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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: Using criticism

(Chris Smith)
2005-10-10
Coping with criticism and using it to your best advantage

1) As somebody said, one of the best ways to thicken the skin is to work on your chops. I recall a master-class given by John Miller Chernoff (great ethnomusicologist, learned Ghanaian drumming in Ghana and was initiated by master players, etc), wherein somebody asked him some earnest ethnomusicological question about "what should you do if you're concerned that you might not have reached the right phenomenological insight with your informants...what if you think that perhaps they're not revealing to you the real information that you're seeking for your dissertation?" and without missing a beat (he was playing conga at the time) he said "well, I worry about that stuff too, but when I do, I always figure the best thing to do is work on my chops."

I think he has a point: worry about others' opinions is often a result of one's own insecurity about one's playing. Working on your chops is a way to feel stronger and more confident about that.

2) Often-times when people worry what others are thinking of their playing, it's a product of confusing one's own sense of self-worth with one's skills as a player (I am guilty of this meself, constantly, despite years of trying to get over it). Another good antidote to worrying about others' opinions is to say "I am not my playing...my playing is not me." Makes it easy to accept constructive criticism of one's playing without hearing it as destructive criticism of one's self-worth.

3) This is a virtuoso music. That does *not* mean that everybody has to be a virtuoso (referencing another thread, there's nothing wrong with being an intermediate player, *provided* you realize, accept, and appreciate that about yourself). It *does* mean, in my opinion, that to play the music right takes an astonishing amount of dedicated practice, commitment, and focus. So if you're not a virtuoso, and you meet someone who is (even if s/he is an absolute assh*le) interpersonally, it's best to admit that truth, and say "yes, s/he is an absolute assh*le, but I could learn something from him/her."

4) This music is a meritocracy, not a democracy. In other words, it's *not* primarily concerned with making sure that everyone gets "their fair share." It is rather concerned with making the best music possible, and if that means that some folks play a lot and some folks play little, that's the way it goes.

If you want to play more, learn more tunes & work on your chops.

If you want to feel confident that you can withstand what other dickheads might be saying about you, learn more tunes & work on your chops.

If you think that someone's being a jerk to you, ask yourself "does s/he have musical insight I need to learn", and if the answer is yes, put up with the crap and learn more tunes.

5 (or is it E?)) I'm reminded of another analogy with jazz (another topic that's been beaten into the ground): in the old days, the way you learned new skills, tested your current ones, and measured your competence, was at "cutting contests": informal jam sessions wherein players who didn't necessarily know one another would get up and trade improvised choruses on jazz standards. The implication was that, if you unexpectedly ran up against a player much stronger than you, you could get "cut": shown to still have areas that needed work. Jazz players understand that the cutting contest was a very valuable means of testing skills, garnering new ideas, and taking stock of the current state of the common musical language.

And yes, it took a pretty damned "thick skin" to handle one. You had to develop an attitude of "I don't care what kind of bullshit these people lay down, I'm going to learn this music." But if you did, you could learn a lot, and the payoff would be worth it.

I think the analogy holds here.