Hearing criticism is difficult at best. As a young pianist, I was sensitive to the slightest criticism tending to shirk away from it. Too often, I heard critical opinion as fact. Inevitably, I would compensate too much and was criticized again for “going too far.” Gradually, I learned to embrace criticism by listening and putting it away for a while allowing my natural defences to subside. Hours or days later depending on the intensity of my reaction, I pick up the critique and analyse it with the purpose of finding the positive message in the background. Let me share a story to illustrate my process.
Shortly after graduating with my BM degree and the Lizette Black Award, Shenandoah Conservatory’s prize for the best graduating pianist, I was approached by a tenor to make a “practice” recording of concert repertoire. He was an older student having returned from a career in the military. Within days of starting the project, I realized that I was not ready for the job. It was too much music learned too quickly. My sight-reading, keyboard harmony and hand-eye coordination skills were not yet up to the task. I tried backing out but the singer insisted that there wasn’t time for him to change pianists. I soldiered on with unfortunate results.
The fallout of the bad recording was powerful for me. The tenor was unforgiving. “You will never amount to anything musically. You should be ashamed.” Adding insult to injury, he wrote a letter to my piano teacher and the dean of the school scouring not only me personally but them as well for graduating such a failure of a pianist. He wrote, “It says worlds about the quality of this school if this really is the best graduating pianist.”
In my inner world, I reacted violently to the embarrassment by avoiding recording for years for fear that more people would discover that I was a fraud. I even considered cancelling my plans to go to graduate school. I raged a bit about the use of criticism to wage social war and how negativity is more a reflection on the critic than the criticized.
After a spending a few weeks sorting out my feelings, I found a way to push back by acknowledging the core of the criticism – that my skill level needed improvement – and ignoring the negative drama of the experience. I took off the year between undergrad and graduate school but continued to take instruction and prepared my graduate auditions. Over the next few years, my skills increased considerably as well as my confidence.
Looking at my weakness practically and applying myself to improvement brought some wonderful experiences. In 1991, I participated in the recording for Musihanten sings Music of Russell Woollen, a CD of chamber choral music. The music is amazing and the part was challenging. I had the personal pleasure of Russell Woolen coming up to me after the recording and whispering into my ear, Good job! . . . I thought I knew all the pianists in this area.
I began to think again that recording was possible for me but still did not pursue it actively. Not until 2005 did I dive into the world of professional recording when I worked with Judith Sheridan, soprano, to record a CD of music entitled, Forbidden Voices: Songs by Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis. It is available worldwide through Itunes and CD Baby. We both received some nice reviews. One of the best for me by Gary Higginson, reviewer for Music Web International:
Craig Combs is sympathetic and extremely competent. His use of pedal is discreet and he is supportive and careful with dynamics. No praise is too high for his contribution.
What a graceful ending it would be to this story if I could say thank you to the tenor who initiated my crisis of confidence. But, that might encourage someone else to use criticism as a blunt weapon like he did and I think it wrong to do that. I can, however, thank him for the life lesson: criticism, even negative criticism at its core, has a positive potential. The secret to hearing criticism in any form is to seek out the positive message using it as a platform for improvement.