“We are all born as creators.”
I read about this concept in Liz Gilbert’s, Big Magic – and it’s been churning in my brain since.
For most of my life, I believed without question in the magic of this idea. That my artist endeavors as a child were the perfect fuel to drive a career in creativity. I thought that everyone was capable of a creative career so long as they worked hard and believed.
I believed this up until I went to university for music composition. There, criticism attacked my creative soul more times than I’m proud to admit. Eventually, my belief in the magic shattered to the notion that only a select few are born as creators and the rest of us just really suck at it (myself included.)
Back in those days, I couldn’t yet decipher what each comment was telling me. I couldn’t tell if someone was critiquing my technique or my instincts as an artist. Therefore, I allowed all the criticism I received to crush my belief in my artistic instincts. And therefore sabotage my efforts in composition going forward.
It took me years to undo this damage and form a clear understanding of criticism. I now have that same magical belief that yes, we are all born as creators. I just now also believe that it is imperative to understand criticism to master and strengthen this belief.
The truth is, criticism is essential for artists to grow. And while we usually learn over time how to accept/welcome criticism in reference to honing our technique, we seldom discuss how to handle criticism directed towards our artistic instincts.
In this article I’ll discuss how criticism shows up for both craft and instinct, and some tips for keeping your artistic instincts safe and ready to use.
The Importance of Craft
Musical craft is the development of technical musical skills combined with the knowledge of contextual considerations that incorporate things such as the history of performance practice, compositional etiquette, repertoire, regional importance, etc, etc.
Artists receive a lot of criticism aimed at our craft/technique. For composers this might look like criticism/prompted exploration on things like your own performance practice, orchestration choices for compositions, use of form, and technical considerations/demands for compostiions, etc. For performers this is more closely tied to your instrument (or voice) and what you are performing.
As a young musician, I used to take this criticism straight to the heart. My ego shed tears every time I learned something I felt I should have known. (But my instincts guided me to this!) However, the truth is that your instincts usually don’t know right off the bat how to translate what’s in your head into a polished, clear, historically-minded performance/piece.
This is where your honing your musical craft comes into play.
Bias vs. Technique
I learned a major lesson in my undergrad, which was understanding the difference between what my gut was telling me, vs. what technique could help me with. The feeling of, “but my instinct said this was fine!” that many young musicians grapple with.
Like any 19-year-old in music, freshly-converted-from-the-sciences, I thought that music instruction was riddled with opinions and bias and therefore not rooted in fact. That any criticism was criticism directed at my heart, and that I should therefore take any negative criticism personally. Oh was I wrong.
I’d have thoughts like, “Someone doesn’t like the Bb I’m singing? Oh, well it must be subjective! I like it and I think it’s fine!!”
The problem with that mode of thinking is that it leaves zero room for developing your skills as a musician. As a science minded individual, I came from the school of thought that there are universally understood concepts and anything that strays beyond them is flawed, or a personal attack. 1 gram of water is always equal to 1 gram of water, and anything more or less just means you have your facts wrong.
So when I heard comments that came after my technique, I thought these comments were directly coming after my artistic vision. In theory, singing a Bb should be a consistent, one-size-fits-all experience, but in reality, music is soooo much more nuanced than that.
There are many technical considerations that simply don’t exist or equate to anything in the sciences. And with each of these considerations comes the chance for mastery of this part of the craft. For example, as a singer, I’d hear criticism that challenged me like this all the time:
How are you supporting your breathe? How is your posture? What is the text of the Bb? How are you conveying the text within your voice and on your face? What is the drama of the poem? What level are you as a singer? Are you waiting for your vibrato to develop? Are you waiting for your voice to mature? Are you singing freely and without tension in the tongue, cheeks, face, back, neck, body? Why are you singing the song? Does the audience understand what you are trying to sing?
You get the idea.
As a nerd fresh from engineering, you can see where I ran into some trouble as these two worlds collided. I mean for my science minded folks, can you imagine that sh** in chem lab?? Your head would explode. Why this Bunsen burner? What is the historical significance? How are you conveying your intent for the experiment as you light the flame? You gotta be kidding me!!
