Constructive Feedback: Why It’s Lacking in Classical Music and How We Can Cultivate It

You might remember my story about how a teacher’s feedback on my talent impacted me and my identity as a musician.

After that post when live, many of you shared similar stories with me about how a teacher’s feedback had a negative impact on your career in music.

It got me thinking…

What should a teacher say to a student whom they believe doesn’t have what it takes to be a professional musician?

How honest should they be?

Is there a way to give constructive feedback without damaging a student’s self-worth?

Feedback is crucial to our development as musicians. It helps us see where we’re falling short of our goals and what behaviors we have to change to get where we want to go.

Whether you’re a student, teacher, mentor, or ensemble member, learning how to give constructive feedback will make you a better leader.

Read on to discover how to give feedback in a way that builds others up, rather than breaking them down.

Being radically honest is less helpful than giving constructive feedback

Giving and receiving feedback isn’t easy.

On the receiving end, feedback forces us to face things about ourselves that are hard to hear. We have to learn how to soothe our fears and not “awfulize” the situation.

Being the giver of feedback creates its own anxiety. To ease the discomfort, some teachers pull off the bandage quickly and risk being radically honest with their students.

The truth about radical honesty

There are three common reasons why teachers choose to be radically honest with their students:

#1: Honesty equals morality. You might feel like you have a “duty” to be honest. Many teachers believe that to let a student delude him or herself feels cruel and unkind. Why get your student’s hopes up?

#2: Teachers police talent. Some teachers feel that their role is to be an advocate of quality control. They see themselves as a gatekeeper who influences the caliber of talent that enters into the professional landscape.

#3: It happens to all of us. It’s easy for teachers to think that, because they received harsh criticism, it’s all part of the process. Their abilities were smacked down too—and they survived! It’s just the way it is.

While some people may think that radical honesty is the best way to go, it isn’t the same as constructive feedback and there are risks that come with radical honesty:

Students may infer an interpretation that you did not intend if they lack the experience to filter or translate feedback into something productive that they can use in a positive way.

Also, radical honesty can be emotionally charged. Sometimes the person giving feedback is trying to “offload.”

Instead they should be asking, “What does my student need to hear to in order to make the improvements I desire for them in the most healthy and effective way?”

In effect, being radically honest is often more about the feedback giver’s needs, rather than their students’.

The benefits of constructive feedback

Constructive feedback is given with the intent of helping someone improve.

It’s designed to empower and bolster the other person, rather than breaking them down.

This may sound obvious and straightforward but the truth is, it takes much more thoughtfulness and care to craft helpful, actionable feedback, rather than blurting out an immediate reaction or being radically honest.

Being honest and being helpful are not the same thing. Feedback must enhance the skills of the student and empower them to do better. It’s not about breaking them down.

Feedback must empower students to do better. It’s not about breaking them down. Click To Tweet

“I see myself as a guide and mentor to help students discover their own strengths and weaknesses and take action. It is ultimately up to them to decide what they’ll do with this discovery.” Fabiana Claure, Director of Career Development and Entrepreneurship in Music, University of North Texas College of Music and founder of Superior Academy of Music in Miami, Florida

When giving feedback to musicians, focus on what’s in their control

There will always come a time when a teacher must give constructive feedback.

When that time comes, instead of criticizing the student holistically (“You’re not good enough”), teachers should clarify exactly what could be improved.

Is it a student’s finger placement? Their work ethic? Their timing?

Constructive feedback is meant to strengthen students’ self-awareness.

Here are some ways to do that:

Ask questions

Use an inquiry-based approach to help students see for themselves what’s going wrong.

Ask, “How did that passage sound to you?”

After hearing their answer, you can say, “Here’s what I perceived.”

The benefit of an effective inquiry-based approach is that, as you gain experience with this strategy, you may be able to help students identify what they need to improve all on their own.

That’s because you’re helping students sharpen their self-awareness. And an idea found through self-discovery will have a more lasting impact than the same idea presented by another person.

Focus on what you observe

When giving constructive feedback, speak only to things that a video camera would observe.

For instance, it’s not constructive to say, “You clearly don’t care about XYZ because if you did, you would practice more.”

Instead, say something like, “I’ve observed that you haven’t learned the part of the piece that we discussed you’d be learning. That leads me to wonder whether you’re spending the time practicing.”

