It's Nothing Personal: Requesting, Accepting and Responding to Criticism

Taking criticism is hard. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes your pride and self-worth can take a brutal beating. What is criticism? From whom should we accept it? Why is it hard to take? Let's start with a definition.


What is Criticism?

Criticism is a specific type of informed opinion regarding someone or something. Criticism can be either positive or negative but tends to lean more on the negative side. Those that form, research or publish these informed opinions are called "critics". The wealth of experience and expertise that critics have amassed over their career adds weight and a high degree of respectability to these opinions.

In the pipe band world we hire experienced pipers and drummers to critically evaluate our competition performances--they are called judges.

Judges offer what is known as "constructive" criticism which is intended to encourage improvement (as opposed to "negative criticism" that is intended to show someone they are wrong).


Avoiding the Defensive Response

When someone hurls an insult in your direction you may notice that your mind and body initiate a defensive response. Your blood may start pumping and you might yell back. Then your adrenaline kicks in and your body prepares for the possibility of a fight. Your mind and body are literally preparing to defend themselves from attack. Sometimes, under certain circumstances (especially where stress is involved), criticism on a judging sheet can elicit a similar response.

It's easy to understand why negative comments can make pipers and drummers defensive. We all work hard on our competition music all year only to have someone make (in our opinion) a flippant comment like "rushing 2nd part" or "no lift here". We sometimes treat these comments as if they are personal insults.

They are not.

These comments are part of a larger, informed opinion from an expert in our field. We call these opinions "sheets". These judging sheets bring to light certain aspects of our playing that need attention so that we may improve for next time.

That's it. Nothing personal.


Accepting Criticism

Avoiding the defensive response is key here. When reading your judging sheets, take the comments as they are intended: as suggestions to help you improve. Also, remember that judges are human and every judge will be looking for elements of your performance they deem to be important. Some judges are fixated on dynamics. Some others are concerned with execution of rolls and some are concerned with establishing and maintaining a consistent tempo. If you have the same judge several times during a competition season it is possible that the same comments will appear on your sheets multiple times. The judge is not picking on you! Instead, they are noticing that their initial criticism has not been addressed and they are reminding you to pay attention to it.


Asking the Right People for Criticism

If you want to improve your drumming it is important to note that not everyone is worthy of a request for criticism. If all you are looking for is casual feedback about an aspect of your playing, you can ask anyone. If you are looking for an informed opinion that will truly help you improve it is important to ask the right people. These people can include pipe majors, lead drummers, accomplished soloists, reputable clinicians/educators and judges.

When someone offers criticism about an aspect of your drumming think about that person and the resume they have before reacting to it or addressing it. If the "critic" has experience, knowledge and reputation to back up their comments, they are worth listening to. If the "critic" is an anonymous YouTube "troll" you should disregard their "advice".


Criticizing Others

I have one rule when it comes to criticizing others: I never do it unless I'm asked. If someone comes to me for a lesson, I assume they are interested in receiving criticism so I offer it freely. If my drum corps wants to win a competition I assume they want to receive criticism that will help them achieve a good result.

Offering unsolicited criticism is never a good idea. It can cause hurt feelings and create rifts between bands or even in your own band. Before offering criticism it is important to know your place in the pipe band world. Think of the body of knowledge you have. Have you led a drum corps? Are you a successful soloist? An accomplished teacher? A successful composer? Has your band had success on the competition circuit?

If the answer is "no" to these questions it is probably best to keep your criticism to yourself. Keep your mouth closed and your ears and eyes open. Work towards adding to your own body of knowledge that will someday grow to a point where you earn the right to criticize others.


The Problem with Social Media

The huge problem with social media is that everyone is a critic. You don't need credibility, experience or expertise to post your comments and often you can do it anonymously. Lately I noticed some negative "criticism" on social media directed at beginner level players looking for helpful advice. These novice players are looking for help and they are "rewarded" with sarcasm and other negative comments. "Critics" (trolls) who leave unhelpful or hurtful comments are most often untrained or inexperienced themselves and have not earned the right to offer their opinion. Just because you have the opportunity to express an opinion doesn't mean that you should!

Please ask yourself a couple of questions before you post on social media. Are your comments helpful or hurtful? How would you feel if someone left a comment like that on your social media page? There is enough negativity in the world the moment. As my mother used to say: "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".


Criticism Hurts Sometimes (and that's okay)

We are all human and sometimes it hurts when we are criticized, even when it comes from someone we admire and respect. When we receive criticism there is sometimes a "sting" attached to it and it often takes a while for that "sting" to fade. Do not be ashamed if you take criticism personally. You are not alone. It takes courage to pick yourself up, address the criticism and move forward. Learning and improvement is hard. This is why there are only a handful of "greats" out there. If you can consistently find the courage to address the weaknesses brought to your attention by criticism, you, too, will be on the path to greatness!



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