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Constructive criticism for a friend, classmate, or band mate

15 January, 2016 - 09:13
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There are two ways to do this activity. If one person is a much more experienced musician than the other, but has no experience teaching, then the less experienced musician performs and the more experienced musician offers the critique. The goal for the less-experienced person is to get help; the goal of the more-experienced is to practice helping other musicians. The more-experienced musician must be mature enough to take seriously the need to encourage and help the other.

If the two participants are at a similar level of musicianship, then the activity should be mutual. They should take turns performing and offering critique and help. Again, this activity should only be done if the musicians are mature enough to approach the activity with the goal of being helpful rather than competitive. If done in the right spirit, this exercise can help inexperienced musicians learn to listen to their own playing more carefully.

Inquiry Steps

  1. Ask - The person doing the critique will ask "What do I hear in the other person's offering that I can help to fix?"
  2. Investigate - The "performer" will choose a piece to offer to the "critic." (You can call this person a "tutor" if "critic" sounds too harsh.) The performance may involve playing or singing a piece in person, a recording of a performance, or a composition, arrangement, or improvisation that the performer has created. If the critic is not certain what to listen for, try using the checklists in the constructive criticism discussion. If the offering is a recording, the critic should listen to it at least twice. If the performance is live, the critic can ask to hear it twice, in order to verify that there is a consistent problem.
  3. Create - The critic should take notes on problems noticed and choose ONE to work on. The choice should be something that the critic is able to help with. Useful help may include: pointing out errors, suggesting possible causes of the problem; demonstrating the correct way to do it; and offering solutions, ideas, and techniques that have worked for the critic in similar situations. Criticism is not useful if it is beyond the current understanding or capability of the performer, is not explained clearly, or makes the performer nervous or defensive. The performer should respond by making a sincere effort to make the suggested changes, even if there is disagreement. This may include practicing the new idea immediately, with the critic's help, or making changes alone before meeting again with the critic.
  4. Discuss - Critic and performer should discuss whether they agree that the performance has been improved. At this stage, the performer can offer a "counter-critique" if necessary, disagreeing with the critic's assessment, solution, or preferences, or pointing out elements of the critique that were hurtful rather than helpful. They may choose to brainstorm together to try to come up with more ideas for "fixing" the problem, or try to come up with a solution that satisfies both, or agree to disagree. Arguments by either party based on professional recordings, or on well-known standards and techniques, should be taken seriously. When practical, appeals can be made for arbitration by a more experienced musician, music teacher or director.
  5. Reflect - What did the performer learn that can be applied to other pieces? What did the critic learn about taking the role of music tutor?