Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chatting about Criticism

... excerpt from a recent email interaction with a friend and fellow voice coach…

JD: So tell me this then…do you think that there is ever a place for criticism? I really am curious to hear your take on it… the way I see it, the validity of praise is given profundity by one’s willingness to offer criticism… of course, I do have to be careful not to let myself criticize actions or objects in a way that my students or friends transfer it personally… but how do they know that I'm sincere in my compliments unless they know that there is a standard or measure?

jh: Do people have to know they're being criticized for it to be criticism?

JD: Ahhh… you're criticizing my statement, but you don't want me to know it! Clever! But seriously…

jh: Of course there is a place for criticism... I just wouldn't call it that. Criticism implies that where you are at this moment isn't enough, or good enough. I prefer the idea of refocusing, observing, and encouraging growth. Every place you are and have been deserves it's moment of appreciation and celebration before moving to where you want to go next. If you don't fully honor that space, positively seeing its- and your- strengths and weaknesses, you won't walk in confidence & assuredness to the next level.

To your point about a standard or measure… I don't think you need to criticize in order for people to know that your compliments are sincere. Do you need to tell your children that they’re wrong in order for them to believe you when you say they're right? Honesty trumps criticism. I believe sincerity conveys universally without the need for the expression or even recognition of duality. Does there have to be evil for there to be good? Do you have to show someone the depths of your cruelty for them to know the kind power of your love? I don't think so… you have to be honest, and have compassion. To speak with care, realizing that your words can be weapons of destruction or foundations upon which houses can be built. You can be both complimentary and constructively critical with the same kind voice…

JD: Perhaps then it can be valuable to criticize things or actions not necessarily associated with a particular individual…for instance…the Pinto is an ugly car… if I were to say that it were beautiful, you wouldn’t trust my judgment when I say that the Corvette is a beautiful car…

Now, if I know someone who owns and cherishes a Pinto, I think if I were to say that to them, they might transfer value from their car to themselves, so I would probably either refrain or refocus… hopefully…

jh: Is there anything that isn't associated with a particular individual? A corporation is made up of individuals who made that Pinto. And so, I think about who put their heart and soul into crafting that Pinto before making my point.

The real question is what is my point really about? How the car looks to me, someone who isn't driving it, and has no intention to buy it? I don't think it through to arrive at a less powerful, more comfortable point. But a more certain point, that benefits the person receiving the criticism more than it benefits me in any way for saying it.

I feel that is something people often miss with criticism… the goal. Is it more important for you to say how you feel? To be critical? To convey that you have a certain ability for discernment? Or that the person you're speaking with hears what you want to say? Or that they personally benefit from what you say?

One could say that much of this is really an argument in semantics. Still, as we’re a language driven culture, I’ll have that argument. Again, I think kindness can have a strong foundation, and that strength can have a kind one. And I’ll stand by that, whatever words you choose to explain or express it… showing singers their specific weaknesses and/or pointing out and criticizing what they do wrong won’t necessarily make them better. Building their confidence and painting a picture of where they can go next will.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eve Teasing

Today's blog isn't about singing per se, but is still very much about the importance of being able to express ourselves freely, clearly, and fearlessly. Enjoy!

An article in the New York Times this morning announced, in an effort to curb 'Eve Teasing', the advent of 8 commuter trains exclusively for women. Not in New York, but in India, where women are constantly subjected to pinching, groping, predatory staring and catcall shouting on their way to and from work. The government didn't enact a law requiring men to behave in a civil manner, or impose fines or punishment upon those who don't. It simply created a system of separate but equal, circumventing a demand for respect and decency.

While I don't find this to be the case on Manhattan subways, I'm sad to report that the article might very well have been talking about life on the streets of New York City. In truth, at least 5 times a day I am either glared at in a predatory manner, or shouted, whispered, or sneered at with language that would make a grown man blush.

I'm not blushing however. I'm deeply concerned. And over the years, I've grown increasingly concerned by those who feel they have the right to a form of blatant disrespect and prejudice that, directed toward any other group, would be an offense worthy of similar front page coverage in our nation's leading newspapers.

