One of the best composer talks I have ever heard was from the final guest at a day-long LA Sundance Composer Lab event. We had already heard from the likes of Thomas Newman, Alex Wurman and other fantastic composers, music supervisors and industry legends. Last up was John Powell. I had been a fan since the Bourne movies. A composer who can make a bassoon solo work in a blockbuster spy movie is my hero. He does melody, he does energy, he does texture, and it all sounds So Freakin’ Good. And then we have the score to How To Train Your Dragon, which frankly should have won the Oscar in 2010. Did I enjoy the Social Network score? Yes. But Powell should have that Oscar (IMHO). However, I digress.
On that day, we the audience were exhausted but eager to hear what Powell had to say. He woke us up very quickly with his English wit and filthy language. I have never heard so many “F bombs” from any composer except maybe Ron Jones (Family Guy and Star Trek Next Generation composer). Powell described how Brass should sound – I can’t repeat it here word-for-word because honestly it would offend some people as it involved the words “rape” “bees” and “tits”, but let me tell you, it was a hilarious and real moment.
Then Powell took us all by surprise. He said he was leaving the film scoring world for a while. He wanted to spend more time with his family, but also he wanted to fill what he felt were gaping holes in his knowledge of music. His goals were to improve his piano skills, study Bach and better understand counterpoint. This was fascinating to me. I also feel like I have embarassing holes in my music knowledge despite my extensive music education. (I have the student loans as proof!) Hearing him talk about this issue so openly was fascinating to me. As a result I had a burning question in mind and I waited in line afterwards to ask him.
It was finally my turn. I shook his hand and said the appropriate “big fan, love your music” type of things.
Then I asked the question. It felt highly inappropriate but I just needed to get it out!
“Do you ever fear that people will find out you’re a fraud?” (I couldn’t quite believe I was asking this of John Powell!)
“I flushed a little when you asked that,” he responded. (I couldn’t believe Powell totally understood the question!)
He went on to say that he absolutely feared this exact thing. I felt vindicated! And I was fascinated. I had to find out more…..
The fear of being called out as a fraud has haunted me my entire professional music life. I have always looked at my peers, mentors and heroes and wondered if what I was doing even began to measure up. Did I have the right education? The right experience? The right amount of knowledge in the right areas? Didn’t everyone work harder than me? Was I even good enough to call myself a composer? I have suffered away alone, rarely discussing this with my peers.
Turns out this is a widely documented situation, known as Imposter Syndrome. Here it is, explained by the ever-wonderful wikipedia:
“The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”
I find this intruiging. When this was first studied in the psychological community, they thought it was a situation unique to women, but then upon more research found the condition in men also. You can read more about the research here and another bloggers experience with this very issue here.
I think the best way to counter feelings like this is to understand why we have them and acknowledge that we’re not alone. For me, knowing that John Powell feels exactly the same way I do, even with his level of accomplishment and musicianship, gives me hope. I share this with you in order to continue the conversation. Is this something you have ever dealt with? I would love to hear all about it and maybe we can overcome these frustrating mental roadblocks together.
Onwards and Upwards,