When’s a Good Time to Ask for Feedback?

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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.

Wow. A friend suggested I read your blog and now I'm hooked! Thank you.

Thank you for your encouraging comment, Kate! And thanks to your friend for pointing you over here :-)

liz

Have you read Anne Lamott's wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird? She devotes an entire chapter to the "Stinky First Draft" (although she uses a much more colorful term, also starting with an S, in place of "stinky")--her basic premise is that you just have to get it all out and onto the page. She's talking about prose, rather than music, but the image still holds.

(So does the scatological imagery, in many of my first draft manuscripts. Sigh.)

I have to wonder, with some of those people who waited till the last minute to ask for help--yes, some might have been trying to curry favor or what-have-you, especially where grades are concerned, but it takes an awful lot of courage to present your work to someone else for critique, especially when you know it is not up to where you'd like it to be. I can absolutely see myself procrastinating, trying to tighten it up just a little more, trying to fix that awkward spot myself, in short trying to do whatever I can to not look like an idiot when I present the work to the person whose help I am seeking...because what if she sees it not as incomplete, but just plain inadequate? Don't all (okay, most) of us have that unpleasant little voice down there whispering, "it's total crap and everyone knows but you, she'll look at it and shake her head and go, oh wow, I can make a couple of suggestions I guess but they won't change the fact that this is a mess..." I doubt if many of us would admit it, but I bet it's there in more people than would confess to it.

I know, it's totally irrational. And maybe I'm taking an overdramatic position here (partially because I have a piece of stinkyfirstdraft manuscript sitting on my computer needing to be sent to my editor that I don't want to send till it stinks less), but there could be some degree of plain old garden variety fear at work here.

Just my thoughts. I may be totally off base. :-)
--Jenn
(oops, there's the doorbell...better get quickly out of my pajamas before answering...)

Hi Jenn,

Oh, I'm absolutely sure you're right on the internal processes of procrastinating asking for feedback. Just because it's irrational doesn't mean it's not a perfectly normal set of responses!

Interesting question as which takes more courage, though: presenting your work to someone else when you're not yet happy with it, or completely re-doing it when you get feedback that suggests it's necessary. The more you've polished something, the harder it is to start unpicking it to remake it - it's not just that it's more work, it's that you have to throw away good bits you like in order to get back to the place where you need to take a different route.

I haven't read Bird by Bird yet, but it sounds like a good one for the reading list. Thanks for the recommendation.

liz

Hello Liz and Jenn,

I find the issue of courage in asking for feedback an interesting topic. Something I feel is key to asking for feedback at the right stage is your relationship with the person you are asking for help from. In asking for the gift of feedback, you are opening yourself up to a certain degree of discomfort so it seems like a good idea to cultivate a circle of contacts who you know will be able to give you firm, fair and kindly feedback when you need it.

If you build a relationship with these contacts and if you are also prepared to offer firm, fair and kindly feedback in return, then you avoid the worry that they will judge you as a terrible arranger/creatively moribund bore etc based on your current piece of work, because they already know you as a person.

Being a bit of a perfectionist (perhaps other arrangers will identify?!), asking for early feedback doesn't come naturally to me, but since I have started to build friendships with those around me whom I can trust to give me honest criticism, I have found that the whole process is much less painful. As a consequence, I've found myself seeking out feedback much more frequently and much earlier on in the process.

To give you some feedback, I have found this blog and the subsequent comments very stimulating - good work :-)

Kate

I actually love that part--the going back and picking apart. (I have computer files, in Word and Finale both, full of material I've cut or deleted from previous efforts. Can't bring myself to release them to the ether.) Starting the process is hard, and I resist it like a root canal, but when the re-work is in the right direction it's like emptying the suitcase and rolling downhill. For me, that's when the good stuff comes out. (Probably one of my most successful choral pieces came AFTER spending 4 days on a large and complex piece of complex intelligent competence-demonstrating deeply forgettable drivel; I realized it wasn't working, trashed it to start over, and literally in 2 hours had a lovely and coherent work in front of me. )

But yes, I completely see your point...it's hard to let go of the good stuff that came of the first go. (Guess that's why I save it.)
--Jenn

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