Classical music insecurity complex? No, it’s simpler than that

NPR’s Miles Hoffman has written in the New York Times (18 April A Note to the Classically Insecure) about ‘Classical Music Insecurity Complex’.

Miles highlights the experience of those attending classical music concerts who struggle to comment on what they’ve heard because they’re apologetic about their own perceived lack of sufficient knowledge.

Read the piece. It’s an interesting thing.

I have a slightly different view.

First, that this fear of not knowing enough – a low-level insecurity that for a lot of people probably isn’t even noted – is more widespread than we realise.

Fear of not knowing enough is everywhere

Second, the fear of not knowing enough is prevalent within classical music and opera, and consumes those who are perceived by newcomers to the genre as experts, just as much as it does to those who are unfamiliar with the repertoire.  It’s not just newcomers who fear they don’t know enough.  

Here’s an example. Next week I’m interviewing the general manager of an opera company alongside a frequent opera goer. I go to the opera from time to time. I understand how it sort of works.

We all do it

But, I’ll level with you, I don’t feel I know enough to necessarily hold my own in their company. I worry that I’ll show myself up in front of them. Not doing so is really important to me. But I know they know far more than I do. I feel mildly apologetic about that.

The interview will be fine – they always are. So, please don’t worry. But what this suggests to me is that even within a knowledge domain, that same sense of ‘not knowing enough’ is prevalent and just as potentially damaging.

Knowledge is power

The third point to flag is that I think this insecurity goes on in other knowledge domains. Knowledge is power amongst tribes empowered by self-publishing and motivated by a desire to effect change, the grand prize being a sense of belonging and, in a lot of cases I’ve experienced, a heady and equally destructive air of exclusivity. 

I’ve seen that in Doctor Who fandom. I definitely see it in Eurovision. Being in amongst it frequently left me feeling as though I didn’t know enough, that I didn’t deserve to be in those spaces because I wasn’t able to recall meaningless facts, or didn’t connect with discussions within that domain that seemed to exercise everyone else.

It comes as no surprise it appears in the classical music and operatic world. These networks, communities, and tribes are fulfilling a need for belonging. And that’s intimidating in itself.

We’re bestowing knowledge on others

Miles Hoffman isn’t suggesting that this is a problem which needs tackling. At least I don’t think so. But I do think there’s a real opportunity here.  The stance adopted that ‘you feel you don’t know enough to be here’ is one common to every single aspect of human existence.

We are comparing ourselves to the perception we have of others, and judging ourselves accordingly. And entire audience groups are doing that too. How can they not? They’re human beings. 

Everybody does it. It’s called imposter syndrome.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

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