How to (not to) criticize?

Criticizing someone’s performance or giving feedback to someone is a tough thing to do. I’m sure all of you will agree with that. Recently I came across an article in The Hindu newspaper that seemed to violate every principle of giving feedback that I know of.  Article link:
A person called SVK had written this review about a vocal concert by Sikkil C. Gurcharan. He’s an artiste that I have covered on this blog before and in my view he’s actually pretty good. Of course, I’m not an expert in carnatic music like SVK. First the title caught my attention – “Free rein to vocal amplitude” by SVK Then the first paragraph went like this – 
” In asserting his loud voice, Sikkil Gurucharan sacrificed musical subtleties. A heavy voice carries with it an inherent inability to provide musical sensitivity. It hampers gracious negotiation of sancharas in alapanas with melodic refinement garnished by gana-naya technique. Of course, it can contribute to sumptuousness by vocal depth sans elegance of execution. If a musician consciously controls tonal modulation to impart these qualities, his kutcheri would certainly be top class.
In the kutcheri of Sikkil Gurucharan, under the auspices of Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, the aim seemed to be assertiveness of his loud voice, solid in sound pattern but lacking in nadha subtleties. He gave a free rein to his vocal amplitude but cultured singing depends on delicate sensitivities.” SVK takes Gurcharan down further in the next few paras and sums it up with a damning conclusion that Gurcharan’s accompanying artistes did a better job! This article got me all riled up and I showed it to Priya Raju and she was quite upset as well and here’s why: 1. SVK seems to say that because Gurcharan has a loud voice subtleties escape him. The problem is that this attacks the recipient’s physical attributes as opposed to the output. This is like telling someone that the output is bad because s/he is having a low IQ. He could still say as an expert the concert lacked some subtleties, but to tie that back to the artiste’s loud voice is a hit below the belt. 2. SVK grudgingly acknowledges in between that some parts of the concert were good but later on again gives negative feedback. The problem again is that even if you find an entire performance completely bad, you can’t say that in that way.  You must think about the person receiving the feedback or criticism. I learnt a good technique in Toasmasters a while go known as the sandwich technique – you first talk about something good the person did, then talk about a couple of areas of improvement and then close with a good thing the person did. This technique works wonders because by talking postive things, you first grab the attention of the recipient, then deliver the message on areas of improvements and then close with a positive message reinforcing the good work the person is doing. Giving feedback is an art.  In my view it is the acid test of a manager.  SVK definitely flunked this test miserably (hope the hindu management will look into it). What about you? What type of techniques do you adopt?  Have you noticed any good technqiues when you received feedback?


  1. Anonymous said May 9, 2007, 11:09 pm:


    You have posted a very interesting discussion question! One of the techniques I have learnt from my customers/mentors is first give the person an opportunity to explain from his mind positives and negatives on his performance. Couple of advantages

    1. You basically prep him to be open to the feedback

    2. You don’t get into judgmental mode as you have heard his view of the story

    Follow the sandwich method to provide feedback.

    I have tried this technique with my team and it works pretty well


  2. Anonymous said May 10, 2007, 1:06 am:


    I learnt this during an appraisal workshop. Whatever you do, a negative feedback is not going to make the receiver happy. How well an appraisal goes depends on the trust and the respect you have built for yourself. It is like a bank account. You keep depositing in it throughout the year and during the appraisal you are making withdrawals. If you have built a solid account with the person, you will find no big damage done even after big withdrawals.

    The bottom-line – any feedback will constructive only if the person who is providing it has credibility and earned respect for himself.

  3. Anonymous said May 10, 2007, 11:41 am:


    One of the things that I have tried to do is to first define what is a better performance (in any field, whether it is music, software engineering etc..) and to provide feedback with the mindset of improving further. It is another way of finding what we are bad at, but with the mindset of improving.

