As artists we receive an exorbitant amount of feedback: sometimes it is good, but other times it can feel crushingly critical: too much vibrato; not enough line; you don’t look right; you don’t sound right; you’re too blonde; you’re not blonde enough; not enough expression; not technically accurate; you need to work on this; you need to work on that (and this may all be from the one performance!). It can be especially crushing when you thought you were doing your best to achieve all of these things.
Of course these statements can either cut us to the bone, or slide right off our backs - depending on our interpretation. The same statement can either be a factual suggestion of how you can become even better, or a scathing comment on your worth as both a performer and a human being. The key is in understanding the nature of feedback.
Here’s the thing : Feedback can’t tell you anything about yourself - it can only inform you about the person giving the feedback.
Now, before you say, BUT!!!… Let’s think about it - If a conductor tells you that you are playing too fast, what he or she is really saying is “I prefer this at a slower pace”. If an adjudicator says your voice is too big to sing that piece - this really means “I prefer that aria to be sung by a smaller voice”. A different conductor might be happy with the same pace, and an alternative adjudicator will tell you how wonderful it is to hear such a full sound singing that aria.
Curating your feedback
This doesn’t mean we just ignore all feedback - after all, if the feedback is coming from somebody that is considering employing you, then knowing what they like is invaluable. It just means we need to see it in a different light - one where it is not all about us; where the very fabric of our being doesn't shrink every time somebody else weighs in with their opinion. By getting to know whose feedback you find valuable, and who (shall we say) is just not on the same page, or doesn't have your best interests at heart, you can curate the feedback that is in line with your own values, and what you wish to achieve as an artist.
This is particularly hard for young performers as we are trained to see voices of authority as absolute and defining, not just opinion! Arguably, when starting out you may need to rely on the opinions of others, but as soon as possible, you need to start valuing your own opinion as well.
Decide for yourself…
Next time, before you turn to everyone else to decide whether you performed well, why not take a moment to ask yourself how it went? A novel idea I know, but who else knows what you are trying to achieve better than you? Who else knows where you are at? Instead of asking everyone else how you performed, ask what your intention was for that performance? Did you meet it? Learning to value your own feedback is essential for not being at the whim of others’ opinions, and for developing your own path as an artist.
Then look at the feedback, and recognise it as an opportunity to learn. If you think there may be some truth in it, test it out and see if it can enhance your performance. You may feel that it is in line with your current goals and hence a beneficial addition to your toolkit, you may recognise that it is not for you and let it go, and you may even recognise that it is not what you need right now, but keep it in the back of your mind for future improvements.
This goes for praise as well. We all like the occasional compliment, but if your entire analysis of your performance is hanging in the balance, waiting to see if others approve, how will you ever learn to judge for yourself? Can you really afford for the worth of your performance to be based on the mood or biased opinions of a few individuals. In any given audience there will be some people who love the way you perform and others who don't - are you willing to base everything on which opinion you happen to hear?
Why is this so important?
I don’t say all of this to undermine authority or to say, ‘stuff ‘em all’ - there’s is a much more important reason for curating your own feedback. If you’re always relying on the opinion of others, turning your attention outwards and deciding your worth as an artist based on what others think, then what kind of art will you be creating? Your own? Unlikely… You will just be copying somebody else’s creation.
Also, how vulnerable will you be if you are constantly at the whim of others’ opinions? A conductor yells at you that you're doing it all wrong - but perhaps he just had a fight with his wife and is in a bad mood! You hear somebody bad-mouthing your performance, but they were just intimidated by how good it sounded. Or, perhaps your accompanist says you were too fast, but only because they couldn’t match your efforts. Other people’s opinions will always be ladened with their own worries, vulnerabilities and prejudices. To develop the level of resilience needed for a career in the arts, you need to be able to listen to yourself and learn what feels right for you.
So don’t ignore feedback, and by all means, enjoy compliments when you get them but take them with a grain of salt, and before you do, check in with your own evaluation and curate your internal-feedback first. This way, you can begin to approach feedback with the open-minded, curious approach that allows you to ride the waves, rather than drown under their weight.
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