Monday, 22 June 2009


These are the notes for the talk which I gave today at the 4th Singapore International Piano Pedagogy Symposium (22-26 June 2009) held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory:

Arts criticism is one of the most misunderstood and “overrated” preoccupation in the field of artistic endeavour. Critics are often either way off the mark or merely stating the obvious. So what is the true value of an arts critic, or a music critic for that matter? Is there a “right” way of writing a review? This session hopes to explode some myths and place music criticism in the context as a positive force for furthering the cause of the arts.

Agree or disagree?

1. A critic is merely a glorified journalist.

A journalist records events and history: the facts, contexts, opinions and viewpoints. A critic goes further to provide analysis and a personal view, asks questions and possibly offers answers. More importantly, a critique is a piece of journalism and history-recording, giving readers a taste and flavour of the times.

2. Anyone can write a critique. The value of a critique is in the content and delivery of its message.

True, but is your recording and opinion worth the paper it is printed on? Or worth the reader’s time? A good critique is succinct, summarises the main happenings, singles out certain details of note, and provides the reader with an accurate record. Your opinion should be a sound one, historically and culturally informed, guided by an inquiring spirit and experience. A critic should get better with age.

3. Most useful tools: a good command of the language, deep bank of background knowledge, sense of humour.

Engage your reader immediately. Do not let him lose interest. Persuade him to follow your trend of thought and provide an interesting story and viewpoint. Keep your sentences and paragraphs concise. Use appropriate vocabulary and descriptions. Give the reader some take home information and knowledge. Witticisms and appropriate humour always helps.

4. Always get the facts right. Conceal your own ignorance.

If you are not sure, always check up on the facts before committing yourself. Factual errors should never go to print, as they diminish your credibility and readers’ perception of your judgment. When these errors are highlighted, do not be defensive, instead thank your “critic” for feedback and increasing your knowledge.

5. Comment on the performance and its qualities, rather than on the performer.

Try and divorce what you already know about the performer and what actually happens on stage. Personal knowledge of the artist should not colour your opinion of the performance. If possible, try to avoid conflicts of interests.

6. Open and close with an arresting sentence. The rest is easy. (Attributed to Bryce Morrison)

Let your review reveal the showman in you!

7. Develop your own personal writing style.

There is no definitive writing style for critiques – create your own, including all the quirks, favourite stock phrases etc. Vary reviews slightly to avoid sounding like a broken record-player. Try to say something different each time. Avoid ad hominem attacks, always better to be subtle, allow readers to read between the lines.

8. Take home for the performer: positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. Everything else is rubbish.

Want to get quoted? Be positive! Artists will only quote positive reviews. Negatives will be junked. If you need to convey negative feedback, do it constructively or approach the performer personally. Comment on obvious flaws – wrong notes, faulty intonation, stylistic lapses etc. – rather than deliver sweeping statements. Explain yourself.

9. Always remember: No artist goes out to deliberately give a bad performance. (Attributed to Dennis Lee)

Actually said by Artur Schnabel, a great artist who wasn’t always very accurate. All performers are human, after all. Do not compare local / provincial performers with internationally renowned ones – they operate on unequal playing fields.

10. A reviewer continues to grow. With experience comes (hopefully) wisdom.

Don’t rush to write your first critique. Just listen and attend concerts regularly and form your thoughts and opinions. Record these in a journal or personal blog. Compare performances, about what you liked or disliked. Build a memory bank of recordings or performances. Observe trends in performances, programming patterns and growth / development of ensembles and performers. Music criticism is a long term interest / obsession.

Volunteer for a local arts group. Write their programme notes / artist profiles / newsletters / websites / blogs / give comments on their performances. Be part of their publicity / promotional set-up. Follow their ups and downs, and always contribute positively.

Continue to develop your skills on your chosen musical instrument. Understand what it takes to make music, solo and in ensemble. It makes you a better musician overall. Expose yourself to all artforms, and allow yourself to grow alongside the creative milieu around you. Humble yourself with music, and your reviews will reflect that.

Is music criticism glamourous? Pros: Complimentary tickets and invitations, respect or fear (?), personal satisfaction. Cons: low remuneration, hectic deadlines and schedules, time away from family.

A critic should operate as a responsible member of the arts community, rather than as an outsider or from the “ivory tower”. Your words should be carefully chosen and your views will help, encourage and boost artists or hinder / destroy them. Promote deserving artists and help their growing careers in whatever way possible. Take a break if jaded. Otherwise, a lifetime of musical discovery and satisfaction awaits!
The Singapore International Piano Pedagogy Symposium was organised by the Singapore Music Teachers Association.

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