    In the case of classical music, if any singer follows the basic lessons of shruthi and thalam then it will be considered a good concert. But there are lots of other aspects such as creativity shown in raaga alapanas, swara jathis etc that makes a concert even better. As you correctly mentioned, one of the issues with the criticism from SVK is that he has criticized on a physical aspect on which you don’t have control – your voice. Yesudas has one of the best voices, but I don’t think he is still the best in classical music. Looks like SVK has a good grasp on carnatic music, and I would have loved to hear from him some tips on how to make a concert better, despite having a louder voice. But rather he has brought out all the negative things in the concert, just because of the louder voice.

    In summary, criticism should always point to action items on improving and making things better.

  4. Anonymous said May 11, 2007, 12:59 am:

    Thanks Bharathi. Interesting strategy. Good one. Yes, this strategy works well for relatively senior people. Typically, juniors may not developed enough self-awareness to be able to articulate their strengths/weaknesses or areas where they did well/did not do well etc. But i see that as a coaching opportunity.

  5. Anonymous said May 11, 2007, 1:13 am:


    That is a good insight. However, I have seen the sandwich method work even with relatively unfamiliar people. But only after reading Harish Dorai’s comment below did i realize the nuance. The reason it works is because in the sandwich method (which i failed to highlight), the negative feedback is always followed by a tip or a suggestion on how the recipient can improve. Therefore one of the key elements is to give constructive actionable criticism.

  6. Anonymous said May 11, 2007, 1:19 am:


    Very insightful comment. Identifying what better performance means is definitely going to be valuable.

    The 2nd point you have mentioned – give constructive actionable feedback is critically important for negative feedback to be received properly.

    Most often, we tend to either pass judgement on the person like SVK has done – “you have a loud voice” or “you are lazy, you don’t work hard etc.”. But fail to tie it to specific examples of problem behavior and offering constructive actionable feedback.

    Another thing i picked up from Archana’s comment is that – you need to give the feedback both positive and negative throughout the year and not just at the year end performance review time. I think that is what will allow you to build your bank balance as Archana puts it.

  7. Anonymous said May 11, 2007, 12:42 pm:

    This SVK is a stupid jerk. Wonder how he’ll react to my judgment of him.

    I think critics have to call a spade a spade. There’s no point in mincing words or in putting a positive spin on things when there’s none. Contrast this with an appraisal, where the manager is responsible for what the team-mate does.

    What really got my goat with this SVK fellow is this: The artist has a loud voice. So, s/he is doomed from the beginning, forever?! The fact that he, Sikkil Gurucharan, may have other nuances in his voice is lost on this SVK chap. Because he has a “loud voice”?? With my limited knowledge of music, I disagree with this so-called critic.

    I thought a critic was supposed to say what is good and bad about a concert.

    – Priya

  8. Anonymous said May 12, 2007, 3:45 am:

    Good point Priya. A critic need not sugar coat his message. But at the same time the critic can’t hit below the belt as well. I was merely using this critic’s review to illustrate how hard it is to give meaningful criticism which is a key leadership trait.

  9. Anonymous said May 24, 2007, 3:14 am:

    Indeed… can’t believe The Hindu would publish such a review with ” In asserting his loud voice, Sikkil Gurucharan sacrificed musical subtleties.” highlighted right at the beginning. I personally know Gurucharan and feel bad for him that he had to get such a review from someone and that it should be published in a popular news paper supplement. He is an awesome singer and has a wonderful voice. So what if SVK finds it loud?!!

    I remember my mom talking about such a critic a few years ago – i guess its the same guy. He supposedly is pretty rude and critices musicians left right and center – and its the amount of negative that varies. Dont know if Gurucharan did well enough to keep the criticism lesser than what others get :O.

    So if SVK is someone who is known to criticise the way he has done, and it is only the degree of negative that varies, i guess we should all be ok with it :D.

    Learning: what you understand from an appraisal or what you take away from it also depends on the reputation of the person giving it 🙂

  10. Anonymous said May 24, 2007, 3:25 am:

    found an older one too…where he commends Gurucharan’s *strong* voice :O

  11. Anonymous said May 26, 2007, 3:27 am:

    Thanks for stopping by Srikrishnan. I had not read reviews by SVK before. But it is not surprising that all his reviews are like this.

