Learn to deal with criticism

When you play music in public, especially music you wrote (but not only), it’s like pouring your heart into a coffee mug and handing it out to people. People will not always love what you serve, and you will feel it.

You can share your music in open mics, on social media, and in songwriting circles. These mediums vary in the type of exposure and feedback, but all of them include opening yourself to criticism.

Open mics tend to be quite positive – when you get off stage, people will either react enthusiastically or say nothing (they will never tell you that you sucked). If they say nothing, it could be that your performance sucked, or that they hardly noticed your performance as they were busy talking to their friends.

On social media, your friends are likely to like and comment positively on what you upload, even if they don’t like it that much. If what you upload to social media is open to the public, you might get random criticism from strangers, and perhaps even vicious comments from haters and trolls. Be conscious of what you share online and with whom; perhaps you should go gradually and see how much criticism you can handle.

Songwriting courses can be a protected greenhouse for sharing your music and getting constructive criticism, that is, if you are willing to hear criticism and can handle it. Unlike open mics, which tend to be over-positive, or social media, in which comments don’t go in depth, most songwriting courses are built with the purpose of getting peer feedback. The peer feedback tends to be overall positive, but also specific, including technical comments such as you should change this chord, you should try playing it faster, the lyrics in the chorus sound cliché, etc.

Thus, sharing your music publicly is a great way to test your ability to handle criticism, and the more you put your music out there for feedback, the less stinging it will become.

In the songwriting course I described earlier there was one girl, let’s call her Sarah, that couldn’t handle criticism at all – I’ve never met anyone so openly sensitive to feedback. Some of us who don’t take feedback well can at least fake not minding it. But this girl, she couldn’t handle it at all.

She was the most talented and experienced musician in the cohort – she was a great pianist and had a beautiful voice. She was super shy off the stage, but when she was on stage, it was like something opened from inside of her and you couldn’t help but listen with your whole body and soul. But her lyrics were 90% clichés, and whenever anyone told her that, she took it really bad, ignoring all the admiration she got for her musical abilities.

On one of the lessons she opened it up with us and shared that the criticism was breaking her and that she found herself reluctant to come to the weekly session because she was fearing the feedback. So after a debate with the entire group, the solution was that from that moment on, she would only perform her new songs, but wouldn’t get any feedback. The moment she was done performing, it was time for the next songwriter to perform.

She was a great songwriter with great technical abilities, perhaps what she should have taken from the course was to learn to handle criticism, rather than any specific improvement here or there. However, she ended up keeping her request for no feedback until the end of the course.

Dealing with criticism is an important skill that can be transferred from the realm of music to other realms. I feel that my experience playing on stage, plus the fact that I participated in a feedback-intensive songwriting course, made me respond to feedback in a healthier way.

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