Ruthless Self Criticism

Let's talk about…criticism. It's a difficult topic to discuss even though so much of the music business literally revolves around criticism. In October of 2011 I wrote a BLOG about my musical ego and the place that it has in my life. Some of that post is mixed in here, where relevant. But really, criticism shouldn't - SHOULDN'T - be ego bruising. It should inspire the party being critiqued to correct problems or, when the criticism comes in the form of music reviews, spark a spirited debate (about interpretation, quality of music, etc.).

In its worst form, criticism can be cheap or mean. This is a trap I have often found myself falling in to. One could generously call me unfiltered, blunt, or harsh. Really, any nasty adjective or reality TV synonym for 'jerk' will do. The reason for this certainly has to do with one of my favorite practices: ruthless self criticism. What I mean is: nobody thinks I play more out of tune than I think I do. There isn't a person around who thinks my rhythm is worse than I think it is. I'd challenge you to search out a person who finds my cello technique to be as subpar as I find it to be. As such, I think that my criticism of others tends to be just as harsh as my own self criticism is. Conversely, I really enjoy when others criticize me, though I might disagree with it at times, especially concerning musical decisions. 

This is a product of my very healthy ego. I don't believe that performers would be able to accomplish much of anything without a well developed sense of self, a large ego. The problem, sometimes, for me is that my level of shame(lessness) is not appropriate for both the real-world performance process (promotion, performance, convincing an audience of your musical choices) AND every day life. There are so many ways to bruise one's ego, especially in music, where constant criticism is prevalent. With newspaper reviews, weekly lessons with constructive teachers, feedback from ensemble leaders, musicians are faced with a barrage of (mostly) constructive criticism. The successful performer processes all criticisms - both gentle and harsh - and improves upon the areas most critiqued. For me, when receiving criticism it is sometimes hard to push past my bruised ego, but even in my most fragile state, one could not accuse me of falling down on the job. 

I really do believe that I can take even the harshest criticism, break it down, learn from it, and use it to get better at what I do. It wasn't always this way, of course. We all have cracks in our armor. It's incredibly difficult to hear a teacher or colleague tell you that something you've worked so hard on sounds bad but I really believe it's even harder to hear that from the New York Times. This has been my experience. In 2010, I was performing the Schubert C Major String Quintet in California. After one particular concert the group that I was performing with received a great review in the local newspaper (no specific names or locations mentioned). The members of the quartet and our collaborator were pretty happy after reading the entire review, but they were also keeping their distance from me. Probably because of this line:

"The obvious weak link was first cellist Justin Dougherty, who at times seemed far removed from the virtuosity of the rest of the group."


Certainly that sucked. That was the only time the review mentioned my name. I wanted to say that the critique was very general. What does it mean to be far removed from the rest of the group, anyway? And the virtuosity? If I'm so bad, how is the rest of the group virtuosic?! However, it wasn't the first time that I had heard that criticism, that it often seemed like I was out of my league in our quartet, that the others technical finesse and musical ideas far exceeded my own. The problem with the review was that it was the first time people I didn't know were hearing about it. You see, this criticism had come previously from teachers or colleagues in a safe environment. Instead of taking their critique to heart and working harder to become the best cellist I could be in our group, I began to feel bad for myself. 

That wasn't the case this time. The group performed in a different city later that week. Now, I was prepared. I spent some time alone in my hotel room, studying the score, practicing things that weren't quite right (side note: don't ever become complacent. Good enough -- isn't.), marking my part so that I knew exactly where I was in the hierarchy of musical importance. The result was another positive review for the group, however it also included this little tidbit about me (again, the only time my name was mentioned):

"Justin Dougherty is astounding, pulling a sound from his cello that is both sumptuous and beautiful. He is the obvious leader [of the quintet]."

My point - and there is one, amidst my shameless bragging and ego fanning - is that criticism is good. It should push us, as musicians, to do better. Take the critique and figure out how to get better (hint: intelligent PRACTICE). In my case, I couldn't overcome my lack of technical prowess in one day (I'm still fighting with that, and always will be), but I could become more engaged. That second performance was the most connected I had ever been with the other members of the group. Because I had renewed my knowledge of the score, I was aware of what was going on all around me. I was able to play off of my colleagues, blend my sound with others who were playing similar music, and generally be a better chamber musician, which led to a much better performance. This should have been obvious, something I should have been doing all along, but it (and I) wasn't. It took a swift kick to my musical butt to get me on board.

Had the criticism of my playing in the review been, "Justin plays out of tune in the second movement and really everywhere else, too, like all the time, always," you can bet I would have used my practice time playing long tones with a drone and slowly mapping out distances from one position and the shift to the next. Don't allow criticism to slow you down, quite the opposite. Make criticism work for you. Figure out why you are receiving a comment (especially if it keeps happening) and find a way to fix it. If your musical choices are criticized - like mine were in that review - really sit with the music and consider your musical decisions. If your fast playing is sloppy, consider the mechanics of playing quickly, with facility, determine where the problem lies - right or left arm - and take steps to get better. Don't let critique slow you down and don't waste time critiquing the criticizer. Instead, use your energy putting yourself to work getting better! The sooner you do it (and it should be straight away!), the sooner you'll start hearing from others how great you are!