Criticism: A Vital Part of the Learning Experience

I once had a cat who was a music critic. I was maybe 10 or 11 and had been taking guitar lessons for a couple years. I had cruised through the first four or five Mel Bay Method books in the first year and had started classical lessons in the second. I was working on some easy Bach, some Renaissance lute music, the Carcassi Method, Fernando Sor and the like. My father had followed along with me and was working on some similar pieces. The cat was really funny about the whole thing. When I’d play he’d come into the room and curl up in my guitar case, hanging out with me while I worked through my daily practice. When my dad did his daily practice the cat always left the room, often with his tail twitching.

My dog likes to hang out with me when I practice today and he’s definitely not the critic that my cat was so many years ago. George just wants to be with me, his pack leader, so he comes in and hangs out until I get too loud for him or he wants to go over to the much softer couch in the living room. I do know though that he hates noise, particularly loud noise, and he tries to avoid being anywhere near it, so I guess I’m still doing ok with the music making if he’s hanging out. He does interrupt me from time to time, shoving his nose under my hand while I’m running scales because he’d rather have his ears rubbed than listen to the up down cycle. Can’t say I blame him on that too much. Most of the time I’d rather rub his ears than run scales anyway. But the work still needs to be done in one way or another.

Criticism, whether it is from one of our pets, a loved one, someone we respect or someone we don’t even know, is something that we all need to learn to deal with. We need to learn how to accept criticism that is meant to help us, constructive criticism, and ignore that which is ignorant or spiteful. We need to be able to accept praise gracefully, even if we feel we haven’t really earned it, and accept uncomfortable points just as gracefully. The learning process in any field always involves application of what we’ve learned and then evaluation of what we’ve done with the knowledge. It helps us discern what we need to work harder on, what we can do to fix a problem, and different approaches to the same or similar problem. Some criticism is designed to be destructive and we need to learn how to identify that criticism and differentiate it from that which is intended to help us become better than we were before. Ignore that which harms and embrace that which helps.

My pets couldn’t and can’t really communicate anything other than support or indifference, but they were and are sincere. Due to this I try to keep their response in mind because they have to listen to me. Other criticism I try to welcome as much as I can, and I try to be as open to it as I can, even after being a musician for 45 years.   When I stop learning from the process, then there is no opportunity for growth and I want to keep on growing until the day I die. However, you can’t solely rely on the criticism of others; you need to learn to be able to take an objective look at what you are doing, evaluate it, then recognize the shortcomings and create a plan to improve them. So, you must also be your own critic, particularly when you reach the point where you are no longer actively studying under another musician. The hard part with this is to learn to recognize and give credit to yourself for what you’ve done well and to not berate yourself for failures or mistakes. Good teachers give credit where it is deserved and then focus on what can be a learning opportunity. They encourage even as they provided valuable critical feedback. This is what you need to do for yourself as well.

Learning to accept praise and criticism are both parts of becoming a better performer and a better musician. Whether it’s paying attention to the behavioral patterns of your pets while you are playing, engaging with your audience during and after a performance, working with a teacher, or coaching yourself, being able to handle, interpret and apply critical analysis is vital to becoming all you can be as a professional in any field. It is an incredibly vital part of the learning process and as such should be fully embraced and practiced on a regular basis. Now where did my dog go. . .

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