Sooner or later, anyone working with other people in a band is going to have to deal with criticism. This can be difficult for one of two reasons: giving your band mates feedback is hard – how are they going to react? And receiving criticism can be hard on any musician’s ego. But, all going well, some constructive criticism can often make you a much better musician.

The Musician’s Ego: Learn to Give & Receive Criticism

Why So Sensitive?

“Musicians tend not to separate who they are as a musician from who they are as a person,” mental coach and psychologist Stefaan van den Putte states. When asked why musicians are so sensitive when it comes to criticism, he says the answer is simple: “They gain their dignity and self-esteem from being a musician. There are many roles you can play in life and being a musician is just one of them. But musicians tend not to see things that way. Telling them that they could do better or sound better immediately feels like a personal attack: ‘I’ve been criticised as a musician, which means I’m failing as a person.’ The identity of the musicians who think this way is closely intertwined with their instrument. They grew up with music and with their instrument and, outside of that world of music, there is no life.”

Adding that any criticism isn’t personal doesn’t have any effect, but there are plenty of other verbal methods that can help soften the blow. “Never say something like ‘you can’t swing’, because that really is about the person and not about their playing. It’s better to say ‘It could swing a bit more’ and then go on to say how you could achieve that as a band.” Offering solutions is essential when it comes to giving feedback. ‘Solution’ is the word that Stefaan prefers to use instead of criticism – especially when it’s negatively loaded. “Straight criticism can be destructive, and being destructive is the worst thing that you can do. It can make someone feel like it’s easier to just break down rather than trying to do better.”

Good feedback should never be a flat denial or statement: “Things like ‘That’s not any good. That doesn’t swing. That’s not harmonious. The tempo makes no sense’ are simply negative statements, so don’t go there. Try to think about what you’re actually saying when you tell someone ‘don’t speed up’? Are you trying to tell them that they need to play slower, or that they’re unable to keep to the tempo? Denials don’t say anything. If you say ‘I’m not an old man’, does that mean you’re in your 30s or a 12 year old child? Feedback in the form of what needs to happen is often far more efficient.”

The word ‘but’ can also be dangerous. “Take the sentence: ‘that was good, but…” You’re not going to remember anything that was said before the ‘but’. Everything that comes after the ‘but – the negatives – that’s what lingers. It’s better to speak point by point: ‘Your sound is great. Your rhythm is on-point. When you were improvising I didn’t hear many notes’. Here, you run through the parameters one by one. This provides more objective opportunities for adjusting things and improving.”

The Follower as Leader

One offers criticism quicker than the other, one is dominant, the other not. Any group, no matter the situation, includes leaders, followers, extraverts and introverts. Stefaan: “Most bassists are introverts while a lot of trumpet players are extraverts. They want to be in the picture. There’s been research on this subject, which found a direct link between the choice of instrument and the personality type. The viola players in an orchestra are usually the people that would usually stand on the sidelines, which makes sense, because it’s the job of the violas to fill out the sound of an orchestra. They don’t get all the attention. If they had wanted all the attention, they would have chosen a different instrument.”

There’s a good chance that, in practice, the followers are actually the trouble-makers, because they rarely openly criticise anything and are just as often the group that gets openly criticised. Stefaan firmly believes that, as part of the group process, every member of the band should get their say. This can really work if a different band member takes the lead at each rehearsal. This gives everyone a chance and means that it’s not always the loudest person in the room giving feedback and dictating how you’re rehearsing. Feedback is never intended to be personal, but it is a personal action. As Stefaan explains: “If you’re a band with five members, then there are five opinions in the room, so make sure you’re checking in with each other. ‘This is what I’m thinking. Are you feeling the same? Is that working for you? Does it make sense?’ And always ask the person playing or singing the part you’re giving feedback on: ‘What does that do for you? How does it affect you?’”

It’s never wrong to respect the feelings of others when giving feedback. The ‘sandwich’ method is a classic approach – and it works: “Start by saying something positive, put the criticism in the middle and then close with something positive again. Exaggerating can also be effective, so you can activate the person’s feelings before neutralising them. Maybe you open with a dramatic voice, stating that you have bad news, making your bandmate prepare themselves for what’s coming before you say ominously ‘Can it be a bit quieter?’ Your bandmate breathes a sigh of relief: ‘Is that all? No problem. I thought you were about to throw me out!’”

