Turning Off the Critic Being Critical Can Cut Ourselves and Our Students Off from the Music

After years of training in an area we accumulate patterns and habits that effect every aspect of our experiences. We acquire information and knowledge that was intended to improve the way we perform or express our abilities. Of course this makes us better, but this information and knowledge can also hold us back in the long run if we use it as a way to become overly critical and negative when experiencing our own playing, our peers’ playing, our peers’ students or anyone performing in our field.


In music we often get so focuses (and almost obsessed) with all the things we were taught by our teachers and programs, we don’t even realize how we sound.

I can’t count the times I’ve worked with students and asked them to critique their own performance just after they finish. In a monotone voice they’ll list off everything they’ve heard their teachers tell them in lessons, “My balance could have been better, the dynamics weren’t very good, my pedaling was a little off.” And on and on.

Then I’ll simply ask, “All of that stuff may be true. But how did you sound?”

They then look at me with a blank stare as if I’m asking them to awake from an endless daydream. They often eventually grunt or just shrug because they have no idea what I’m talking about.

One of my replies to this common situation is, “We’ll always work on making those things you listed better, but you simply sounded like you were bored and not able to entertain yourself. Let’s play that again in a way that you would want to hear if you were the audience.”

Magically, the list of things start to fix itself because it’s all needed to make it more entertaining and engaging.

After years of lessons, they have reduced their playing experience as a time to execute all the things on their list… There was no emphasis on what they were communicating to themselves or their audience.

Their musical experience has become one of critical analysis. They often approach everything from an attitude of “fixing everything that’s wrong” rather than treating all the concepts as a means of expressing themselves at their instrument.

One of the most harrowing ways to check where we or our students are with the “fix what’s wrong” approach is to sit and listen to recordings with them. I’ve found it often takes some transfer students over a year to be able to sit comfortably and listen to recordings without trying to pick them apart and find everything that’s wrong with them. I’ve had kids unknowingly (because I didn’t share the source) pick Horowitz and Rubinstein and Bill Evans to shreds and point out all the things they were doing “wrong”.

We have a huge responsibility not only as consumers of art and music but as teachers. We can literally detach our students from their potential to be moved by music – music they create or the music they listen to.

Here are some things I’ve changed in my teaching and listening to help eliminate the seeking out of the negative:

  • Find the Positives: When listening to recordings, going to festivals and other artists’ performances; I ask my students to report back to me everything they loved about the performance. I keep this as general as possible. I don’t necessarily want to hear about all the details we work on in lessons. I want to hear about how they felt when they heard the music and what it got them excited to go practice. Then we’ll eventually zoom in on the details and how they can apply it to their playing.
  • Look at Our Peers with Compassion and Love – Not Jealousy: When students go to festivals or gigs and hear someone that could be perceived as “competition”, I stress to them the importance of treating them with reverence and respect. Anything that our “competition” does well, can make us better. Be thankful for these people and treat them like your musical family. You will be able to help each other improve for years to come if you develop a positive relationship… There are plenty of gigs and opportunities to go around.
  • Be Honest: Be honest in our praise and be honest in our critique. If we find the positives and are genuinely moved by them, we should communicate that to people and ourselves. Then when we need to work on problem areas, it will still come from a place of growth and improvement rather than negative critique. If we approach it from a growth attitude of building from the positives until all the negatives are better, then we’ll be in a healthy place and will start to sound way better (or help our students sound way better).

We will always need to focus on the details that make ourselves and our students great. But adopting a positive frame of mind and having a culture of enthusiasm and energy are going to serve everyone the most in the long-run.