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On Musical Critique & Otherwise

Art & CommunityPosted by Makram Aboul Hosn Thu, November 23, 2017 14:06:49

When I was a beginning music student, I remember learning by having my mistakes and shortcomings pointed out to by my instructors. While that is reasonably efficient, in the sense that students will know what they need to improve, it can also spur a chain of negative internal dialogue in their minds. They may get accustomed to only scanning for mistakes, in their playing and that of others’. They can also develop a fear of playing something “wrong”. In that state, it is very difficult to see the beauty of what one is doing, and to fully enjoy the experience of music-making.

I am still a student and will forever be. But, now I am also much involved in teaching. Whether it’s my private students, or my students at the NDU Lebanon Jazz Workshop, I am now often asked for advice, direction, and critique younger, less experienced students/colleagues. I always try to be very attentive to what I am about say by weighing my words and examining their nature. I do that because I know that when someone looks up to you, you are in a position of power, and power corrupts. Even a little of it. What you say can seriously alter a student’s view of themselves and of the world.
"Feedback Guidelines" from the FB group: Orchestration Online


Watch your biases:
While it is necessary to point out weaknesses, poor execution and bad decisions, I cannot stress how important it is to actively search for what the performer is doing well. It is not as easy as pointing out the bad qualities of performance, and the reason for that is that we come with a bunch of biases in our consciousness, the one that is worth looking at here is negativity bias, which is why we tend to remember bad events in our lives more clearly and frequently than good events. So if you are to point out what someone is not doing well, make sure you can compliment them on something that they actually played well first.

"Nobody spreads as much darkness as those who have seen the light" Nils F. Nilsen:


When a performer asks for your opinion on how they are doing, don’t be too hasty in your response. Because, you might giving him/her a similar kind of feedback to what was given to you by your own mentors. And if you had a harsh mentor, you are more likely to pass on harsh and destructive criticism. We humans are creatures of imitation, that’s how we learn almost everything.

There are many mentors out there that come in the form of frustrated, unfulfilled, bitter musicians. To compensate, they inflate their ego especially in front of their students and colleagues. These are the mentors who claim to have seen the light, and that only their way is the right way. In general, we refer to these people as “@$*holes”. Don’t be an @$*hole to those who admire you.


Share what you know so you can move beyond it.
I know it’s not very easy to share a secret trick you’ve learned that can make you sound unique, or a shortcut to learning a difficult technique, especially if you feel it took you a lot of effort to learn it yourself. I believe if you don’t share such things, you become a prisoner to them and you might invest your energy in being fearful and protective of what you know. There’s an anecdote about cornet player Freddie Keppard, who was one of the best musicians of his generation, hiding his fingers under a handkerchief while playing so that no one gets to steal his ideas. It is believed that he never took a chance to record himself in a studio, out of fear of other musicians stealing his ideas… while this anecdote may not be necessarily true, it is a sort of urban-legend. But I have no doubt that fearful thinking as such can make the thinker its prisoner.

Don’t give your criticism if no one asked you for it. Some musicians feel they are entitled to scan for weaknesses in others’ playing and call them out. They justify this by an elevated moral standpoint, while in fact, they might be doing it to feel better about their own playing. That’s not cool, it’s selfish! If you are not one of these musicians, even if you have some critique or piece of advice you think can help a performer, don’t feel entitled to give your opinion unless they ask for it.

It seems to me that there are always two modes of thinking, fearful and of loving. Openness, humility, giving-attitude, non-possesiveness, and joy in seeing people succeed are all loving modes of thinking.

At the end of the day, the only reason any criticism should be given is to compensate for the fact that it’s very difficult for a person to see their own flaws mostly because they do not have an outside view of themselves. When you are asked to criticize someone, you are being asked to tell them how you view them from your side of the glass. And as John Coltrane once put, make sure you ‘clean that glass’ before you speak.



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