To make any feedback concrete, it can be handy to record your rehearsals. “If you don’t record it, you can say whatever you want to say after the fact but you’ll have no idea if it’s true. If you say the trumpet was too loud in the fourth bar of the intro, the trumpet player might give you a quizzical look. If you record everything, you can simply show them rather than just tell them. This makes things far more objective and less personal. It’s difficult at the start. A lot of musicians don’t do it because they find it too confronting.”

Drawing Conclusions

Not everyone is cut out for working harmoniously with others. “Suppose that you have a group of four musicians, three of which play at a high level and one of which is lacking. You give them chances, but if it doesn’t go well, then they’ll eventually feel like they’re being pushed out of the band. After all of the criticism, they’ll draw their own conclusions. Isn’t it better to opt for an honest and constructive conversation?” A lot of bands leave issues like this to fester for far too long, and according to Steefan, that makes sense: “It’s one of the hardest things to say to someone: sorry, but you’re not good enough. It’s always going to be hurtful. Instead, you could really try to put it nicely: ‘We play and think a little differently and we don’t think that we’re the best fit for each other.’ Then you’re still being honest but without taking it to a hurtful level.”

The potential issues that can occur when the level of musicianship is mismatched can be easily solved by holding auditions. Anyone who doesn’t have the chops, doesn’t make the band. Steefan also recommends giving new members a trial period, even if it does seem like they can play like there’s no tomorrow. There’s also a chance that, while that person can play to a high level, they might be really difficult to work with. “In a band, it’s never just about the music. The atmosphere and the band relationship is just as important. If you’re the type of band who cherishes the time you spend drinking a pint together after rehearsal just as much as you do the rehearsal itself, then it doesn’t make sense to bring someone in who doesn’t drink or who needs to be home before bed-time. Try to check that the personality of the new member will match just as perfectly as their musicianship. Sometimes, the best idea is to pick the person that can’t play as well but that you really get on with.”

No One is Someone

Feedback is part of any group process and is intended to inspire creativity, improve the quality, help bond the group as a whole and be more satisfied with what you’re making together. Most of the time, this is a peaceful process, but there are plenty of bands that have suffered when this delicate process is disrupted, meaning that the only thing holding them together is animosity. The causes of the disruption can take many forms, whether it’s a particularly dominant member, a misbehaving member or a member who draws all the star quality. Remember that infamous moment in the documentary ‘Some Kind of Monster’ about Metallica that came out in 2005, when drummer Lars Ulrich unleashed all of his pent up rage right in the face of bandmate James Hetfield? With just one strong word, he made it very clear that he was done with all of Hetfield’s rules and need for control.

Stefaan went to see singer and guitarist Daan Stuyven play at the Linkerwoofer Festival in Antwerp in 2013 and was shocked, “He didn’t know his own lyrics and was just babbling and mumbling. Later, he denied it even happened but according to many, he was really drunk. After thirty minutes, the rest of the band just stopped playing and walked off stage. Dan was furious and ended up destroying his guitar. Being able to bring your front-person back down to earth is an essential skill when you’re in a band. If things get out of control, you need to be able to talk about it immediately. Daan forgot for a moment that he’s nothing without the rest of his band and his ego got a big slap in the face. He’s become a lot more humble as a result.” Stefaan goes on to quote the somewhat provocative psychologist Jeffrey Wijnberg: ‘no one is someone without the other’. “If the star of the band remains aware of this, then they’ll realise that they owe all of their status to being part of a group.” Do band members always have to be good friends? “No. Notoriously, Simon and Garfunkel have never been able to get along. They wouldn’t even come across one another unless they were on stage. So, it can still work, just as long as there are clear ground rules.”

An Off Day

And finally, we come to a form of criticism that comes from an entirely different angle. Your first reviews. Hopefully, they’re good, but what can you do if they’re negative? If Stefaan has anything to say about, it shouldn’t keep you up at night. “There’s always criticism and there are always compliments. Even if you’ve played the gig of your life, you can get a negative review, and even if you thought you had an off-day, you can get the best review you’ve ever had. Reviews, no matter the format, often say more about the critic than about what they’re criticising. So never take them personally. Instead, see it as a gift. You rip off the paper, see what’s inside and see if you can learn something from it. If you can, you keep it. If you can’t, then just give it back.”

