The Importance of Criticism in Learning

Criticism is something that is a part of life and sometimes it can be a very painful part at that. We often feel put upon and sometimes even insulted when someone breaks out the hammer and starts bludgeoning away at us, and we should in those instances where the individual either doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, is simply lashing out at us for some self ascribed reason, or who has an axe to grind with us for personal reasons. However, healthy doses of criticisms from folks who are there to help us, who know what they’re talking about, and who want us to succeed we should at the very least take into serious consideration. They are giving us the benefit of honest feedback, which is something we should always be thankful for.

All musicians have egos, and many of us have fragile ones that are sensitive to negative feedback, or anything that we perceive as negative feedback. We are creative people, who expose ourselves when we perform whether on stage, in rehearsal or even in lesson situations, and anytime we do so we’re inviting feedback from whomsoever our audience of the moment was. We all like to be told that we’ve done well, particularly when we feel that way ourselves, but what separates musicians who are truly interested in mastery from dilettantes is the ability to take and work with criticism, and turn it to their best advantage. Of course this means that we must evaluate our evaluations and our evaluators as well. We must choose whose criticism we value and know precisely why we value that individual’s opinion.

So how do we determine whose critique we should pay attention to, and who to simply disregard? That can be both simple and complex. The simple answer is that when we get advice from players whose abilities we respect we should value it, digest it and ultimately decide whether or not to heed it. Does this mean that we discard feedback from our audiences of non-players? Not necessarily. Sometimes they produce some pretty inane feedback. However, they can bring up valuable points too, whether it has to do with anything from quirks or behaviors we have on stage that we’re unaware of to even the selection of material we’ve chosen for the event. If you pay attention, you might learn something from them. However, don’t forget to put what the audience says through a heavy filter, even when they’re telling you you’re wonderful.

We learn the most when we don’t let our egos and insecurities get in the way of our learning experiences. For instance, people go to festivals and get slots to take master classes so they have the opportunity to learn from people they normally don’t have access to. If you do so with the sole purpose of having your ego stroked then you’re really wasting the maestro’s time, and everybody else’s as well. There are many people in the audience for these master classes who are there to learn as much as they can by observing them and they’re not there to hear a concise “well done” either. You do want to do your best for the moment’s performance and yes, it’s great to impress the maestro and everyone else, but if all you’re taking away from the experience is “well done” then the learning opportunity has been squandered. You just have the stamp of approval on the piece and nothing new has been passed on to you.

Criticism that is delivered with the honest intent of helping the performer is always something that should be appreciated and never resented. Most of the time the person who is giving it has invested the time and energy into really listening to what we’re doing and then caring enough to try to help us make it better. When this is the case, we can be assured that we have had their focused attention and have made some form of a connection that has brought about sincere communication. It is always up to us whether we choose to act upon the criticism that has been tendered, but we must always remember to appreciate the feedback and not take offense. Let’s face it, usually when we do get upset it’s because we have had something that we were already concerned about pointed to and confirmed as an issue.

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