Dealing with Criticism

I had planned to continue blogging on the subject of approaches to songwriting. But since this week, through conversations on Facebook and in my studio, I’m hearing some of my students deal with the effects of crushing criticism,I’ve decided to share some thoughts about it. Anyway, that is something that can be a block to the songwriting process as well.

There are two kinds of criticism: criticism from others and self-criticism. But eventually, the criticism from others can become self-generating if we internalize it over time. Then, we can become our own worst critics, inhibiting our creativity. Like Viola Spolin says in her groundbreaking book Improvisation for the Theater:

…categorized “good” or “bad” from birth (a “good” baby does not cry much) we become so enmeshed with the tenuous treads of approval/disapproval that we are creatively paralyzed.

If we are constantly feeling pressure from critics, real or imaginary, we can’t be free in expressing ourselves. When we are performing, we won’t invest ourselves emotionally in our music. We start to obsess about every potential mistake, and we may even self-sabotage. And as songwriters, if we question every word and dismiss it as trite or boring – almost before it even reaches the page – we become blocked and unable to write at all.

So how can we free ourselves in order to create? It is certainly useful to identify the early sources of the negative messages – a teacher perhaps or a parent who told us we “couldn’t.” Eloise Ristad in her book A Soprano on her Head, suggests visualizing your internal judges and engaging in dialog with them. A trained therapist or coach might be helpful in this process, as can journaling. (In a previous post I recommended the journaling process outlined in the The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.)

In terms of my own songwriting process, I’m going to give myself permission to write badly. I’m going to try some writing exercises that shake things up and just have fun with them. I found a book called The Songwriter’s Playground by Barbara Jordan which has some great things I want to try. As the name implies, the exercises are playful and designed to circumvent the critical editor inside. Once I have written something I think has some potential, I’ll put it aside for a few days and then try to step back and look at it more objectively.

Is there a time for criticism? Absolutely. We can’t become better singers, songwriters, or performers without critically evaluating ourselves and getting feedback from people – experts, peers, audiences, etc.

Of course constructive criticism is most helpful. That’s why I cringe at shows like American Idol when performers – putting their heart and soul in their singing – get slammed with crushing comments that don’t contain any information on how to improve. In my opinion, this kind of feedback is irresponsible, and just reveals the critics’ lack of knowledge. I believe everyone who works hard at music is capable of great improvement with the right guidance, and none of us should behave like gods with the power to stamp out someone’s dreams.

However, we don’t have any control over how people deliver criticism to us, and as it is part of every professional career, we have to learn to accept it and learn from it when we can. As Robert Cohen says in his text, Acting One:

Some (criticism) is instructive, some destructive, and some entirely beside the point. Some you will find useful; some you will find inane; some you will inevitably find unfair. And let’s make no mistake about it: criticism hurts. Anybody who says it doesn’t is either a fool or a liar…The important things are not to take criticism too personally and not to waste a lot of time defending yourself. In the long run, it means little if the criticism is fair or unfair…If you can learn from it, use it. If you can’t learn from it, forget it.

So you need to learn how to filter the comments that you receive from others. Sometimes that involves “translating” someone’s uninformed or callous comments to point to some actual improvement you could make. Other times, it means ignoring comments if you suspect they might be motivated by jealousy or other factors beyond your control (ie, the person is having a bad day:-). On the other hand, the more you stand out, the more original that you are, the more some people are not going to like you – no matter what – so you have to get used to that; in fact, you might consider it a badge of honor.

Surround yourself with people who support you, experts you trust, and seek out constructive criticism. Use it to improve and just keep working on your craft. If you’ve just received some nasty comments and are feeling bad, remind yourself of the positive comments you have gotten in the past (you might even keep a file of these). Think of the people that come to hear you, the gigs that went well, the well-deserved applause, etc. Your “confidence muscle” will get stronger and your skin will grow a little thicker.

Good luck with your singing, writing and other creative endeavors!

Comments

  1. Great article, Celia. It was very insightful and helped me a lot. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, wonderful info, as confidence seems to be my biggest issue singing.

  3. Peter F Given :

    I love seeing the quotes & references to such supportive professionals. Personally I have no self-criticism what so ever but my heart aches for anyone who has both internal & external obsticles to work around. push on, turn it around by writing about it.

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