Please Wait a Moment


Practicing Well: How Music school taught me to adapt on the fly

Many of you probably don’t know this tidbit about my backstory but I was previously destined to be a concert violinist from the age of four years old through post-college. I took lessons at the University starting at nine, played in the University Orchestra and Missoula Symphony starting in late middle school, and attended Lawrence University, a music conservatory in Wisconsin, for college. Surprisingly, I dropped to a Music Minor after feeling like the music community was just too adversarial and competitive for me. That ironic choice will have to be saved for another article, but I digress.

In college, we were required to practice for 40 hours per week in addition to all of our regular classes and homework. We were given challenging pieces of music to learn for playing tests and recitals and we played in the Lawrence Symphony. The endeavor was for technical perfection, musicality, and moving emotional expression. A lot of time and energy was poured into perfecting each piece of music. Tears were had. Frustrations regularly mounted at 2am in the basement of that music conservatory.

Part of music education included what’s called “masterclass” where each of the students in the studio played the pieces we were working on for the group in a classroom setting.  While the student performed, the instructor often sat in the front row or stood over the student to yell corrections during the performance and the other students in the class were also free to holler their input in real time: “Faster!” “With more emotion!” “F-sharp!!” “Sadder!” “Shhhhh” “We can’t heeaarrr youuuuu!”  “Wilder!” “More Cat-like!” and so on.

We were expected to hear, process, and incorporate these friendly suggestions in the millisecond between hearing the cue and playing the next note without getting frustrated, stopping, or disagreeing. When done, then the full class repeats their feedback round-robin style for next time. Fun, right? Masterclass!

But this torturous-sounding method was probably one of the great gifts of a music education. The ability to take a pelting of criticism, on a task that is both technically difficult and emotionally challenging, and meet the wave of nit picking with determination and unflappable adaptation.  Absorb, recalibrate, keep trying, and improve. There simply wasn’t time nor mental energy to let each peck affect me on any level.  Could you imagine if I took personal offense to the glib, nay.. the AUDACITY… displayed by the student, who had likely never played my piece, yelling “too slow!” in front of everyone when I had practiced probably 100 hours on that piece?? I’d be a mess!

In law practice, though, I quickly learned that my criticism tolerance-o-meter was clearly off. My delivering of corrections on other people’s work had to quickly be dialed down and my high tolerance for people being rude and out of line with me had to be recalibrated. Luckily, I was aware of what I had gotten used to through Music school and was able to cultivate the right attitude when it comes to criticism. But I still consider being unflapped in the face of criticism a superpower. Here are a few tips to cultivate that right balance:

Accepting Criticism:

  1. Exercise empathy. You are doing your best on a project and so is whomever is correcting your work.  They likely honestly and earnestly believe that improvements are necessary and they are doing their best too, so don’t take it personally.
  2. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. There will be a million times where a style guide doesn’t answer whether a comma belongs or does not belong, where one of many words will do, and where it really makes no difference whether a certain turn of phrase is at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Brush off those tiny points of contention and limit those things that you feel you need to stand up for to those things that really matter.
  3. Find the grain of truth. Critical messages, even those that you don’t agree with, likely always have some grain of truth. Maybe you didn’t state your true message clearly enough, maybe you made an assumption about something you shouldn’t have, or made a mistake that was minor from your perspective but major from someone else’s.
  4. Always remember that criticism of your work is not criticism of you.

Delivering Criticism

  1. It is actually not appropriate nor nice to pelt anyone with criticism! Maybe in music or in sports, but nowhere else. Are you a habitual offender? Do you meander into a paralegal or associate’s office and ramble off a list of corrections without a thank you or positive note mixed in anywhere? If that sounds like you, your criticism-meter might be off! Open and close with strengths and appreciation from now on.
  2. Deliver criticism in terms of opportunities instead of failures. “I think we have an opportunity to model good problem solving by taking this parenting class” instead of “You are damaging your child’s mental health when you fight in front of him.” The more you strive to inspire instead of correct, you’re working in partnership instead of in a hierarchy.
  3. Also don’t lose the forest for the trees. Are you harping on details that really don’t matter for the sake of your own control? If so, maybe drop some things for the good of your working relationships and focus on the big picture you share with your team mates.