Sooner or later, if you are active in the music business, someone will put you down in the form of a verbally sarcastic evaluation of your playing. The put-down is always made when you are not there to defend yourself. What hurts most is when the person putting you down is someone you thought was friendly. A mutual friend will over hear the comments and relate them to you. For example, “So and so said that you really don’t play well. In fact, he said you were terrible.”

The tragedy for some young players is that when they hear these stories, they become discouraged. In a few instances, talented young players have given up musical careers because of this type of nonsense.

Why do these put-downs occur in the first place? For one thing, people like to feel important. They like to feel one-up on others. If you’re not a truly good player, the only way to feel one-up is to make someone else feel one-down. In other words, put them down. People who continually put down others are, in fact, demonstrating that they don’t feel good about themselves. If they did feel good about themselves, there would be no need to criticize others.

What’s the best way to deal with put-downs? One thought is to realize that when you’re young and on the way up, you’re striving hard to be accepted. This is why the put-down hurts so much. When you’re a little older, more experienced and established, it’s easier to shrug it off and to understand if there’s any truth to the criticism. Analyze the put-down, decide if you can learn from it and then forget about it.

Another way is to confront the person putting you down. If you’re cool about how you present yourself, it can be quite interesting. You might say, “I understand you don’t like my playing and that you’ve had some unkind things to say about me.” This will usually shock the person because they don’t expect to be confronted. When it’s eyeball to eyeball, the other person will usually say something like, “Well, I didn’t exactly say that. I just said you needed more experience.” You can then say, “Well, the next time you notice something I could improve on, why don’t you tell me? That way I could improve and we could still be friends.” This type of encounter can be fun if you don’t become angry. In most cases, the other person will have a new respect for you.

Fear of criticism prevents many people from achieving their true potential. Fear is a paralyzing emotion. You can’t eliminate it but you can develop attitudes that will help you learn to deal with it.

A number of years ago another drummer said to me, “You don’t really play very well and I don’t like your feel, your sound, or your ideas. Why are you so well-known?” I said, “It beats me. I play worse now than I did when I was eleven. The more I practice, the worse it gets. But I have an even greater problem.” The other drummer, amazed that I was agreeing with him, said, “Wow, I thought you would be real defensive. I’m sorry. What’s the other problem?” I said, “Well, all these people like Woody Herman, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, John Lewis, Phil Upchurch, Charles Mingus and Benny Goodman keep calling me up and offering me jobs. Now as bad as I play, who am I to turn them down and hurt their feelings?” At this point I smiled, shook his hand and thanked him for his understanding. He left looking totally confused. He obviously hadn’t anticipated such a strange conversation. Ordinarily I don’t enjoy putting people on. However, in this case, it was much easier than arguing. And I must admit that the look on his face was funny!

It’s easy to put someone down if you don’t know them. I was in Illinois a few years ago on a clinic tour. I reached the music store at about two in the afternoon wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket. I went into the store and was leaning on the counter watching a young drummer select some drumsticks. He looked up and said, “Are you a drummer?” to which I replied, “Yes.” He asked, “Are you going to go to the drum clinic tonight?” I replied, “I’m thinking about it; are you going?” He said, “Don’t bother, this guy Burns is no good!” I said, “No kidding? If he’s no good, how did he become famous enough to do clinics?” He said, “I don’t know, I can’t figure it out.” I said, “Well, I guess you’ve heard him play before.” He said, “No, I haven’t but somebody told me that he wasn’t any good. By the way, my name is Gary, what’s yours?” I replied, “Roy.” His eyes widened and he said, “Not Roy Burns?” I said, “Yes.” He was absolutely speechless. I told him that I didn’t mind if he didn’t like my playing. In fact, I said, “You have my permission to criticize me but do me one favor; at least hear me play first.” He apologized and attended the clinic and we parted friends.

In any case, you’re better off concentrating on your studies and your job than spending too much energy being upset over criticism. Do your best and let people think what they will. They’ll do that anyway. One last thought: One of my drum teachers gave me the following advice: “In order for someone to put you down, they have to spell your name right. If they’re spending that much time talking about you, it means that you must be doing something good. Just think of it as free publicity.”

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