While taking criticism is hard, in Stefaan’s experience, musicians find it even harder to receive compliments. Anyone who’s serious about their music knows that it’s never good enough. If there is one group of humans who are the most self-critical then it’s musicians. This is perhaps exactly why criticism that comes from somewhere else has such an impact, and often provokes the response: ‘See!’ But the response to getting a compliment like ‘you played really well’ is often just as dysfunctional. The standard reply of the average musicians will be something like ‘It wasn’t too bad. I missed a lot of chords.’ Don’t put yourself down! Never say that you’re not worth it. Simply accept the compliment. Say something like ‘That’s great to hear!’ And also, when you do receive any criticism or feedback, simply say ‘Thank you. What can I learn from this?’ Try to see everyone you come across in life as a teacher. Because that’s exactly what successful musicians do.”

An Interview with a Musician: Leave the Comfort Zone

Underlying annoyances and the inability to sacrifice the ego to the greater good that is making beautiful music seems inherent to the craft. Roland Verstappen knows all about it. After decades of being a successful solo musician, becoming part of a band was a big challenge. But it worked out: “By stepping out of my comfort zone and making space for other sounds, the results are so much better.”

Learn to Listen

If you’re one of those musicians who finds it hard to let go of their ego, or ignore the egos of others, then take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. There are probably way more bands out there that have been destroyed by a clash of personalities than bands who actually have fun with each other backstage. However, a little bit of healthy friction can actually be productive. Being open to each other’s input and feedback can really help your sound. Roland Verstappen: “With my band, I’ve discovered how much you can gain when you can ignore your own self-interest for a moment. I really had to learn to listen to my bandmates and their instruments. When we recorded our album, it was a personal as well as musical process. To be more exposed, I actually had to step out of the foreground. Now that everything’s ready for release, I can really see how this has benefited the end result.”

From Solo Artist to Front-Person

After releasing a couple of hit singles and four albums as a solo artist, Roland found that it was time for something new. “After playing a few occasional sessions with a band, I realised how much I enjoyed it. Usually I was like a troubadour – it was just me and my guitar. I wanted to do more than just solo work, so I gave the bassist and instrumentalist Marco van der Velden a call and, two weeks later, I had my first rehearsal with my band. Although we immediately clicked, it felt really different to any of my previous solo projects. However, the other band members found my signature finger-picking a bit much and I’m happy to say that, maybe despite myself, I listened to them!”

Criticism is an Eye-Opener

Whether you’re the one that takes up all of the musical space; just wants to hear your own instrument; the one that’s always critical of anyone else’s input; or the one that spends all of your energy keeping the peace rather than actually enjoying yourself, you probably have something to learn from Roland’s experiences. In any band, there are different and sometimes conflicting sounds and opinions in the room. The criticism that Roland’s drummer and bassist offered him could easily have led to conflict. But it’s exactly this feedback that opened Roland’s eyes to new possibilities.

Rip Off the Bells and Whistles

Roland explains: “As a solo artist, my guitar had a really dominant role. I was writing backing parts for my vocals, so they always included a bass line as well as chords and rhythm. So, for example, I would always play a trick where I would accent the third beat by hitting the strings with the side of my hand or I would fill everything out with busy finger-picking that included the bass and the melody and sometimes a solo. I was basically trying to play like Harry Sacksioni. As soon as I added all of that to a full band, everything sounded too busy. So, very delicately, the drummer and bassist – who had the biggest issue with it – offered a little feedback on my guitar parts, not knowing how I was going to react. It was quite a beautiful moment. I noticed that they were reluctant to say something even though I could see that they really wanted to, so I made it clear that it was all about the song. From there, we started to figure out a new form for my guitar work. For example, we recorded an entirely new version of one of my earlier songs – something that I’ve been playing for years. For the band version, I removed nearly half of the old guitar work. By ripping off all the bells and whistles I heard just how direct that song could sound. After that, the band had no problem telling me what they thought and we’ve only developed and got better for it.”

Enjoy the journey

Roland’s message is clear: don’t let things eat you up inside and dare to offer constructive feedback. It’s simply never about who plays better than who; who can perform the best tricks; or whose opinion is the most dominant and decisive. If you’re in a band, you’re all on the same team and you all share the same goal: to make good music. And, according to Roland, that goal can only be achieved if you listen to each other and make music with drive and enthusiasm. In the worst case scenario, the song happens not to work out, but at least the journey there has been a pleasant one.

See also

» Relationship Tips for Sound Techs & Bands
» Musician-Related Injuries: 8 Ways to Avoid Them
» Guitar and Keyboard: Can They Be Besties in a Band?
» Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know
» A Bassist’s Guide to Writing Bass Lines
» How To Sing And Play At The Same Time
» How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
» Sitting Posture for Musicians: Learn to Sit Again
» Want to Play Tight? Then Nail These Exercises
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions

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