Rocks, Pearls and All Things in Moderation

Everyone’s a critic. It’s never been more true. As I watch the presidential election cycle unfold in the news, criticism is everywhere. And it’s brutal. Often exaggerated and sometimes untrue even in the face of facts to the contrary, we live in a time when all voices are heard, and that’s a good thing, but it makes the art of using criticism as a tool a much more complicated process.

As a musician, criticism has always been a part of my life. As a student, it was essential. The journey of learning to play a musical instrument is full of blind spots, pitfalls, and challenges of all kinds. It is also highly subjective, which is one reason the world has such an array of artistic variety. That said, I learned early on to try and process criticism – to separate the pearls of wisdom from the rocks and barbs, so to speak. When I began to develop a system for benefitting from the valid without being destroyed by the random, criticism became an almost welcome event.

Most thinking folks know it’s important to stand up for what we believe and defend it in a rational way, whether it’s an artistic interpretation or a political perspective. When I was a teenager, I entered a new realm of scrutiny as a musician and as a result, created a sort of mental “processing plant” for criticism. First and foremost, I knew I needed to listen to it or risk missing vital feedback that could help me get better. However, I also needed a constructive process for sifting the useful from the less useful information.

Did harsh criticism hurt? Sure. A teacher once said that my fingers and arms were too long and unwieldy to play any instrument well. I remember being told that my playing was too rhythmic, too fast, too expressive, too loud, too soft, too introspective, too everything – and at some given moment and in some given piece, my playing was probably all of those things. But the cacophony of criticism is deafening unless we learn to separate ego from intellect and sort through it, one item at a time. That’s where the “processing plant” comes in. I learned that the first question I needed to ask was: does even a small part of me agree with the criticism? No excuses – just how true was it in that moment of review? Another question I ask is: could there be any motivation but truth-telling in the critic? This is a hard one, because criticism is subjective by nature. But I have to ask this question because if I don’t, I would become vulnerable in a nonproductive and often uncontrollable way. If I deem the critic a sound resource, I begin to experiment with the comment and see if it makes sense for me.

The most important thing I’ve learned is to be truthful with myself. If my inner conversation is honest without being self-torturing, I will continue to improve. If my aim is to defend some ego-driven, external narrative, then I might as well quit. Art is a living form. We just need the tools and the wisdom to keep our perspectives fresh.

The essential challenge is in standing for who we are, what we see as our vision and how we can uniquely express our own voices in the face of criticism without either crumbling under the pressure of negative opinions or blindly charging on without the benefit of questioning and feedback. As a Greek myself I might be biased, but Aristotle and his fellow philosophers were really onto something. “Pan Metron Ariston,” which translates to “Moderation in All Things,” is a pretty good goal.

Easier said than done, but worth the lifelong quest.


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