I have spent much of my life being critiqued. As musicians, we never stop being on the receiving end of strong opinions from our instructors, conductors, snarky colleagues and music critics. Mostly, we vacillate between periods of balance and analysis (“Aha, I should work on the speed of my vibrato and sight reading”) and destroying ourselves with crushing narratives (“It doesn’t matter how much I do this, I will never be where I want to be nor do I deserve to be there”). Depending on my fragility, I can get over critique of my cello playing and/or teaching pretty easily. It’s the thing about which I am the most confident, so that makes sense. It still hurts, but causes no crisis in the way I see myself.
Last week, driving home from what I thought had been a successful student hockey scrimmage, P informs me that I looked “timid” and pointed out some flaws in my technique. While I will go to my grave contesting the allegation of timidity, I completely agree that I was being all weird with my arms, which was of little help to my puck handling and shooting. Still, it was the first time I hadn’t felt like a liability to my team, and I was cautiously optimistic that I had made some progress.
His words really put a dent me, as does the constant chatter coming from the other learners in the class. Can you imagine being in orchestra and having someone who can barely eek out a note suggest you push your bow further towards the bridge? It reminded me of the biblical epigram “…and why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” It’s not that I think I have any skill or knowledge whatsoever the others are overlooking. I just feel misunderstood in the context, and unwelcome as a learner. I am there to work, and to improve. And if I have a question, I will ask it. I will listen to what my instructors say and focus like crazy on those things. Why would I not have a million things to work on? Do they really need pointing out? At that moment? Don’t you have something you could be working on in your own technique? While you may be right, is it useful?
I get lots of emails from dispirited adult learners whose families tear them to shreds with unkind words about how they sound, or how silly their efforts are, or that they are selfish for taking up a hobby. I don’t usually advise them to blame their spouses, although I do ask them to consider what sensitivities may be at work in the situation. When I told P that I wasn’t after critique, he seemed to feel bad for a few days. Then when we talked about it again, he was frustrated that I wouldn’t let him “help” me. I was frustrated that fixing me came before caring about my feelings. I’m a person first, and a hockey enthusiast second. Do you want to win the argument or save the day, you know?
Then I got to thinking about why it summoned such dark feelings, and I turned once again to my musical training. I think teachers may have made me cry 3 or 4 times over the course of 15 years of lessons, master classes, competitions and such. Mostly, they were more like tour guides, excited to propel me onto the next thing and disappointed when I failed to apply myself to the extent they knew I was capable of. But once I got home, I was picked to pieces by the people around me who I looked to for support. After my first performance (on violin), I was informed that I “looked stupid”. Through high school and college, I would leave the stage and be greeted by “You can’t tell if the notes are right or wrong with that modern stuff” or “Maybe you should look at your standpartner’s bow technique if you want to improve.” They questioned the validity of my injuries and my resolve to get better. And from there, I learned how to eviscerate myself. It was like I was trying not to ever be surprised by the awful things people would say by believing them myself.
This blog constantly talks about embracing imperfections. In my teaching, I am struck by the beauty and vulnerability of the learning process. To learn, you have to admit ignorance- and that’s not always easy. This blog is also a bunch of advice to myself I really should try to follow. And this, dear friend, is a piece of advice I have not yet gotten around to following. I am not okay with my own imperfections. Instead, I find a way to spiral into this horrible mire that looks like this on a flow chart.
I’m totally ok with everyone else’s frailties. Like, I can even look at the people who criticize me and recognize that they’re either fired up, or trying to be helpful, or even if they’re being jerks, sometimes you just act like a jerk, but it doesn’t define you. But I can’t get past any of my own stuff, primarily my reaction to the critique. Instead, I sharpen the words they offer and use them to make assumptions about my interaction with the world and the usefulness of my role in it. Then the lack of support makes sense. I can only luxuriate in these ridiculous ruminations for so long. I hate it even more for the self indulgence and lack of real introspection they represent. Still, I don’t see a way forward right now. So I’m just going to sit with it and see what happens. Very, very imperfectly.