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Ben Plays Viola - Yonge Dundas Square - 1000 Strings

The Great Impostor

Last night I got a chance to tackle one of my biggest fears head-on, which is the way I like to do it.

Most of you know that I play a lot of instruments. What you might not know about being a multi-instrumentalist is the nagging feeling that you’re not very good at any of those instruments, and the problem with being a producer is that you pay attention to everything musical and realize exactly what your own weaknesses are. When you add these things together, you get a potent recipe for impostor syndrome – the feeling that you’re not a real musician. And rock/pop/folk/etc musicians often feel (needlessly) inadequate around classical musicians, which doesn’t help. When you put these things together, what do you get? In my case, the feeling that I couldn’t cut it in a “real” orchestra.

I’ve played in orchestras before, but always in pit orchestras for musicals, generally playing guitar or electric bass or other “alternative” instruments. As the old joke goes, “how do you get a guitarist to play ppp? Give him charts.” My first orchestral experience, back in the 90s, was much like that – the quietest electric guitarist you can imagine, hopelessly at sea, trying to sight-read a fairly dense score (Gdim7flatwhatnow? Key of how many sharps?) and keep an eye on the conductor and hide behind my guitar, all at the same time.

So when the opportunity came up to join a local amateur pops orchestra, I thought, “What the hell, why not?” For the first time in 11 years, my touring schedule allows me to make most of the rehearsals (if not the concerts), and the fees aren’t too exorbitant, and the orchestra has some good outreach and educational ideas, which is appealing to me. And last night was the first rehearsal.

I decided to play viola in the orchestra. I could have played violin, but I figured there are a million violinists out there, and very few violists. (I could have played double bass, but I didn’t feel like biking 6km each way with the bass on the handlebars!). A good chance to keep my viola chops up, right?

We get the music. Bizet – no problem. There’s an alligator in the charts 😉 Ravel – well, I listen to a lot of Iron Maiden, so that’s pretty similar. Dugga dug dugga dug dugga dug dug dug… And – oh wait, Beethoven’s 5th. Which everybody knows but nobody tries to count (gee thanks Karajan). On go the headphones, pop over to YouTube, practice along with the Vienna Phil for a bit. OK, I think I see how this is going to work.

Driving to the rehearsal I fire in a Motörhead CD. That helps, a lot. If there’s anybody in the world who can reassure you that you can Damn Well Do This and take on your fears head-on (with possibly a little Jack Daniels etc) it’s Lemmy. I didn’t have the Jack Daniels, but that’s probably for the best as I was driving 😉

I get to the rehearsal, acutely self-conscious. I feel like I’ve got a sign with “FRAUD” written on my head. The first person I meet, though, is the conductor, who remembers me from my (somewhat non-traditional) bio. I figure the best thing to do is to confess immediately. He’s totally fine with it. Even though I haven’t read alto clef in years, and have never played in the string section, he figures I’ll do fine (insert obligatory viola joke here). That helps. Then I meet some of the other players. The 2nd violins – well, let’s just say I would have done fine in the 2nd violin section. The other violists – there’s another double bass refugee there, and a music teacher who hasn’t been in an orchestra in 15-20 years. So far so good! Although there are only 3 of us (as compared to the 20+ violinists – my assessment was accurate, nobody wants to play viola.) We grouse a bit about the scores, and a bit of anticipation builds up. The brass starts to warm up, and they sound good – well, I think they sound good, anyway; I think they blew out my eardrums with their first rip. The cellos start to warm up, and they’re not the terrifying, distant prodigies I have somehow expected them to be (even though I work with Betsy Tinney all the time, who while terrifying and prodigious is anything but distant). Maybe this will be OK.

Up goes the baton. Now I know I’m toast. Which end of this chart is up? What do those funny squiggles mean? What do you mean we’re at bar 87, I thought we were at bar 30! But somehow we make it through the William Tell without too much blood on the floor. The conductor knows his business, he starts us off at a good spot to build up confidence, and has kind words even when we sound like 45 people playing 45 different pieces of avant-garde atonal “music”. But by the second time through, it’s even mostly identifiable as the William Tell Overture. Kind of him to start with the one I’d woodshedded the least, too.

And up next is the Bizet. It’s difficult to play this piece without stalking around the stage with an alligator mask on, attempting to devour SJ Tucker. But somehow I restrain myself. This one passes without a hitch, including the the position shifting for the arco passages. Hey, I might get through this alive!

Then the Beethoven. Four notes of really excellent stuff, and then… um… well, there were a lot of ba-da-da-duhhhhhhwhat? moments. From pretty much everybody. But we bashed away at it for a while and it went ok for a first rehearsal. Whew! That’s all we had on the docket for tonight! I’ve survived!

Wait. What is this package of music you’re handing out? Pops scores? And we’re supposed to sight read them? HISSSSS! BOOOO! Everyone in the orchestra responds pretty much the same way. That, at least, is very comforting. At least I’m not alone in being horrified at the prospect of sight-reading these things cold. We start out with a John Williams medley. I’ve seen all of these movies, generally when they originally came out (most of the violin section hadn’t been born when the “new” Star Wars movies came out, let alone E.T.!) so that helped. Moving on to Skyfall, and the conductor realizes he needs a piano player. A struggling cellist’s hand shoots up. “I play better piano than cello!” she exclaims with some relief, and proceeds to sight-read the piano solo perfectly. Dang. And we make it through the whole thing, with some extra slurring over the slurred bits (“that starts on a G and goes to… um… somewhere up there. Waggle the fingers!”) Then a bit from Some Damn Musical I’ve Never Seen. Markings were basically “passionately”, “more passionately”, “even more passionately”, and possibly “attempt to have sex with your instrument”. (For the record – NO. No thank you. Splinters.) Got through that though.

