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.
The feedback sandwich
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.
Does feedback help?
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
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.
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.
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!
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: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/download.aspx?name=20-021.pdf