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Not everyone’s a critic. There’s a difference between going to a show or a concert and going to work seeing a show or hearing a concert, and then turning the experience into prose.

We have our little ways, we cockeyed critics — tips and techniques picked up over years of writing reviews, sometimes at leisure and sometimes under extreme deadline pressure, responding to something familiar (Beethoven again, or Meryl Streep) or to something barely identifiable flying in from left field.

It’s a reporting job, in part, because critics are the front-line eyes for people thinking about seeing something. Like everyone else, critics want to be swept away. But, as movie critic Ann Hornaday writes in an enviably graceful phrase at the end of her notes (not spoiled here), they also have to keep a keen watch.

What follows is a guide from Washington Post critics across the pop and fine arts spectrum: how to really get something out of that trip to the gallery, even how to open your muscles to music (see Chris Richards). It’s a mantra — if you want to get more out of the art and entertainment, be ready to stretch.

— Nelson Pressley

[10 ways to attend a play as the worst theatergoer you can be]

Illustrations by Vasava for The Washington Post


During its pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre in the fall, the musical “Mean Girls” had a couple of weeks of preview performances before the press opening. People would tell me they’d seen it and had a great time. Well, sure: Tina Fey’s funny. Then I’d ask, “How’s the score?”

Unfailingly, nobody could say.

Wrapping your mind around the music of a brand-new show might be the trickiest thing theater critics have to do, and it’s easily overlooked by audiences. Few of us are musicologists, and, anyway, we all go to the show to have a good time.

Still, musicals are musical, and there are ways to sharpen our ears to how it’s being used in a show. A few tips:

Where are the musicians?

Are there musicians? (The score for “Amazing Grace” at the Museum of the Bible was played by a computer.) Lincoln Center’s 2008 “South Pacific” began by peeling back the stage floor to reveal a lush 30-piece orchestra playing the overture. The audience listened better all night because of it.

What’s the style?

This can be hard to pin down, because Broadway has always been hybrid, with early 20th-century roots in operetta and jazz, and grabbing like a magpie at whatever works for a given story.

Maybe a show sits relatively firmly in a genre — the bluegrass ballads and hoedowns of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s “Bright Star” or the hardy, folksy rock of the Newfoundland-set “Come From Away” (both of which parked their musicians on stage). Maybe, like “Mean Girls,” it’s blurrier — showbizzy, rockish, avoiding a single easy category. In that case, consider:

What function do the songs perform?

In “Mean Girls,” the songs aren’t simply promoting themselves: They tell us about the characters and propel an often dense, fast-moving story forward. The high school Plastics were each sharply defined: Gretchen with her anxious “What’s Wrong With Me?,” Karen with her Monroe-breathy “Sexy,” and apex predator Regina with her indelibly intimidating opening phrase, “My name is Regina George/And I am a massive deal.” The Washington Post’s Peter Marks pointed out that main character Cady needs an effective one of these, too.

The complicated anthropological numbers, complete with a zingy visual design and lots of whiz-bang projections, mapped out the school jungle’s pecking order in “Where Do You Belong?” and the off-the-hook hip-hop party “Who’s House Is This?” These busy numbers were full of narrative surprises, so Jeff Richmond’s pop-rock melodies must have been doing something right, and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics seemed free of sloppy rhymes and cliches.

Someone has pointed out the fallacy of audiences expecting to walk out of new musicals humming the tunes, unless the melodies have been beaten into your ears with endless reprises. That expectation of instant familiarity only gets worse as commercial Broadway dumbs down audiences with jukebox musicals of pop-star catalogues.

Take a breath. Close your eyes for a few seconds. Listen. Remind yourself that the music in a new show might be doing more than trying to climb a pop chart in your head.

— Nelson Pressley


Brave, generous reader: Unpacking one’s process is not easily done, I find, so I humbly offer the following as a start, edited down from years of doing it the hard way. When I began writing dance reviews, I would spend way too much time in the Library of Congress combing microfiche for reviews and background on the company I was about to see. (What is microfiche? Kind of like the Internet except wholly inconvenient, stored on long strips of film, stacked in drawers; neither portable nor romantic, though it worked.) Born of that rather cumbersome nerdiness and love, here’s a more streamlined micro-method:

1. a. Warm up.