And wait. We’re done? We’ve made it all the way through? There is a general feeling of relief. The supposedly terrifying musical machines around me were all sweating and faking it just as much as I was. Huh. Turns out that this gig might go better than I’d feared, even though it does involve the alto clef (aka “Satan’s Ball Clef”). My ears are throbbing today (next time I wear earplugs, those brass lunatics are loud) but I’m looking forward to the next rehearsal already! Maybe I’m not the Great Impostor I thought I was. Maybe I was just playing the Great Impostor. Maybe I’m a fake fake, a fraudulent fraud, an impostor Impostor… uhoh. I think I may need therapy now 😉

22 responses on “The Great Impostor

  1. Tim Mahray

    Welcome to the world of classical music! I often feel this way when I’m not on my main instrument (which is most of the time). Alto clef still give me the willies. It gets easier, sortakinda. Just remember if you play it loudly enough it’s not a mistake, it’s an interpretation.

  2. Casey Sledge

    Thank you for a GREAT read, lad. Whatever else you are a “fraud” at, you are good at making someone want to read the next paragraph. I’ll be tuning in more often. And looking forward to seeing you in a couple weeks.

  3. Floyd Brigdon

    This is an awesome blog/essay/whatever. I enjoyed reading it VERY much and I know exactly what you mean about multi-instrumentalist anxiety…. but you SURE don’t need to worry about that. You are a fine player, sir. Looking forward to seeing you at FenCon……

  4. Mike Major

    Good article Ben. Every artist is always their own worst critic. I am unsurprised to find it the same with musicians.

    You had nothing to worry about of course, but good that you now know that along with the rest of us.

  5. Wendy glazier

    Hey Ben,
    Well I really enjoyed the read. I can relate to it in so many ways I figure if your dreams don’t scare you…then they are not big enough. Well done. I have never heard you play but I know your biggest fan Amanda. We are long overdue for getting in touch. When we do we can include plans to come and hear you play.

  6. Joshua Kronengold

    As a real imposter, I think you’re definately an imposter imposter.

    I’ve been playing around on viola on occasion (more occasionally recently than for a while, because of other commitments), but I’ve yet to have reason to have to star cross-eyed at alto (fortunately for me).

  7. Marie Martin

    Hooray for places to play with music outside your usual style! I love and miss orchestral music, and on behalf of trumpet players all over, my sympathies for your ears. Enjoy!

  8. Elisabeth B Zakes

    I’ve tried several instruments over the years, and was never more than laughingly mediocre on any of them. I appreciate good musicians, especially the ones who don’t think they ARE good. I’m impressed by those who can play decently more than two. And I applaud those who actually step out of their comfort zone to try something that sounds to them like it’d be fun. Go Ben!!

  9. Randy Parrish-Bell

    You have voiced all of my own fears. I felt like I could have written this as I have been in that orchestra for the first night, sight reading on viola. I too go to the viola and leave my violin at home. It’s always less intimidating and it seems that the Conductor is always preoccupied with the violins.

    I have to tell you, I have always felt like the impostor around you! Your playing is brilliant, no matter what instrument. There are many times when I have been dropped into an alternate reality and surrounded by the prodigies, that I center myself with the memories of just playing music for music’s sake on a windy bluff in the middle of Arizona. I have you to thank for that memory. hmmmmphf…impostor indeed…not in my book!

  10. Judi Miller

    It is so odd to me to read of someone I admire so much for having talent on multiple instruments being nervous of being an “imposter”. I have felt the same, sometimes, on stage in Filkdom. Thank you very much for sharing this excellently written piece; it was comforting and entertaining!

  11. Matt Riordan

    “that starts on a G and goes to… um… somewhere up there” – love it. Best of luck to a kick-butt musician.

  12. AdminOhAndBen Post author

    Thanks folks! I am actually kind of overwhelmed by the response. I guess it (ahem) strikes a chord with a lot of people. (I’m so very sorry, but I really couldn’t help myself).
    I figure everybody needs to hear this sort of thing from time to time. We’re all huge frauds, but once we recognize that we all are, it makes it easier to get up and do the things we have to get done.
    Which is why I’m currently sitting at my computer brushing up on coding skills that any “real” coder would laugh at… except that the 500,000 other students of this online course indicate that maybe not every coder is this idealized “real” coder, just like not every musician is this idealized “real” musician either.
    OK, enough avoidance, back to the course 😀 Thanks again all!

  13. Brian Sidlauskas

    Ben, academics are as plagued by the impostor syndrome as are musicians. Trust me when I say that you are the real deal. Remind me of the same if you catch me trapped in self-doubt!

  14. MarshaM

    Ben, I play precisely ZERO instruments, but even I know you’re the real thing. I do get the imposter thing, but lemme tell you, if the star of the London Philharmonic got plopped onstage with you and Heather. He’d be so lost it wouldn’t be funny.

  15. Cat Faber

    I’ve never heard you play the viola but you’ve been the realest of the real on everything else I’ve ever heard you play. I don’t know how you find the time to sleep with as many instruments as you must be practicing.

    Go you for keeping up with the pack in your first orchestra rehearsal!

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