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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 being taught mostly by having my mistakes and shortcomings pointed out to me. While that is a reasonably effective approach for teachers, in the sense that students will know what they need to improve, it can also spur a chain of negative internal dialogue in the latter's minds. They may get accustomed to overly scanning for mistakes in their playing and that of others’. They can also develop a fear of playing something “wrong” or "unusual". 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. Nowadays, however, I am much more involved in teaching. Whether with my private Jazz or Bass students, or the ones at the NDU Lebanon Jazz Workshop, I am often asked for advice, direction, and critique less experienced musicians. I always try to be very attentive to what I say by weighing my words and examining their nature. I do that because I know that when someone looks up to me, I'm in a position of power, and power corrupts. Even a little of it. What I say can seriously alter a student’s view of themselves and of the world. So here are a few points I would like to share with you. As usual, feel free to disagree:

1. 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, this 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.

"Feedback Guidelines" from the FB group: Orchestration Online



2. "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 with 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. So take your time in constructing a good and useful answer. If you can't come up with such an answer, there's nothing wrong in refraining from giving one.

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, I refer to these people as “@$*holes”. Don’t be an @$*hole to those who admire you.


3. Share what you know so you can move beyond it:


I know it’s not easy to share a "secret trick" you’ve discovered and that makes you sound unique, nor 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 these things, you become a prisoner to them and might invest your energy protecting what you know. If you do share, however, you will keep developing and re-inventing your art. Not many people like a musician who plays the same stuff over and over, no matter how fancy these things are.

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… This maybe just another urban-legend, but I have no doubt that fearful thinking as such can make the thinker a prisoner.

4. 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 to call them out. They justify this by an elevated moral standpoint, while in fact, they're often doing it to feel better about their own playing. That’s not cool, it’s selfish! 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. You can ask the performer if you may share your opinion first.

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 have a clear perspective on what they're doing because they do not have an outside view of themselves (One sees the world with one's eyes, but one cannot see one's eyes). When you are asked to criticize someone, you are being asked to tell them how they come across to you from your side of the separating glass. And if I'm not mistaken John Coltrane once mentioned something about ‘keeping that glass clean & clear’ before you speak.











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