Coping with crisisWe all know that musicians must practice their craft in order to maintain and improve their technique. Further, their musicianship grows as they perform new repertoire, either as soloists or as members of performing ensembles. Each performance is an opportunity to grow as a musician. But how do music critics maintain and improve technique?

Of course, it’s a different kind of craft. Musicians are, most often, recreating material written by someone else; critics are creating new works with each review they write. Nevertheless, there are parallels.

This topic came to me when a genealogist friend sent me a copy of one of the first reviews I’d ever written, as an undergraduate, for the Duke University Chronicle. It was commenting on a recital by famed violinist Isaac Stern, performing in Duke’s Page Auditorium. Looking back, I was in no way qualified to write that review; what did I know? Granted, I was a violinist of sorts, but my major accomplishment was to make last chair in the first violin section of the Duke Symphony Orchestra. When I re-read that Chronicle review, I cringed at my uninformed opinion about a certain contemporary composer’s music. That opinion has changed in the ensuing decades, but how? If I’ve become a more competent critic, how has that happened?

First, a bit of history. Until moving to North Carolina, I wrote few reviews after leaving Duke. Those that I did write were for The Diapason, the the national magazine of all things organic for over 100 years. The editor, whom I had gotten to know at some national events, asked me to contribute an occasional review for events in Washington, DC, where I was located at the time. At least one of those generated some controversy, which was interesting. Along the way, I learned from local Washington critics and from reviews of my own performances. Not long after moving to Raleigh, John Lambert, one of CVNC‘s founders, heard me perform, read my bio, and invited me to join CVNC‘s corps of music critics, in late 2012; since then, I’ve contributed over one hundred reviews, and have become a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (yes, it’s one of our oldest professional arts journalism organizations).

I suggest that a critic’s development is similar to a musician’s: practice; study, and learn new repertoire; listen to different performing artists and groups; perform (play/write). A critic’s practice may often take place when reading what one has just written, finding flaws of substance and/or of minutiae, and re-writing the review to make it better. Learning new repertoire is just that: when preparing to review a program containing a previously-unknown work, I want to see and explore its score (assuming that it’s published, sometimes not possible with a premiere performance); otherwise, how can I comment on interpretation? Listening to a variety of soloists and ensembles goes with the job, albeit the freedom to choose what one reviews does make it possible to remain with the familiar and avoid being adventurous. As to writing (the critic’s performing medium), unless the event I’m reviewing goes late into the night, plus travel time, I want to write as soon as I reach home, while the performance and my handwritten notes are fresh. (This latter lesson was learned when I occasionally accompanied a critic for a major D.C. newspaper as he attended a concert and then drove to the paper’s offices in order to meet the deadline for the review to appear in the next edition.)

So a critic practices the craft by doing all these things, at the same time remembering that, after all is written and read, a review is one person’s opinion about a performance, no more and no less. One hopes that the opinion is informed by study and experience, but it may or may not reflect the opinions of the majority of the other people who attended that performance. Books are full of excerpts from music reviews of new works deemed unworthy by critics who had no way of knowing that the music they had just panned would become a beloved staple of the performing repertoire!* It’s rumored that there’s a special table at Heaven’s cafeteria where critics are assigned to partake of the chef’s specialty, Corvus pro Criticus.

*The classic compilation is Nicolas Slominsky‘s, for details of which, click here.