The Hidden Enemy: Your Inner Critic’s Attack on Progress

Last week I started writing a theme and variation piece.  I completed the theme and haven’t hit the variations as of yet.  It has been awhile since I’ve written something that wasn’t some form of arrangement of someone else’s piece and I haven’t decided if I’m going to run with it, although I should, because regardless of how it turns out, it’s a way to prime the creative pump.  My main issue with it at this point is that it sounds like something written a couple of hundred years ago, and while I love music from that time frame and earlier, it’s time has come and gone.  However, it’s really in the draft stages, so what comes next might change things quite a bit, or not.  I have found that when confronting something like this, what I’m really facing is my inner critic, that voice which tends to stop forward momentum by immediately calling to task whatever accomplishment has been made toward producing something.  In the early stages of any creative endeavor, it is a must to shut off our internal critic in order to give ourselves the opportunity to move forward, whether it is writing an essay, story, piece of music, or even starting to learn a new piece of music.

            We all follow a progression from novice to mastery on everything we choose to learn, if we stick with the process and don’t permit ourselves to be derailed while underway.  Often life interjects and interrupts the process, whether it’s simply the task of making a living, fulfilling familial duties, or taking care of the million daily necessities in living our lives.  This is reality, not an excuse, and it’s something we all deal with.  Given that we already have responsibilities that interfere, we really don’t need to give time to our inner critics during the early stages of our process on anything new that we’re attempting.  It’s counterproductive, yet all too often it’s precisely this which stops us dead in our tracks.  For many of us, our inner critic is what we most frequently hear from, and we latch onto it in order to maintain some sort of standards.

            However, the inner critic is not really the enforcer of standards.  For one thing it is biased, and frequently is not biased toward us.  It brings in comparisons to other people we view as our competitors, or folks we look up to as examples of where we might want to be with a piece, or even our entire career, and these comparisons all too frequently occur before we’ve even managed to get the piece off the ground or even out of the conception box.  This is where the damage occurs because we are most susceptible to derailing in the early stages where we lack confidence in the creation of the piece, or in our ability to perform it.  If we give our inner critic free reign, particular in the early stages of a project, we are often dooming the project to extinction before it’s even off the ground because before we know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that we are going to produce an inadequate product.

            Does this mean that we exorcise our inner critic entirely from ourselves?  Like many of our other mental processes the inner critic does have its place, but we must train ourselves to use it wisely and recognize when we’re jumping off the deep end into the dark never-after before we make that leap.  We do need our inner critic, but we need to be careful about when we employ it.  If we’ve got a piece down physically, or think we do, now it’s time to use our inner critic.  Bring it out and let it work with the piece to see how we can make it better.  This is the key, though.  We must train our critical selves to truly seek to improve what we are doing, not tear it apart.  Look at where work still needs to be put in and figure out how to best accomplish that work in a manner that will not tear us apart in the process.  The best teachers bring out the best in their students through being constructively demanding, and building on experiences.  Ultimately we become our own instructors as we move along on a daily basis so we need to decide what type of teacher we work best with, and become that teacher ourselves.  This is what our inner critic should be, our internal version of our best teacher.

Sometimes we will come across a piece that simply isn’t going to work, or we’re not ready to tackle either because we’re not proficient enough to make satisfactory progress on it, or because we’re simply not willing or don’t have the time to invest in pursuing it.  We should be able to recognize this without turning it into an opportunity to dump on ourselves, and if we’re doing so it’s usually due to an inadequately trained inner critic speaking out of turn.  Remember, the whole purpose of good criticism is to provide advise in how to improve something beyond its current state of existence.  So now, let’s train that inner critic to work for us instead of against us.

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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.