I looked down the theatre row at the people laughing and wanted to yell, “Do you think this stuff is easy?” The man on the screen was bellowing instructions to his student, ones that were all too familiar to me: sing from the mask; breathe from your diaphragm; open up the back of your throat. In this scene from the movie, Florence Foster Jenkins, Florence’s voice teacher is running her through exhausting rehearsals in preparation for one of her infamous concerts, and she’s lousy.
Florence’s sheer love of music overpowered her obvious lack of vocal talent. Her family’s fortunes enabled her to carefully script a seemingly impenetrable fantasy world in which she was the star of her own concerts and attendance was by invitation-only. Add to this recipe for disaster a doting husband, so-called friends, and suspect supporters who willingly perpetuated this ruse seemingly for their own amusement. But hubris was her undoing, as it is in any Greek tragedy. Everything unraveled when her ambitions outstripped her abilities and she booked Carnegie Hall. First-time members of the audience began to view her performance as a comedy act gone bad and started to heckle her. That’s when a brazen blonde, who had literally been doubled up from laughter at an earlier concert of Florence’s, echoed my sentiments when she stood up and chastised everyone. She was admittedly unimpressed by classical music, knew nothing about training, technique, or talent but in this case was at least willing to care about Florence’s feelings.
The next morning I was telling a friend about the movie over coffee and I jokingly commented that it hit uncomfortably close to home. “Oh, you have a lovely voice!” Elana reassured me. But do I really? I’ve been tackling the issue of authenticity since I’ve begun to approach the tail end of middle age. Why after all these years do I still have to fend off feeling like a fraud every time I open my mouth to sing, stand in front of a class to teach, or sit down at the computer to write? And when should I trust the opinions of others? I, too, have tripped over my own ego often enough when I’ve taken my self too seriously. It’s a slender tightrope to walk.
Florence’s sheer love of music overpowered her obvious lack of vocal talent.
The phenomenon called “impostorism” first appeared in psychological literature in the late 1970s. It’s that feeling of “I don’t belong here! I don’t deserve this!” and no amount of success seems to alleviate it. I was shocked to hear the literature professor I revered in graduate school admit to being a victim of it himself. He was highly-esteemed, well-published, and frequently-feted by both peers and pupils. During a thesis advisement session I admitted to feeling inadequate to the task. He, in turn, revealed that he’s had moments when he’s feared someone will discover the invisible “F” stamped on his forehead. Evidently, there’s no cure for the fear of being found a fraud. Like most emotional challenges, you acknowledge it and arm yourself for the next attack. But it may be also a matter of what and whom you bring to this battle.
I undertook voice lessons at the tender age of 51, so Florence, a real person, had my sympathies as she was in her 70s at the height of her dubious career. And I only dared pick up the phone to schedule a session after holding onto the piece of paper with the instructor’s contact information for at least two years. Singing was something that both attracted and terrified me, and I wanted to see if I had any ability worthy of a performance outside of my shower. If I didn’t, I’d bow out gracefully, but I wanted to hear the verdict from a vetted professional, and not from my inner critic nor well-meaning friends.
But let me give my friends credit. After the voice lessons were well under way and I had resumed playing the acoustic guitar, Elana’s mother, Tania, indulged me by letting me lead sing-a-longs in her living room after family dinners. They were an encouraging audience but would have respectfully stopped me from tackling Carnegie Hall. They lovingly participated in this path of self-discovery and hadn’t set me up as an entertaining spectacle. Meryl Streep gave a very sensitive portrayal of Florence, and as the movie went on it was hard to tell who truly cheered her and who was secretly jeering her. A possible illness-related hearing impairment may have indeed rendered Florence somewhat deaf, but her friends had no such excuse. I’ve never had the slightest indication that my friends were either humoring me or laughing at me.
The Shaker song “Simple Gifts” sets forth a difficult challenge. “’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free. ‘Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be.” The song says nothing about either pursuing success or avoiding failure. Rather, it speaks of authenticity. Later lyrics instruct, “And when we hear what others really think and feel, then we’ll all live together in a love that is real.” Maybe therein lays the key to genuine talent: love. Talent must first be viewed as a gift to be accepted, appreciated, and expressed with humility, not a whim to be humored. A gift has its source from somewhere outside the recipient, and to properly acknowledge the giver prevents the recipient from becoming a potential target of humiliation.
Maybe therein lays the key to genuine talent: love.
I’ve struggled for days writing this piece. I’ve reviewed my own moments of making it, faking it, and out right blowing it and wonder which category I’ll end up in after you’ve read my ruminations. I think the Episcopalian priest that Jan Karon created in her Mitford novels has discovered the secret of acquiring authenticity. When in doubt, he relies on what he calls “the prayer that never fails.” Quite simply, “Thy will be done.” When man cooperates with God, and when success is defined in His terms, then we’re “where we ought to be.”