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Combating perfectionism among musicians: 'Could we start maybe by cultivating self-compassion?'

Headshot of Kari Adams, Assistant Professor of Choral Music Education and conductor of Concert Chorale.
Jonathan Adams
MU School of Music
Kari Adams gave a presentation called "Performance Anxiety and Imposter Phenomenon" at the School of Music's weekly convocation on Feb. 1.

Kari Adams is the Assistant Professor of Choral Music Education at the University of Missouri, as well as the conductor of Concert Chorale.

In early February, she presented at the School of Music on imposter phenomenon, perfectionism and performance anxiety among musicians. Classical 90.5’s Kiana Fernandes sat down with her to discuss this presentation.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kiana Fernandes: What is your understanding or definition of imposter phenomenon or imposter syndrome?

Kari Adams: Yeah, so, imposter phenomenon was something that was coined by two psychologists, Clance and Imes, in the late '70s, early '80s. And they defined imposter phenomenon, really, as an attribution error. So, what we mean by that is people have accomplished things because of their level of ability or because they've worked very hard.

But instead, their brains convince them that really the reason that they got that is they just got lucky, or somebody made a mistake, or something outside of them happened. And so, because of that, they feel like they're not supposed to be there. And someone's going to expose them.

Kiana Fernandes: How have you seen imposter syndrome present itself in your students who are largely choral? Singers?

Kari Adams: Yeah, so I work with mostly music ed majors and a lot of choral singers. And I think that it's especially as they move into their upper-level classes, and they start to go out into the classroom and they experience that for the first time, where they have this new responsibility on them. They start to experience impostor feelings.

And I think it's important for us to remember, when you're just starting out and you have those feelings, it's normal, and it's okay and you just need to get more experience. But if you're having those feelings, even when you have a high level of performance and a high level of ability, then when we give you advice, like, "You should be more confident," or, "You should think about the things you've accomplished," that advice doesn't help because you've convinced yourself that you don't deserve those things that you've achieved.

Kiana Fernandes: Could you briefly explain how imposter syndrome can affect someone’s performance, both as a musician and as a teacher, since you work with music ed students?

Kari Adams: We know correlation does not mean causation. So, we don’t know that having imposter feelings causes you to have performance anxiety. And it could be that there is some other link that we’re not aware of. For example, where I think it probably comes into play is that we know that people who have imposter phenomenon also tend to have a high level of perfectionism. And so then, perfectionism is also correlated with performance anxiety.

Kiana Fernandes: So, what are ways to mitigate these feelings and help alleviate them?

Kari Adams: A lot of times we talk about perfectionism like it's a badge of honor. Like it's something we should have. So, I think one of the places to start is by just recognizing that perfectionism isn't something that helps us do better. That, really, the opposite of perfectionism is not having low standards. The opposite of perfectionism is having self-compassion.

So, we think about, you know, as a musician, that we go into the practice room, we play and we beat ourselves up over every mistake, and we drive ourselves until we get it perfect. And we want everything to be right all the time. So, could we start maybe by cultivating self-compassion and noting when that inner critic is happening in the practice room?

Kiana Fernandes: So, what advice do you have for people who are in the beginning stages, used to beating themselves up and trying to counteract those thoughts?

Kari Adams: If, in the practice room, every time you make a mistake, you're always stopping and beating yourself up, you're having no grace or compassion for yourself, you're reacting emotionally to those mistakes and taking them as if they are an indicator of your quality as a musician or a human — then whenever a mistake inevitably happens in a performance, your brain is used to having that immediate reaction of that being the end of the world and everything stopping until you can fix the mistake. But in a performance, you can't do that.

When you're alone in the practice room is where it has to start, of when I make a mistake, I need to approach it intellectually instead of emotionally. And I also need to practice playing through mistakes and extending compassion to myself. I think that the first step is practicing mindfulness and thinking about noting exercises in particular.

So, in mindfulness work, when we talk about noting, we're acknowledging a thought but not attaching ourselves to it. And so, you might have a word or a phrase that you attach to that particular thought or that category of thoughts that you can quickly say, acknowledge and then move on move away from it.

Kiana Fernandes is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism - studying cross-platform editing and producing.
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