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My Perspective on Music Criticism

Many times I have heard from friends, family members and colleagues that I shouldn't take my singing so personally.  This comment usually comes right about the time when I am upset about something that someone said or wrote about a performance or audition that I sang.

Now, I know that criticism in itself is merely an expression of what a person thinks, which is an extension of that person's tastes and biases, and therefore is not any sort of final decision as to the quality of my singing or my artistry.  However, I find it odd that we, as singers, are asked to do seemingly contradictory things when it comes to our profession.

On one hand, we are asked to make our singing such a part of ourselves (in terms of giving the audience pieces of our own personal experiences served up in the form of musical dramatizations of operas and songs) and then, on the other hand, when someone criticizes our singing, we are supposed to be able to brush it off easily without a second thought as to the emotional reaction we have to these unsolicited critiques.  Especially when we are baring our souls to auditoriums full of people we've never met, all in order to share something beautiful that we, the performer, experienced, and which will enrich their souls by intuitively participating in our emotional journey during the performance.

Considering that we singers are in a business where we are asked to perform for a living (which of course requires that we provide real experiences to the audience in terms of dramatic truthfulness), it is understandable that we are open to criticism from everyone who happens to see us perform, hear us perform, hear about a performance that we have given from someone who's attended or heard that performance, or heck, even read about an account of a performance we gave!  (Or, thanks to the internet, have seen some bootlegged videos of performances we gave, or are in rehearsal for.... at the current moment, even.)  At any rate, I do understand that criticism is part and parcel of this career path.  Though, why should we have to acquiesce to our critics without having our own say?

These critics pronounce their judgement on us with such finality, often after only hearing us for a short time,  and without getting to know us as people, or artists for that matter.  I honestly don't see the fairness or validity of such opinions.  To be sure, there are many people who will read the critics' opinions of musical performances religiously anyway, even after considering my point, but... perhaps there will also be those to whom this makes a bit of sense.

I'll go even one further.  We as singers are asked to represent something as close to an 'ideal' of who we are ask people to our audiences.  It is easy to wonder as a singer, whether or not this 'ideal' of who you are becomes the only thing that matters to people who see you perform.  And so there are times when you don the mantel merely because you feel beholden to the responsibility of being that 'ideal' to your audience. (I know I'm going out on a limb here for those of you who aren't performers, but for those of you who are, I know that this must ring true on some level- even if perhaps you hadn't thought of it concretely before...)

Therefore, we have a duty not only to sing beautifully and act convincingly, but also to serve as a higher self through whom the audience can live vicariously, even if only for an evening.  So then, why is it that when our critics cut us to the quick emotionally at times, does it seem 'weak' or 'tender-hearted' to be genuinely hurt by these critics' remarks?  Honestly, at the end of the day, we singers are only human beings, and there is a great deal of psychological pressure put on us when we are on stage, and ultimately, what we really want is exactly what the audience members want.  To be told at the end of each day that we are needed and loved by so many people just the way we are.  And, that even if we never sang another day in our life, that we would still have made a difference in the world, regardless of whether we sang well once, or a million times.

So, critics, if you would please keep this in mind, we singers would be eternally grateful. :)


  1. This is a really intriguing topic! As a music critic, at the end of the day, I'm working at my art as authentically as i can, and my intention is never to insult, offend, or emotionally injure the artist.

    I don't think it's fair for a critic to judge someone on the emotional intent of his or her performance. That being said, particularly when reviewing opera, it's the critics' responsibility to judge the singer's ability to embody the character that he or she is portraying.

    It seems to me that those who say that the artists shouldn't take criticsm too seriously and the critics who issue said criticsm are not the same people. I don't know of any critics who would say to the musicians, "Don't take it to heart, don't take it too seriously." The art that is created and our response to that art is of the utmost importance to us, and we take it very seriously.

    A critic is beholden to the audience, the listeners, to provide an informative perspective so as to educate, and yes, even inspire others. Even though critics and artists have different responsibilities, they are accountable to the same people. Unfortunately, this puts musicians in a difficult spot. Who is accountable to the artists?

    In short, we all are. When artists put it all on the line for us professionally and emotionally, they are giving us a gift--the most loving gift one can give. There is a natural dialogue at work, and we the audience must respond in kind. The performance may not always resonate with us, but we must approach it with the grace and honesty with which it is given to us. And so, when a critic gives his or her honest opinion, even if it is not favorable, ideally it comes ultimately from a place of respect and admiration for the artist and the work he or she does.

    In turn though, artists should definitely be able to respond to critics. A really entertaining example of this is composer Nico Muhly's blog, in which he occasionally responds to critics such as The LA Times' Mark Swed--always interesting. The dialogue between artists and critics is of paramount importance, and should always be encouraged.

    Ultimately, I think critics function as a necessary annoyance for musicians. After all, our pull quotes often make for great promotional material on artist web sites. We can't be all bad! ;)

  2. Julia, I agree it is tough because we basically open up our souls and then we go through pain reading the reviews, hearing other people's opinions but there are times that we hear wonderful things but it is natural to focus on the negative. That is why a lot of singers do not read their reviews. I think I read Renee Fleming does not and neither does Netrebko. It is hard!

    I think other singers are worse than critics though. Have you ever read the comments on FAMOUS opera singers on YouTube? It is crazy! I have realized that if so many people hate some of my favorite singers of all time, and I mean write some vicious things, I am definitely fair game.I am not saying it is OK but I will try to be stronger every day and try to remain true to myself through it all. It hurts but some of the greatest artists only showed their hearts on the stage and then put it away after. Nina Simone was like that, Maria Callas, Miles Davis, Teresa Stratas. Just know that not everybody understands what you are doing because their perception of what you are expressing is sometimes focused on different things than you normally focus on, based on your upbringing, personality, etc. Opinions are always based on their background in one way or the other...

    Our lesson is to get stronger and eventually stop reading the reviews or have somebody read them for us. They can find the good parts that we need for our websites. ha ha.

    I know it is hard, I am a sensitive singer and it can tear at my heart but that is part of my training...people will always have opinions. Like I said, read the comments on famous singers on YouTube, that really made me think about it all.

    We can just focus on what we want to express and pray that at least one person understands or feels our performance. Also, just keep supportive people around you and they will lift you throughout this hard road we have chosen.:)

  3. @ Verunka: I do agree that it is probably a good practice to develop- to have someone else read your reviews for you, and then ask them to pick out the good bits for the website/press materials--ha ha! :) And, I also agree- that people can be really mean, especially on YouTube with those singers for whom we hold as sacred in what they gave to the operatic art form.

    Yet, I think your best and most important point, which I neglected to mention in my post, and I am quite glad that you mentioned it!!!---is that many of us singers should keep in mind that once we step off of the stage, we should be a bit more guarded about being open to everyone and everything, as we would be during a performance in a receptive way. That way, like you point out, it will keep the magic on the stage, and keep our feelings from being hurt when we're not on stage. THAT is a really brilliant point!! :)

    @ Daniel: Perhaps because I know you I have been able to read your thoughts and detect the modesty with which they are conveyed. I also happen to know that you're, as they'd say in German, an "ausnahme situation" among fellow music critics. Therefore, while we would like to hope that music critics are all coming from a place of admiration of the artists' work before they put pen to paper or fingers to a keypad to write a review, I don't think that is always the case. However, I do agree that with the better critics, it is.

    Furthermore, I like the idea of creating a dialogue with the critics- would that be something which could be done via email, phone, or in a public forum like a blog? Which do you think would be most appropriate? Thanks for the idea!!


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