Criticism: How to Handle it Gracefully

One of the challenges of training in the performing arts is staying positive in the face of a lot of criticism. I was reminded of this the other day when I had the opportunity to observe a master class at the U.S. Performing Arts Camp here in NYC. (I’m teaching a master class there next week on Mental Fitness!)

I watched a group of musical theater students sing their audition pieces for a Broadway performer who gave them feedback to improve their performance. It was just amazing to see these teenagers get up and sing their hearts out, and then listen to the feedback and try it over all again.

I was reminded of the courage that it takes, not only to put yourself front and center and perform (which to most people, is a positively terrifying idea), but to submit to immediate criticism. Even feedback delivered in a nice way, as it was that day, can be hard to take. There are days when the slightest tinge of criticism can send us reeling emotionally.

But how should we handle feedback that isn’t delivered positively?

How do we handle negativity when it comes from the teacher?

This is a very complicated issue, so let’s just dive into one part at a time.

How’s Your Self-Talk?

The first and most important thing to consider is how you communicate with yourself. Your attitude colors how you hear feedback. If you tend to be very self-critical, then you are more likely to hear feedback as negative, even when it isn’t.

Conversely, if you tend to be positive and constructive with yourself, you are more likely to be able to take criticism in a constructive way.

Make it Not-Personal

It’s also important to take a step away from the personal when receiving feedback. This is Very Hard to do. After all, performers are the instrument: when you sing or act, it’s you; when you dance, it’s you; when you play, it’s still you even though there’s an external instrument.  We all connect so deeply to what we do as performers that we often feel we are inseparable from what we’re doing. While that’s natural, it’s also important to start developing the ability to distance yourself from your art form so that you can accept criticism in an objective way. This means understanding that criticism is about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, not about who you are as a person.

My Story

To that end, I’d like to share a story from my training with you. When I was sixteen, I started studying dance at UNCSA, and my main teacher was Melissa Hayden, a former Balanchine ballerina. I spent my first year of training with Milly in shock: I had always had kind teachers – they couched their corrections in positive language and gave as much praise as criticism.

Milly was different. She used language that was harsh, she was dismissive, she was impatient, and she did not like to have to repeat herself.

That first year I cried a lot- I had difficulty understanding her corrections, so it probably seemed to her like I wasn’t even trying to do them. I became unsure of myself and wondered if I was good enough to be a dancer. Her criticism felt very personal to me. It was impossible for me to listen to a correction without feeling like she hated me and my dancing.

But then, during my second year with her, something clicked. In part, I became more comfortable taking corrections from teachers whose styles were different from what I was used to. I also got a thicker skin and started distancing my emotions from the corrections. I worked hard not to take them personally.

The Whole You

How do you develop that distance? We’ll tackle that in another blog post.

For now, just start thinking about all of the parts of you that make up who you are: your mind, your heart, your body, your brain, your interests and passions, your family, friends, relatives, pets. You are a lot more than your art form, and thank goodness for that!

The criticism you get from your teachers and coaches is not directed at you as a person, but at what you’re doing as an artist and a student of a performing art. Sometimes, just telling yourself that is enough to create the distance I’m talking about.

Teachers Are People Too

I also realized that it wasn’t out of malice that Milly lost her temper, but out of frustration at not being able to make me see what she wanted. I realized that she had trouble saying what she wanted with words, and because she was no longer able to demonstrate, she couldn’t show me what she wanted either.

I started to have compassion for her situation and I made it my responsibility to figure out what she was getting at. This was a subtle shift in how I approached working with her, and it made all the difference. I was no longer a victim of someone whose commands made no sense to me. Instead, I was actively trying to find the gems in what she was saying.

Because I became curious, instead of frustrated, I was calmer and more in control of myself. Because of that, she saw that I was really listening. It calmed both of us down.

In Closing

I mention this story because in the performing arts, you rarely get to choose who you work with. Some coaches are incredibly gifted at communicating what they want, and others are not. You still want to learn and grow, so how that happens is really up to you.

There may be people with whom you really can’t find common ground- that does happen. But for the most part, teachers and coaches want to get the best work out of you, so if they deliver their message in a less than positive way, see if you can interpret it in a way that works better for you.

Ask yourself if you’re taking things too personally, and try listening for the gems in their criticism. If it makes any difference, let me know. Like I said, Big Topic- so we’ll come back to this again in future posts!

 

 

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