My concern has manifested in a variety of ways over the years. I've ignored the remarks and accompanying energy. I've tried to engage the men with compassion and care, including starting conversations about how they would feel were their daughters, mothers, or wives being addressed and treated in a similar fashion. I've given into anger, fantasizing about having a bb gun to shoot out the car tires of fools honking and screaming as they drive by, tongues wagging. I've imagined being in possession of Harry Potter-like powers, anonymously zapping bolts of humiliation or empathy through the creeps who walk by making obscene noises, and from time to time, touching me.

But I don't have a gun or magical powers. Instead I– along with thousands of women and girls in the city– wear sunglasses to avoid eye contact and listen to iPods to silence the daily blows. We alter our wardrobes, lengthening our skirts while our confidence, ease, and comfort in the world threatens to loosen.

Though I shouldn't have to, I'd like to insert here for those who may be skeptical of my reports a few items: 1) These offenses rarely– if ever– occur when women are with men, so it may be hard for some of the latter to imagine that they actually happen. It seems indeed that there is a protocol of respect– or perhaps, fear– that enables predators to regulate their behavior. 2) These offenses occur whether I'm wearing a lovely dress or sweatpants, a baggy t-shirt, and a baseball cap. It seems that contrary to the opinion of some– that women bring this treatment on themselves– that sexual harassment is indeed an issue of power rather than one of sexuality. 3) These are offenses, and not feminist or angry misinterpretations of flattering or courteous gestures. Neither I, nor any woman, would take offense to a man or woman respectfully commenting on an attractive outfit, spirit, or appearance. What I am speaking of is entirely different, and entirely unacceptable.

I, like any man, woman, or child, would like and should be able to walk 2 blocks to get a newspaper, a cup of coffee, or an ice cream without being treated in a disrespectful manner. Our society stands up against the heckling and harassment of elderly-Americans, homosexual-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. It's time to add female-Americans to that list.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Cure for Anxiety

More often than people realize, psychological distress is caused by some combination of lack of meaning, lack of social engagement, and lack of spirituality. These and other existential issues aren't often discussed in Western therapies, but that doesn't make them any less real.

Also not discussed in Western therapies are the concepts of duality and non-attachment, social service as a means of transcending self-absorption, and the importance of mindfulness, meditation and yoga. We come from a culture that insists that to resolve our mental health problems, we need to focus on them- and ourselves- more. How do I feel? What do I need? What am I missing?

The answers are out there, if we're willing to listen, and looking in the right place. Recently, for me that place has been Eastern Philosophy, including Asia's two more prominent forms of psychotherapy, Morita and Naikan, both of which purport to offer complete psychological cure from fear, psychosomatic pain, perfectionism, anxiety and neurosis.

How do they do this? In the case of Naikan, the resolution of these issues comes from asking and answering three simple questions about the people in your life. These questions are:

what did that person do for me?
what did I do for that person in return?
what trouble and inconvenience did I cause that person?

As you probably noticed, not one of the questions is about ME. Both Naikan and Morita believe that relief from anxiety and malaise comes not from asking "what's in it for me" and "what have I not been given" but rather "what have I not given?"

It would be easy to dismiss Naikan as some Zen, optimistic ideal if it hadn't been proven in a series of studies to be as effective if not more than our own Western psychotherapies. Which means- get this- that the roots of anxiety may in fact be culturally created and empowered. Rather than an innate and inflexible response in all people to a host of life and family circumstances, anxiety may in fact be caused in large part by our conscious preference for self-focus, self-obsession, and self-absorption.

This is a hard pill to swallow- on a number of levels- for us Westerners… one that many people can't or don't want to stomach. The idea that all psychological unease can be resolved by an increase in gratitude and a decrease in victimhood is uncomfortable. Neither do Naikan and Morita seem, from our perspective, to take into account the anguish caused by physical and psychological abuse, or to hold the perpetrators responsible in any way, upping the discomfort level to infuriating...

Still, the next time you take a yoga class, go for a walk or sit before the majesty of the setting sun, consider quieting the litany of thoughts running through your head... your to-do list, your drama, your issues, your pain, and ask... first about your mother, then about your father... next about your siblings, then about your children... then about your friends, your colleagues, and your partner:

what did that person do for me?
what did I do for that person in return?
what trouble and inconvenience did I cause that person?

You don't have to be a believer in Naikan, Eastern Philosophy, or anything to feel your heart open and the tears stream down your face...

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