If you’ve wanted to take up singing, learn an instrument or write your own music, you might have found yourself reluctant to pursue it due to the possibility of having to handle criticism.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider your reluctance, as you are definitely not alone! Every accomplished musician has had to face their share of criticism over the course of their musical development.

Singing in particular can be a very sensitive subject when it comes to criticism, as compared to playing other instruments. This is due to various reasons, including not being able to replace your voice for a “new one”, or your voice being a biological part of you as opposed to an external entity.

handling criticism as a musician

The bottom line: for any musician learning to take criticism is essential, particularly if you hope to be a professional or perform regularly. I will explain several ways to do this later in the article.

But first, it is essential to understand that criticism can be divided into two main categories: constructive and destructive criticism.

Destructive vs. Constructive Criticism

Destructive criticism is most rife on the Internet and reality TV shows such as the X-Factor, and encompasses criticism that has no valid points. Comments and feedback are almost always vague and negative with no underlying basis to them. On the Internet, and especially social media sites like YouTube and Facebook, many people use destructive criticism because they are either jealous or looking for attention. The X-Factor and similar shows also use destructive criticism to incorporate “shock-factor”, and such comments should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Here is an example of particularly destructive criticism:

The video is a compilation of Simon Cowell’s meanest moments. After a while, you should see a pattern emerging. The contestants that come on stage are all enthusiastic and want to give it a shot, but instead of focusing on constructive ways to improve their voices and musicality, Simon and indeed other judges pick these extremely general analogies that sound funny to the audience, eliciting laughter. The judges and the audience are not bothered about improving the contestants’ abilities, especially during the first few weeks of the show, because that’s not entertaining.

Constructive criticism on the other hand has depth and detail, addressing genuine observations and problems. Constructive criticism should be taken advantage of to improve your musicality, and should give you an accomplished feeling when you rectify what was being addressed.

Something to note, however, is that constructive criticism can be taken the wrong way. Observations can bring significant problematic factors with your performance technique to the surface, which can be another reason why people don’t pursue music beyond a certain level. Be reassured, though, that this is pretty much the worst-case scenario. While I am not going to list every single type of constructive criticism, it is important to turn these types of comments to your advantage, even if at first it feels wrong.

Now let’s look at a video showing constructive criticism:

It is a cover of John Legend’s All of Me by Tiffany Alvord, which contains some constructive criticism from a user named “Princess Hemmo”. The majority of comments on the video are very destructive, especially about Tiffany’s voice being fake, boring or just plain horrible.

In my opinion, she didn’t put enough reverb on her recorded vocals, therefore it sounds very dry and doesn’t sound like she’s singing in the large room in the video, but those are my observations. Interestingly, unlike with The X Factor contestants, Alvord is a popular singer with a record deal, yet she still receives lots of destructive comments. This, however, is what Princess Hemmo had to say:

She’s good, really. But in my opinion her voice is too common, weak, a little too played up and the auto-tune was too much. Sometimes the notes go out of place and lessen the auto-tune a bit and it will be better.

What Princess Hemmo has done is pointed out specific observations that they think could be improved, and then offers a solution to how to improve them. That in a nutshell is constructive criticism.

The Concept of Performance

Meet the Johari Window. This is a great way of getting a more psychological point of view on the concepts of performance. It can also help a lot when it comes to how to deal with both constructive and destructive criticism:

Musicians Should Know The Johari Window

In a nutshell, the Johari Window was invented to explain the different points of view of knowledge and perception, but can be used in a slightly modified way for musical performance. There are four separate squares within the Johari Window which are explained below, applied to a musician and their performance:

  • Arena is knowledge that both you and your audience knows. This could be all manner of things, from knowing what you are going to sing, to what style of singer you are.
  • Blind Spot is knowledge known to your audience but not to you. A big one here is subconscious mannerisms that you do that are noticeable and distracting, but you yourself don’t notice them.
  • Façade is probably the most important aspect of performance to a singer. It is putting a mask on, a poker face, hiding elements of what you are experiencing from your audience. A big one is hiding stage-fright, another one is covering up if you make a mistake.
  • Unknown is a bit of an anomaly, as this is an aspect of the performance that is not known by anybody. I tend to call this external as it can range from what the weather is like that day to who else makes up the audience.

Now that you have a good grasp about the psychology behind performance and perception of performance, here are some tips on how to take constructive criticism the right way.

Firstly, you are your most important judge, and quite likely to be the most critical too! Learn to strive for self-improvement rather than perfection, be self-critical and a keen observer of your own performances.

Learn to take constructive criticism step-by-step. Dissect the comments and address each part of them one at a time:

  1. Identify the problem being addressed. Is it a physical or mental one, for example incorrect posture, or appearing nervous? Is it a visible or audible problem (i.e. is the problem seen or heard)? Is it internal or external (meaning is it something that has to be resolved within yourself or outside)?
  2. Work out why it is happening. Is it a matter of technique, or perhaps the difficulty of the song? Could psychological factors also be an issue, such as having a bad day beforehand?
  3. Set goals for yourself to go about fixing it. Make changes to the physical and/or mental factors that are causing the problem. The goals can be both short and long-term.

The Johari window can be a big help for Steps 2 and 3. If you are stuck, try fitting the problem into one of the boxes, as it is then much easier to put the problem into perspective and work out appropriate ways to fix it.

→ Learn more about musical goal-setting and planning

Some Real Experiences of Criticism

Here are two examples of real-life criticism that have been directed at me in the past, and my ways of dealing with them.

The first is an example of destructive criticism when one of my band songs was played on a small internet radio station. The comment was “The vocalist sounds like a choir boy going through a meat grinder.” For one thing, I knew that not all the audience would like clean vocals, and just like my explanation of destructive criticism above, this comment has no depth. I took it with a shrug of my shoulders and moved on!

The second is an example of constructive criticism. In one of my recitals at university, a lecturer commented that my pitch can often go sharp, as my sound is already very bright. Normally I didn’t think much about the notes I was singing; I have absolute pitch which means I know what notes to sing anyway. But this was obviously a problem that needed to be addressed. So during practice I spent time experimenting with different parts of my voice to see which part is most prone to going sharp. I found it, and since then I have been a lot more conscious of matching my pitch to other instruments. So because of this constructive criticism, my pitching has improved a lot!

Hearing Criticism and Moving Forward

So to summarise, don’t be put off by destructive criticism, but use constructive criticism to your advantage and apply it to your progression of improvement. Set yourself tasks in order to fix problems once you’ve worked out what they are, and if you aren’t sure, use the Johari window to help.

Remember, without criticism we would never strive to improve in the first place!