Give yourself the gift of a prepared mind and a flexible imagination. What works for me is doing some mental stretching, some prep. I learn as much as I can about the dance company and performers, and about the choreography, the music, the era or historical figures, or anything about the atmosphere of the dance, to immerse myself in that world beforehand. At my desk I’ve accumulated history books, memoirs and encyclopedias, but I also scan the web for news, background and video clips.

1. b. Coffee.

This may be more of a me-thing than a you-thing. So let’s say caffeine is optional, but staying awake is not. The ticket may say 8 p.m., but your mind needs to think it’s sunrise on your birthday and there’s quite possibly a Lexus gift-wrapped in your driveway. Being alert and receptive to the evening’s potential is a grand way to begin. Avoid entering the theater feeling down and droopy. No one said this was easy!

2. Juggle.

You’ll be doing two things at once, my friend. No. 1: Watching the dance as an audience member, allowing yourself to be carried away. No. 2: Watching it from on high, as an objective appraiser, evaluating the individuality and uniqueness of the performance, the artistic quality, its ability to stir emotions, the significance and truthfulness of the whole enterprise.

3. Scan your senses.

Dance is participatory, even when we’re confined to our seats. Our nervous systems are getting a workout from everything we see, hear and perceive. Tune in to your responses: How is the music and the sound quality? Is the union of melody and movement so close and natural that you can feel the dancing in your bones? (This, for me, is a mark of brilliance.)

Is the stage picture (set, costumes, props, lighting) appealing or cluttered? Is the ghostly atmosphere of “Giselle” rendered so poetically that you can almost feel a chill in the air? Can you nearly smell the Veronese grime in the street scenes of “Romeo and Juliet”?

When you’re unsettled by the music or the imagery, is it productive discomfort — serving an artistic purpose — or is it merely bad taste or production values?

[This is your brain on art]

4. Trust your instincts.

Critics are constantly asking themselves, “Is this any good?” The answer begins in one’s gut. On a basic level, I feel that a dance is good if I’m drawn in. What draws me in is generally a mix of qualities, among them honesty and warmth on the part of the performers, and the choreography’s coherence as well as its originality and surprise. Coherence is what allows me to follow the dance’s progression, to join my intellect with the artist’s, and surprise keeps me interested. The pinnacle, in my opinion, is often this: The dance opens up a new way of seeing or relating to the world. But you needn’t share my values — what are yours? They’re worth exploring.

5. Repeat steps 1-4.

The more dance you see, the sharper your eye.

Remember: There’s no such thing as the right opinion. Seek to form an interesting one. Believe in it intensely. And then: Convince others of it. Voilà. You are the storyteller.

What story will you tell?

— Sarah Kaufman

Pop music

We all know that serious musicians “play” music. But for serious listeners, it’s easy to forget that we’re playing, too. And when we listen deeply to music, we listen with the entirety of our bodies. The more body parts we get involved, the more fun we have.

That makes sense, right? Contrary to popular practice, crossing our arms and furrowing our brows doesn’t make our ears any more absorbent. In fact, I find that I can better use my body to listen after I do a few preliminary stretches — the same kind of stretching most people do before a workout.

But when that doesn’t work, and my ears still feel clogged up or run down, I try to get the rest of my body involved by playing listening games.

Here are three of them.

1. Listening with your eyes.

Cue up a recording you like on your home stereo or headphones. Then, find a sporting event on your television. (I find that NBA basketball works especially well for this game, but the Winter Olympics are coming up, which might be even better.) Mute the television. Fire up the music. Then, listen and watch — in that order. Be attentive to how the vibrations in your ears synchronize with the action on the screen. Try to make your brain flip so that, instead of hearing a soundtracked sporting match, you’re watching the athletes move to the music. I promise you’ll find it more restorative to your listening than trying to synch “The Wizard of Oz” with “Dark Side of the Moon.”

2. Listening with your anatomy.

Go to a nightclub, (or crank up your home stereo as loud as can be tolerated), and try to listen with every part of your body — except for your ears. Try to block the connection between your brain and your eardrums by focusing your attention on how the music is vibrating your nose, your kneecaps, the hair on your arms, that spot that feels like it might be your liver. When you “close your ears,” what do you hear?

