Five Tips to Combat Impostor Syndrome – by Mariel Bildsten

Mariel Bildsten is a trombonist, based in New York City. Mariel works as a bandleader and side-woman in New York, playing in jazz big bands and small groups, as well as world and Caribbean music, classical, funk, r&b, and Latin music bands. She has performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, the Chicago Jazz Festival, Perth International Arts Festival, Caramoor Jazz Festival, Smalls Jazz Club, and Smoke Jazz Club, among other venues. Mariel has also performed alongside Dee Dee Bridgewater, Roy Hargrove, Wycliffe Gordon, Frank Lacy, Brian Lynch, Cyrus Chestnut, and Lew Soloff. Her own groups (ranging from duo to septet) have headlined jazz festivals, played around the country, and gig regularly in New York City. She graduated from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in December 2015. During her time there, Mariel had the opportunity to study with fantastic teachers and mentors, such as Elliot Mason, Steve Turre, Vincent Gardner, Mike LeDonne, Reginald Workman, and Jane Ira Bloom.

Photo credit to Lauren Desberg

In 1978, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes named impostor syndrome as a feeling of “phoniness or fraud in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Impostor syndrome presents itself through chronic self-doubt and feeling unworthy of opportunities. 

It is a thought-process that we all deal with, to varying degrees. Even as I’m writing this blog post, I’m telling myself “Mariel, who are you kidding? You’re not a writer, go and practice trombone!” 

Here are 5 tips to combat impostor syndrome. 

  1. Remember that you are there for a reason

Whether “there” is a gig, rehearsal, recording session, teaching position, or conversation, people who struggle with impostor syndrome will look around and say “How the hell am I here? I am a fraud. This must be a mistake.” 

I tend to place everyone else’s musicianship on a pedestal above my own, and believe that I’m only on a gig because no-one else was available and I was the 50th person they called.

However, if you truly brought zero value to a situation, you would not be invited because people don’t have time or energy to waste. You MUST believe this. Your voice on the instrument is unique and has characteristics that listeners enjoy, without the accompaniment of the bullshit in your head. An audience doesn’t know your journey as a musician: where you’re coming from or where you’re going. All they receive is your sound and stage presence. 

Your individual concept is valuable, and different from the other people in the room. You bring a positive energy. You interpret music in a playful way. You’re an excellent sight-reader. You’re an expansive improviser. Your sense of rhythm is incredible. You swing your ass off. You have a beautiful sound. You know every song under the sun. You push the other musicians around you. What’s your thing? 

          2. Bring your A game

This being said, do your job! Focus on bringing value to the situation.

Being prepared will help quiet those voices. If you did your best and leave each situation feeling proud of your work, that’s a win.

         3. Ask questions 

Use your impostor syndrome to fuel your curiosity. My fraudulent thoughts will run rampant when I think I don’t know enough about records, standards, or lack understanding of chord changes and theory, particularly around other jazz musicians. Rather than shutting up and shutting down to conceal my self-perceived inadequacies, I’ve started to ask more questions. 

“What’s this record?” 

“That’s a gorgeous tune, what is it?” 

“I don’t know the chord changes to this song, can you teach me?”

This does a few things: 

  1. You actually learn something!
  2. You make others feel good about what they do know
  3. You’re creating a situation where sharing and learning are welcomed 
  4. Others may be wondering the same thing. Thank God you had the balls to ask!

Along these same lines, how can we shift the perspective to be one of more gratitude? 

Self-gratitude for your own hard work and musicianship, and gratitude for the people that see your value. Be sure to get out of your head enough to say thank you. 

       4. Be a leader

Create more opportunities for yourself and the musicians around you. As I mentioned above, your musical voice is unique and needs to be heard. Dig into the music you love, create something, and go for it! This builds confidence, community, and a vision that is individual to you. As a bandleader, I’ve been able to play with my favorite musicians, employ them, and create a larger musical community. There are opportunities for every single musician in the world. Think globally and outside-the-box. 

As a side-person, know your value. If you have a special skill, bring that to the table when others hire you. Take the lead on that, others will be grateful. 

       5. Call a friend

Call a friend, mentor, family member, or someone you trust, and share how you’re feeling. Everyone has moments of insecurity, so don’t be afraid to share and ask for an encouraging word.

IMPORTANT BONUS! Diversity

A reality is that some opportunities come specifically because we are women. Whether it is an all-woman band/horn section or an organization is looking for more diversity, it will happen. We work in the entertainment industry and for some, image matters. I feel it as a woman, but everyone deals with this. People are often hired based on their age, race, gender or identity, culture, pregnancy, and/or disability. Sometimes the intention will be crystal clear, other times not. Obviously, some situations are to be avoided, and we all have varying levels of comfort with that dynamic. 

I hate feeling like the only reason I’m hired is because I’m a woman. It feeds my impostor syndrome. However, once you’re in the room, prove them wrong. Play your ass off, be prepared, be professional, know your stuff. Perhaps your gender got you in the door, but now you’re there as a musician. 

I hope these tips will help your mindset. Good luck and keep on keeping on!

For more about Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes’ research on impostor syndrome check it out here.

One thought on “Five Tips to Combat Impostor Syndrome – by Mariel Bildsten

  1. Lee Silence June 11, 2018 / 2:26 pm

    Mariel,
    Peter Reinhardt sent your article to all of Segment, and for me, it was much-needed.

    THANK YOU for opening a bit of yourself up for all of us to see, and helping us know that lesson is a VERY valuable one.

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