“With my voice students, the ‘it’ that I am inflexible on (and probably the clearest about) is the stuff that doesn’t involve talent. Voices are subjective, and anyone can find a technique that works for them. What won’t work is if the student doesn’t find the motivation to develop a consistent and meaningful practice schedule, to show up to lessons on time and prepared, and to seek out (with my help) appropriate opportunities for their development.” Rebecca Sacks, Mezzo-Soprano

Your feedback is your opinion

When offering constructive feedback, position it as just that: feedback. Don’t give the impression that your opinion (as educated as it may be) is the truth of the universe.

Many teachers and faculty members are hired to specifically to evaluate and decide the fates of musicians. Because of that, it’s easy to think that because they believe something to be true, it is.

But your opinion could be proven wrong.

As teachers, mentors, and guides, we have to ask ourselves: Are we in the business of casting judgement and telling someone whether or not they deserve to have a future as a professional in music?

At iCadenza, we’ve decided that’s not our place. Our goal is to help people gain clarity on their desired career path in music, and then coach them on how to develop the mindset and practical skill set (outside of their musical training) to get there.

That’s because we aren’t the ones who decide whether someone is destined to succeed or fail.

We believe that it’s mostly up to them, and whether they are willing to do the work, take action in spite of fear and discomfort, and persevere through inevitable challenges.

Yes, we all have our tastes, predictions, and preferences. But we can never know whether someone will succeed or not.

Why poison someone’s self esteem when we actually have no idea how the future will pan out?

“I think the best thing a teacher can do is give the student their perspective on what is needed to achieve the goal they desire rather than pronounce, oracle-like, whether they have what it takes to have a career. Teachers can be flawed and frustrated as much as they can be confident and well-wishing. A great teacher will show the student the gauntlet they’ll have to traverse, and it’s then up to the student to shoot for it or retreat.” Jenny Bilfield, CEO of Washington Performing Arts

“Everyone’s path is different. You don’t know where the student is headed, or what direction they’ll find with their work that isn’t part of your scope of vision. What should you do? Set goals. Set deadlines. Help them create opportunities. Encourage them to grow. If they really aren’t cut out for it, they will find that out on their own, and that should be their decision to make, not yours.” Pamela Stein Lynde, Soprano, Composer, Founder of Stone Mason Projects

There is no one path to success for musicians

We are proof that success in the music industry doesn’t follow a cut-and-dry path.

Teachers can help their students develop a keen sense of self-awareness that allows them to define what success means to them.

For example, taking piano lessons as an adult has impacted my life more positively than I ever experienced as a highschool or college student.

I believe this because of the philosophy that my teacher and I share—that deepening my love for piano and constantly striving for improvement, is a good thing, regardless of any other outcomes.

Of course, when students take lessons in service of specific professional goals, that may require a different pedagogical strategy.

Still, all students benefit when the underlying environment is one that celebrates studying music as a wonderful thing on its own, regardless of a student’s professional potential or outcome.

“Musicians can always use their passion to create a career around something other than performing. A great example is my graphics team which was founded by a pianist, or my photographer (who had an injury and had to reconsider his options). We need more people working in the industry that have a love and experience of music.” Jacob Shaw, Cellist and Founder and Director of the Scandinavian Cello School

“Often, we limit too much what we think is possible, surrendering to what tradition has taught us—that there is “one general path of success” to look forward to. It simply isn’t true. Music (the arts) has no bounds. It’s a matter of what creative paths we can help a student envision for themselves and how we guide them in taking steps toward more fulfilling directions.” Juliann Ma, Pianist and Founder of SEAS (Sustainable Environment Through the Arts and Sciences)

What does success really mean?

The rise of entrepreneurship in music draws new questions from music teachers, faculty members, and universities.

Should we encourage students to spend more time promoting and less time practicing?

What if “bad musicians” succeed because they have better business and marketing skills?

Is it fair to reward marketing savviness over hard work and talent?

If you are a highly trained musician, you can probably think of a handful of successful, famous musicians, who are arguably not the most talented.

And… so what? Good for them.

They are bringing joy and entertainment to audiences. Their art is valued.

And because they’re succeeding, we can probably all learn something from them.

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