imposter syndrome.”
Outside the practice room, people have overcome imposter syndrome by opening up about it with their friends, peers, & mentors.
“I talked to friends and my teacher about my frustrations. I am lucky to have a kind teacher who I am very close with. On a musical level, he assured me that the level of detail I worked with was crucial, but I needed to trust myself more.”
"Eventually, a close friend of mine helped me come out of this unhealthy way of thinking. While I worked extremely hard for a while after with the thought that maybe I needed to catch up, I finally came to realize that my thinking was irrational and extremely detrimental. I have gotten a lot better at catching myself whenever I begin to think this way.”
“It really helped me when I realized so many others felt the same way. It was never a constant for me, it always came in and out in waves. Almost by the hour sometimes.”
In addition, they’ve recognized the need for occasional escapes from the world of classical music.
“Life is not always as serious as we make it out to be. Please make friends who do not play your instrument and enjoy your youth with them. Watch movies and laugh, go ice skating, make food together. Do work ahead of time so that you can clear your mind while you're with them.”
“Imposter syndrome (or, in its most basic form, fear) is the ultimate killer of artistic expression. In attending to your happiness, you will actually work better, work more, and unlock your artistry."
They’ve also opened the doors to introspection, investing in personal growth & mental health.
“1) Therapy. There's nothing wrong with seeking professional help to assist you on your own mental health journey. 2) Yoga. When doing consistent yoga, you start to see tangible improvements very quickly. This mindset of embracing the small, minor improvements has followed me off the yoga mat, into so many other areas of life. 3) Journaling. When I'm feeling bad, placing all my anxious, swirling thoughts onto a piece of paper helps soothe my mind. Similarly, when I'm in a fantastic mindset, writing gives me something to look back on & latch onto during the days I'm not feeling so great.”
“I used to only see creative productivity in practice itself. Knowing myself to be very hard on myself, I figured that the best way to frame the integration of crucial personal pillars into my life was to tell myself that their presence would actually improve my flute playing. Doing non-flute/work things is not an excuse to be lazy, but rather a necessary ingredient for long term well-being and therefore success.”
“A psychologist I admire once said that unlocking your full potential as an adult means coming back to the intrinsic values of childhood. First, you struggle to decode yourself as you exit childhood, and then you can reduce life's complexity by tapping into the spirit that was drawn to your work in the first place. This takes a tremendous shift in attitude and does not occur overnight after following a simple list of steps. You can't force yourself to fully internalize anything before you have the time to mature to that point."
"It is really important to not self-pity yourself or pity anyone else in general."
“At my lowest point, I made a list of times people have seemed to truly appreciate me as an artist. I actually have not had to look at this list. Now, I try to remind myself that thinking these kinds of thoughts does not bring me or anyone else any good, so I try not to think about them.”
“When journaling, I would write down all the things I was unhappy about myself and my playing. Then I went back and crossed out comments that I would never give someone else. If my self-criticisms had a good point, I only took what I could further improve, and did not take the emotionally charged comments into the future."
"Another tip was, just pick up a book and start reading. The act of reading itself has a lot of powerful intentions. Once I started reading and focusing, a lot of the negative thoughts would go away and my mind went into a more meditative space.”
For me, a crucial step was graduating & leaving the School of Music.
For four years, I studied at my dream school with my dream professor. Being there profoundly enriched who I am, and there's no way to express how grateful I am for everything I learned and the people who inspired me.
However, the School of Music submerged me in a culture where the intensity of power structures — how they intertwine with elitism, perfection, and ethnocentrism — created a severe mental strain.
Some people aren't bothered by this. Others adapt. They become resilient, and they learn how to thrive within this culture.
I chose not to. For my mental health, for my wellness as an artist, I left in search of my own spaces to create.
From their struggles with this culture, other musicians offered this advice:
“Don’t be afraid to recognize what you need and find a better place to be! Some bridges are worth burning... or at least walking away from.”
“I think colleges (as extensions of capitalist learning institutions) purposefully trigger imposter syndrome to drive up productivity, therefore competition, therefore wealth.”
“A lot of times if we feel inadequate, it’s because it is engrained in the culture of the community you're in, whether that be an institution like a college or orchestra, or even your smaller community of friends and family. Find a place with people that build you up with positive reinforcement! This will show in the culture and allow everyone to be their best.”
"There is nothing more empowering than not caring what other humans think of you, your values, & your definition of success. We get so preoccupied with what others think of us. In reality, everyone is caught up with their own preoccupations, insecurities, demons. They don’t care about yours. So in a way, that really takes the pressure off!"
"I try to be earnest with myself, to confront my own struggles in helpful, non-hurtful ways. This way, I can feel like I am being true to myself and not compromising my values."
“Remind yourself that you do not need to seek approval from anyone else, especially from people who are higher in the social hierarchy. No one needs to be 'approving’ your success and your growth other than yourself.”
“No one can validate you enough to follow through on the dream you’ve laid out for yourself. You’re going to have to find it in yourself to chase it down all on your own.”
Why do some people persevere in the world of classical music, and why did I step away? Is it because I was an insecure, brown-skinned daughter of immigrants who dared to ascend in a field predicated upon whiteness and perfection?
What's certain is, this field demands a heavy toll. It positions us to idealize the same vision of "success," when each of us has to define success for ourselves.
In between classical music's pursuit of transcendence and the young people who entrust their identity and worth to this art, there is a culture inflected with toxicity.
To speak about this toxicity, and how it impacts our growth as artists and our wellness as human beings, is only the first step — one that, somehow, is rarely ever taken.
This piece exists because of many people's generosity & vulnerability. Thank you to each person who took the time & energy to reflect on a difficult topic & to share their experiences with me.