How to Absorb Criticism

No one likes to be criticized. It’s much more fun when our colleagues praise us for how great we are. However, in the real world, we encounter, seek out and receive criticism. How we deal with that criticism is an enormous part of how we improve. Some criticism is bad and should be ignored, but a lot of it is good and should be weighed very heavily. Today I will discuss why we tend to hate criticism, how to absorb it in the right way and then use it as a tool for improvement.


Why criticism sucks and it’s easy to ignore:

  1. We plain just don’t like it. Deep in our subconscious we know that the process of analyzing the criticism is very difficult and we would rather just continue along thinking we are great. And we are right! It’s much easier to continue doing the same thing and patting ourselves on the back thinking we are great.
  2. We don’t like the source. We focus on where the criticism is coming from and not the criticism itself. If we don’t like someone or are jealous of someone, it is very easy to push aside any critique we may be receiving. Occasionally critique from a bad source should be ignored, but this is far from the norm.
  3. We are already happy with the final result. How often have you thought you were finished with something and someone makes a comment that questions your entire approach? I hate that! Much easier to ignore that comment and continue with your head buried in the sand.
  4. We think we are above criticism. This is usually not a conscious decision but sometimes our ego gets in the way and tells us “What do they know about my playing? I’m great!”

I think we can all agree that completely turning our back against criticism is a bad thing. However, it can be harder to recognize these subconscious thoughts and rationalizations than you would think. Our ego can get in the way and we simply tell ourselves everything is fine. I’ve had students who don’t even realize how big their ego is. I don’t blame them because it’s human nature to want to believe you are great at something. This is why how criticism is delivered is soooooo important.

How to deliver criticism

A teacher saying, “this is terrible” is not helpful. That sort of criticism is most likely to be ignored and the student revolt against the teacher’s ideas. Even in the worst performances, there are positive points to be made. All too often, as teachers, we forget to say “do it exactly like that again”. We focus on the negative. Even if the positive point is very small, it gives the player something to try and repeat. This also helps soften the blow of negative criticism.


When something needs fixing, it is much easier to be direct rather than vague about it. The “this is terrible” comment is vague. “You were dragging through the rests in measures 5-7” is a much more direct and useful comment. A level even deeper is asking why the mistake happened. Could it be because the player wasn’t subdividing? Could it be because the playing was so technical the player needed more time to recover in the rests. This exploratory criticism will be of much more help.

Sadly we don’t always get that sort of direct criticism and we have to do our own exploring and analyzing. If we are given a somewhat vague comment or less than helpful critique then we are left to our own devises to fix the error. There are numerous ways we can check ourselves and do our own self analyzing. Recording is the best method because it removes yourself from the situation so you are listening as a listener and not as a player. You can assess the level of the problem; large, medium, or small and brainstorm the best solution to the issue. If you don’t hear the issue you can record yourself again. If you still don’t hear it, your issue could be a consistency issue. You can do repetitive games to try and raise your level of consistency. If you stilllllll don’t hear the issue then perhaps you fixed the problem simply from hearing the comment and being aware of it. There is also the possibility it was just a bad comment and nothing was wrong. Now as frustrating as that can be, it’s not the end of the world. You went through this long process of analyzing and came out the other side knowing your playing is correct. How great is that! Rather than being bummed thinking you “wasted time”, be confident that you really know it’s right now.

Embracing criticism

This leads me right into the point of this blog post; a philosophy far too few people have. Welcoming and embracing criticism. Because critique is difficult to hear we often avoid it. In fact most of us do. Really successful people however, run toward it. The most frustrating situation for successful people is to have something wrong and not know it. This is why they ask colleagues for advice all the time. They don’t want to miss something. They embrace the critique. In rehearsal I will often turn to my colleagues and ask “was I late on that note?” “Is this present enough?” “Do you like this mallet?” I want to know what they think. They are removed from the situation and can answer objectively because they aren’t the one playing.

This also applies to obstacles in ones playing. If you know you have a weakness, embrace it and say “I am going to fix this, no matter how hard I have to work.” Rather than pretend your playing is acceptable and there is no room for improvement, always be looking for areas for improvement. I find teachers who have this attitude make better instructors because they know how to struggle with something and get through it. They can help their students through the period of struggle and out the other side. Teachers who have lots of natural ability and didn’t struggle as much I find have more difficulty helping students through their own struggles.

I try as much as possible to take this attitude of embracing criticism to all areas of life. The other day I was in the gym working out and all of my warm ups felt great. I was hoping to hit some high numbers on my heavy lifts. However, once I got towards the heavy weights things felt wrong. I couldn’t figure it out but I knew something was out of whack. My trainer was in the other room and I grabbed him for a minute and had him check out my form. After my first set he said “your right knee isn’t pushing out. Your right side looks tight, like your hip is locked up.” He suggested a few stretches I could do to open it up. After stretching a bit, the hip and knee felt much better. He was right… There was no way of me realizing this without asking for a second opinion. My form will be better in the future and I might even recognize the situation next time and not need to ask for help. While I didn’t hit the personal bests I was hoping for, I made a correction and I know how to correct it next time.

Do you do this in your own practice room at school? I asked people to come in and listen to me play all the time when in school. Your colleagues are most likely going through the same thing or have gone through it and can really help. There is a polite way to do this of course and you should always be respectful of other people’s time. Be sure to always thank a colleague for their thoughts.

Bad criticism

Occasionally there are times that you should ignore criticism. Understanding when, can be delicate. Bad criticism can really paralyze you. We have talked about how we want to avoid being controlled by our ego, however we still want confidence! Being confident in your playing is very different than being driven by ego. Confidence is you knowing that you have done the task before and can repeat it again. Bad criticism can kill confidence. While we have been over the much more common scenario of embracing critique, there are times to ignore advice and just move on.

Not everyone approaches their playing the same way. That is a good thing! It’s how we all have our own personalities. Sometimes we can choose to not heed someone’s advice because we think it goes against our personal preference. The key is to make sure it’s not the scenario where your ego is getting in the way and you just not wanting to change. If after trying out someone’s advice and you don’t like it, then maybe you should stick to your guns.

In my experience it all comes down to whether or not you embrace criticism. Some may be good, some may be bad, but you have to welcome it. If you run from critique, you will be destined for mediocrity. Getting feedback from others on your playing is the quickest way to improve, even if it is sometimes painful.

So what did you think of my blog today? 😛



5 thoughts on “How to Absorb Criticism

  1. Good points. Reinforcing recording which I, we do here at our school. AND IMPORTANTLY, awareness comments. Why?

    Embracing os a great start to the path of self-differentiation as a musician and person.
    Great thoughts, Will.

  2. Excellent points! I remember in college I really struggled a lot with the anxiety of having others hear me play before a recital or performance. But the more I asked for their opinion, the more I saw that almost every single comment was aimed at helping out.

    It may be hard in the beginning to ask for others to listen and critique, but as you stated in this article, the measure in which we are willing to absorb criticism is tantamount to the measure of our success. Also, learning early in our careers how to impart constructive criticism will define in good level the success of our professional careers as educators and peers.

    Great post!!

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