On criticism – Threading between limitation and choice

There are many instances where as musicians or artists we are subject to criticism and evaluation. These situations span from the life changing album review by an international publication, to the Christmas family dinner where your aunt will mention the color of your guitar. So having a clear path on how to approach and deal with criticism is as helpful of a skill as mastering playing major scales. Be too oblivious to it and you might miss on some important feedback, take it too seriously and you might feel emotionally overwhelmed and ultimately unable to perform your craft from a nice relaxed space.

The internet has plenty of resources and quotes on how to master dealing with criticism. Some of these resources make very valid points, although most are not exactly revolutionary. As art students we all were forced to come to terms, in our initial art or music lessons, with the fact that criticism and feedback were going to be not only important but simply a big part of our life and growth. Furthermore, it’s considered that an active approach to seeking criticism while you’re learning a craft is one of the best ways to climb the ladder of apprenticeship in a fast steady way. Being alive means existing in a plane where you are a combination of your perceptions plus the perceptions of others, we have a very good idea of our own perception, but that only tells half of the story of existing. Ultimately, if you have a curious and open mind about criticism and feedback you will be able to see the world not only from your point of view, but also from the point of view of others. As Sun Tzu would gracefully put in The Art of War:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles…” 

At the same time, artistry is also about innovation, about following your instincts and trusting your processes. Eleanor Roosevelt when faced with hard criticism due to advocating for human right as a non elected public figure said

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t”

Although the context is totally different, I feel like there is a lot of learning from this that can be helpful in the arts world. Art is infinite, and as infinite as it is, it is also infinitely subjective. Therefore, in an ocean of infinite pressures and motives, following your heart and being honest with yourself and who you are still seems to be one of the most clear ways of producing art in an artistically ethical way (if you choose to believe in such a concept).

On to the real point of this reflection which is something a bit deeper and harder to grasp. As mentioned, art is subjective and it’s as traditional as art itself that artists are these weird misunderstood beings. They see and sing about the world through a particular lens and when they hand this lens to someone else there’s a high chance that this someone won’t be able to see much. It’s the nature of the beast. After all  J. S. Bach, widely regarded and considered the greatest and most prolific composer of all times, wouldn’t begin to get this immense recognition for more than 50 years after his death. Navigating through criticism is therefore not an exact science in the arts realm as most of you have figured out by now.

My own personal opinion after doing some research on the nature of criticism itself but also some much needed self reflection, is that there are two essential ways of producing anything in music and the arts. These are:

  1. From a place of limitation
  2. From a place of informed choice

In these two approaches lie the answer to many artistic and musical dilemmas that one might face during art production. And this is also what can help you wither between the – seek criticism VS. Follow your he(art) paradox.

I’ll use a general example that could be a common occorrence in the jazz world. First of all you need a good reproducible copy of whatever is being criticised. Of course in writing or painting, you can always refer back to the piece, but as a musician, if you didn’t record the piece of music being criticised, then it’s lost for good and you can’t really use it for this analysis. So if you’re being criticised for your performance in a lesson or a class or a session, it’s always highly recommendable to record the moments you are playing. 

Now listen clearly to the criticism and try to reduce the metaphors and communication issues in a remark like “you sound like a robot” to something as simple as “I didn’t like your articulation because it’s stiff and too mechanical” or “you could make more use of dynamics or expression devices”. And finally, listen to what you recorded and be brutally honest with yourself. Seriously, your eventual success as a musician or artist depends heavily on this! Now answer the following questions:

  • Are you truly happy about what you’re hearing in your articulation? 
  • Are you happy because it’s yours or because after researching immensely about articulation you’ve decided and settled onto something and that’s what you’re aiming for? 
  • Were you able to reproduce it the way you envision it in your mind?

Remember that most if not all great musicians play the way they do because they probably refused deliberately every other option they could think of or come in contact with. 

In all honesty, if you have a clear vision of the result you wanted to achieve and in your mind you’ve gotten close enough to that vision, that means what you did or played or composed came from a place of choice and not limitation. And in choice you follow your artistic intuition and personality and you give birth to honest artistic work. Now sure, some people might not enjoy it and that’s ok, be mindful and thankful of the time they took to check you out, reach out to you and give you feedback. That’s a lot more than what most people will do. 

Take a brief or not so brief look at the possible path that the criticism would point you towards, even if that was not your intention to begin with. There’s always something to be gained.

Eventually you will be criticised for something that you will recognize resembles more of a limitation. That’s ok, no one is a master in every single conceivable musical aspect. Humbly accept the fact that you did your best with the resources you had available. If this is a big area in your artistic path try to tackle it and solve it as fast as you can. In researching and spending many hours just focusing on that same issue and on the many ingenious solutions that the grand masters have used to solve that problem, you will eventually become knowledgeable and well versed in that particular detail. Then you can make your  artistic choices, then you can work on implementing them. Rinse and repeat.

To grow in music or any kind of art form requires ultimately a deep connection and conversation with your inner self. A brutal self awareness and recognition of where you are along your path, what lies ahead, what lies behind. It’s only natural to produce something, whatever it is, and have our egos intervene and hold on to what was produced in a very emotional way. I won’t say there is anything inherently wrong with you if you feel this way, it is after all just human nature. What I will say is, the more you can distance yourself from these feelings the more you will gain from every experience. 

André

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