Last week This American Life rebroadcast an episode in which a number of kids from a poor New York public school went to visit a rich private school.  The reactions of some of the kids highlighted a little-discussed effect of poverty.  Even when these kids were given opportunities to escape their world, they were brought down by a mindset that told them that they did not “deserve” good things.


Intellectually, they might have known better.  But even one of their teachers, who had certainly succeeded in educating himself out of the hood, admitted that he could not completely shake the mindset in himself.  No matter how smart you are, and some of these kids were incredibly smart, it is very difficult to survive in school or succeed on a job interview when one believes that one is an imposter, and does not deserve the opportunity.


I have experienced the sense of “don’t deserve.”  But with me it was about talent, especially on the piano.  That’s why I’m writing about it here.


I was always dogged with a sense that I did not deserve to play well, that there was always someone waiting in the audience to tell me I was an imposter, that one day I’d be found out.  It took me a long time to overcome this sense of not-deserving.  In the meantime, I suffered from poor practice routines, ineffectual expectations of my work and crippling stage fright.


I have been able to overcome my sense of not deserving with the help of somatic work, in other words, better connecting my sense of self to the work I want to do.  The disconnect I used to experience between simple sensation and genuine bodily awareness contributes to the feeling that I’m not really here, not really the one who did any of this, an imposter.  The more I can feel like I’m in my body, the more I can own what I do with it.


The good news for all of us is that music instruction creates this somatic restoration by its very nature.  Studying music brings one’s intent in line with one’s body the same way a martial art can.  Best of all, this kind of somatic restoration tends to render programmed messages relating to class and wealth irrelevant.


Of course a nasty teacher can make a student feel very powerfully that they don’t belong in a piano or voice studio because of their race or class.  But that’s not music instruction, that’s a teacher not giving instruction.  Anyone who has a body and is made to feel welcome in it may feel profoundly more deserving and therefore more effectcual.


When I teach others, I am always thinking about legitimizing their sense of self, of agency and of potency.  Not so they’ll feel like superheroes.  Only so they’ll accurately own their successes and feel that they deserve them.


Adam Cole is an author, educator and performer.  To view more of Adam's work, please visit


Darcy January 15, 2018 @09:06 am

Any time I got a big promotion of sorts - moving up to the Principal chair, being called by a huge orchestra to sit in on a big part, winning my current job - I've felt like this for a while initially. Worrying that maybe they made a mistake, that I had somehow conned them into giving me the job and they were going to find out the "truth" that I couldn't do it eventually. It took a lot of reprogramming - repeated experiences when I sat in the chair, did the job, and did not fail - before I felt like I belonged. When I got called just last month to fill in for the Principal horn of a major orchestra over the holidays, I kept thinking, "wow, they must've been really desperate, no one else was probably available" which was really making me the villain/loser in my own inner narrative. It's hard to re-write the story you tell yourself, especially in situations where you're called upon to really shine and show what you have to offer, but it is possible. Your students are VERY fortunate to have such a kind, compassionate, capable teacher to help them learn how to re-write the story their inner narrative keeps telling them. :)

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