Handling Criticism

by Gary Guttman

Most composers, whether just beginners or highly experienced, don’t like to have their music criticized. And why would they? Their music is a deep personal expression of who they are. But this is true of virtually everyone. No one likes to be criticized.

There is a common saying: “opinions are like rear-­ends. Everybody has one”. I’ve cleaned up the language, but you get the message. Everybody has an opinion and likes to state it. This human behavior can be very hard on people who create personal work such as music.

I’ve found a book that every musician needs to read. It’s Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective. This book contains a priceless collection of reviews of famous musical masterpieces, written at the time of their premieres. The book hilariously displays how even the most respected critics have been wrong in their initial assessments of these great works of art. And if respected critics are often wrong, what does that say about the value of opinions from the rest of us?

Years ago I experienced an interesting situation. I was the composer for a short, special effects film. I had to make a presentation of the music to the producer of the film. She loved the music and said it was perfect. She stated that in all her years, she’d never not made a criticism of a composer’s work. She even claimed she made George Martin – the Beatles producer – ­ make changes in his work for her. But she wanted no changes in my music.

Then the director came in. He hated the music. It was too pleasing to the ear. He wanted something more dissonant and terror filled. Everyone loved my score but the director. So I had to rewrite it to his wishes. He approved my changes and we recorded the new music. It was now very dissonant and hard to listen to.

To make a long story short, the new music did not help the film at all. In fact, for the final sound mix of the film, they lowered the music until it was inaudible and filled the spaces up with loud sound effects. A perfect cinematic experience was ruined by a director who had no feeling for music. He indeed had an opinion as well as a rear-­end. That experience taught me not to take negative criticism personally.

Don’t be afraid of criticism. If it’s constructive, use it. Good composers should always strive to learn more. But just remember, the only critic that really counts is yourself.

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