Reclaiming My Identity As a Musician

I want to share a story that I still haven’t told most people.

We all have experiences that define who we are. This is certainly true for us musicians, whose musical and artistic work are so core to our identity.

Over the last 10 or so years, I’ve struggled with how to relate to myself as a musician. At one point, I even decided to stop considering myself one.

Only within the last year have I started to find resolution and reclaim my identity as a musician.

As you’ll see in my story, many of my challenges and revelations around my identity as a musician resulted from interactions with teachers who had a profound impact on my life.

I’d love to know if my story resonates with you. Have you had a teacher who impacted how you relate to being a musician (for better or for worse)? Please let me know!

My Early Identity

I’ve been participating in music since I was 4 years old. Since then I’ve always done some combination of playing the piano (both solo and collaborative), singing, writing music and, on occasion, conducting.

I completed high school in musical glory. As a junior, I composed a piece for my high school choir. My senior year, I gave a lecture recital, a traditional solo piano recital, and sang “Taylor the Latte Boy” at our school’s Winter Choral Concert – a performance that “stole the show,” according to our choir director.

Music consumed and defined me, in and out of school. There was nothing I loved more, no interest or passion I could hold more strongly.

I was a classical musician to the core, but I also caught the musical theater bug in middle school.

All those nights my parents thought I was diligently studying, I was actually developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the musical theater cannon.

I read forums, wikis, and Broadway World, and scoured the internet for any videos I could find, always returning to my favorite: a 20-second, 2”x2” Les Miserables promo video that I would watch on loop. (Thank goodness YouTube didn’t exist!) I loved having an all-consuming curiosity that only grew, the more I fed it.

I was a musician, and I always would be.

Or so I thought.

At 18, during my freshman year of college, I felt compelled to give up the title of musician. I decided I didn’t deserve to call myself one, or to think of myself as one.

Things Didn’t Go As Planned

I went to college, ready for the world to embrace my musically-obsessed self.

In the first week of school, I auditioned for and was accepted into the music department’s most selective choir, the Stanford Chamber Chorale. It was the best choir I’d ever heard and I couldn’t believe I got in.

Singing in Chorale turned out to be one of the greatest blessings in my life. My 8 years in the group (as an undergrad and then again in grad school) provided me with unforgettable musical experiences and lasting friendships.

I enjoyed singing, but piano was core to my identity. I’d played for forever and, in high school, I had been regularly praised and given opportunities because of it.

My plan to continue my piano studies in college was disrupted the first week on campus when, after my audition, I wasn’t accepted into private piano lessons.

I had not accounted for that possibility.

I didn’t expect to be admitted into choir — that was a distant dream. But taking private piano lessons was something I took as a guarantee.

When I didn’t get accepted, I reminded myself that rejection is normal and reviewed the things I had done wrong in preparing. I was committed to not giving up and to getting into lessons eventually.

I followed the music department’s suggestion and signed up for the bizarre purgatory that was intermediate group piano class. I’ll never forget the night when our teacher’s overweight French bulldog sat on my feet as I played the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata for the class.

A piece of music that had marked my triumphant completion of high school became tinged by the indifferent eyes of a bulldog who had little regard for how I wanted to use the pedal.

It was like he knew the sad irony of my situation, and was there to remind me of it. Nevertheless, I was committed to earning a spot in private lessons, no matter how long it took.

Giving up the Title of “Musician”

That spring, a friend of mine won the music department’s concerto competition — a big deal for a freshman.

His mother had always been his piano teacher, and when she came to visit I asked to take a lesson with her.

I was rusty but desperate to get back on a path to private lessons. I felt disoriented and out of shape without a teacher to guide me.

My friend’s mother agreed to hear me.

We met in one of the weird-smelling, fluorescent practice rooms in the music department and huddled together over a creaky grand piano. I began playing “In Der Nacht” from Schumann’s Fantasiestucke.

After a page she stopped me. She sighed, exasperated, and pronounced her verdict: “It’s amazing you can play anything at all. You have no technique.”

She seemed disturbed and annoyed by this fact. Apparently I had disappointed her?

I forced out a polite, “Oh, thank you for telling me,” and pretended to attentively listen as she taught me some exercises that had really benefited her 5 year old students.

Inside, I was panicking. I burrowed into memories of all of the possible things I had done wrong that could have led to this point.

I could feel the tears creeping up but I masterfully shut them down before she could notice.

I had sought out her opinion, her expert guidance, and here it was — worse than I could have possibly imagined.

Her words had some truth to them. There were gaps in my training and I had a lot of room to improve. But, was it true that I had “no technique”?

That day, and for the next many years, I believed it was true. I told myself…

“This teacher is an expert. What she is saying is objective truth.

You have been wrong about yourself this whole time. Your sense of yourself as a musician, as a pianist, is out of touch with reality. You have no technique and therefore you are not a real musician.

Everything you’ve believed about yourself has been false.”

Now that I have years of perspective from that moment, I recognize that there is a universe of distance between what she said and what I took it to mean.