    The 2nd comment is interesting. I guess depending on which side of the bed he got out of that day, the more negative the review!

  12. Anonymous said May 30, 2007, 1:44 pm:

    I have personally accompanied Gurucharan, and I find this critique excessive and bordering on the ridiculous. Gurucharan’s voice is his greatest asset, and his rendering of intricate swara alapanas is nothing short of transcendental. Frankly, I think giving this critique so much atttention is in itself a travesty.


    Anil Srinivasan

  13. Anonymous said May 31, 2007, 5:38 am:


    Thanks for stopping by. It is an honor. I have seen you both perform at the Amethyst and I really enjoyed the concert.

  14. Anonymous said May 31, 2007, 1:40 pm:

    Hi Sukumar,

    Thanks for writing about our concert earlier. I am so glad you enjoyed it.


  15. Anonymous said June 1, 2007, 12:16 am:

    Frankly it is amusing to see the flow on this thread on SVK and Gurucharan. While i am not a avid blogger, i just stumbled upon this thread due to my carnatic background and thought just for once, i shall share my thoughts – even if it may be worth not.

    Fundamentally it looks as if the thread about SVK may have been just taken as a seed but the goal is to discuss the deeper aspects of critisizing/feedbacks. If such is a case – eventhough it did not come out explicitly – it is fine. On the other hand, if it is to critisize the critisism of SVK, then i strongly believe it may be highly unwarranted. I can see that not many of you have much background on carnatic music – the noble art. The nuances of it, the ability to permutate, the speed, tempo, the beats, the thalam, jathis, korvais, etc. etc. are some of the basics of a music concert and for a lay man while some of the misses in these areas might not be explicit – for a hardcore carnatic person – they are very important. (It is like a cross shot of tendulkar going to a four – the lay man would cherish the four not the way it was obtained while a good cricket connoissuer would tell immediately that even though a four had come – the shot was the most horrible shot ever!).

    And i am sure none of you would have heard about a great music critic called “subbudu” who died a few years back at the age of 95 – having been in the field of concert reviews for over 60 years. His critics initially used to assail his remarks as creating tantrum or for publicity or one sided or too harsh to be published but in a very short span of time, every artiste used to look for the next day paper to know subbudu’s remarks about their concert and understand the feedback – and not necessarily the language. Infact Subbudu got many national awards and name and fame in the field of review of classical music and was appreciated for his candid columns supported by strong technical facets. More importantly artistes and strong music votaries look at these critics as a real coach since only a few would be eligible to talk on the technical nuances and the critic is one such.

    Thus If someone as reasonably espoused in this art as SVK – incidentally he is a well known critic of carnatic music – his reviews during the december season are eagerly looked forward by many – is critisizing, it is not on an upcoming, new or junior or a one timer artiste but a well known artiste who is in the public domain for sometime and people look at them for inspiration and learnings. It is like a top coach critisizing the 100th ranked player towards the negatives of the player’s ability to play technically correct game. Now as mere spectators, you might think that the player did well inspite of losing or you might think that the hardness of the critisism is not warranted but from the coach point of view – there are some fundamentals while playing and if the so called 100th ranked player did not follow even some of the basics, he as a genuine coach is bound to pass the truest of the feedback in plain vannilla language as understandble by the player/music lovers. For example in carnatic music, one of the base criteria is whether an artiste can goto melchanchara – the higher octaves -as smoothly and refreshingly as the lower and middle octaves. And a person with thick and loud voice has to practice in such a way that he can inspite of his known limitations (from the carnatic music rendering perspective – a person with strong voice would have inherent difficulty in going to the upper octaves) can overcome it through different ways of the manodharmic presentations. And here is where gurucharan fail miserably and that too consistently. It is a fundamental technical flaw that needs attention and repair and more importantly it is not the first time but in many of his concerts he gets into this problem (as one of my friend used to put it – may be he is practising in a live concert instead of at home!)

