As a teacher, I have been giving feedback to students and colleagues for twenty-nine years at both the public school and university level, and I take the responsibility and the process very seriously. I have been trained to give constructive comments to help students grow, hopefully in a way that uplifts them and inspires them to be better. As a clarinetist, I have been given feedback since I was in the seventh grade- much of it incredibly helpful, and some of it emotionally scarring. Giving feedback, especially concerning such a personal art as music, has to be delivered in a way that does not destroy the creative spark or confidence of the student. There is a fine line between constructive criticism and just plain criticism. The difference lies both in the spirit in which the comments are given, and the knowledge base of the person giving the feedback. Because of my experience with wonderful and not-so-wonderful feedback, I am extraordinarily cautious about how I seek it out. I greatly value feedback and always want to improve as a musician, a writer, and as a person, but I have found what works best for me and how I learn in the most effective manner concerning feedback; I need to trust the person implicitly and know that they are masters in their field, and so for this reason, I choose who my teacher or mentor will be.
I have incredible respect for those I have called my teachers and mentors (I still can’t call my junior high band director by his first name though he has asked repeatedly…I have too much respect for him and what he taught me). Everyone is different, and as a teacher, I have to be prepared to give feedback to all kinds of students. Some are tough as nails (at least on the surface), some, like me, have incredibly tender hearts. My mentor, Kal Opperman, was brutally honest. I never could make him understand that I did not need to be berrated or belittled to make me work- quite the opposite, as I have always thrived on positive reinforcement and encouragement. However, I could take his harshness because I trusted him and I had also built my career by that time and had a strong level of confidence in my abilities. While I do my best to share the knowledge and skills that I was fortunate enough to gain studying with Kal, I could never teach in his style. I wouldn’t be honest with myself if I did- it’s not who I am. It’s not that I don’t give tough love when I need to, but my philosophy is to give feedback that is unfailingly positive and uplifting.
I have seen students transform in an environment of positivity and encouragement. The people that I bring in to give Masterclasses for my students are all people that I trust will build them up and not tear them down. I don’t mean just tell them everything is great- not at all. The idea is to couch the criticism in a way that highlights what the student is doing well, followed by clear and specific things they can do to move forward on problem areas. With clarinet, I feel very comfortable giving and receiving feedback because of my experience and training- my skin is tougher there. With other areas, such as writing, I don’t feel comfortable giving truly critical feedback at all, or in getting it from just anyone. I write because it is a joy to me, but I don’t have the confidence yet in those areas to take feedback from just anyone. My fledgling love of writing is too new, and my fear of not being good at what I do is too close to the surface. There have been too many instances of being hurt by someone who gave thoughtless or cruel feedback; my father, early teachers who spoke without concern for the damage their words would do. I will never intentionally do that to another human being.
I feel deep gratitude for those that said the difficult things to me that made me a better musician and writer, those that brought the words to me out of true care for me as an artist, stemming from their years of experience. I also appreciate the invaluable lessons that I have learned from listening to other musicians and reading the work of fellow bloggers and other great writers- such inspiration. I realize that in the real world of artists, anyone can and will be a critic- they are our audience, and they and their thoughts are important. However, when I open my creative work to someone to seek real, tough, feedback, it bares my soul. To me I am receiving an incredible gift from that teacher (and teachers can be many things), and I am also giving the precious gift of my trust. It is a beautiful synergy at its best. I will continue to work to build confidence as a writer…but I know myself and know the process that will help to build that confidence- for me and for the students I am fortunate enough to teach. There is a true art to giving feedback…it reminds me of one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes…
Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.
I am a big believer that you don’t have to tear someone down to build them up. Feedback is vital to the artistic process, but the manner in which it is delivered makes all the difference. My teacher’s heart will always tread carefully when I have been given the responsibility of guiding someone in their art…and I will always hope for the same from those that I open my artistic soul to for guidance. Once an artist’s spark is trampled, it can be difficult to fan the flames back to life, and so I will always do my best to build fires and not stamp them out.