In Praise of “Imposters” Like My Father and What They Can Teach Us…..!
In direct proportion to our age, we are influenced by the announcers we’ve seen on television and other media. If you’re older than sixty, you no doubt remember any number of square-jawed, white guys with perfect teeth and hair and well modulated voices looking and sounding very polished. If you’re younger, things get less polished. But you’re also expected to sound far more “conversational” which means to most of us, “unscripted.” Being able to speak extemporaneously with aplomb, requires a different discipline but one that can be no less intimidating than attempting to imitate the scripted white guys of the 50’s and 60’s. When many of my clients first consider the idea of working on their presentation or “soft” skills for business, these various archetypes exert an influence that I usually have to overcome with a perspective shift that inspires a threshold of personal authenticity, apart from anything they’ve seen before. Many of them initially feel like “imposters” at the thought of presenting like those they’ve seen come before and are pretty intimidated at the thought of pretending to be something they’re not. So I usually tell them this story about my dad, one of the greatest “imposters” of which I know!
Paul Salamunovich was a 22-year-old professional, freelance/studio singer in 1949 singing both solos and chorus gigs on recording and live gigs around Los Angeles at places like the Hollywood Bowl behind Broadway stars and for world famous composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini. He and his young, soon-to-be famous cohorts Marilyn Horne, Marnie Nixon and Harve Presnell used to run from gig to gig all over town, singing weddings, funerals, on recordings, film soundtracks, and numerous concerts with various groups. All were founding members of what would become the Los Angeles Master Chorale under conductor Roger Wagner. But in 1949, Wagner was the choir director at a couple of Catholic Churches, St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood being one of them. He was offered a better paying job at another parish but couldn’t leave to accept it without covering the job at St. Charles with a new conductor. Somehow, Wagner got it in his head that Paul would be a good fit given his excellent sight-singing skills, even though he had never conducted anything in his life! After pre-selling the parish Monsignor on his replacement choice, he approached Paul saying, “Hey Paul, I got you a conducting job. You’re the new music director at St. Charles.” My dad was terror-stricken realizing the obvious lack of skills beyond his singing and said, “But I’ve never conducted anything!” Wagner responded by quickly showing him the choronomy (arm movements) for the 2, 3 and 4 time signatures and said, “Also, I told him you played organ”….(not true) and added, “You’ll be great!” Paul asked, “What do I do now?” Wagner replied, “PRACTICE!”
So began my father’s career as a conductor bereft of any other conducting instruction save that quick two-minute lesson from Wagner. In fact, Paul didn’t even have an undergraduate degree in anything until he finally finished a BA in music from Mount St. Mary’s College in 1962, primarily a nursing school at the time! By the time he retired from music in 2009 after 60 years conducting, he had two honorary doctorates, a Grammy nomination and umpteen different awards and accolades which you can read about here on his Wikipedia page. (You can see a trailer for a documentary about him HERE.) And here’s the kicker, he felt like an imposter the whole time he was doing it all! In fact, he kept that entry level conducting gig at St. Charles, his entire career while ascending to the pinnacle for choral conductors. Why? Because it could all go away tomorrow! I once asked him late in his career if he feared that one day, “they” would finally knock on his door and say, they found him out as a fraud and to hand over the keys!” He answered, “Every Day!” One night, he was up with his friend and colleague the great Robert Shaw after having collaborated together on a project that day. Shaw brought out a bottle of cognac and it acted as a “truth serum” and both men admitted to the other that they felt like an imposter! And Shaw was a Kennedy Center Honoree! But if you look at this dynamic from their origins, it makes sense. Both men never sought the conductor’s podium and were dragged into it by others. In Shaw’s case, it was Toscanini who championed him. Typically, you need a significant amount of ego and chutzpah to believe you belong in either the director’s chair or on a conductor’s podium. And orchestras will make you prove you belong or they will perform the musical equivalent of mutiny on you! So it’s a VERY challenging environment much like public speaking and certainly involves the same attributes to communicate. And much like public speaking, communication transcends language. When my dad conducted the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Rome, he spoke no Russian and the orchestra spoke no English. But the communication they created was sublime in the concert of the Mozart Requiem they performed together in 2003 which I attended.
