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Taking Criticism in a Positive Light

Bassist Thinking

Q: How can I learn to take musical remarks/criticism from a bandleader/conductor in a productive way? I can’t help it, but I always get a little offended and/or insecure.

A: Remember this: If you weren’t good enough, you wouldn’t have the gig. While not every band leader may have the best delivery, in general, suggestions and statements of preference are just that. One person’s preference. We all hear and feel things differently and they may be coming from a different place or had another thing in mind when they wrote the music. And, while it is only one person’s preference, it is also their band/music.

It’s important to remember that, just because they are right, it doesn’t make you wrong, necessarily. Often, it is just a matter of taste or stylistic preference.

That said, if the band leader is speaking to you in a way that you just can’t abide by, it’s up to you to draw your line in the sand. I would suggest drawing it diplomatically, however. (“I’m happy to try this tune another way but I’m going to have to ask that you be respectful when speaking to me”, for example). If you’re being spoken to or treated in an offensive way (and the gig just ain’t worth it), then you’ll have to speak up and potentially leave the project. Only you know where that line is for you.
It’s just like any other job (albeit one you love, comparatively). You have to weigh the pros and the cons and decide if it’s worth you remaining employed by that person.

I’m going to assume that we’re coming from a different angle. One of insecurity (and something that I struggled with for years).
When we don’t feel 100% (or even 85%) confident in our abilities, we tend to receive every suggestion or critique as a damnation of our abilities. Confirmation of our biggest fears, of our inability to be as good as “x”, affirmation that all of our harshest criticisms of our own playing are shared by all. When perceived that way, it can be debilitating, (feel) humiliating, and put us on the defensive.

Just as I’ve written about unhealthy comparisons and keeping motivated, it’s important that you put things in perspective. No player is perfect for every gig and it’s unhelpful and unrealistic to compare the way you play to Jaco, Victor or whomever your personal hero might be. Victor can’t play like Jaco, Jaco couldn’t play like Victor, and neither of them could play like you.

All you need to worry about is doing your homework, being professional, and always doing the very best that you can. Maybe your best isn’t up to this gig or that gig yet, but it will be if you keep working and, honestly, you may not be the best judge of that. If you have the gig, you deserve the gig. Take any suggestions as an opportunity to grow and experiment.

We sometimes get locked into doing or hearing things a certain way. If the band leader suggests that you play nothing but whole notes during the first verse and save the action for the 2nd verse. They’re not saying, “you played like hell. do it differently”. They are saying, “let’s see what this sounds like, maybe it’ll help develop the song”.

Trying to tune into others musical perspectives is a large part of how we grow as players. That is a big part of the reason why transcription and analysis are so important when developing your vocabulary. You’re actively trying to see and hear the music through another musicians eyes and ears. The same is true of a bandleader when they make suggestions. Try it! It might work, it might not but copping an attitude only reflects poorly on you and you alone.

Even if they have a ‘tone’ and sound snarky. Take their suggestion, do your best to make it happen, and then have a polite discussion afterward, apart from everybody else, and make mention of the tone and the effect it has on you (and please, do it apart from the rest of the band. It’s classier and it also helps serve to keep them from getting defensive and having to ‘save face’ in front of the rest of the band, which won’t work out well for you).

So there it is. Take the high road. Do your best and don’t let your own insecurities dictate how you interact with your peers. Take everything as a chance to learn and explore. You’ll likely get more out of it and it’ll help you keep your gig!

Have a question for Damian? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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