3. Listening with your muscles.

This one is a little out there, so if it makes you feel awkward, try it in the privacy of your bedroom, and remember to lock the door. Cue up a song on your stereo or headphones. Make sure it’s a song that you love. Then, with the music playing at a little-louder-than-usual volume, pretend that you must convince a complete stranger that you’re actually an alien visiting from another planet — and that you must persuade this stranger exclusively through your dance moves. Try to move around in ways that you’ve never seen, being mindful of which sounds are motivating you to move which muscles. And if playing this game doesn’t make you feel too self-conscious, by all means, try it in the club and become a legend of the nightlife.

— Chris Richards

Classical music

First, there is the piece, and the need to know the piece, and the acceptance that you can never know the piece as well as you think you need to know the piece to comment on it.

Everyone “knows” a piece in different ways. I might know a piece by heart, after my own fashion, yet be unable to answer when an orchestra musician asks how the conductor handled the tricky bassoon entrance in the first movement, because “knowing,” for me, is about familiarity with the way one note, one phrase follows another, but not always about the challenges it represents to a given instrument.

Some knowledge can even be a barrier: a Handel scholar, writing about Handel’s operas, can get into a level of specialized detail that would seem impenetrable to the intelligent lay reader of a newspaper. Every critic comes armed with a distinct body of knowledge, individual as a thumbprint. All you can do is familiarize yourself with the program as best you can, and go in with your own biases, and moods, and abiding love of the art form, to come out with your own sense of what works and what doesn’t.

So to listen like a music critic, you don’t need to have some special lode of knowledge. All you need is willingness to have an opinion, and to voice it. This is harder than it sounds, because what paralyzes people about classical music, in my experience, is the fear of seeming ignorant, or wrong.

But how do you form an opinion? Here’s how a critic approaches it. A music critic’s job is to tell the story of what happened on a given evening. Some nights, the story is the performer: a big star, an unknown, someone having a particularly brilliant or particularly off night. Sometimes, it’s the piece: a world premiere by a living composer; a little-known work by a past master; or a piece so familiar that the story is that it’s being done, yet again, and sounds magnificent despite its familiarity. The story isn’t always what you think it’s going to bebeforehand; you cannot pre-write a review. People who don’t write reviews suppose that reviewing a world premiere is the greatest hurdle, but when the music is new, none of your readers knows it better than you — whereas when the piece is a Beethoven symphony, there are always people ready to ask you how many minutes Furtwangler took for the second movement. So as you listen, ask yourself: What would I tell someone was the most important thing, the main story, about this evening?

The second part of the exercise, for a critic, is the more challenging part: What did the performance set out to do, and how well did it do it? Some reviews never go beyond mere description, but that’s the stuff of program notes not criticism: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony will have the same order of movements no matter who plays it. The challenge is being able to say whether it was played well, and why you thought so — and that is the stuff of endless debate.

And debate, finally, is the point of the exercise. Don’t try to find a “right” answer, as if the performance you heard were a code that you’re trying to crack. Think of the experience as a conversation: The evening offers a point of view, and you respond to it. Is it a conversation that you want to continue, by going back and hearing that music again? Is it one you’re glad to have behind you? Is it something you want to talk about to other people — and can another person change your mind? All of this is part of the experience we have with any art form. And it’s a lot more fun to become an active participant than it is to receive the music in reverential, passive silence.

— Anne Midgette


I subscribe to the “learn one thing” rule: If you don’t learn at least one thing from any exhibition, then either the exhibition has failed you, or you have failed the exhibition. Learning which of the two is the case is essential to thinking critically about how exhibitions are structured, and the relative skill and ambition of the curators who have assembled them.

To “learn one thing” might seem a rather paltry takeaway from an hour or two spent with an exhibition, but you’d be surprised at how many exhibitions are designed not to teach anything at all. As museum designers think more in terms of immersion, experience and the emotional impact of exhibitions, they often dilute the factual and argumentative content of what they put on view. The idea of “teaching” is anathema to some institutions, where curators and administrators reflexively assume that teaching implies an unwanted hierarchical relationship between the museum and the visitor. And so, visitors find themselves awash in objects and labels and text panels that convey less useful information than they can find in a Wikipedia entry. (Just for fun, when you see people reading on their smartphones at a museum, take a peek over their shoulders. You might be surprised at how often they are looking up information that the museum assumes they don’t want or need.)