Craft and technique are so so so important. And way less subjective than you think! Developing musical craft allows you to translate the artistic vision in your head to share with the world. It is absolutely imperative you keep an open mind for criticism as a chance to learn and grow as an artist.
When you receive comments or criticism that focus on these concepts – listen to them. Consider them to their fullest. Examine carefully what is being said to you and why – it may very well help you learn something that will help you down the road!
So you’ve just had your crash course in defining craft and the criticism thereof, but what is artistic instinct?
To draw on Liz, this is where the magic happens.
Artistic instinct is that creative, often unexplainable, magical force that is driving you to compose music, or draw a picture, or sing a masterpiece in your shower. It’s that feeling you had as a kid that allowed you to create from your heart in art class and not give a **** about what anyone else thought about it.
Artistic instinct is that gut feeling guiding you to sing something that speaks to your heart, or write a work that expresses an idea or larger emotion.
The really crappy part is that for many of us, somewhere in the tragedy of adulthood we lose touch with that instinct along the way. Mine was crushed by my limited understanding of criticism. Maybe yours was crushed by an authority figure that wanted you to get a steady job and told you to ‘stop daydreaming and enter the real world.”
Either way, we have a chance to reconnect with it and protect it moving forward.
Reconnecting to Your Instinct
Your gut will lead you as you work on whatever it is you are creating. The trick is to get out of your own way and let the magic happen!
Ok, I know I just made it sound super easy, but the reality is it is simple, not easy.
The internet is riddled with resources to help you connect with your intuition, but for me, I practice a few things when I get stuck:
When I have one million thoughts racing through my head, it can be hard to hear the one guiding me through my work. When this happens, I practice a few minutes of meditating to clear my mind and allow those one million thoughts to pass through. Then I can hone in and focus on the one that matters in the moment.
I love a good affirmation! I use them all the time to help lift me up when I’m caught in a negative spiral. Some of my favorite affirmations look like:
I trust in my artistic instinct to guide the way.
I believe in myself to finish this work.
I am capable of creative solutions.
3. Lean into your craft!
When you get completely stuck on a project, it’s ok to lean on your experience to get you through the work!
For a compositional project this might look like this, “Past musical practices would dictate and ending like this” or “I have these options from this point that would keep the piece cohesive.”
My point is – you were born as a creator and deep down you know.
Protecting Your Pearls
Undoubtedly, if you are a musician/artist or creator, you will receive criticism from someone who wants to give their two cents on how they think your work should go. These are the jerks that want to finish your composition with their ending and threaten your voice as you continue through your work.
I’m going to say this super loud for the people in the back:
Comments that attack your vision are not ok.
You don’t have to listen to them.
At the U of M I had peers and educators that misguidedly attacked my visions all the damn time. It was exhausting and lead me into a permanent state of confusion with zero confidence in my instinct and abilities. I was so ill prepared for handling this criticism and coping with it that it brewed deep seated doubt that nearly ended my compositional career.
It took me years to undo the confusion and fear and doubt plaguing every thought process and idea for my compositions. So much so that I still haven’t fully recovered to start my compositional career. (But I believe that I will fully recover this confidence someday!).
The best educators I’ve encountered will give you the tools to hone your vision, not replace or destroy it. They will help you refine your technique and give you tools to shape your visions in the future.
We can grow and fail as we explore our artistic visions. As artists, we have total freedom! Trust your choices and allow them to play out. You were made for this!
You were born a creator!
A Bad Piece
One last piece of advice –
A professor of mine famously used to say, “Don’t be afraid to write a bad piece!”
Sometimes trusting in your instincts will lead you to create something you later despise or laugh at years later as you look back and think, “Oh no!”. The most important thing to learn is to trust yourself while creating the work. Remember: the work itself literally never has to be played or seen again.
But it is valuable all the more because of what you learned from it.
No one will give you permission to use your instincts to the fullest. You will receive mountains of criticism along the way. It’s up to you to learn to trust your artistic instincts and refine them using your crafted skills. But I know you are up for the task, you are much stronger and more enlightened than I was.
Keep writing & keep creating my friends. The world needs your light.