When’s a Good Time to Ask for Feedback?
I recently had an email conversation with someone who wanted comments on an arrangement, that framed the request for feedback as a matter of urgency, as they wanted to get the teach tracks out to their chorus. As it happens, I was in a position to juggle my schedule to fit this in, but at the same time I felt it only fair to question whether this was the right moment to be doing this.
This is a conversation I used to have frequently with students in my years as a lecturer. It was a reasonably common pattern for someone to work on an essay at length and then come for feedback only a day or two before the deadline. Often this was because they either felt there was no point in bothering me while there were still things they knew needed fixing or because they were embarrassed to show me work in an obviously incomplete (and therefore as yet inadequate) state – which does feel a bit like answering the door in your pyjamas of course. Other times it had a more cynical motivation – ‘just tell me it’s going to pass’ – which I felt rather less sympathy for, but actually didn’t change the answer.
In all these cases, I wondered what they wanted from the feedback. With only 48 hours to go before a deadline, there isn’t time to make anything other than surface changes. But surface changes don’t make much difference to the basic quality of a piece of work. Sorting out the odd factual error or grammatical blooper may give you an extra percentage point or two, but if you want your grade to go up by 10 marks, then you’re looking at things like increasing the range of literature you engage with, or re-ordering your argument, or untangling a central misunderstanding. This is work that takes time and reflection to achieve.
Likewise with arrangements. I absolutely get why you might not want to share work while it’s still in the ‘sounds crap’ stage (to use a technical term). But the longer you spend polishing a piece, the less you will feel like unpicking it and dealing with anything other than tweaking the odd note or two.
However, it is the strategic decisions that can make the biggest difference to an arrangement’s impact. Choice of key drives all the voicings; harmonic choices drive both the chart’s expressive world and singability; embellishment strategy drives so much of the tempo and feel of the final performance. These are elements that an arrangement commits to quite early in its development, and if they’re not working it’s better to work through those issues before the whole takes on too fully-formed an identity.
At a less fundamental level, but still deeper than the surface, there are a lots of issues of technical control that make the difference between a characterful but clunky arrangement and one that just leaps off the page into the voices. These include particularly questions of voicing, voice-leading and the control of dissonance. By definition, technical control is something that takes time to develop – at the point when you can benefit from feedback on it, you’re going to need time to think and work through the details slowly to get the benefit from the feedback.
I’ve made similar points about performance coaching of course. It is a most productive experience to work on strategic issues with an ensemble at the point where they know the music well enough that they’re not having to give all their attention just to the notes, but before they’ve developed a lot of practised-in habits. Character, feel, tempo, expressive purpose are things that it is better to seek feedback on earlier than later.
Technical questions about the skills needed to execute that concept can usefully be worked on later, but still need to come at a point where there is time to embed them. Once you get near to the performance, the coach’s role becomes much more one of motivator, facilitator of confidence and upholder of agreed standards – the time for education or even training is past. At this stage, you can’t add 10 points to the score – you can just help the ensemble produce a performance that is true to their current level.
The main significant difference between these cycles of feedback function in written or performance forms is that the coach does still have a useful role in the final stages of performance preparation. This is because performance is volatile whereas arrangements and essays have a fixed form. The performer has to produce their goods in real time; the opportunity to either outperform yourself or crash and burn presents psychological challenges not present for people working in fixed media. One an arranger or writer is nearly done, by contrast, they don’t need feedback, they just need a proof-reader.