My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A critic among friends or a friend among critics?

Image by Wakalani, on Wikipedia Commons
Warning #1:  This may be another post that will ruffle some feathers.

Warning #2:  This post will reveal yet again my love of being optimistic and perhaps idealistic so if you don't tend do be this way, well, keep reading, but just consider yourself forewarned.

OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way, here goes.

I have a really hard time understanding why it is the world still finds a need for critics, especially in the classical music world.  I'm not just talking professional critics, I'm also referring to the everyday critics among us musicians, professional, amateur, whatever.  In a time when we so many of us are trying to find ways to continue performing in the midst of budget cuts, shut-down organizations, and lost funding, shouldn't we be doing whatever we can to encourage a positive outlook on our profession?  And shouldn't we let our performances speak for themselves and let audiences just listen and take away from a performance or a recording what they are inspired to take away?

About a week ago, one of the world's most renown string quartet's came to our tiny town of Blacksburg in the foothills of the Appalachians of southwest Virginia.  This created quite an amazing flurry of excitement and not surprisingly, the concert was sold out.  It was the place to be that one night.  Faculty members from the music school at the local college were there, private teachers were there with their young students, amateur chamber musicians were there, chamber music afficionados were there.  I was delighted that I was also able to attend and I too was swept up in the excitement, especially because I had never heard this well-established ensemble perform live.  What an honor.  

And then what a shock, when I was still grinning from ear to ear after the first half, to overhear many individuals expressing their incredible disappointment with this group of musicians.  I was stunned.  Completely stunned.  And angry.  We were hearing and seeing a group of individuals that have found a way to make music-making a viable way to live; a group of musicians that is invited around the world to perform this repertoire; a group that has amazing skill and experience.  Yet this is what I heard:
"They don't move enough."
"There's not enough visual communication between them."
"They weren't even together some of the time."
"I don't like [so-and-so]'s sound."
"I have to say I'm really disappointed."
Aack!  I really, really wanted to cry or scream, take your pick.  First, because these comments were coming from people that were clearly not enjoying the performance which was a shame and second, because these comments were being made in such a way that members of the audience could hear them and possibly absorb them into their own hearts and ears for the remaining piece on the program.  Don't get me wrong, of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions but I was saddened that people felt a need (or a desire?) to be so critical and that it was shared in the presence of others in the middle of the performance.  

Not every performance can be stellar.  Not every performer or performance can be loved by all.  But why can't we at least think the best of every one of our colleagues?  Why can't we just be supportive even when we're not in our comfort zone?  Why do we have to sound like we are more knowledgeable than those around us?  Isn't it possible that these types of attitudes only help in giving our world of classical music a snobbish, uppity, and not-fun reputation?   And when we're the ones performing on stage, is it any wonder that anxiety runs high and that fear of criticism can undermine any performer's best intentions?  It doesn't work to explain such criticism away, saying, "Well it's not like the performers knew what I was saying about them."  Think again!  Most performers have an uncanny ability to sense an audience's vibe in a given performance situation and when it's a bad vibe, there is practically nothing worse.  Who wants to play for an audience that is clearly passing judgement with every note played or sung?  

Not me.

Let's think twice before we decide to step into the role of critic.  Perhaps there is a better, more productive way of passing on our love for the music that we so love to hear and a more supportive way to encourage our musical colleagues.  Can't we be friends among critics rather than critics among friends?

Our future just may depend on it.


  1. A wise man once said: "Negativity is a form of slavery."

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I wonder if the critics think that they can play it better. :) Usually, the criticism comes from those who cannot do better.

  3. Many feel that the ability to preserve higher standards is a sign of the refinement of their intellectual taste. But as you observed, the more practice at criticism - the more the focus turns to limitation. There are other more useful hats to wear: being able to describe benefits, feelings, use creative observation, design logic, or collect facts toward improvement. Being negative is only one sign of "volunteer slavery"!
    Bottom line, it takes more practice & ability to observe to articulate positive characteristics, and imagine positive, reasonable motives in the face of apparently negative reactions. It's something everyone could stand to practice more often.

  4. It is very sad too. I actually sort of pity these poor silly persons, desperately trying to find flaws so they had something to say. It's like the people who send back dishes in fancy restaurants just to feel superior to the rest of the crowd. What they're showing is their massive insecurity and the fact that they cannot enjoy music.

    Reminds me of this excellent video on some words by Stephen Fry: It's about language, but in principle the same things happen. Do these critics "bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy" at music?

    Poor sods, I hope they discover music some day.

    PS. LOL at this one: "They don't move enough."

  5. So many wonderful comments. Thank you all for taking the time to do that. I think I'll respond separately.

    Patrick, you are so wonderful at nailing something in a simple, sweet way. I love that quote as well and am so glad that you brought it back up in response to this post. Slavery, indeed. I so dislike the feeling of getting swept into a tide of negativity and it never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to find ourselves there.

    I just read a blog post of cellist Emily Wright's that is fantastic and somewhat related..."Choosing Happiness" -
    Definitely worth a read or two.

    Happy practicing and blogging :-) I love to read what you write everyday.

  6. Anonymous,
    I find myself wondering the same thing often. It seems as though some folks feel a need to pull others down in order to raise themselves up. Problem is that's a mighty artificial result plus it's just chock full of negativity.

    I definitely prefer the opposite. :-)

    Thanks again for your comment!


  7. "Alexander Technique for Smart People"-
    First of all, I'm so glad that you commented so that I could learn about your own blog. I'm eager to read your posts there! My husband took AT for a year or so when he was having some vocal issues and he has passed on much of what he learned to me. I've also enjoyed reading Patrick Smith's blog, , a guitarist that incorporates AT into all aspects of his daily living.