It truly bears noting that like many of my clients, my father was inherently a very shy man personally. His lack of courage in asking my mom out for their first date at Hollywood High is family legend and he managed to find a way to get her to marry him without actually asking! He also never asked for any of the full time jobs he had at various Universities and professional groups or the over 1000 clinics, festivals and workshops he was invited to conduct all over the world. NOT ONE! He basically answered the phone marveling each time that he was still getting away with his ruse of not really knowing what he was doing!
So how did he do it? The truth was, he was inherently gifted at one particular thing and motivated by one particular muse. The love of music and the sound he heard in his head and more crucially, his heart. He became incredibly gifted at explaining and demonstrating that sound to those with whom he worked in such a way that he transformed subjective descriptions of sound into the ACTUAL sounds. And if he didn’t get a match between what he heard inside….and what was flowing through the air, there was hell to pay! But not for his OWN sake! It was in service to those he was leading and ultimately, for his audience. That was the reason he was so effective. His intentions were entirely pure and clearly visible to all witnessing and collaborating. All the while, he was inherently shy on a one-to-one basis and most people who found him incredibly dynamic and even intimidating, were shocked to find out how quiet and almost meek he seemed away from the podium. Yet both the dynamic and meek, shy man co-existed in the same person. The transformation came about through passionate intention to serve. While he was focused on creating the reality of it, there just wasn’t any neurological room to entertain his perceived inadequacies and unworthiness.
Such is the case with public speakers. If they can streamline their focus ONLY to their mission at hand and passionately being in service to their audience to the exclusion of all else, they become like my father and become a most efficient facilitator. And the work becomes almost effortless even though a high level of passion naturally arises in the speaker and then, the audience. And that passion is what most affected those with whom my dad worked. What I do essentially, is work with each of my clients’ unique set of influencers and using the formula’s and experience I’ve gained being in this same spot hundreds of thousands of times, help them find their way to that honed and sharp point of efficiency and authenticity. That point of effortless, streamlined passion. Passion that truly moves people. Watching the transformation of my father up close over the many years I saw it, uniquely informs my work as well.
It’s not hyperbole to say that my dad’s colleagues and peers marveled at his rehearsal technique and repeatedly wondered how he managed to get “his” signature sound out of any group no matter how experienced the musicians and how limited the rehearsal time. He called the journey they were on, one to….”The Mountaintop!” And thousands of musicians scaled the distance to that peak over and over again with him over the 60 years he conducted.
Finally worth noting, is that when you’re in that zone where your attention is efficiently honed ONLY toward serving your audience to the exclusion of everything else (including how you look!) You become truly impressive. But only because merely “impressing people,” is nowhere visible in your motivations. Over the years, I have been approached by numerous people with tears in their eyes, serenaded by a full choir on a ferry boat, read many of the letters sitting on his desk after a workshop, all-state or clinic he led and many other stories and testimonials about the effect my father had on people when people hear my unique last name. One time I asked him what it was like having the kind of impact on people where he regularly changed the course of their lives in as little as a weekend without any direct one-on-one contact. I know that he was telling me the honest truth when with a baffled look on his face he muttered, “I always feel like they’re talking about someone else!” As I’ve found over and over, the rule of paradox plays true that when you try to impress someone, you seldom ever do. But when you are trying to serve as your main focus, you BECOME impressive almost by the total absence of caring what people think of you. I would say that the “old” paradigm of presenting, involved impressing your audience. But my father’s example clearly shows that if you really want to impress? Become focused on passionate service! And paradoxically, you’ll end up achieving BOTH your goals!