4 Tips for Handling Criticism as a Jazz Musician

When I was 15 I sang at the Kemah Jazz Festival in Houston TX with my father’s band. James Moody was the headliner that year, and I was very excited to meet him and hear his set. We performed in the late afternoon, and the stage was set up so that the performers looked out over a plaza and the hotel. I remember being very nervous to go on stage (which was pretty normal for me back then) and being even more nervous when I realized that James Moody was sitting directly in front of me on his balcony at the hotel. I sang “Yardbird Suite” and “Out of Nowhere”. I was just starting out back then, but even with that in mind it wasn’t my best performance, and right in the middle of “Out of Nowhere” Moody got up, went inside, and shut the balcony door. I remember feeling crushed, but I rationalized the situation with the (likely) truth that he just wanted to get dressed for his own set, which was in just an hour or two.

After his set I stood in line to get his autograph and ask for a picture, and he asked me if I had been singing that afternoon. I said yes, and he said, “You were flat. You need to hit your pitches.” He wasn’t unkind or anything like that, it was just a very straight forward and totally correct assessment of my performance. I thanked him, told him I would work on it, and promptly ran off to cry in my room. My friends and family in the interest of making me feel better were quick to say he was “mean” or just “wrong”, but I knew he was right. I didn’t cry because he was “mean”, I cried because he was right and I was disappointed in myself for having performed so poorly in front of one of my heroes. But even more than feeling disappointed or sad, I was so thankful that he had taken the time to say something important and valuable to me, instead of just patting me on the head and saying “Great job baby.”

I went home from that trip and typed “Hit Your Pitches” on the computer, printed it out, and hung it on my wall where I would see it everyday.

Learning to accept criticism is a very valuable tool for any person, not to mention a Jazz musician or artist. I was lucky to have encountered so much of it in my early life, and I was lucky that a good deal of it was helpful and correct. Not all criticism is helpful, or even meant to be helpful, but when an elder, boss / bandleader, or even a peer whom you admire and respect offers their opinion, it can be very beneficial to consider it. Here are some things I try to keep in mind in those situations.

1) Set aside your ego and listen. Don’t become immediately defensive / angry / sad. If you want to grow as a person and artist, take this opportunity to control your emotions and listen rationally to what is being said.

2) Acknowledge their words. Sometimes it’s as easy as, “I’ll look into that. Thank you.” Don’t petulantly say, “I don’t care!” and run off. If they’re genuinely offering you advice on how to improve, they are showing they care about you (or at least your work), and ultimately that is a positive thing.

3) Evaluate whether it’s good advice and be honest with yourself. To really judge whether someone’s criticism can be of value, you have to be honest with yourself about your skills and shortcomings. We all have things we are working on, and that is OK. Knowing your weaknesses is an advantage, don’t be afraid to admit them to yourself.

Sometimes this process of evaluation can take weeks of rumination; however, if you decide the criticism is not applicable or unfounded, don’t feel bad about completely dismissing it and moving on.

4) If the criticism IS applicable and you want to get better, don’t be afraid to Ask them how to improve. This is especially important if the person criticizing you is your boss or bandleader. If they don’t like the way you’re doing something and you want the job, ask them how they want you to do it differently.

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James Moody & I at the Kemah Jazz Festival, 2000

How do you handle criticism? Is it something that you wish you received more of, or less? Let me know in the comment section…..

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3 Responses to 4 Tips for Handling Criticism as a Jazz Musician

  1. jazz monk says:

    I asked Kenny Washington point blank how I could get better. Once I opened the door, he let me have it. I have to say it was some of the best advice I ever got. I wish I could have played with him again to show him I’d taken what he said seriously, but it doesn’t really matter. The music matters.

    Morris http://www.morrisnelms.com “Rhythm for the dancers, harmony for the romantic, melody for the nostalgic, and gratitude for the audience.” Duke Ellington

    http://awakemysoul.com/ “Chess is a game by its form, an art by its content and a science by the difficulty of gaining mastery in it. Chess can convey as much happiness as a good book or work of music can. However, it is necessary to learn to play well and only afterwards will one experience real delight.” – Tigran Petrosian

    Date: Mon, 17 Mar 2014 02:00:08 +0000 To: jazzmonk@hotmail.com

    Like

  2. Very nice post, Champian. I have a somewhat similar story. Years ago, when I was starting out, one of my heroes gave me some feedback that really hurt. Honestly, I wanted to crawl into a cave and hide. But I also realized he was right, and I started to work on the issues he’d addressed. That made a big difference, and although getting that kind of feedback from someone I held in such high esteem was a bitter pill, in the end I was (and still am) grateful.

    Like

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