    I really love your suggestions for positive ways that people can react to music. It's amazing how difficult to be to have such an approach and to not slip into negative points of view. So thank you for listing them in such a clear way. These pointers would be great to share with young musicians, especially, in a studio setting where they're learning how to listen in a productive, supportive, way. I just may print them out and have it on reference. :-)

    Thanks again for your comment - I look forward to hearing more from you.


  8. Alex,
    What a great video. Fry's essay is a dessert of words in my opinion in addition to being downright interesting and true. Love it.

    And I'm completely with you on your wish; that these people will someday flip their negativity switch and will discover music one day.
    There are many that would benefit from such a discovery.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and share that video.


  9. A lot of times, I think people point out negative things because that is all they have been taught to listen for -- they've heard the same from their own teachers for so long that they don't know there is any other way to comment.

    I have long thought that the art of commenting (vs. criticism) should be taught as part of the music curriculum. Hey, anyone out there who wants to teach a class like this, let me know! I'd take it. I mean, how many probably hundreds of times have I listened to other people play and not been able to find something to say about it afterward?

    There's also some professional jealousy involved. I think it does hurt that only a few people get the gigs, the money, and the acclaim, and the rest just get the crumbs. There's only so much fame to go around, and even less fortune.

  10. Erica,
    I am saddened to say that this situation is all too true, and happens way too often. It is especially sad that it is from colleague to colleague.

    When it comes to those of us who perform professionally, it is a part of us. We are putting ourselves out there and are at the mercy of these negative people. That, in itself, takes courage. Maybe more courage than these critics have?

    I believe comments like that are a sure sign of insicurities as a musician. Granted, it is hard to turn off that critical ear since we have been trained to be critical of ourselves in order to reach a high level of performance. As you mentioned, not all performances will be stellar, and we have all criticized performances, even if the comments were only to ourselves. But, why can't we support each other as musicians and appreciate each other and their efforts in making music?

    Musicians are here for each other. We need to stick together to keep fighting the good fight. If we keep turning on each other, there won't be any applause for anyone at the end of our performance.


  11. I'm with you 100% on this one, Erica.

    Here are a few suggestions as to why people destructively and not constructively criticise:

    1- Lack of self-esteem on their part
    2 - A hang up with technical perfection at the expense of musicality - no thanks to the recording industry where even single notes can be digitally changed to produce such niceties as perfect intonation
    3 - A flaw in the way they have been taught - too academic and dry
    4 - An inability to enjoy music for its own sake. The sad thing is, this is likely to reflect in their own technically competent but bland performances
    5- The lingering outdated mindset of competition over collaboration

    Time for change don't you think? And that starts with people like you being courageous enough to put their neck on the block.


  12. Ha ha, Marion. Not terribly surprised that you're on the same page on this one - you usually are :-)

    And reading through your list of possible explanations I can't help but say "ugh!" You're right on, I believe, about all those but it's just so terribly sad in my mind. But we're gonna make a change - I feel it. So let's just keep enjoying ourselves - hopefully it will rub off!



  13. Big applause for this post, Erica. No wonder we have a perfectionism problem in classical music. People have associated classical music as needing to be perfect so every little human quality that comes with a performance gets picked out and picked at. For a music genre that needs to relax a bit more to connect with new audiences, sometimes the current audience makes it challenging to do so.

  14. Good points, Shoshana. Makes me wonder if what we need to do, partially, is to seek out different, less critical audiences in the first place. There are plenty of classical musicians that can cater to those critical folks but I don't care to join that fray. I'm also hoping that in time, the critics and the perfectionism will slowly disappear and be replaced by folks that simply want to join in a musical event, whether as an audience member or as a performer or even something else. Naive, perhaps, but well, that's me :-)

    Thank you for reading and commenting!

    All the best,

  15. You linked this on your FB, so here I am because I Cannot Shut Up. :-)

    I'm thinking about what you said about a lot of the cutting contests coming from patrons and not from musicians, and it reminded me of a rather ugly conversation I had with someone I thankfully don't see very often anymore (and not at all for the rest of my life, if I get my way).

    He claimed to be a music "lover" and then the next thing he said was something like, "You know who the kind of people I have no respect for are? Well ... " and then off he went on some bullshit opinion or other. Seriously! He opened a conversation on MUSIC like that! And then preened on about what a huge CD collection he had.

    Of course, he didn't actually play a note on anything.

    I think there are people who desperately want to be part of the music crowd. They want to belong in the room, like the coat-tailers who follow famous people around in nightclubs and restaurants. They want to be able to point to the crowd and say, "I'm with them. I'm special."

    But there's a problem. They haven't the guts to play an instrument. I don't think it's a matter of lacking skill, just nerve. When you play an instrument, you must take the risk of being seen to be incompetent. You have to be willing to risk sounding like shit, and where people can hear you.

    This prospect is terrifying to them. They are horribly insecure, and if you put them on stage with a clarinet or something, they'd pass out in fear. But they still want to be part of the crowd, trailing behind Mr. Big in the club. But how do you gain status as part of a skill based crowd if you haven't the nerve it takes to develop the skill that will gain you status? Gaining status means RISK.

    You disdain things instead. Looking down on the right things is the second-rate way of gaining status when you don't have the courage to actually risk working for it and failing. Those cutters in that audience wanted so desperately to appear to belong there, but if they had to play so much as "Twinkle" where anyone could hear them, they'd freeze. So they turn to the only way remaining to them to elevate themselves, the second-rate way. Nitpicking.