But at that moment, I adopted a belief about myself that was loaded with shame: that all this time, I wasn’t who I thought I was. I wasn’t a musician.

The Unhealed Wound

The day of that fateful lesson, I called my mom to matter-of-factly give her the update that, “by the way, I have no technique so you should probably find a new piano teacher” for my brother.

She responded, “Jennifer, don’t let this take away from everything you’ve accomplished.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’m fine.”

On the outside, I was fine. I continued to pursue a life filled with music and all the artsy things I loved. I sang in choir. I took voice lessons. I did a summer chamber music program. I became a Russian literature major (which turned out to be one of my best decisions, but that’s another story).

The summer before my senior year of college, I took a few lessons with a new teacher back home who told me that my technique was totally fine and encouraged me to re-audition for lessons when I got back to school. I did and was accepted. I was overjoyed, but it didn’t erase the belief I’d since grown accustomed to — that I wasn’t a musician.

After graduating from college, I co-founded iCadenza to help musicians build thriving careers, and Cadenza Artists, a performing arts talent agency. I loved how these companies enabled me to meld my deep love for the arts with an eagerness to create, initiate, and hone my entrepreneurial side.

It was the professional path that I never knew existed and that was so perfect for me.

While my love of music and the many opportunities to embrace it filled my life, on the inside I still felt wounded. I still could not call myself a musician. I feared I might always be an outsider of the world that I loved so much.

Even worse, starting iCadenza opened the door to severe imposter syndrome, as I later learned it was called. I was afraid clients would find out about my embarrassing secrets — that I didn’t major in music, that I was rejected from piano lessons my freshman year in college, and that I wasn’t a real musician.

I worried that if clients knew “the truth,” they would doubt my credibility and therefore not want to work with me.

It was years before I was willing to admit any of my story to clients.

When I started sharing bits and pieces, my clients’ reactions stunned me. Many would comment about how much they could relate.

I didn’t realize that my experience was rather common, and that many of the musicians I respected had similar encounters with teachers at some point in their training.

All that time, I thought I had committed the grave sin of being out of touch with reality, when actually perhaps I had just experienced an unfortunate rite of passage.

A New Outlook

It took a long time for me to recognize that it was my own thinking that defined how I related to music for over 10 years, even as I built up a professional track record in the industry.

I didn’t realize I had taken a teacher’s words as objectively true and irrefutable, and layered on my own judgment about what they meant about me. Her feedback may have lacked sensitivity, but I was the one who created the interpretation that ended up being so limiting and persistent.

A few years ago, I started hearing a voice inside me saying that this wasn’t working.

My artistic side felt dormant and abandoned, as if it had been under cobwebs since I was a college freshman. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling like I had peaked artistically at 18.

It took awhile, but eventually I started taking steps to reclaim a seat at the music table of my mind. And the story, though it is still being written, has a happy ending.

I’m now taking piano lessons again, with an amazing teacher. I’ve actually never enjoyed both my lessons and my practice time more than I do now.

A few months ago I decided to pursue my lifelong desire to take composition lessons so that I can gain fluency in writing my own music. Since I was in highschool, my dream was to write musicals. When I started listening to that voice inside, I discovered that that dream is still alive!

And perhaps the biggest step of all: I’m telling people (including the musicians in my professional world) about my musical activities, clueing them into the truth that making music is a priority in my life. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by the the validation and encouragement I’ve received!

Lessons Learned Along the Way

It is difficult to describe how much these three activities have changed me over the last year. My musical confidence has increased as my skills have grown.

But more than that, I now know that doing the work and choosing to opt in is what makes me worthy of joining the musician table — not some teacher’s evaluation of my technical ability.

I now realize that the only thing that stood in the way of me being there has always been me. It’s sad and maybe a little funny that it took me literally 10 years to realize that.

But it was the journey I needed to take, as evidenced by all the things I learned along the way.

I’ve learned about how my mindset, beliefs, and assumptions can fundamentally alter the way I see the world and myself.

I’ve learned that I have a large capacity for growth and change, which I can activate by taking strategic action.

And I’ve learned a lot about music. Music is always worth making and any way one participates in music is worthwhile. I always believed that in theory, and for other people. Now I believe it for myself as well.

I now experience more joy in music than I ever have before. And that has spilled over into all other areas of my life. My sense of satisfaction and purpose is much higher across the board.

I love studying music in an environment that is all about my learning and growth. It is challenging, stimulating, and lots of fun.

For me, doing more music has been a net positive and I can’t wait for the continued expansion of this side of my life.

Can You Relate?

All of this makes me think….dang.

My relationship status with music has been “it’s complicated” for a long time. And it’s been eye-opening to hear stories of other musicians who have struggled in their own ways along this path.

I’d love to know…

Have you ever struggled with your identity as a musician?

Has a music teacher ever made you question your talent or technique? If so, how did you overcome it?

What’s your advice for other musicians who are wondering if they’re a “real” musician?

Leave a comment below.

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