Critics are jerks.  Most of them are unqualified and dumber than posts.

This was pretty much the line I absorbed as a music student.  We were taught that music critics were a species of snake that provoked fear and loathing, and may have been responsible for classical music’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.

Then, one day in 1984, I admitted in a conversation with a teaching colleague that I occasionally read concert reviews and thought it would be interesting to try my hand at writing one.  “You want my job?” he said.  “Take it!”  Turns out that in addition to being a performer and teacher, he was also a music critic and looking for someone to take his place.  Before I could think of the moral implications of turning to the dark side, I had been introduced to the arts editor of the local newspaper and assigned my first concert review: the Guarneri String Quartet.

Now, in 1984, the Guarneri String Quartet was at the absolute height of its career.  Going to a Guarneri concert was like visiting the shrine of string quartet enlightenment.

I, on the other hand, was the very definition of an unqualified music critic.  I knew nothing about the repertoire that they were to play (and in pre-YouTube days had no easy way to find out about it before the concert), and knew nothing about the particular ensemble demands of string quartet playing.  I walked into the concert hall with considerable anxiety that I would be unmasked as a fraud.  And morally corrupt.  And dumber than a post.

But the experience of listening critically engaged me in ways that I had not anticipated, and I found that, indeed, I not only had opinions about the repertoire and the way they played it, but some of my opinions had some intuitive depth.  I returned home from the concert eager to write the review.

The review, which was probably supposed to be something like 750 words long, took me eight hours to write.  I stayed up all night.  The challenge wasn’t in having opinions – even justifiable opinions – but in expressing them in a way that others could engage with.

I was thinking of that formative experience last night when Susan and I were watching the highlights of the men’s figure skating at the Sochi Olympics.  Despite having no more knowledge of figure skating than the average person who checks in on the state of the sport every 4 years at the Winter Olympics, it took about 10 seconds to discern an enormous gulf between Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and the rest of the men’s field.  Hanyu, to my and Susan’s eyes, as well as the judges’, was clearly the Mozart of the bunch.

So it was with real interest that this morning I stumbled upon a report on experiments being carried out at Yale University’s “Baby Lab,” that suggest that children, even in the first year of life, have already turned into miniature critics – that “being a critic,” with strong opinions about what is good and bad, or right and wrong, may in fact be hardwired into us at birth.

The study suggests that babies don’t learn to be critics about what’s good and what’s bad, even though they clearly absorb a tremendous amount of information from their caregivers and immediate environment.  Instead, the study suggests that we come into the world with many of our basic concepts of fairness and justice already activated.  The potential erosion or confusion of those faculties may in fact be the part that we are “taught” through exposure to a dysfunctional family or an unhealthy physical environment.

The five minute-long CNN video will leave you with many unanswered questions.  But the research seems to suggest that our native critical faculties are pretty impressive, pretty accurate.

Perhaps not all critics are worthless scumbags – unless we include ourselves among the scumbags.

 

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