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Rules for Seeking Feedback

15 January, 2016 - 09:13
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Whether you are paying for expert advice or asking for feedback from a friend or a crowd, the serious, helpful attention of other people to your problems is a very precious resource, and should be treated accordingly! Otherwise, people will quickly become tired of your questions. So

Note: Rule #1 is "Do not waste people's time and attention."
  • Do not approach anyone for feedback until you have made as much progress as you can on your own. Ask for comments on completed projects or on thoughtful ideas that you have developed in your own listening. Otherwise your helper is likely to waste time giving you suggestions that are nothing new to you.
  • Keep it short. Don't expect a marathon help session unless you have paid for one. Prepare a really short demonstration of what you can do right now, and ask only one or two questions about improving it. For example, if your completed project is a ten-minute movement in sonata form and you are having trouble with the modulations, just play the parts with the modulations, unless your helper specifically asks for more.
  • Make it easy to give the feedback. For example, if you want comments on your composition, provide a written version for them to write comments or notes on.
  • Listen to all feedback with a genuine desire to learn from it. Don't ask for help from anyone whose criticisms or suggestions you will not take seriously.
  • Don't ask for help too often. Get one or two useful pieces of advice, and do not return with more questions until you can demonstrate that you have put that advice to good use.

Different people will be able to give different kinds of help. So

Note: Rule #2 is "Only ask for help that is easy for that person to give."
  • Ask non-experts questions that will be easy for them to answer but will still give you useful information. For example, if you have arranged a piece for your instrument, simply asking friends which parts of the arrangement they like best or least can be very useful, even if they cannot explain why.
  • Remember that even non-musicians can be listening experts. For example, someone who listens often to country music may be able to offer very useful comments about a country song you have just written.
  • You can accommodate those who are uncomfortable giving criticism by asking neutral questions such as "do you like version A or version B better?" or "how would you describe this piece?"
  • Ask experts for help in their area of expertise, or ask them for general help. For example, you cannot expect help with saxophone fingering or technique from a vocalist, but the vocalist can comment on the musicality of a saxophone performance and might also have some useful suggestions about breath control.
  • If they cannot help without looking up information, withdraw the question or ask how you can look it up for yourself.

People will be much more likely to remain interested in helping you if you clearly have the right attitude about receiving help. So

Note: Rule #3 is "Be attentive and grateful."
  • Approach all feedback with an attitude of wanting to learn as much as you can from it.
  • If you disagree with an any feedback, work to uncover and understand the source of the disagreement rather than dismissing it outright. Consider the possible benefits of being able to follow the advice in some situations.
  • Consider whether and how you might show your gratitude for any free help. For example, if your community choir director has been helping you, can you volunteer some of your time to help the group? If you want to discuss with a friend how to understand a particular style of music, could you pay for tickets to a concert or invite the friend over for snacks and a pleasant listening session?
  • Do not force anything unwanted on your helpers. For example, if your band mates do not want to perform your songs, ask for useful comments and suggestions. Take their comments to heart and work cheerfully and humbly on improving your skills until they find your work interesting enough to perform.

Some people will be better than others at giving thoughtful, useful, constructive criticism that you can understand. So

Note: Rule #4 is "Protect yourself from criticism that harms you as a musician and music learner."
  • Always practice receiving constructive criticism in the spirit in which it is intended: not as an attack on what you can do now, but as recognition that you can learn to do even better. If even friendly, helpful advice feels hurtful to you, consider working on developing an attitude of wanting to benefit more from the knowledge of others. It may help to Four Inquiries in Constructive Music Criticism for yourself.
  • Be aware that some people do enjoy giving attack criticism, which is intended to make the receiver feel less capable or competent. You can recognize attack criticism because it contains no positive comments and no helpful suggestions for improvement. If you have teachers who engage in attack criticism, try to replace them. If other experts or allies appear to be giving attack criticism, seek feedback elsewhere. If you ask for feedback from crowds, be aware that you are very likely to attract attack critics, and be ready to dismiss their comments as being focused on their own needs rather than on yours.
  • You may get feedback that is genuinely intended to be helpful, but, for whatever reason, does not speak to your needs as a music learner at this time. Again, if this is often the case with your music teacher, you might consider looking for a different teacher. If an expert or ally gives this type of advice, consider seeking help from someone else next time. If nobody else is available, consider asking different questions next time.