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Music Notes: A Blog by the Music Academy of Garden City

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Embracing Constructive and Destructive Criticism

Criticism is something we tend to avoid, especially in our modern society which seems to thrive on positive reinforcement and high self-esteem, often regardless of accomplishments. But criticism of many kinds can be a valuable tool for the musician and is an integral part of becoming successful in any field. Criticism is indeed necessary if one is to improve at music, and every music teacher knows that he or she must often be critical of a student’s work in order to get them to the next level. In fact, some of my best professors in college were also my biggest critics. These mentors routinely picked apart my playing and sometimes did it quite unmercifully. Why did they do it? Well, surely it was not just to make me feel bad, nor was it in order to make them feel better about themselves. They did it because they cared about my progress as a musician and wanted to see me succeed. So, here are a few tips for the music student who will inevitably deal with criticism.

1. Both kinds of criticism, constructive and “destructive,” should be embraced and put in perspective. If your teacher takes the time to constructively critique your playing, you as a student should embrace what he or she says and take it to heart. Your teachers only have what’s best for you in mind, and have the experience to know what the standards are for musicians in the “real world.”  Learning to embrace their criticism and practice effectively based on that criticism is something that all musicians must do in order to improve. Besides constructive criticism, I can assure you that you will also encounter destructive criticism in your life as a musician (but hopefully not from a teacher). This can also be transformed into something positive, if you learn to put it in perspective. First, look at the source. If it’s someone petty and jealous, then it’s okay to disregard their words. But, if you find that their criticism has some merit, regardless of whether they meant it to help you or not, you should use their criticism as motivation to improve, and to prove them wrong! In my life, some of the most constructive critics have been the ones who meant to be destructive, but I took their words and made sure that I practiced until I could prove them wrong and make them eat their words.

2. You have the potential to be a great musician, regardless of the critics. Criticism becomes much easier to digest when you realize your potential, and believe that you can succeed in music. But, there is a big caveat that people often avoid when taking about our potential as human beings, and that is the essential ingredient of hard work. I can assure you that you can be a great musician, or a great soccer player, or even a world-class architect, if you are willing to work extremely hard! Personally, it took me a very long time to figure out that I could accomplish any of my goals in music, as long as I was willing to put the work in. Having this insight will give criticism of all kinds a completely new perspective, since you will realize that with some diligent practice, you can eventually silence even the most harsh critic!

3. Criticism provides us with much-needed humility. Like it or not, we musicians can tend to be a little egocentric. If you think about it, the very act of performing begins with the idea that we have something in us that is so profound, so worthwhile, and so special, that it deserves the attention of an entire audience! The danger of egotism is that we run the risk of getting a swelled head and becoming unteachable, or we can fall into the “big fish, little pond” syndrome, both of which will have a negative impact on our improvement as players. Don’t get me wrong, I am not speaking about confidence, which all musicians must have, but more about arrogance, which has no place in the learning process (some would argue a little arrogance is good for the performance itself, but I am not addressing that here). An arrogant person cannot learn from anyone, since they think they already know it all. The “big fish” syndrome is also a danger, because it let’s the student musician compare himself only to those around him. The danger of this is that a high school or college campus is a limited “pond,” and does not reflect the true standards for musicians in the professional world. To avoid this, it’s best to compare yourself to accomplished players on your instrument, and not to your friends at school. In my case as a bassist, I will routinely listen to the best jazz or classical bassists in the world and see how I stack up against them. Granted, this is not a fun or easy process, but it is essential to improving.

4. Become your own worst critic. Again, don’t confuse being self-critical with being self-hating or walking around miserable or depressed. Trust me, music is not worth all of that! But, it’s important for you to be critical of your own playing in order to see where you need improvement. One great way to do this is by recording yourself and listening back with a critical ear. This is easy to do today with iPhones and iPads, and you will gain valuable insight into your own playing. It’s also important because your own playing or singing sounds one way in your head, but might sound very different in reality. The only way to tell is by listening back to yourself. You will be surprised by what you hear (both good and bad).

5. Catalog where you have been in order to see where you are going. When I first started studying jazz, for some reason I believed that I would never become a great jazz musician. I thought I started too late in life, or that I just didn’t get it, or that I was not talented enough. But, I continued to practice and learn because I truly loved the music. It wasn’t until a few years later that I decided to listen to some old recordings of myself, and I was able to see (or hear) that I had in fact improved greatly! Since then, I have cataloged all of my performances and use them as guideposts to help me see that I am indeed improving, and more times than not, I am encouraged by my progress.

6. Remember, music is meant to be fun! At the end of the day, if I am not having fun playing music, what is the point? If I am constantly miserable about playing the bass, why play it at all? So, next time you sit down to practice, work hard, use the power of criticism, and learn to enjoy the process. If you do this, I guarantee that you will succeed in music.

by Pete Coco

Pete Coco is cofounder of the Music Academy of Garden City and an Adjunct Professor of Music at Hofstra University. For more information on the Music Academy, please call 516-292-2777 or send an email to

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