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With Friends Like These, Who Needs Critics?

Learning to enjoy classical music with a book club twist.

by Holly Mulcahy
October 6, 2008

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With Friends Like These, Who Needs Critics?

One of the best activities after a concert is to talk about it over drinks. For musicians, talking about a concert that has just been performed boils down to a musical postmortem. What went well, what went horribly wrong, how it could (read: should) have been better, are all tossed about over beer or wine.

By the nature of their training, musicians are trained to be hyper-critical with their own performances. Whether it is solo, chamber music, or orchestral music, the inner critic never shuts off. And while this is a very good tool to keep skills sharply honed, it can be detrimental in certain situations.

For example, during one post-concert social event I recall one musician saying to another, "The violins really hit it on the mark today, it was nice to hear such a strong section. Too bad the cellos couldn't pull through in the same passage!"

While it was a well deserved complement to us violinists at the table, the lone member of the cello section was fuming. He said, "I don't think the cellos are to blame, if the conductor would look over and gave us a cue at the same place he did during rehearsals we would have played with more confidence." Immediately thereafter, the trumpet player chimed in with "Well at least nobody in your section chipped a note; I don't know what happened to me tonight!" On it went: self evaluations, group evaluations, and the occasional finger pointing all preceded by "could haves" and "should haves".

Little did we know there was a patron from that evening's concert sitting at the next table. After a good half hour of listening to all of us weigh-in on our observations, he came over to our table and said, "I thought you all were fantastic this evening. I didn't notice anything besides good Strauss. You shouldn't be so hard on yourselves and fellow players."

All of the musicians at the table were rather dumbfounded. There we were, spilling trade secrets about our weaknesses for all to hear.

Granted, part of how musicians fix problems is to identify what needs to be fixed and use that insight to overcome problems in following performances. But maybe this patron was in the right place at the right time to help us out of a rut. Maybe our analytical habits weren't always the healthiest path to follow. Perhaps we should have been focusing on only what was played well.

And then we saw the newspaper review the next day, where a substitute was filling in for the local music critic.

"Violins had a particularly stellar night….." it went on, "cellos, however, were less than coordinated in most of the piece…." And then this, "trumpets would have been truly impeccable but for a few key notes which were sorely missed."

So jumping ahead a few years, I wonder if there should be a better effort to avoid presenting post-mortems with colleagues in public places. But the temptation to hash through performances immediately can be irresistible and almost therapeutic, especially when a conductor or soloist does something completely unexpected or unbelievable.

I asked a few of my friends their opinions. Most agreed it is completely natural to share the concert experience immediately after, but to take special care that "the conductor you are complaining about is not around!"

And then I spoke to a few patrons who I have gotten to know over the years. Most of them are sincerely interested in the inner workings of a concert and the breakdown of any performance is highly educational and sometimes entertaining. They want to know the raw footage instead of reading a bland review the next day. One of my patron friends said to me last week, "It's not like you are a pilot complaining in front of passengers, or a dentist speaking poorly about the patient in front of that patient. You are sharing your passion, which is interesting!"

Just a few weeks ago, while enjoying a post concert beverage, I overheard some strong opinions at the table next to me. Expecting to see colleagues expressing dismay with personal performance, I was rather surprised and a bit refreshed to see some patrons actually sharing there opinions of a modern work we played that evening. "It wasn't that the piece was offensive, I just didn't like rushing within the violin section." Another said, "I don't think it was rushing, maybe the conductor pushing for excitement, I liked the effect."

The conversation was quite interesting to eavesdrop, it was almost surreal that these patrons were coming to similar conclusions that we had just expressed. Then I noticed a familiar face at their table, my student's parent. And instantly I knew what this group of people was doing.

I vaguely remember this parent mentioning a club she had just joined. The club was a group of friends and neighbors that all had the same season tickets, and all planned to discuss each concert at the restaurant across the street from the hall.

What a fantastic way to enjoy classical music, with a book club twist. These friends and neighbors weren't with any official organization; they just wanted to discuss their experience on their terms. How interesting and innovative to NOT have structure by an organization. This group was solely in charge of their own after concert chats and drinks. And they could and did say what ever they felt!

People come to their own conclusions on each performance, whether they are on the performing or listening end of things, the most gratifying thing to do post concert is discuss the experience.

For now, I will continue to express my feelings post concert, but be very cautious about how and if I say anything negative. My experience with the "plainclothes" critic taught me the audience is always right. If they enjoyed the performance, it was perfect, no matter what. And if they didn't like something, that is fine too, it shows they were listening and thinking.

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