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. Not unlike game show hosts or newscasters! If you’re younger, things get far less polished as reality television now gives people the impression that all they need to to prepare to present, is the equivalent rolling out of bed! But regardless of your age, if you’re presenting….you’re usually expected to sound far more “conversational” which means to most of us, “unscripted.” Being able to speak extemporaneously with aplomb in public, requires a different discipline but one that can be no less intimidating than attempting to imitate the scripted, chiseled, polished announcers 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 a prototypical influence that I usually have to overcome with a perspective shift that inspires a higher threshold of personal authenticity. 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, the greatest “imposter” I’ve ever known!
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 conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Eugene Ormandy, George Solti and Zubin Mehta. He and his young, soon-to-be famous cohorts… future Met Opera star Marilyn Horne, legendary Hollywood “Ghost” singer Marnie Nixon who supplied the dubbed singing for Natalie Wood, Debra Kerr and Audrey Hepburn in “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady,” respectively and actor Harve Presnell who used to run from gig to gig all over town. They sang weddings and funerals for 15 bucks a throw, on recordings, film soundtracks, albums and numerous concerts with various groups. All were founding members of what would eventually 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 in my life!” 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 at the ripe old age of 35 from Mount St. Mary’s College, primarily a nursing school at the time! He was teaching on the faculty AND getting his Bachelor’s Degree and had already taught at the high school level…all without a BA degree! By the time he retired from music in 2009 after 60 years of conducting, he had two honorary doctorates, a Grammy nomination a Papal Knighthood and the highest award the Vatican bestows, and umpteen different awards and accolades which you can read about here on his Wikipedia page. (You can see a 15-minute segment of 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 international 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 with 14 Grammy’s! 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 all while feeling completely unqualified. In Shaw’s case, it was Toscanini who championed him after he saw Shaw conduct his Pomona College glee club when their conductor became ill. He was actually a divinity student at the time! Both men knew of the usual and advanced musical tutelage that preceded a conductor’s appointment anywhere serious. And typically, you need a significant amount of ego and chutzpah to believe you belong in either the film director’s chair or on a conductor’s podium. Neither had that as well. And orchestras will make you prove you belong there or they will perform the musical equivalent of mutiny on you! So it’s a VERY challenging environment that tends to weed out any “imposters” who might have managed to find their way onto the podium. And very much like public speaking, it certainly involves so many of the same attributes to communicate effectively without distraction by things like massive unworthiness and an inferiority complex. And ALSO much like public speaking, real and true communication, transcends mere language. When my dad conducted the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Rome in 2003, 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 at the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano which I was privileged to sing as a member of the choir.
It truly bears noting that like many of my clients, my father was inherently a VERY shy man personally! His incredibly self-conscious and awkward approach 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 once put his name forward for consideration 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 because he was basically a singer who never studied conducting. He created his now legendary methods, on the fly and out of necessity of the job at hand. And the results kept the work coming in as he found himself with precious little free time for hobbies and the like, for 60 years! When he worked with celebrities on his film soundtrack work like Steven Spielberg and coaching Robert DeNiro for one of his roles, he seldom had heard of any of them because he saw so few movies and NEVER watched television without falling asleep five minutes in to the program.
So…..how did he do it? What was his secret? Well, it certainly wasn’t by his organized design or intention to overcome these feelings of inferiority. And he NEVER relaxed enough to believe he belonged there even to the day he stopped in May of 2009. Here’s the simple truth about how it all worked: If he stopped to indulge his own unworthiness to be there, he would have been paralyzed by it and been unable to do ANYTHING to help the situation because the human brain cannot entertain two thoughts at the same time. So on one hand, he could either indulge the feelings of inadequacy he felt……or………he could get to work! But not BOTH! The pressing deadlines he faced early on to prepare these choruses for their performances with other conductors, required that he get things done as quickly as possible because rehearsal time is expensive and often hard to come by. So both necessity and the basic neurological limitations of his brain, required him taking the focus off of himself and put it on the music. And specifically, to refine his focus to the differences between what sound was currently being created by in the moment by those with whom he was working, and the pre-ordained sound he heard in his head. And as long as there was a difference in those two sounds? There was work to be done and no time for dawdling. He ended up generating a reputation with his peers and colleagues for having the most efficient use of rehearsal time and techniques in being able to get his sound, out of any group, no matter what talent level they possessed or how long they had to prepare. If there was less time than necessary to do it at a reasonable pace, then unreasonable demands set the bar higher for everyone and he inspired them to go there. And he always modeled superlative effort for them and unrelenting standards by never relaxing during a rehearsal or “phoning it in.”
