Impostor syndrome is a form of anxiety in which sufferers feel inadequate to perform jobs they’ve been sufficiently trained and hired to do. They live in fear they’ll be exposed as frauds. It’s not unusual among college students as they transition from academia to the real-world applications of their education.
But in the case of Columbia University student Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, she really was an impostor, touring the country and China as a concert violinist, pretending to perform live shows. In reality, she was playing softly into an unplugged microphone while mall atriums and concert halls filled with the sounds of recorded music, allegedly original compositions that sounded like music from the movie “Titanic.”
In her fascinating and humorous new memoir “Sounds Like Titanic,” Hindman recounts how she came to be complicit in the grand ruse that duped PBS and thousands of music lovers for years. It also explores her internal struggle as she comes to terms with her role in the scheme and some hard-earned lessons she learns about what she was truly meant to do in this world. Spoiler alert: It’s not play the violin.
To understand how Hindman got herself involved with the bogus operation, one has to consider her background. As a young girl growing up in Appalachia, Hindman latches onto the idea of becoming a violinist. Her supportive parents commit considerable time, effort and expense to give her private lessons, and she practices her little heart out. Eventually, people in her mountain town start to tell her she has a “reeyell gift.”
Defying the odds, she gets into Columbia University, but her parents can only afford a state school in their home of West Virginia. Nothing if not determined, Hindman convinces her family she can get a job to make up the difference in tuition cost. Little does she know the naivete of her plan will lead her to such desperate acts as selling her eggs to a fertility clinic. By then, it is already dawning on her she is only a mediocre violinist and will never achieve the professional heights she dreamed of back in Appalachia.
Then she comes across an ad seeking a violinist for an “award-winning ensemble that has performed on PBS and NPR and at Lincoln Center.” It’s her senior year, she’s already working two jobs, and she’s $8,000 behind on tuition for fall semester. Hindman knows it’s a long shot, but she submits a demo tape and is hired without an audition. Just when she thought her dreams were dashed, she’s finally able to call herself a professional violinist. It’s not until her first concert with the ensemble that she realizes the deception. At first, she’s so astonished, she can’t believe it. But before long, she falls into step with her fellow musicians’ conspiracy of silence and quietly pays off her college debt.
Central to “Sounds Like Titanic” is the unnamed man behind the ensemble, whom she calls “The Composer,” an indelible character distinguished by unflagging optimism in the face of disaster, a toothy show smile bordering on the psychotic and a repetitive-sounding canon of syrupy musical compositions. While Hindman is never cruel, she has great fun lampooning some of “The Composer’s” more outlandish antics, such as baking a cake in a broken oven in a moving RV.
While Hindman mines her story for humor, she doesn’t shy away from weightier matters that shape her journey. She explores how social standards of feminine beauty diminished her bold self-confidence once she hit adolescence. “No matter how hard you work, you find yourself sliding down the social hierarchy while other girls — quiet, skinny, pretty … are making their ascent.”
She ponders the disparity of wealth and how confusing it was for her to grow up feeling rich in Appalachia only to discover at Columbia University that she was, in fact, poor.
And she contemplates fear of failure and the realization that some lifelong dreams are simply unattainable. “Despite everything your family did to get you an instrument, to get you over the mountains to a violin teacher, despite 10 years of lessons and practice and orchestra rehearsals and music camp and your real, true, genuine, passionate, heart-brimming love for the sound of violin music … you simply aren’t good enough, and you never will be.”
Eventually, Hindman changes her major from music to Middle Eastern studies and finds herself on a study-abroad program in Cairo, Egypt, when two planes fly into the World Trade Center. Many of her cohorts return to the U.S. as soon after 9/11 as they can, but she elects to stay and starts writing about her experiences for her hometown paper. She decides she wants to be Middle East news correspondent, another dream that goes unfulfilled.
When Hindman finally finds her true calling as a college professor, she initially experiences the impostor syndrome. But this time there’s no pretense involved. She realizes that, “Faking is teaching and faking is learning and faking is the way that all humans grow, from babies faking speech to teenagers faking coolness to professors faking wisdom.”
She draws on the wisdom of Mister Rogers, who once said, “It helps to play about things. It helps you to know how it feels.”
About her stint as a fake violinist, Hindman comes to the conclusion that, “it was only by playing make-believe that I was finally able to put my violin under my bed where it presently gathers dust …”
“Sounds Like Titanic”
By Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
256 pages, $25.95
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