But the “learn one thing” rule also applies to how we discipline ourselves in museums, especially art museums, where there is tendency to gravitate to things we know. Part of the pleasure of any art form is the comfort of the familiar, whether it’s hearing the same symphony for the 50th time in the concert hall, or visiting a painting or statue you’ve known since childhood. No guilt or shame should attach to the enormous force the familiar has on us: This is how we deepen our understanding not just of the beloved work, but of ourselves, as well. But the pull of the familiar can be so strong that it leaves the mind infertile when it comes to the new.

[How to look at art (a slightly ironic view)]

Really good exhibitions make it easy to learn one thing — indeed, to learn far more than one thing. The curators have a well-thought-out argument to make; they make it logically and clearly, and along the way, one is surprised and delighted by the curatorial choices: which works to display, in what order, and with what juxtapositions? Even so, our minds and memories can be amazingly resistant to detail and texture, and it can be demoralizing afterward to realize that even though we agree with an exhibition’s premise — that, for example, a particular artist was greater than we assumed, or played a larger role in his or her historical milieu — we come away with very little factual matter in our heads. The memory of the thing a few hours or days later seems to be thin, and our excitement ungrounded in any specifics that have lingered with us.

So learn one thing. Before leaving, find an artist whose name is unfamiliar to you. Or find a work by a known artist that you have never seen, or which doesn’t fit with your assumptions about who that artist is and what he or she did. Or find a moment in the show that disturbs your sense of history, or addles your understanding of categories or genera. And then commit that one particular thing to memory. Keep a notebook or use an online note-taking program on your smartphone (after leaving the exhibition). Be tenacious about preserving it.

That fact might or might not stick, and often our final judgment about an exhibition will come to us years later, when we find, to our surprise, that we remember far more than we thought we would, or perhaps nothing at all. Decades later, the process of critical assessment continues, as we struggle with a question that applies to almost everything that matters in life, including people, ideas and art. Did it fail me, or did I fail it?

— Philip Kennicott


Watching a movie is an act of surrender.

The first duty of spectators is to let the movie wash over them, affecting as neutral a mind-body balance as possible, the better to make space for the kind of immersive experience that cinema can be at its very best.

When a film is working, we don’t notice particular shots or the way they’re cut together: Ideally, script, performance, photography, editing, music and sound design are working together so seamlessly that the narrative on screen just flows. We enter its imaginary world unquestioningly, observing and empathizing with its inhabitants, not as characters, but as grounded, fully-realized people.

When that kind of artistry and technical prowess are on offer, there’s no reason to be picking a movie apart for its individual elements. It’s only when hints of unease creep in — the growing sense that, for whatever reason, what’s being portrayed on screen feels stale, patronizing, exploitative, incoherent — that the critical viewer begins the mental list.

Is the plot too predictable? The dialogue eye-rollingly corny or full of starchy, expository speeches? Do the actors seem too obvious and showy? Is the musical score bullying us into feeling what we’re supposed to be feeling? Is the pacing so frenetic and scattershot that it’s making a hash of spatial and temporal logic? Or are the scenes lumbering along like so much uninspired sludge?

All too often, it isn’t the movie’s fault when we can’t give ourselves over completely. We bring our own biases to the theater: We can’t stand this actor, or we haven’t been fans of that director’s work. Such baggage, ideally, should be checked in the lobby. Then there are the ringing phones, glowing screens, blinking Bluetooths and chattering audience members, all of which conspire to prevent the kind of all-encompassing sensory experience that distinguishes film from most other arts. It’s not just that these are annoying distractions; they also keep us awake, meaning we can’t sink into the liminal, twilight state we need to be in if we are to have the aesthetic encounter the way it was intended.

Every movie is a contract of sorts: The filmmaker is doing his or her best to put us under their spell, with the tacit agreement being they’ll act in good faith. Rather than exploit or pander to their audience — rather than abuse their power — they will build a world, or reflect our own, with ingenuity, insight, compassion and honesty.

Of course, the difference between one and the other is subjective: If the first duty of the filmgoer is to surrender, the second is to be alert to moments when authenticity is sacrificed to mere effect, or genuine emotion to ma­nipu­la­tion. We buy our ticket to enter a shared dream; the trick is to slumber while keeping one eye open.


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