    NOw on the question of how nice it should be to word a critisism, again i beg to differ. It is again taking the example of a #1 coach and the 100th ranked player. When the person being critisized is already in a stature of “illustrated personality” or one who is in the field for some years or one who has a grand family lineage in that field (incidentally sikkil gurucharan comes from a very illustrious carnatic music family), then the critisism ought to be straight and upto the mark. If it is for a first timer, new comer, junior, it can be more soothing and icing but not for some one at the level of sikkil. Today in politics, for example, no one would be very light when they want to critisize a senior politician. Or a head of a company to have missed revenue numbers cannot be expecting a soft and mild reactions – and that too if he misses every other second quarter …….

    To conclude – your thoughts and your expression are contradictory. When you want SVK to be soothing in his critisism, you critisism of him saying his remarks depend on which side of the bed he gets out in the morning is equally harsh and unsportive if not vulgar. The best way probably for you to judge SVK is to find out whether he has convictions and consistencies in his remarks – for example irrespective of the artiste does he bring out that strong voice is not suitable for higher octaves as in this case….. if he does – which in my opinion and past records – he infact does – then the person is doing the job he is supposed to do. On the other hand, if SVK for one another artiste with strong voice says that he did a splendid job while the other ground realities are the same for that artiste and sikkil, then he could be termed as one sided and one who lacks credibility. But to make that jugement, you should have atleast some fundamental knowledge in this area to even try to understand what is the inner theme of such reviews.

    Since i do not have any intention of seriously blogging, i am not creating userids/recording emailsids etc. You can safely and comfortably ignore my comments if it does not gel with this group’s overall mindset and thinking ……..

    Happy blogging!!!

  16. Anonymous said June 6, 2007, 6:59 am:

    Thanks for the interesting perspectives. Appreciate your stopping by. Yes, I have heard of Subbudu and I don’t approve of his techniques as well. I wrote the side of the bed comment because one of the commenters said SVK gave a good review of Gurucharan earlier. I haven’t seen that positive review, but here SVK is objecting to Gurucharan’s loud voice which I am sure is the same voice he had in the other concert as well. This goes to your point about consistency. For the same artiste, on one day his loud voice is great and on the other it is bad. Go figure.

    You can actually see a comment from Anil Srinivasan who has done concerts with Gurucharan on this same post and he is not happy about the review either.

    SVK may be a great expert on Carnatic Music, but in my opinion he is not a great critic.

  17. Anonymous said June 7, 2007, 11:27 pm:

    Well! Now your own comments summarizes the probable genuineness of SVK since he has not singled out Gurucharan for continuous negative remarks and he reflects probably the actual state of a given day’s concert. Now for the other review to have been positive, yeah – there is no inconsistency there. Nowhere SVK or me have pointed out that strong voice is bad for carnatic music. All is being suggested is that strong voice going to the melchancharas without proper practice is bound to break sruthi and Gurucharan in many concerts gets into this farce. Hence it is quite possible that on the so called positively reviewed concert of Gurucharan, the artiste could have avoided picking up songs that need long and continuous melchancharas and/or have manipulated the manodharmic presentation to suit accordingly. If some one of you have some knowledge and interest, we can get into the list of songs in these two concerts and get into one further technical level to prove that on that positively reviewed concert, Gurucharan picked songs that did not warrant upper octaves at all and hence was probably good!!!!

    The fundamental of any critisism/reviews/feedbacks always has a context. There is no generalizing.

    Further, if you have a subordinate who reports to you and you have been giving him constant feedback on a particular need of his job profile but that subordinate has consistently ignored the basics, your feedback/review of him is bound to change forms and is bound to become intense on every subsequent review as you see him not caring for the basics. While in a employment context comes a subordinate, in a generic public platform, artiste come in!

    And without understanding or even knowing the context of a review, looking at just the english flow and the “for the sake of niceties” of such reviews/feedbacks in any situation (not necessarily in carnatic music) is bound to provide a construed picture of the reviewer!!!

    I also do not want to get into the so called Anil and his remarks – for i am afraid he does not play in the regular carnatic circuit. However if he had analyzed on the context of reviews (since i can see clearly that probably except for him – none of you have any carnatic fundamentals), then it would have been nice for a discussion. And i am sure even Anil would agree that strong voice and unpractised higher octaves are just anathema to each other. But unfortunately he has only passed on his personal opinion saying it is positive without analysis. May be has has other inherent interests that could force him not to be frank and/or be even neutral!!!

    Nevertheless, I thought on this thread, the discussion was to analyze whether SVK’s way of critisism is the right way or not but looks clearly now that you have already made up your mind that you do not like him and and as such with such a twinged thought, there can be no analysis but only forced one sided feelings devoid of serious analysis from your end – which ofcourse in a free world anyone is entitled to……

  18. Anonymous said June 9, 2007, 9:20 am:

    While I completely agree with you on having a strong voice and being able to handle upper registers, I am sorry I will have to disagree with you on principle here. The purpose of a review SHOULD be constructive. Gurucharan’s voice is neither “strong” nor “loud”. It is mature and certainly a deeper-set baritone that does place some demands on his ability to handle higher notes smoothly.

    I do not dissapprove either of SVK or Subbudu. I think such stalwarts are the reason that Carnatic music still enjoys the high standards it does. However, I do find his critique of this particular concert excessively negative, and that too bordering on the personal. I may not be on the Carnatic circuit, as you have very correctly pointed out, but I think I have been kicking around in music long enough to have read an adequate number of reviews all over the world.

    I have enjoyed his reviews, season after season, but this one went off key, to make a pun on the subject. You are right once again in saying that someone of Gurucharan’s stature will be subject to a harsher lens, and justifiably so. However, this particular review left me wondering if the purpose of listening was to attack or to offer genuine criticism. This particular concert was not unilaterally as bad as SVK claims it was. In fact, I thought it was extremely well handled, and the RTP showed evidences of very strong manodharma and clear control over his tone and timbre.

    Since I am not part of the circuit, in your own statement on it, I have no need to have any inherent interests or the need to be biased.



  19. Anonymous said June 10, 2007, 10:52 pm:


    I really appreciate your openess and frankness.

    I conclude from your note that the specific concert was indeed nice as felt by you and need not have been that harsher from SVK’s review. It looks like you had been in that concert live and since i was not present i obviously could not make any comparable judgement with that of SVK’s review on that specific concert.

    Given your carnatic background, I accept your line of thought. May be on that day, the review could have been off-key!!

    What i felt reassuring from your note was your feel that SVK/Subbudu type of critics are mandatory to keep the standards of carnatic music and that they did/are-doing their job with right earnest!!! tx

  20. Anonymous said June 11, 2007, 10:31 am:

    I am glad that you take to Carnatic music so passionately and argue so vehemently about it. I consider the art form above all else so it is heartening to note that there are others who feel the same way. And perhaps when you do have the time, you may be able to figure out that I am not as completely “out” of the circuit as you may have otherwise believed, and get to hear some of the music that I have had the privilege of making with some of our wonderful musicians 🙂


    the “so called” Anil

  21. Anonymous said June 11, 2007, 11:48 pm:

    Dear Anonymous and Anil Srinivasan, thanks for the lively debate. Seems like you have both reached an amiable end.


    As i have made pretty clear, i am not a carnatic music expert. The fact that SVK is a great carnatic expert is a good thing to know. However, i don’t have to accept his greatness as a critic when he writes such reviews.

    You make a point that, people coming from great families like Gurucharan does, must be held to higher standards. If SVK is indeed a great critic, he will also be held to a higher standard. He cannot write such a review and get away with it, however great he may be.

    As for Anil being out of the circuit, I listened to his and Gurucharan’s concert just in the 2006-2007 season gone by a few months ago. I would urge you to listen to Anil and Gurucharan’s

    album Madhirakshi.

    – Sukumar