Four golden rules for giving feedback to students (or any other players for that matter)

There is definitely an art to giving good, constructive, positive and encouraging feedback. Even if well intentioned, providing feedback in a less than desirable manner can leave the recipient feeling less than desired!

As a teacher I’m giving some kind of feedback on pretty much a daily basis, and as a player I’m also receiving feedback from my audience, my peers and my own wonderful mentor. You too may find yourself in one or both of these positions. I’d love to know what your own experience is of giving feedback.

So, when giving feedback, or critiquing, or offering pointers for further improvement for someone in whatever circumstance that may be, I find there are always 4 golden rules to follow for maximum effectiveness in delivery of the message:

(1) What’s the reason for you giving feedback? Giving feedback is ALWAYS about the receiver

If you’re providing your wisdom and opinion to feel superior, to make others feel inferior (and thereby supporting a need to feel significant), to showcase your superb knowledge, to demonstrate how much you know (or think you know), to demonstrate why your opinion counts…..If you’re giving feedback for any of these reasons, it’s probably not a great reason to be giving feedback and being quiet in these circumstances is probably a good course of action!

Now, the vast majority of folks in the classical guitar world most definitely do not fall into this, but just in case you were tempted……. 😉 Giving feedback is and always should be about the receiver of the feedback – about helping them, about assisting their development, about boosting their skills, mindset or approach, about showing them alternatives.

(2) Always ask permission

Now, if you’re in a student-teacher kind of situation the permission to provide feedback is kind of already implied in that situation – the student is usually paying you to provide feedback in some form to help them progress. That’s kinda how it works!!

However, if this is not the situation, or you’re working with others, it’s always courteous to ask the person in question whether you can give them some feedback. It’s just polite really. And if the person is not up for feedback that’s their issue and not yours.

Nine times out of ten, though, if you say something along the lines of “That was great. I really liked X, Y and Z. I was thinking of some things that could make it even more awesome (or some words to that effect) next time, would you like some insights from another perspective?” the answer will be probably be “OK, yes please” or something similar.

If you ask for permission, you immediately set the conversation off on the right foot, sets out your positive intention and the person is fully open and receptive to receiving information that they know is about helping them.

If they say no thanks, then that’s all good. You’ve saved your energy and brain power. If someone is not ready or in the right space for feedback then that’s not your concern.

Always, always ask for permission.

(3) Avoid telling someone that they “need” to do something

No one ever “needs” to anything. OK, sometimes they might do, especially breathing, eating, drinking water, staying alive and that fundamental kind of stuff! What you think they “need” to do is all about you and your perspective and your take on the world. If you think it’s an absolute, no-brainer, blindingly obvious thing, remember that’s coming from your point of view of the world.

Offer it up to them as your opinion instead, something you’d recommend they take a look at. So instead of “you need to do X, Y, Z”  use words along the lines of “I’ve seen X, Y, and Z really work for myself and others and it sounds great/ looks great/ feels fantastic (whatever you want to choose to describe whatever you’re talking about – give evidence), so you may want to think about giving that a go. What do you reckon?” 

How much nicer does that sound instead of saying “you need to do this”?

Think about it like this – “need” is the equivalent of force-feeding something which is undeniably nutritious and delicious – it’s good for you but doesn’t do much for you if it’s forced down your throat, kinda hurts, and an experience you don’t really want to repeat. Compare that with someone plating up the same delicious morsel, with haute cuisine presentation, allowing the aromas to gently work their way into your brain until you’re slavering to gobble it down!

(4) Give them a sandwich

I recommend the sandwich approach when giving feedback to others, and this is a widely recommended model in fact. Here’s a wee example:

So, start off with the positive (which is like the top piece of bread of the sandwich):

I really loved how you played that piece. Lovely phrasing and great tone…..”

Then offer up the developmental stuff (this is the “interesting” stuff in the middle of the sandwich, the jam or the meat):

“You know, I think if you perhaps looked at this particular section in isolation to tighten up those slurs, get those arpeggios really smooth and flowing, like so…. (perhaps demonstrate what you mean), I think it could really add an extra dimension to the piece. What do you think?”

Then round off the feedback with more positive (the bread at the bottom of the sandwich):

“Overall, really great playing and you’ve been making some fantastic progress with this piece. Well done! I’m so proud.

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Weekly versus fortnightly guitar lessons

This is one that crops up pretty frequently with me as I receive inquiries about lessons. From the teacher’s point of view, giving fortnightly lessons to students can be a good chance to see how they fly on their own for a little while – whether developments have been made in the playing, technique, musical development and so on or whether the gap between lessons is too large at a given stage in a student’s development.

For some teachers, providing fortnightly time slots can prove to be problematic from a simple time allocation and income point of view. There are certainly ways around this however, for example all my fortnightly students come to me on Tuesdays – some come one week, some come the next, alternating the weeks, which actually works pretty well from my perspective.

So it can definitely work for the teacher. But what about the student’s point of view? What’s “better”? Weekly or fortnightly lessons?

Weekly the way to go

In my own learning it has always been weekly lessons, so I may be accused of being biased when I say that weekly lessons, if practical, affordable and feasible for the student, is most definitely the way to go. Talking from my own personal experience of receiving lessons, the seven day interval really helps keep you on top of your game and pushing forward – any shorter timeframe than that probably doesn’t give you so much chance to soak in and synthesise the lesson, give things a whirl and make some developments for yourself. Any longer than that, particularly on a regular basis, can restrict progress a little.

But fortnightly can work

I’m not saying that folks that only do fortnightly lessons will never progress. Far from it – I have students that come on a fortnightly basis who are going great guns. And part of that comes down to the attitude and the application of the student when they’re at home practicing. Those that are highly intrinsically motivated to learn and to practice usually do pretty well with the fortnightly sessions. It can certainly have its benefits for the student, particularly financially, if they’re juggling other responsibilities in their life, or are travelling a considerable distance to attend a lesson. It can also be viewed a good developmental opportunity, particularly for more advanced students, in tutoring themselves and asking themselves key questions for their own development, rather than relying on the teacher.

Absolute beginner? Go weekly if you can

I do find, however, that particularly with absolute beginners or folks reasonably fresh to learning music or learning the guitar the gap of a fortnight can be rather a large one. At the very early stages in learning, the regular and consistent contact with a teacher can be crucial – no, scratch that. Is crucial. With two weeks between lessons, if a bad habit, misunderstanding, confusion or point of frustration creeps in after say three days of practicing the student still has another 11 days of either practicing something incorrectly, ineffectively or allowing confusion and frustration to build up. With weekly lessons, however, that time would be significantly reduced to only four days until the next session with the teacher. That’s a whole lot of time saved in development and progress in learning to read or developing a technique.

My advice? If you can, go weekly.

Happy practicing!