So what created all this demand for his work? 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 transparency and his complete lack of focus on himself, was the reason he was so effective. His intentions were entirely pure and clearly visible to all witnessing and collaborating. Yet paradoxically, he was inherently shy on a one-to-one basis and most people who found him incredibly dynamic and even intimidating from the podium, were shocked to find out how quiet and almost meek he seemed away from it. Yet both the dynamic and meek, shy man co-existed authentically in the same person! The transformation came about through passionate intention to serve and share the beauty of what he heard in his head and heart. And while he was focused on creating the reality of it, there just wasn’t any neurological room to entertain his perceived inadequacies and unworthiness. This same neurological benefit or limitation, (depending on your perspective) is levied on all of us as well! So if you’re reading this, you have a human brain and can do it too!
When a speaker or performer is nervous about their endeavor, their focus is always in the wrong place: ON THEMSELVES! And specifically on how they’re looking or coming across to others. 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. But this requires a significant perspective shift! But once that perspective is attained, the work becomes almost effortless when a high level of passion naturally arises in the speaker. And then, the audience who all begin to feel that passion coming from the stage. 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 formulas and techniques (hacks!) I’ve created over my 31 years as a casting director helping and directing actors during the hundreds of thousands of auditions and casting sessions, I help clients find their way to that honed and sharp point of efficiency and personal authenticity, fully insulated from any other distractions. And exuding a naturally-freed 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 much as anything as he modeled selfless, all-encompassing focus that blocked out anything else that could have distracted him like his complete lack of worthiness to be where he was.
As I mentioned above, 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 inexperienced the musicians were 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. He wouldn’t hesitate to make ridiculous faces and dance around like a crazy man to get sounds from the musicians without even a hint of any self-consciousness. Because it wasn’t about him at all. It was all about “the sound.” And his all-consuming allegiance, was to that sound! There just wasn’t room for caring about such trivialities like how he looked. What his example teaches us is that when speakers care more deeply about what’s in it for their audience instead of themselves, they end up almost “disappearing” as a concern! Quite a feat when you consider that the number one greatest statistical fear is public speaking! But that “disappearing act,” leaves a profoundly authentic and streamlined expression that truly reaches and impacts audiences.
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 (ESPECIALLY how you look!) you paradoxically become truly impressive simply BECAUSE you’re not trying and you end up actually modeling fearlessness! But only if merely “impressing people,” is nowhere detectable in your motivations. It’s not coincidence that when a speaker ends up crashing and burning during a presentation, it’s ALWAYS because their focus went on to themselves instead of serving their audience as a priority.
Over the years after someone hears my last name and asks if I’m related, I’ve heard so many things about how my dad’s life affected literally thousands of people around the world. I have been serenaded by a full choir on a ferry boat, read hundreds of the letters sitting on my dad’s desk after a workshop, all-state or clinic he led and many other stories and testimonials about the effect he had. I once 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 true service is your main focus, you BECOME impressive almost by the total absence of caring what people think of you. Because it becomes so apparent to them, how much you care about THEM instead! I believe the “OLD” paradigm of presenting, involved impressing your audience. And the shift I try to initiate with my clients at the outset of our work together, involves leaving that intention far behind which usually requires a lot of trust. My father’s example clearly shows that if you really want to impress, then forget about doing it. Become transparently focused on passionate service! I hope you find your way to serving your audience by sharing with them, the path to your own “Mountaintop!”