Praise, Criticism and the Emerging Artist

I just had a terrific week performing at Open Mikes last week, culminating in my getting three (and possibly four) new gigs at coffeehouses as a featured performer. I tend to use Open Mikes as a method of getting gigs as a featured performer because many times I've found that either the person running the event or a participant will be the booking agent for a venue.  But what made the week especially memorable was an email I received from one particular person who apparently was a regular participant at Open Mikes. The excerpt of the email is as follows:

   "Firstly, I have to tell you how overwhelmed I was by your music, in all respects; your guitar, your voice, your songwriting, your stage presence – everything.  You’re one of the greatest I’ve ever heard.  After hearing you I want to cut off my hands, burn my guitars, and never sing another note.  I feel ashamed to call myself a musician, after hearing you.  (Am I laying it on too thick?)  Really, compared to you I’m just a hack and will be ashamed to play in front of you; no kidding.  However, I love music too much to ever stop playing . . . "

I have never received that kind of effusive praise for my music before. And I was initially at a loss as to how to respond. But I know how the writer felt because I felt the same way about artists and songwriters that I admire and seen perform, including James Taylor, David Wilcox and others as well. So I wrote back how I felt and gave advice that I had received from another performer that I admire, Ellis Delaney:

   "I barely know what to say. Thank you so much for your praise of me as a musician. The point is that each performer needs to compare themselves not to others but to themselves. I know that I've put a lot of work into my music, so what you see now is as much a product of that work as it is talent. So don't compare yourself to me; Rather compare yourself to where you've been on your own musical journey. That's what is really important."

This leads me to thinking about how an emerging artist ought to respond to both praise and criticism. Let's face it. Our music and performance of that music and those of others is looked at in a highly subjective manner. Each of us knows what we like in other artists and what we don't. We each, consciously or not, try to emulate those aspects of our "music heroes" and work to eliminate those aspects of our music and performance skills that we perceive as less than our best. We, unfortunately, will sometimes look for cues as to our "progress" based upon external criteria (i.e. how others perceive us) rather than our own internal sense of where we've been. My friend, Ellis, calls this the "comparing mind", where we evaluate ourselves based upon the skill set of others. And it's something I still have to work hard to avoid.

I once had a chance to speak with Tommy Emmanuel, one of the best fingerstyle guitarists in the world and asked him if he ever played in DADGAD or another alternate tuning. He said no, that he "had a hard enough time learning to play in standard tuning to try and play in another tuning". I was stunned. I got the same reaction  from my former performance teacher, Livingston Taylor. Confounding! I could play more confidently than these "music heroes" of mine in my own little "DADGAD world". Whoda thunk it? 

By the same token, always be cognizant of the source when accepting any criticism of your music or performance skills from anyone, particularly those persons that say they are offering "constructive criticism" so that you can be a "better" musician. The quality of any musical performance and songwriting are inherently subjective in nature. My personal test for useful comments is (a) whether the comment is something objective and within my control versus a subjective quality and (b) whether the comment actually offers a solution to the issue posed by the comment. If the "constructive criticism" fails these two tests, it (and the person who offered it) should be ignored as wasting your time. 

I think the best person to look for both praise and criticism is someone that you have regular contact with and who has watched you over time to evolve as a musician. For me, that person is my wife, Cheryl. She, like me, was a music major in college and knows when I do well and when I don't. So that when I ask her how I did at a performance she's attended with me, she'll shrug and say, "You did well. You always do well." For me that's truly high praise.

Food for thought.

Yours in DADGAD.

Rick Gottlieb