Hi, my name is Ellen Sirower and I’m currently working towards becoming a professional classical pianist, piano teacher and academic. I also suffer from really bad impostor syndrome — the crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.
Over the past year, I decided to confront my impostor syndrome and get to the root of its existence. I expected to admit to myself that I needed to change course and pursue something different. However, I actually discovered that my specific journey and individual experiences paved a path I could excel in because I had been training and preparing myself for that path my whole life.
Throughout my time here at the University of Michigan, I’ve split my schedule between the school of Literature, Science & the Arts, and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance to study philosophy and piano performance. I studied piano seriously from the time I was five years old through high school, but pursuing it professionally was not always my goal. I just knew I wanted to play at the collegiate level and simultaneously pursue a classical liberal arts education.
I was thrust into the Music, Theatre & Dance piano studio my first year, where the playing level was sky-high. I saw my peers flawlessly performing some of the hardest repertoires in the piano literature during studio and masterclasses, and spending countless hours in the practice rooms. Back in high school, I practiced consistently, but really no more than a couple of hours per day during the school year. It was enough to learn and eventually perform the pieces I liked and wanted to play, but I didn’t yet have the drive to go beyond that.
During my first year of college, however, I discovered that I wanted to pursue a career in music while I was majoring in it. After months of pressure-testing myself psychologically, I made sure I was choosing to pursue music for the right reasons. But even when I assured myself that I was, I still felt like I didn’t belong in the class of aspiring professional musicians.
Several times that year, I remember walking out of my practice room after a practice session and looking through the windows of the practice room doors to see who my neighbors were. I saw my slightly older peers still hard at work, and they had been there before I was. I began to realize how much work it was going to take to not only make any headway professionally, but also to evolve into the kind of pianist I wanted to be.
During the years to follow, I worked with my incredibly patient professor and took on challenging repertoire from composers I hadn’t played before, drilling etudes and scales every single day. I started spending more hours in the practice room, not wanting to leave before I felt truly satisfied with my playing. Before I went to bed every night, I would listen to seven interpretations of the same piece by different artists to try and decipher how they individually communicated the same music.
Throughout that time, I had a few different ideas for the kind of professional musician I’d hopefully become. I toyed with becoming a collaborative pianist or a Broadway pit musician or a contemporary music ensemble pianist. I thought these were the kinds of musical careers I needed to strive for because they paid well and sounded prestigious among my peers. They were great paths, but they weren’t paths that were right for me.
I jumped into various opportunities that were relevant training for those long-term career goals. I played in the pit for a MUSKET show, joined a contemporary improvisation ensemble and accompanied as many student instrumentalists and vocalists as I possibly could. I enjoyed and was challenged by the learning process with all those experiences — they were crucial to my development as a well-rounded musician. In the back of my mind, however, I’d think, “Is this it? This doesn’t feel right.” My impostor syndrome would come creeping through the crevices in my brain.
Even as I learned and became increasingly proficient in what I was working toward, I never felt as well-situated as others around me striving for those same careers seemed to. After all the work I had put in, I still felt behind. For some time, I thought that maybe I actually didn’t belong in music professionally because, unlike them, I didn’t feel like I was “born to be an artist” from the moment I started playing the piano. Maybe I started putting in the necessary work too late; maybe I needed to think about expanding my career options in case I miserably failed.
After months and months of battling and confronting my impostor syndrome, I finally had a Eureka moment. I realized that I felt behind and out of place not because I didn’t work hard enough or was underqualified, but simply because my heart just wasn’t in the multiple careers I conjured up to be the only markers of professional musical success. I figured out that by trying to fit into my preconceived, romanticized idea of what I thought a successful musician had to look like, I completely overlooked so many facets of my life that I was not only truly passionate about, but was successful in.
My philosophy degree, over time, had become a fundamental part of my life. Many undergraduate students dread doing long, dense reading assignments for their classes, but I looked forward to my philosophy readings. Writing papers, as I took more advanced classes, became thrilling. I was energized by the perceptive philosophical discussions and debates I had with my peers and professors inside and outside of class.
Beyond class, I decided to take on a private piano student after having tutored children in music theory throughout high school. In that very first lesson with a new student who had never read music before, I realized how challenging and impactful teaching piano can be. I struggled to explain concepts that were second nature to me, yet brand new for this student. But when I saw a concept click and my student’s face light up, it was one of the most fulfilling moments of my undergraduate experience.
I started to take my philosophy major and teaching just as seriously as I did my performance interests, and new possibilities started to become much clearer to me. I started to prioritize what truly brought me joy without any external validation or appraisal. My dream now is to become a professor of piano and piano pedagogy, and to conduct research on practical applications of various issues in the philosophy of music to piano pedagogy.
I also learned that there’s a difference between what is right for me and what I am able to do.
I know my work ethic and determination will carry me through anything I set my mind to, but it doesn’t mean that the outcome is one that is necessarily sustainable. If I continued to relentlessly pursue one of those paths I was formerly on, I probably could have made something of myself if I just grit my teeth, bore down and pressed on.
But if I were to do that, why pursue a career in the arts? Contrary to what I used to believe, I am a natural born artist. I may not have known it during my first piano lesson, but I’m lucky now to have clarity in my artistic vision.
My impostor syndrome taught me that feeling out of place and like I didn’t belong were sure signs that I needed to look within myself to find where I did belong, but that didn’t mean quitting music entirely. I know that I belong in music, and I can say that confidently now.
But I also know now that my path, my journey and my future belong entirely to me.
Daily Arts Writer Ellen Sirower can be reached at email@example.com.