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The Art of Criticism

I would like to devote my first blog of 2014 to something which touches nearly everyone in the arts: feedback. Some musicians seem very content to create music for little more than their own enjoyment. In principle there is nothing wrong with this. However, a good many of us prefer to create music for the benefit of others. In doing so we open ourselves up to a whole range of reactions from our teachers, peers, and audiences. I have come to believe that the single biggest determinant of success in the arts is how one handles negative feedback, also known as criticism.

We live in a highly competitive world where it does not take much effort to get discouraged. These days we are little more than a quick web search away from observing some of the greatest talent in the world at almost any imaginable craft. Positive feedback reinforces our efforts. It encourages us to keep trying when things seem futile. Most of us never tire of hearing others tell us how good we are at what we do.

Unfortunately, positive feedback offers us little more than that. It tells us that what we are doing is great and that we should just keep doing it. Reality eventually sets in. We don’t sound like the great players we hear on recordings. We aren’t winning auditions. We still can’t do certain things the way we’d really like to be able to do. Obviously there is something wrong, and we often just don’t know how to fix it. This is the moment when we are most in need of some negative feedback, and this is also what separates the great from the good, the good from the mediocre, and the mediocre from the lousy among us.

Some musicians prefer to live in a musical bubble where no one can criticize them. Out of respect for my friends and colleagues, I will not cite any examples. However, it is actually quite commonplace. This is probably the best way to ensure that you never overcome your musical weaknesses. At the other extreme, some musicians seem to take just about every piece of negative feedback they hear from just about anyone completely to heart. This is a great way to become completely disoriented. Just about anyone can deliver criticism, but not all criticism is of equal value.

The key is in knowing what criticism to take to heart, when to take it to heart, and how much to take it to heart. At times this can be rather tricky. Sometimes otherwise great musicians have been known to say some rather silly things to their students and colleagues. In contrast, some of the best criticism I have ever received has come from people with little or no musical ability whatsoever.

My general advice is to take absolutely all criticism seriously, experiment with it, and through experimentation determine how helpful it is or isn’t. If it helps, take it to heart. If it doesn’t, forget about it as quickly as possible and move on. You should also consider whether or not you might be misinterpreting the meaning behind the criticism (see The Power of Language). Ultimately the role of negative feedback is to help you improve, not to “take you down a notch” by destroying your ego.

Lastly we should also consider feedback from the other point of view: that of the person giving it. Many of us are often asked for our thoughts and opinions about someone else’s music. The first question to ponder before responding should usually be, “what does this person expect from me?” Many friendships have been completely ruined as a result of negative feedback being offered when positive feedback was expected.

When teaching it is important to mix negative feedback with a healthy dose of positive feedback in order to condition the student to better accept the criticism. No matter how emotionally resilient a person may be, an excessive dose of negative feedback will almost always deal a significant blow to their ego. Giving good feedback can often take a tremendous amount of thought, insight, and careful wording. When uncertain what to say, the best response is often to provide no feedback at all. The greatest teachers known when it is most wise to say absolutely nothing to a student. Over time, the greatest students learn to become their own worst critics.

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