The Art of Criticism

I was probably too harsh in critiquing my various friends who have had bands over the years. With any creative endeavor, not only is it worth it at that moment, but if you do not have faith in what you are doing, you will never move forward. You will never evolve in becoming a better artist. And even if you eventually abandon that art, in attempting it, you become more appreciative of the work of those who are truly great.

I have to thank my own attempts for any appreciation I have of music. My mother made my siblings and I take piano lessons for years – I only stopped playing when I went away to college. I was never brilliant and I knew it. (Although I swear that when I was seven, I told my mother I wanted to be a musician and she said, “That’s nice, dear, but do you really want to live in a garret and starve?” She denies this happened but I believe this is why I knew I shouldn’t try too hard to become great.)

But in the moments of frustration over difficult passages and complex phrasing, I knew that when I arrived at perfection, every struggle was worth it. I knew I had achieved something great just by persisting.

But it’s also why I hated, and still hate, to play music for other people. I could not naturally arrive at the desired sound. It was a battle against Chopin and Mozart and all those enfants terribles with their brutal Germanic names and overly sweet Italian terminology. To make it even worse, I took lessons for ten years (and six months of jazz lessons, which was a disaster unto itself) and at best, could barely fake my way through the music, hoping that no one would notice if I suddenly incorporated a lot of peddle, the musical equivalent to card shuffling, or praying that some natural disaster would end my miserable performance.

More importantly, though, playing the piano was a private act for me. It was the same as meditating—I could sit down and struggle away with whatever latest piece I was working on and forget. I was absolved of my worries and troubles. My emotions were for once useful; they allowed me to infuse the music with a sensitivity that is often lacking from the most technically precise performance (a la the piano players at Nordstrom’s). Having an audience meant an interruption of that process and the loss of why I actually played.

I admire those friends who take the risk of art and I understand in my own converse fashion. I don’t engage with people over music, but I do make people engage with my writing. I know that art is risky. When I submit stories and poems to magazines, every rejection feels like a slap in the face, personalized with a postmark. It takes a lot to ask people to judge your work, something that is so innate and so personal that any criticism feels like a personal attack.

Like my friends who are trying to be full-time musicians, I have a need to write, however mediocre or bad I might be. But if it’s important enough, you take the risk of practicing that art, you learn to separate yourself from people’s opinions of your work and then you learn to use that criticism, knowing that whatever someone says there is always something to learn.


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