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Playing in front of all of your peers in studio class can be pretty stressful, of course. But in studios where students are expected to provide feedback to those who are playing, listening can be pretty stressful too!

I mean, you obviously want to say something thoughtful and helpful – but given how personal giving and receiving feedback can feel, it’s tough to find the right balance of supportive and critical. Like, if we err on the side of being too “nice” or gentle, the feedback ends up sounding kind of generic and isn’t particularly useful. But if we use the voice in our head that criticizes us when we play, our feedback could come across as being overly critical and make the recipient feel defensive and shut down.

Back in those days, I relied on the classic feedback sandwich – making sure to sandwich a couple positive aspects of their performance around the main critique I thought I’d offer. Or failing that, at least offer an open-face feedback sandwich. Starting with a nice thing, and then offering the main critique.

And while that might sound good in principle, it doesn’t really work, because when you’re on the receiving end of one of these sandwiches, you know to just ignore the obligatory compliments and hone in on the critique.

And even then, the critical bit is often vague or watered-down. So when you get a comment like “It sounded like you might be rushing a bit at times…”, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take it, let alone translate that feedback into action. When I look back, I’m not really sure how much of an impact peer feedback in studio class had on my subsequent practice behavior or performance.

Indeed, the research on the effectiveness of feedback on performance is pretty mixed. Like, in some studies feedback does improve performance, but in others, feedback has no effect on performance, and a good bit of the time, feedback actually leads to worse performance! (What?!)

Yet I still really like the idea of eliciting peer feedback. Not just because it can be a great exercise for the listener. But because our colleagues represent a massive resource of untapped knowledge, experience, and perspectives. And when we do get feedback from our peers that’s specific, critical, and actionable, it can lead us to explore new ideas or take our playing in directions that may never have occurred to us otherwise.

So how can we get the kind of input from peers that can help us level-up our playing? Is there a more effective way for us to ask friends and colleagues for feedback, perhaps?

An HBS study

A team of Harvard Business School researchers (Yoon, Blunden, Kristal, & Whillans, 2019) were curious to see if a simple tweak to the language we use in eliciting feedback could lead to higher-quality, and more useful (i.e. actionable) information.

194 adults were surveyed about their experience at work, and asked to reflect on the most recent time they observed a colleague doing something that they could evaluate the performance of. For instance, the time a coworker “[put] labels on items” or “[created] a new marketing strategy.”

The participants were then randomly assigned to one of two groups, and asked to either “provide feedback to your colleague about the performance you described” (the feedback group) or “provide advice to your colleague about the performance you described” (the advice group).

Their feedback or advice was written down, and a separate panel of raters then reviewed their comments to gauge the criticality and actionability of their input. Criticality essentially being the number of specific comments made about what the work colleague “did not do well.” And actionability being the number of comments that involved specific “suggestions on what the recipient should do.”

Did this seemingly trivial swapping of words make any difference?

Advice vs. feedback

Actually, yes!

Those who were asked for advice generated more critical comments (vs. comments about what the colleague did well), more specific comments, and more suggestions (a.k.a. advice) – which were also rated as more actionable than those who were asked for feedback.

Additional studies

The researchers repeated the same basic study in a couple different contexts too – one in which participants were asked for either feedback or advice on a job application letter. And another, where students were asked to provide either feedback or advice to their professor on end-of-semester course evaluations.

And in each case, being asked for advice seemed to lead to higher-quality comments than when participants were asked to provide “feedback.”

Why would using the word “advice” make such a difference?

Evaluation vs. suggestions

Well, the researchers note that when we hear the word feedback, we tend to think in terms of evaluation. Like, was the performance good or bad? Did I like it or not? Was it too fast, too slow, rushing, dragging, etc., etc. Which leads to comments like “I think your rhythm was a little unsteady at times.” And sure, that’s good to know, but it’s not immediately apparent how exactly to translate this into concrete action steps.

Whereas when we’re asked for advice, our thinking tends to shift more naturally in the direction of teaching, or thinking of ways to further our friend’s development, and the specific strategies we’ve used, that they might also benefit from. Leading to suggestions that are more along the lines of, “Try subdividing the last half of measure 38 in triplets instead of straight quarters. That often helps me avoid shortening the half note, and makes it easier to place the downbeat of m. 39 more precisely.”

In other words, advice seems to lend itself less to a critique of what was good or bad, and more to recommendations on what exactly one can do to improve.

Take action

Admittedly, these studies were conducted in the context of more of a conventional office-type environment, but it seems that the concept should still transfer pretty well to music, and would certainly be fun to experiment with.

So the next time you play for a friend, see what happens when instead of asking for comments or feedback, you ask for advice instead.

Instead of offering only general comments on what they noticed, do they get more specific? Might they even go a step further and offer a suggestion on how to practice the passage, or a potential solution that may fix the issue?

I’d be curious to hear how it goes!

* * *

Speaking of playing for friends or colleagues, as uncomfortable as this can feel, it’s one of the most useful things you can do in preparing yourself for the unique challenges of a big performance, competition, or audition. Which even the most incredibly experienced performers describe doing themselves.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply drop by a friend’s house to do an informal run-through of your audition rep. That doesn’t simulate the actual experience of an audition closely enough to give you the opportunity to practice and develop the kind of focus that the actual audition will demand. There are a lot of important details in setting up the room, how to spend your time in the hour before your mock, how to prepare your friend to provide the most useful comments, and so on, that all work to increase the effectiveness of your mocks. And improves your ability to minimize the gaps between the level of your playing in practice, in mocks, and in the audition itself.

So if you have auditions coming up in the next 3-6 months, and have been trying to figure out how to use your time in the most effective way so as to feel 110% prepared and confident on audition day, percussionist Rob Knopper and I would like to help you hone and refine your practice and audition preparation system. To which end, we will be running a live, online, 8-week audition prep “bootcamp.”

The first live session takes place in about a week, and enrollment ends at midnight TONIGHT (Sunday, October 20th). Click here to sign up!

You’ll learn a 3-phase system that will take you through how to do excerpt research and build audition-day confidence from Day 1, how to get all your rep into “muscle memory” in such a way that it’s more resistant to choking under pressure, a whole set of mental skills for dealing with audition pressure, all geared towards being so thoroughly prepared, both mentally and physically, that auditions no longer feel so hit or miss.

If this sounds like the sort of thing that could help you take take your playing and auditioning up a few notches, click the button below to get all the details and enroll before registration ends tonight:

Enroll in the 2019 Winter Audition Bootcamp


References

Yoon, J., Blunden, H., Kristal, A., & Whillans, A.V. (2019). Framing Feedback Giving as Advice Giving Yields More Critical and Actionable Input [White paper]. Retrieved October 19, 2019, from Harvard Business School: https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/download.aspx?name=20-021.pdf

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

NOTE: Version 3.0 is coming soon! A whole new format, completely redone from the ground up, with new research-based strategies on practice and performance preparation, 25 step-by-step practice challenges, unlockable bonus content, and more. There will be a price increase when version 3.0 arrives, but if you enroll in the “Lifetime” edition before then, you’ll get all the latest updates for free.

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