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The Labels We Live By

The music industry is known for many things, such as providing service to communities, forming close connections within the music sphere, and celebrating talent. It is also known for competitiveness, rigorous expectations, and judgment. Inevitably, every individual will be assessed or judged somehow, whether it be with exams, ensemble placements, other types of auditions, competitions, and job searches. In this industry, developing a “thick skin,” as well as being able to handle rejection from time to time, is a must. If a performer receives a rejection, it isn’t unusual for that person to ask for feedback as to why they were not selected. The feedback can be provided in many forms, mostly from one or two individuals or an adjudication panel. But what happens when that feedback, whether intentionally or inadvertently, ends up placing labels upon the individual?

When someone is auditioning for a music position, whether as a composer-in-residence, or for a position in an ensemble, or as a teacher, professor, or conductor, the feedback that is received can either be helpful and relevant, vague, or inappropriate and insensitive. Let’s take a closer look at the latter. One would hope the days where acceptance of being rude or politically incorrect are long gone (not that it was ever “acceptable”). Upon a closer look, however, perhaps those days are not actually behind us. Too frequent are the stories from individuals relating to this exact issue. How many times have you received feedback that concerns your personality or image? Have you ever been described as too boring, too hyper, too passive, too demanding, too short, too tall, too large, too small, too positive, too grumpy, too old, too young, too unattractive, or even too good looking to be taken seriously? When it comes to describing women, these demeaning comments can even be more graphic. When this happens often enough, labels can begin to stick on the individual.

After a period of time, we can internalize these labels and they can be challenging to erase. The ensuing negative self-talk can consume too much of our attention. This negative focus can be especially problematic if we go into the next opportunity with those labels affecting the way we think about ourselves, or how our audition might turn out—even if those negative comments never occur to the adjudicators themselves.

There are two points that need to be considered here. The first point is that if you are in a position to provide official feedback to another person, your words matter. It is your responsibility to be respectful and professional, and it is your duty to be thoughtful and refrain from comments that are insulting. Your job is to judge a person’s work or performance, and not their personality or image. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to let someone know that it would be helpful to the organization and serve everyone better if they showed more effort by doing “XYZ,” and then provide future markers to help assess that. It is not acceptable to tell that person that they are “lazy.” Lazy is an insulting label. The second point is that if you are someone who has been subjected to unfavorable labels and you find that negative self-talk is difficult to tame, there comes a point when you need to reassess and find your way out from under that label.

Being kinder to yourself and reframing your mindset, regardless of what others have thought about you, is what will best serve you. Confide in others who can empathize or relate to your situation, and surround yourself with those who will support you to remove those negative labels. There isn’t one person on this planet that hasn’t been subjected to labels at one time or another, or will be again in the future. What matters most is how we can deal with it, remove it from our thoughts, and how we choose to value who we are and our unique qualities, abilities, and contributions.


In what ways do you feel our industry should improve when feedback is provided?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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