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September, 2015

Use Complements Wisely

by Webmaster

Last month I wrote about the need to Grow a Thick Skin—handle criticism and use it to be a better musician, writer, performer, M.C., whatever: how to think of people a members of my team, helping me do my job better.

I actually thought that if I got nothing but complments, it wasn't helping me improve.

Since then, two things happened.

First, a woman attended our stagecraft coaching session and refused to participate. She would not perform because she could not stand "criticism," and she refused to critique others. We offered to let her perform without the critique and she still refused.

I thought, "How can you hope to get better if you don't know what you need to work on?"

Then I thought about my first camera. I took it on a 2-week trip out of the country. This was in the days when cameras used film, and didn't have auto-focus or auto-exposure features. Everything had to be done manually, and there was a lot of room for mistakes. I took about 30 rolls of film, and didn't get them developed until I came home.

When I looked at the pictures, from the first one to the last one, I noticed a marked improvement in my focus and exposure. Just taking pictures made me more aware of what I was doing and I got better, even when I couldn't see the results. I was paying attention. I still had a lot more to learn, but I was making progress in spite of the lack of feedback.

Second, I had my first experience as an invited performer at a Cowboy music and poetry gathering.

When I was much younger, laboring under the delusion that I was a great singer and guitar player, I had no stage fright. When I was a sideman in a band, playing bass and occasionally stealing the show, I had very little stage fright. The first few songs in a brand-new venue were a little scary. But if I'd ever played that venue before (and I played in a number of venues repeatedly), it was like playing in my living room.

Last year, I volunteered for a critique session at a Cowboy music and poetry gathering. I started out comfortable, but knowing that people were judging me, and I had to play guitar alone on stage, made me nervous. When I blew the chords in the bridge of my song, I got panicky and shaky. Even after I finished the song, even after I put the guitar down, made a joke about being afraid of it, and moved away, even after the audience laughed, I was still shaky. I was still shaky the next day when I participated in a contest for performing an original poem.

I was shaky last month performing on stage in a hall full of people. In the middle of my first set, I got stage fright. It didn't help that the cordless mic quit as soon as I started talking. The first poem still went well. I know the second poem and even wrote a prompt on my hand for the usual place I get stuck. I started to shake and mentally grope for words. I got through it, took a couple of deep breaths, and nailed the third poem.

My set the second day went without a hitch.

Both days, people complemented me on my performance, telling me how well I did, how it was the best they've seen me perform, and how my poems touched them. All that felt good. I felt good about the things that went well, and mentally kicked myself for the things I forgot.

Afterward, I spotted one of the judges from the critique session last year. She took to the time then to talk to me alone, and listed my strengths. She told me what I needed to do to improve: trust my instincts and get more stage time.

I thanked her for the advice she gave me last year. She assured me that she enjoyed my performance and was glad to see how much I've improved.

Growing a thick skin, handling criticism and learning what to work on is an important way to improve.

So is getting complements, sincere comments on what I'm doing right. It gave me a solid foundation on which to build.

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