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Coping With Criticism

My day of triumph had finally arrived! I made my NYC debut in a world premiere, and luckily the NY Times gave me a favorable review. Instantly I joined the ranks of bona fide professional opera singers, and my career was now set for success (or so I naively thought). Fast forward to a couple years later when a critic found fault with my performance and vividly described my vocal shortcomings. Immediately I fretted that my inchoate singing career was now effectively over. I can insist that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but negative reviews will never hurt me.” Truthfully it still stings to read a cutting critique of my singing, but I’ve learned that one bad review can’t destroy a career any more than one positive write-up can make someone a star overnight.

Why are negative reviews sometimes so hurtful? Singing can be a deeply vulnerable act, and an attack on one’s voice can easily be understood as a personal insult. We pour countless hours of training, study and rehearsal into a performance, and suddenly it’s out of our control. One person’s opinion about the event is all that some people will read, and it feels deeply unfair.

How can we best handle the apparent setback of a disapproving critic?

1. Cut Some Slack

-For ourselves: The cliché is true; I’m often my own worst critic. Before balking at someone’s disapprobation, I try to silence the negative voices in my own head. As soon as I leave the stage, I can make a list of all the things that could’ve been better. It’s also important to remember the things that went well.

-For colleagues: Whenever I read a caustic account of another singer, I try my hardest to give the artist the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was sick that night. Maybe he was dealing with allergies. Most importantly, I don’t publicly share eviscerating articles about other vocalists. If a friend of mine receives a rave in Opera News, I’ll share the link. It’s simply good karma.

-For the critics: It’s easy to think that writers relish the chance to humiliate singers, but truthfully they’re just doing their jobs. Performing isn’t easy, but neither is writing (even this blog!). Freelance gigging is just as tough for journalists as it is for artists, and like singers, the writers pursue their career out of passion. Just as a food critic should mention aspects of a meal he didn’t enjoy, an opera critic must share a balanced view of what he hears. It’s his responsibility as a consumer advocate for other potential patrons. Though it might occasionally feel vindictive, it is NOT personal.

2. Remember Your Reason

-When I was in school, was I inspired to start singing because of a review I read? Heck, no! I was in the audience when Tony Griffey shared his soul through the power and beauty of his voice. My goal is to stir those same emotions in others who might need a touch of beauty or encouragement. If my purpose is to receive acclaim, I’ll be perpetually disappointed.

3. Pat Yourself On The Back

-Were you recently torn to shreds in a blog or newspaper article?

Congratulations! You’ve joined the ranks of the richest, most famous artists in the world. Renee Fleming has been criticized for everything ranging from her repertoire choices to the dress she wore to the Super Bowl. But can any of those complaints take away her four Grammy awards, her fame and her fortune? Nope. If Ms. Fleming can handle the critics, so can we.

4. Listen, Learn And Laugh

-I try to honestly evaluate critiques. If the same comments turn up in multiple reviews, it’s probably true. More importantly I listen to my team of advisors who have joined me on this journey for years, not just for one evening when I may or may not have been in my best condition. It’s important for me to continually identify my own strengths and weaknesses so I can keep growing. I take the music quite seriously, but I can’t fall into the trap of taking too seriously. If you ever feel the need to give yourself a break, watch this hilarious video of superb singers reading their bad reviews: Bad Singer Reviews

I’ll leave you with this quote from British critic A.A. Gil. His area of expertise is food, not music; however, the sentiment applies to all of us: “What I write in a newspaper is in the bottom of the parrot’s cage tomorrow, it’s ephemeral – a bad review should ruin your breakfast, but it shouldn’t affect your lunch.”

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