Welcoming Criticism

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Leah Kruszewski
ModeratorInstructor
Welcoming Criticism

Whether we are a beginning student, elite performer, or somewhere in between, we invite criticism any time we play our instrument in front of people.  In private lessons, your teacher’s insight on how to improve your playing is one of the main reasons you’re there. Most likely, your Lessonface teacher knows how to phrase critiques in a positive, productive manner and doesn’t make you feel bad for any shortcomings.  If you’re a recreational player, you can advance in that pleasant environment indefinitely. However, serious music students who study at a university level will undoubtedly encounter criticism that is not gently-phrased in private lessons, rehearsals, and performances.  

Music schools often host master classes, where one or several students perform for an invited artist, and the invited artist critiques their playing.  It’s an honor to be asked to perform, and a great way to get fresh perspective on your playing beyond routine private lessons. But it’s often a nerve-wracking experience, because it’s basically a private lesson with a large audience.  Furthermore, guest artists are usually invited due to to their reputation as a performer, not necessarily for their tact as an instructor.  

As an undergrad, I sat in on a strings master class that seemed particularly harsh.  One violin student played a challenging piece nearly flawlessly from a technical perspective.  It must have been a huge feat for him to learn and perform with such precision. Yet the guest artist commented bluntly ‘I don’t get it. Explain this piece to me, because I don’t hear the music in it.’   Another student played a few incorrect notes in his piece. The guest artist had the student’s score in hand and noticed that those notes had already been marked by the student’s private teacher. He remarked, ‘What do you want your teacher to do, circle them in red ink?’  

This guest artist clearly did not consider it part of his job to sugarcoat advice.  I certainly understand how both students could have come out of that master class feeling dejected.  Almost anyone - myself included - would have needed to recover from such remarks. Yet while his style was blunt and harsh, he did get to the heart of those students’ critical weaknesses at that moment in their education.  The first student needed to grow beyond technical precision and learn to express himself through the music. Music is not a sport, and technical mastery means nothing without emotion behind it. The second student needed to pay with more attention to detail and to take care to incorporate his private teacher’s corrections and advice.  

I like to think of criticism as something to accept objectively and even coldly.  There are plenty of places for emotions in music, but responding emotionally to criticism isn’t helpful.  Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Accept criticism gracefully and gratefully, whether you asked for it or not.  Most (though not all) criticism is well-intentioned, even if ill-timed.  

  2. Decide privately if the criticism is valid.  It doesn’t necessarily depend on the expertise of the source, either.  An audience member with no knowledge of music may offer you their impressions on your performance - perhaps they found one of your favorite pieces dull.  They may not be the only one, and you may need to work harder to bring out the beauty in that piece. On the other hand, a knowledgeable rehearsal leader may have called you out for a rhythmic error, but both you and your stand partner know that it was your partner’s error.  

  3. If the criticism is valid, figure out how to learn and grow from it.  This could be as simple as exaggerating your dynamics and interpretive devices to breathe more life into your favorite piece.  Or it could mean drastically reconstructing your practice habits and repertoire choices to develop your musical expression. Don’t be afraid of big changes -- they often lead to big results.  

Disclaimer: I do not always follow these steps perfectly by any means.  I almost inevitably get frustrated by ill-timed criticism, delivered when I already feel poorly about how I played.  But I still do my best to thank the person. Accepting criticism gracefully and objectively is not something that comes naturally to everyone, but we should still all strive towards it.  

Have others been in learning environments like the one described in the master class above?  Where valid criticism is delivered in a blunt way? Or worse, when criticism is phrased not just bluntly, but insultingly?  Have you ever had a private teacher who critiqued you harshly? Did it bother you? Did it make you a better player? Some types of personalities actually thrive on harsh criticism and take it as a fun challenge rather than something to feel bad about.  That’s rare, but certainly a gift! Are you one of those musicians?

Lou DeGregorio
Lou DeGregorio

Handling criticism is a life long project.  So also is handling compliments.  Our egos get in the way.  Personally for myself, a harsh criticism might work on me once or twice but after that I don't wish to be a stepping stone for that persons ego and I would tend to not put myself in that position again.  Too much of a good thing gets sour

Lou DeGregorio
Lou DeGregorio

That being said, I do welcome constructive criticism even if it's harsh.  At the wrong time it has the wrong result, so I believe a good teacher, mentor knows when that time is right.  That teacher, mentor, has your best interest in mind and should be nurturing you toward your goal and will , should be harsh at times, but never abusive.  

Leah Kruszewski
ModeratorInstructor

That's really well-said Lou!  Any decent teacher definitely has your best interest in mind, but it's very true how we deliver it can greatly affect its usefulness.  Ultimately, it's the student's job to convert critical information into a productive result on their playing, but teachers can help a lot with the manner and timing in which we delver it.  

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