From a young age, musicians receive feedback from mentors on how to improve their technique and musicality. Some have mastered the art of constructive feedback, while others have continued the cycle of incessantly critical comments that border abuse.
When the latter is the modus operandi, the mentee may steer towards perfectionism, so that they don't have to endure such negative comments. And in many cases, musicians whose mentors are more critical end up practice longer hours which can also lead to overuse injuries.
As a mentor, it's easy to be critical and negative. Finding faults with performance is not difficult. What is challenging is: providing constructive feedback that gives mentees a clear direction to move forward without squashing their spirit or motivation.
Improving Feedback for Musicians
During my Ph.D., it was common to hear feedback like:
Why can't you be more like X?
Just start writing
Why can't you just do it?
You need to work on your writing style.
Your literature review is bad.
These comments are examples of what not to do, and I'm going to break down why.
1. Schedule Regular Feedback Sessions
Before I met my husband, the idea of regular feedback sessions was a foreign concept. In his work, he has weekly meetings with his manager and supervisor. They check in on his work, see if he needs help, and provide goals and directions for the future. These regularly scheduled meetings allow him and other employees to feel secure and supported in his work. Contrast that with my doctoral work.
During my Ph.D. feedback was sporadic at best and never positive. Students were berated and humiliated for their mistakes. Goals were not clear; Syllabi were rarely provided; And we were left floundering not knowing if we were meeting these invisible benchmarks until we were very negatively told otherwise.
By scheduling regular check-in sessions with written goals and evaluations, ambiguity is reduced and mentees feel supported. By failing to provide regularly scheduled feedback, mentees may flounder and constantly question how well they are doing.
Support mentees: Schedule Regular Feedback Sessions!
2. Balance Praise and Criticism
When I started taking voice lessons, the first thing out of my teacher's mouth was always an affirmation! It made me more receptive to hearing what she wanted to critique because she noted what I had done well first. This can be a great way to increase trust and willingness to embrace criticism!
Feedback is an essential part of growth, but the way feedback is delivered can have a huge impact its efficacy and implementation. When feedback is too negative, it is likely to be rejected, can induce anger, and can lead the mentee to feel rejected.
When providing feedback, it is beneficial to provide feedback in-person so that the mentee can observe tone and body language. Try to first find something the mentee is doing well. Then, offer feedback with a chance for questions. This will allow the mentee to feel agency and offer their own input.
3. Be Specific
In my Ph.D. program, specificity was the biggest problem in the feedback given. I was often left to feel like I had no path forward. Effective feedback is specific and offers a plan to fix the problems at hand.
Giving random praise and criticism like "Good job" or "You could improve your communication skills" are unhelpful and can lead to less trust and lower productivity.
Be clear and specific with your feedback such as, "The research you provided for this presentation is thorough (praise), however, the presentation was at times unclear due to the block of text on screen (criticism). On slide #6, try implementing graphs or bullet points, to draw in your audience rather than a block of text (specific instructions on what to change).
This step (specificity) is especially necessary if the one receiving criticism is neurodivergent. Vagueness is the kiss of death for those of us who thrive in black and white. When mentors provide specific, clear, and kind feedback to neurodivergent mentees, the mentee will thrive.
Reminders: Implementing Constructive Feedback
Schedule regular feedback with your mentees. That may look like setting aside the first 10 minutes of a private lesson or a bi-weekly Zoom meeting.
Give praise first, then offer a critique.
When you do critique, be specific with what was done well, what needs work, and how to meet the stated goal or objectives!
Have other tips for improving feedback? I'd love to hear them in the comments!
Article by: Kensley Behel