Accepting Criticism

How to have a more useful response to critiques of your playing

A friend of mine is a concertina teacher. He was approached by a potential student who asked, “Will you critique my playing?” My friend answered, yes, among other things, he would listen and point out areas for the student to work on. The student replied, “That might be hard for me, as I don’t really take criticism well.” They ended the conversation with a mutual decision that lessons weren’t the best idea right now.

A critical voice, whether it’s between your ears or outside them, can be so disheartening as to make you want to give up. Whether it’s a suggestion, advice, an observation, input, or guidance, we’re not fooled: We know we’re being told we’re wrong! Yet having our playing evaluated is valuable. We can all work towards accepting input about our playing in a way that is positive and helpful.

Criticism can be ill-timed and irrelevant, insightful and useful, or anywhere in between. Yet we tend to screen out anything that sounds like “advice,” because it feels uncomfortable to hear something negative. This is true whether the advice is useful or not.

I’ve heard musicians specifically request feedback, and when it’s given, no matter how the suggestion is phrased, they become defensive, saying variations of: “I already do that,” “I know that,” “That doesn’t work for me,” or “That’s not how I see it.”

I’m convinced these musicians don’t realize they’re putting up resistance to input. They think they are listening and making a judgment that the way they play already is fine.

I imagined, as I wrote this, such comments about our playing having to pass through a metaphorical battlement. It’s a wall we erect to defend ourselves from criticism. At times people let down the drawbridge to accept input from “validated” sources: whether a teacher, musician, book or article.

Graphic showing that criticism doesn’t penetrate our defenses against negative feedback. We hear nothing.

One reason we erect these “battlements” of defense against criticism is that our minds subtly amplify the most specific, mild comment, (“I think you slowed down in the bridge,”) to an overall judgment on our ability, character, and future (“You’re bad. You’ll never be any good. You always make mistakes. You’re not a good musician. Nobody wants to hear you play!”)

Our mental battlements are actually counterproductive when seen this way: We’re setting up strong mental defenses against external criticism, when the damaging criticism is coming from within us.

Graphic showing that we filter criticism and amplify it, adding negative connotations

Magnifying a small negative idea into a blanket negative judgment is something our minds do with great ease. The inner voice can be subtle, deceptive, and persistent. After years of work this still happens to me, although the voice has become very muted and I’m quickly aware of its effects.

In practicing and teaching the martial art of aikido I learned a valuable lesson. Because a martial art is very physical, I learned this concept deeply, both in my body and my psyche.

You are strongest and most able to defend yourself when you don’t resist an attack².

I realize this is completely counterintuitive. Yes! That’s why it’s so great! Here’s how it plays out on the aikido mat:

When someone grabs me, my impulse is to stiffen. When I stiffen, they grab tighter. If, instead, I can stay relaxed, the attacker also relaxes. I’m communicating with my body that I’m just a lightweight, and that they don’t have to put much energy into keeping me immobile. Learning to stay relaxed and strong at the same time takes patient practice.

With more of my muscles relaxed, I can move without the attacker sensing it. If I’m grabbed from behind, for example, I can shift my hips and feet to set up for a throw, without telegraphing the information to my shoulders where I’m being held. Of course, in the end I throw the attacker to the ground. But I’m relaxed, rather than resistant, the entire time.

This practice is very challenging. To master it you must develop a habit of becoming more and more relaxed, both physically and mentally, whenever you are punched, grabbed, kicked, or even yelled at.

We can apply this aikido lesson to the way we respond to criticism. Instead of mentally stiffening and defending ourselves, we can relax and stay open-minded. This requires trust that we won’t be overwhelmed by subtle, but negative, self-criticism.

Here are three steps to a more useful response to criticism about your playing:

  1. Listen fully to what the person says.
  2. Trust your ability to make decisions about what suggestions are useful to you.
  3. Keep yourself from magnifying comments and suggestions into anything bigger than they actually are.

When someone gives me advice, criticism, or suggestions, I work hard to listen. I try to hear what the person is trying to communicate, unfiltered by what I think they mean. If I have an instant reaction, I note it, but try not to respond just yet. Then I think again about the opinion I was offered.

It doesn’t matter whether a random dancer thought the piano was too loud in the mix, or a famous teacher is telling me not to drop my bowing elbow. Whether I deeply respect the advice-giver or I suspect they’re not well-informed², I listen openly. The input may be helpful, or not. It’s up to me to decide.

Graphic showing how we can use discernment to decide which suggestions and advice to act on.

It can be hard to stay open to criticism. (Understatement!) I find if I can listen to input that might make me uncomfortable, I benefit from some very helpful advice. In addition, as I’ve learned to listen without reacting and without amplifying the comments into more than was said, I’ve become a more confident and joyful musician.

[1] At least, not in the way we normally think of “resisting” i.e., tensing, blocking a punch, or fighting back.

[2] I’m assuming that the commenter is not criticizing out of pure ill will, even if it feels mean to me.

Here are a few chapters in Best Practice where you’ll find more about managing your critical thoughts:

74–Discernment vs. Criticism
144–How Good Am I
140–Your Inner Critic
157–People Will Like My Playing
154–Personal, Pervasive, Permanent
33–Subtle Thoughts

Judy Minot is a musician and the author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.

Judy has played and practiced piano since she could reach the keys, training in classical playing until age 16. She now plays traditional music in various settings on a number of instruments, and gives workshops and classes on Best Practice ideas all over the U.S. and virtually.

Judy spent her working life in broadcast television and digital marketing. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the martial art of Kokikai Aikido and is a certified yoga teacher.

For more information visit: www.judyminot.com/bestpractice

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Judy Minot

A musician and author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians