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David Berger

How to Take It and Give It


In a recent New York Times article about successful executives being open to criticism, it occurred to me that how we give and take criticism affects all areas of our lives. I’m uncomfortable when it comes to confronting people about personal issues, but am passionate and vocal about my musical, political, aesthetic and business views. This feels safe to me probably because I expect the recipient not to take my criticism personally. If I think a piece of music is bland or went on too long, those are easy fixes or, at the very least, we can agree to disagree.


Although I’m perfectly OK with agreeing to disagree about opinions, I’ve found that many people need everyone to agree with them on everything. I love jazz. That puts me in a distinct minority of Americans. It would be nice if everyone listened to jazz and thought that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker should be added to the sculptures on Mount Rushmore, but jazz and the other fine arts don’t have, and likely will never have, mass appeal. Excellence is not that high on most people’s lists. They aspire to mediocrity and surround themselves with it. I could never do that.


Growing up, I was introduced to great music, art, drama, poetry, books, etc. My teachers led my fellow students and me to believe that the appreciation of the world’s great minds would enrich our lives. I can’t say that it would make us better and happier people.  I’ve known some fantastic people who have never read a book and know nothing about music or art. For me, it was, and still is, important to strive to create the best art I can and to experience as much of humanity’s great artistic accomplishments as possible. I’ve spent a lifetime developing my aesthetic. I’m not saying that this is necessary for someone else to do; it’s just something that is necessary for me.


My father taught me that if I am going to do something, I should do it to the best of my ability. This gave me a feeling of pride in my work. At some point, I started comparing whatever I was doing to the giants in that field. I wasn’t actually competing, but I had something to shoot for. But where did this self-criticism start?


My parents felt no compunction about holding back their negative feelings when it came to their children. My father’s idea of encouragement was to tell us everything we were doing wrong. When I was seven, he told me that everyone viewed everything I did as a reflection on him. That’s quite a burden for a child to bear. It seemed a bit unfair to me at the time, but I couldn’t get past it for another 15 years.


My mother was not as harsh, but she had her own way of beating me down. When I was starting to have some success as a musician in my 20s, she said to me, “How can you be great? We are not great.” And there it is. My mother was making sure that I wouldn’t become so successful that I wouldn’t need her anymore. Years later, she confided in me that when she was younger, she was very insecure. I wish I knew that when I was growing up.


In my 20s I studied trumpet with Jimmy Maxwell. We quickly became very close. His wisdom extended far beyond music. I trusted him completely. When he gave me criticism, I took it to heart. Sometimes it hurt, but I knew that he was telling me these things because he wanted to help me, and not to protect himself, boost his ego or diminish me. He had his insecurities, but not when it came to me.


I taught at major conservatories for 30 years. I had a reputation for being demanding of my students. For those who tried to get by with the least amount of effort, I was the enemy. For those that wanted to become better musicians, I was there to help them in their journey. I never expected more of my students than I did of myself. I never wanted to discourage my students. Any criticism I offered was meant to help them to solve a problem or to help them to be able to teach themselves to solve problems. I admit that my directness could have scared some students, but as I learned from my own experience, we tend to change when we have to.


I’ve gotten enormous pleasure from teaching. Beyond the salary and position of power, my motivation came from my need to pass on my knowledge and love for the music and to help musicians to reach their goals. I see myself in my students. Like me, they love the music and want to become better musicians. Our aesthetics may be different, but the principles of music and art transcend style. It was the same for me in my role as a parent.


I had no desire to raise my kids to be like me. I saw how detrimental my father’s behavior toward me was. Although both my children showed early interest and talent in music, I never encouraged or discouraged them to seek a career. Both of them have broad interests in music. They grew up in the middle of the jazz world, and because of that, they understand and love the music that I love. But they also enjoy some pop music that doesn’t interest me.


Something I’ve learned as a parent, and this applies to all my interpersonal relationships, is that the only person we can control is our self. When my son was 16, the FBI knocked on my door, grilled my son for two hours, searched our apartment and confiscated his computer. For six years, from the age of 12 to 18, he tested my love constantly. He stopped going to school and quit at 16. I finally found a therapist he respected and related to. The therapist advised me that Caleb needed to be on his own and that I should throw him out of my house. I waited until his 18th birthday. He resisted, but ultimately left in anger that day.  10 days later he called me on the phone to tell me that he was very happy living with his friends.


The point of this story is that the sweet little boy I raised had to go through some growing pains to come back to the principles he was raised with. In many ways he is like me (for instance our sense of justice), but he found his own voice and what makes him happy. I regret the few times when I lost my temper with him in those teen years, but they were very few. My friends advised me that in time he would mature and stop acting out. I never gave up on him, and as much as that means to me, I’m sure it means a heck of a lot more to him. He always knew that I wanted the best for him, that I expected much from him and that, no matter what, I would love him.


My grandfather and father were both entrepreneurs. In my small way, I have also been an entrepreneur in the very small jazz industry. As I learned from my father and grandfather, I taught my son what I know of the principles of business. He has been far more successful financially than I ever was, and that makes me very proud and happy. When he asks me for advice, I am amazed that he still values my opinions. And when I need help, he is always there for me. There is no criticism that we can’t give each other and have it received thoughtfully. What makes this possible is trust—years and years of trust.

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  • Dennis Winkle on

    Thanks for this Dave, very nice. Criticism, so hard to understand, sometime so hard to take. But necessary…

  • Louis Gallucci on

    Very enjoyable reading, Dave. Being a musician now in my 60s and having a father who motivated me by pointing out all the wrong things, made me relate even more

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